FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
FIONA BENSON: Do we ever start with just one genre? I think most writers are drawn into language as one big magical whole. Nursery rhymes, songs, books read to us (In a dark, dark town was a dark, dark street…) the strange things our parents say (stop sitting like a half-shut knife) prayers (Lord keep us safe at night / secure from all our fears)… My mother had these funny Scots grace table mats we used to make her read; we liked the mouse one best (may a mouse ne’er leave yer girnel / wi a tear drap in his ee)… And then there was the church liturgy, its lovely cadence and mystery, the way the ‘s’ sound whispered round the church… hymns, and far, far too many Abba lyrics… We lived in Denmark in the early eighties and Abba seems to have been my parent’s party music of choice. Like most of us bookish types, once I learned to read by myself I was off and away. Now I have the privilege of rereading all those incredible childhood classics with my daughters; The Worst Witch series, Gobbolino the Witches Cat, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, The Secret Garden…
Like most people who end up as writers I had an amazing secondary school teacher, Dr Julie Hanson, who introduced us to all sorts of astounding literature. I finally got round to reading Hardy’s poetry in my thirties, and realized that I’d been looking for these poems for about half my life, because we’d studied them in class with Dr Hanson and I’d stored them away in my head but been unable to find them. She gave us brave new worlds: Shakespeare, John Donne, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes and T S Eliot… I still remember the moment I found a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in the school library.
As for my own writing, there were certainly poems that I wrote now and then, in brief obsessions, but mostly I was reading and drawing and listening. Like most teenagers I loved music, and had reams and reams of song lyrics off by heart and when I wrote, with more commitment, in a special notebook in my late teens, it was always poems, which I suppose was my kind of singing. And it went from there. But as for feeling I was “a poet”, that took a long while and I still feel like an imposter half the time… But working on a poem, that’s another thing; that’s not “being a poet”, that’s writing, and I love the pure high of it: the spell of that concentrated listening, the fierce swoop when a poem takes off by itself, and, for a moment, you are really flying.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
FB: I have to confess to a slight sinking feeling when I heard this poem – this poem – had been shortlisted; the one in which ‘I’ am literally laid out naked and stretch-marked in a bath… but I’ve come to love the fact that it’s been shortlisted. Many women, like me, have a hard time accepting their bodies and the various ways in which they manifest at different stages of our lives. This is a poem that tries to look at a real, hardworking, postnatal, middle-aged body. I like that while it starts with dismay, it pivots on the recognition of the lopsided stomach into a celebration of what the body housed: an adored and wonderful baby. It turns into a love poem for my dark-eyed daughter(s). So I love that this poem was chosen, because it is a validation of poems that write of the body, of the domestic realm, and of familial love; the shortlisting says yes, these subjects are of interest, they really matter… and I agree. They do.
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
FB: I’m often a very literal writer. This poem came to me in the bath. Or at least, phrases came, (inflamed trenches, lost dominions, the belly’s fallen keystone, my own damn bulk!) and then many, many drafts later, the poem ended up in this form… I think I was certainly given the courage of its gaze by Sharon Olds’ incredible poems of the body. It was published in the online journal Wild Court and is included in the manuscript I am just finishing for Jonathan Cape, Vertigo & Ghost, which is due early in 2019.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
FB: I hate this questions, because for every poet I mention there are five hundred I’m leaving out. I think some of the things I particularly value are risk, courage, musicality – but quite frankly you can’t evaluate poetry this way; any good poem teaches you how to read it, you value it for its own individual self…and there really are far too many poets I admire to start a list here. I’ll just wake horrified in the night with a long list of writers I’ve omitted. Walt Whitman will be there looking sorrowful at the foot of my bed because I’ve forgotten him (I haven’t, Walt).
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
FB: Not knowing is part of the fun.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
FB: I loved Elena Ferrante’s advice in the last Guardian Weekend: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write.”