The poet discusses the writing process behind her collection of poems, Banjo.
by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
I started this collection in 1999 with the intention of completing it four years later, but by 2003 it was back in the drawer. I wasn’t sure I was up to the job. 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 and 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. I wondered what it all meant. Writing the poems became a journey towards answering that question.
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, this gave me the encouragement I needed to return to the manuscript. I made several visits to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge to read unpublished letters and diaries and to examine original photographs. With so much material it became quite a task to narrow the focus down and one element which I came across time and again were references to and photographs of theatrical productions. Most expedition leaders would aim to have at least one piano on board and other crew members would make fiddles out of packing cases or bring their own violin or in the case of Leonard Hussey, his banjo. I also came across several references to ‘lantern chats’, evening slide shows which would take place on board ship or in a shore station on a Saturday evening, where one member of the crew would talk about their field of work, usually the scientists or the photographers. These were the aspects that I began to explore when I started writing the collection.
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 to be the backdrop to the poem. What matters is the language, how you tell the story.