Publication: June 2012
Launch: The Hay Festival at 16h00 on Tuesday, 5 June
“While Banjo (Picador, 2012) opens with a clutch of fine lyrics, elegies and set-pieces, at the heart of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s new book is a remarkable tale of darkness and light, music and silence. Celebrating the centenary of Captain Scott’s arrival at the South Pole in 1912, Banjo gives us new psychological insight into the lives of the early Antarctic pioneers, as well as an extraordinary account of the role played by music in surviving the long Antarctic winters. Banjo is Wynne-Rhydderch’s most accomplished collection to date, and further evidence of a writer of great imaginative versatility.”
“There’s a lovely peremptoriness in Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s poetry. She’s like a nurse with a scalpel: she heals with cuts … Everything is close to the nerve, everything under cool emotional pressure. The cuts blossom into freshness and colour. And delight, the delight borne out of precision of sound and an exquisite command of register.”
– George Szirtes
“Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s lines are full of beauty, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes stark. But this is never decoration; it is a responsible beauty, implicating us in the essential human situations, life, death and survival, she explores.”
– Philip Gross
Notes on the background to Banjo
I started this collection in 1999 with the intention of completing it four years later, but within a year I had lost my confidence as a writer and begun to question whether I had the experience or even the moral mandate to handle the subject matter. By 2003 it was in a drawer. Then I came across a photograph of members of the crew of Discovery (in Discovery Point Museum in Dundee) dressed up as black and white minstrels. I began to reflect on the fact that a group of white men sailed and marched south to the coldest place on earth, and when they arrived they dressed up as black men and sang African songs. What did it all mean? The poems became an exploratory journey of their own.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain funding to travel to the Antarctic. When I heard Stef Penney speak about how she wrote The Tenderness of Wolves although she hadn’t been to Canada, she gave me the encouragement I needed to return to the manuscript even if I couldn’t afford to travel to Antarctica. Letters, diaries and photographs helped me to build up a picture of what had enabled the explorers to keep going, and one of the aspects that struck me time and again was the role played by music, dressing up and the theatre during what has since become known as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Most expedition leaders would aim to have at least one piano on board.
Writing in the voice of historical figures requires a lightness of touch so that the poem does not become ‘research-heavy’. All the research ought instead to be put to the service of the poem. I think that if you are engaged enough with your subject you can enter into any historical experience to make it your own and re-create it for the reader. If you are not, the poem will simply end up regurgitating the story, which is a waste of your time and the reader’s. The story ought merely to be the backdrop to the poem. What matters is the language, how you tell the story, whether it’s a well-known story (as in this case) or an unknown story. The better known the story, the harder it is for the writer to ‘make it new’. I remember hearing Matthew Hollis in 2004 say that the poem must become the event, not be about the event and this is what I aimed to do in Banjo so that the poems are not simply an account of what happened; in each poem I have tried to inhabit the cameo, becoming a character in the scene.
For example, my poem ‘Ponting’, is not a poem “about” an Antarctic expedition. Rather, it examines through its language and form, the spectrum of experiences faced by photographer, Herbert Ponting (which ranged from vomiting in the ship’s darkroom to training the explorers to take a photograph of themselves at the Pole without him), both during his voyage south on the Terra Nova as well as on the ice.
Since completing Banjo I’ve moved from ice to textiles, as I’m currently Leverhulme Poet in Residence at the National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre. I think there can’t be a topic which is off-limits for writers, whether it’s ice, making apple pies, murder or fishing, be it your own experience or a made-up experience or that of an historical figure or a blend of all three.
Pre-order Banjo here, here or here.
Visit Samantha’s website.
Visit the Picador Poetry website.
Samantha Wynne Rhydderch’s second collection, Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008) was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2009. Her third collection, Banjo will be published by Picador in June and will be launched at the Hay Festival at 4pm on Tuesday 5th June. She is currently Leverhulme Poet in Residence at the National Wool Museum.