FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH FIONA BENSON

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

FIONA BENSON: I was amazed to hear my book had been shortlisted for Best Collection. I’ve been nominated for First Collection and Single Poem before, and sort of watched the ‘Best Collection’ writers with something like reverence. It’s unbelievable that my own work is now on that shortlist.

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

FB: My previous book Bright Travellers, was written over the course of a decade or so, and I certainly had more time back then for slow crafting, and more interest perhaps in the ‘perfect’ poem. I think while I still retain an obsessive drafting habit, I’ve become more interested in rough edges – and also I love the first jag of energy as a poem comes into being, so I’ve been trying to honour that in my work.

Many of these poems came in what felt like an involuntary rush, and sometimes in the case of the Zeus poems, I felt I didn’t want them, or couldn’t keep up. But I’m glad, looking back, that they chose me, even though it was hard to be in those poems sometimes. I’ve been asked where the Zeus poems in particular came from – a long buried experience, and then a sudden pouring-in of words, that I can only explain as coming out of the woods. There was no plan.

Many of the poems in the second half of the book, like ‘Meningitis’, or ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, or ‘Mexican Free Tail Bats’ feel like they were waiting for me for a long time, and I’m very glad they finally found their voice and form.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

FB: This is a really tricky question, because there are so many poets whose work I am wholly in love with. Perhaps I should think about poets who maybe influenced the poems in this book?

Anne Carson, always and forever, though I cannot hope to emulate her style or incredible wit. I love poets who, like Carson, can tell stories through poems – Rita Dove, Robin Robertson, Hannah Sullivan; those who are constantly switching up their pace and diction, or playing with voice – John Berryman, Daljit Nagra.  A whole bevy of amazing American poets whose work I so admire for its engagement with the body and the human condition and its candour: Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Matthew Dickman, beloved Walt Whitman. Ann Gray, whose pamphlet I wish I had more mothers is just gorgeous. Julia Copus – I emulate her ‘this is the poem’ form in this book. I workshopped some of the poems in this book with Julia and also with Claire Crowther, Jane Draycott, Annie Freud and Jenny  Lewis, and all these are poets whose work I greatly admire and am indebted to. Poets of the green world – Sean Borodale, Jean Sprackland, John Burnside, Mary Oliver, Louise Gluck, William Wordsworth… There are also poets who are somehow in my writing DNA – Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Kathleen Jamie. It always sounds a bit pretentious saying Shakespeare, but I studied his work for my PhD and I know that I owe so much to that close reading.

And there are always new discoveries and there are so many of my contemporaries whose work I love – Seán Hewitt, Liz Berry, Malika Booker, Danez Smith, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Andrew McMillan, Frances Leviston – and now it starts to feel like organising my daughter’s birthday party; our house is small, we cannot invite all her friends, but the sad looks in the eyes of the left-out little ones as I put the invitations in the classroom trays haunt me… My poetry loves are wide ranging and promiscuous, and this is a very glib and tiny space to talk about them. Look at the ones I haven’t mentioned staring at me with big sad eyes. How can I not have mentioned Elizabeth Bishop or Thomas Hardy yet?! And what about lyricists – the popular ballads, the folksongs (I salute you, fabulous Anon), Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Jolie Holland…

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

FB: I am currently working on a series of ‘Insect Love Songs’ with the radio producer and sound artist Mair Bosworth. It’s a commission for Arts & Culture, University of Exeter – we’re currently referring to them as ‘love bugs’ (!) and I’m having a tremendous time paddling in rivers looking for mayflies etc.

I’ve also been writing a lot about shame, and school, often in the same poem…

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

FB: What is this ‘in poetry’? Is that where I am? I’m not sure. But be kind. To yourself, and others.