Posted on September 19 2018
Today, we catch up with Ana Sampson who we discovered via her latest book - She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women- a collection of 150 incredible poems by inspiring women - past and present - including Maya Angelou, Nikita Gill and Sylvia Plath.
In this interview we discuss Ana's love of books which started early, why she wrote She is Fierce and what advice she'd give her younger self. Here's her story:
Newnham: What were you like as a kid? Who would your friends and family have described you?
Sampson: I was very shy and awkward and bookish! I think I was probably quite a serious little girl and certainly a day dreamer. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen I existed in a state of perpetual and deep embarrassment, which I look back on with a bit of sadness now. I could have had a much better time if I'd worried a bit less about what people thought about me. I think people who have only known me as a grown-up find it quite hard to believe that I was so shy as I'm fairly noisy now!
Nenwham: When did you fall in love with reading?
Sampson: I can't tell you because I can't remember a time I wasn't in love with books. My parents recently found a treasure trove of books in their loft from my childhood and I'm reading lots of them (including the Mr Men and the Garden Gang) with my daughters now. I'm still word perfect in some of them! I spent hours in the library as a child and loved books by Diana Wynne Jones (The Magicians of Caprona was my favourite), Ursula Le Guin, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and just too many others to name. And there are chunks of Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes I'll know until my dying day. I was lucky to grow up in a house where my mother always had about seven books on the go at any one time, and the shelves were full of books. Not every child has that luxury, which is why we have to protect our wonderful libraries.
Newnham: You started in publishing PR - what conversation led to your first book?
Sampson: I still work in Publishing PR as my day job and I love it! I was working at Michael O'Mara Books, where we generated lots of ideas of books in-house with regular brainstorms. Some huge bestsellers were suggested by members of staff - it was a really creative team. O'Mara had published a book called I Before E: Old School Ways to Remember Stuff, which was a huge hit and I suggested a poetry book would be a good addition to the series because everyone knows scraps of poetry. We came up with an index of famous lines - rather than the standard first lines - so you could find 'the one that goes...' more easily, and I researched and wrote brief biographies of the poets. It was a lot of work but also a lot of fun, and I've edited five other anthologies since.
Newnham: We absolutely love She is Fierce– what prompted you to create it and what did the process look like? How did you choose what to include?
Sampson: I wanted to read an anthology of poems by women, from all eras, with plenty of variety - and there simply wasn't one. So I set out to fix it! First I made a list of the superstar poets I knew had to be included - Sylvia Plath, Carol Ann Duffy, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and others - and re-read them. Then I just started reading everything! I stalked social media, plundered libraries, asked for recommendations, haunted second-hand bookshops and read and read and read. I went through hundreds of post-it notes marking up everything I loved, and then it was genuinely agonising cutting from the longlist. I arranged the poems in themes - in consultation with my brilliant editor Gaby Morgan - and shuffled them until the order felt somehow right in each chapter. Finally, I wrote the introductions and researched and wrote biographies of each of the poets included.
Newnham: What do you hope readers get from She is Fierce?
Sampson: I cried quite a lot reading it and actually I quite hope readers do too, if that doesn't sound sadistic! One of the most wonderful things about poetry is looking at things in a new way, or recognising that someone else had felt the same way as you - even if they were writing in far flung countries, or long ago - and I hope readers get those feelings too. Some of the writers are young, and it's so exciting to discover these brilliant new voices.
Some of the writers from previous eras were undervalued and have subsequently been forgotten. Many encountered repressive regimes, dismissive critics, judgemental societies and mental and physical health difficulties, but nevertheless produced this amazing work, and it's wonderful to try and bring those writers' work to new audiences. I hope readers find new favourite poems that really speak to them, and will go off and explore them further as a result.
Newnham: The book covers so many important topics – which poems spoke to you the most and why?
Sampson: The poems about parenthood were probably the ones that moved me the most. I have young daughters, so those poems struck a particular chord with my life at the moment. I loved the section on Protest, Courage and Resistance too - some really inspiring women and some very strong words.
Newnham: What’s next for you?
Sampson: I'm having a brilliant time doing events and publicity for She is Fierce, alongside my day job in which I get to promote brilliant books and authors. But I am cooking up ideas for future poetry projects, including editing a pamphlet of poems for indie publisher Candlestick Press. Watch this space!
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice would you offer a younger Ana just starting out?
Sampson: Don't worry so much about things! Believe in yourself and be brave - do things that are out of your comfort zone. You'll be better at them than you think you will be, and always learn something. Life's too short to wear uncomfortable shoes.
** Check out our Instagram for a chance to win a copy of Ana's book - She is Fierce **