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

FIONA BENSON: This insect project is quite different from the poems in my last book, although it emerges from a long interest in the natural world, and it’s always nerve-racking beginning again. This feels like a really lovely gesture of encouragement as I go on with my work.

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: This poem is part of an online audio pamphlet about insects that I am working on for Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter, called Bioluminescent Baby in collaboration with radio producers Mair Bosworth and Eliza Lomas. We are combining interviews with scientists, my poems and sound design to make short sound art pieces with an insect poem at their heart. ‘Mama Cockroach’ is accompanied by poems about mosquitoes, field crickets, cicadas, mayflies and many more.

We’ve also run a series of public workshops for children and adults with insects as the focus, and have some glorious poems read by the poets with beautiful sound design. These pieces can all be found on the Arts and Culture website.

I designed the commission as a response to my interest in the natural world, and in particular insects. We tend to privilege mammal encounters, but perhaps we underestimate the magic of the minuscule, fricative insects that surround us every day.

FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work.

FB: I’m not sure I can speak for readers. I’ve found, myself, that there are poems that console me – I was particularly moved to come across Raymond Carver’s ‘Late Fragment’ again recently:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

And, a poem I was returned to by my daughter’s homework, Langston Hughes ‘Mother to Son’, which is read so beautifully here by Viola Davis.

Perhaps, for myself, I want to write more towards the light, more towards gratitude for this blessed life.

FAF: Which poets, that you’ve read in the past year, would you most recommend to others and why?

FB: I always get very anxious about this question, because it makes me feel unkind. There will always be poems and writers I miss out, and I don’t want to exclude anybody. To avoid that particular minefield, perhaps I’ll concentrate on upcoming debuts – that way, any I’ve missed must simply be put down to my ignorance of what’s coming up.

I’ve loved two debuts – Martha Sprackland’s Citadel and Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire – both transcendentally beautiful books, and a must for any reader. I had the privilege of judging the Geoffrey Dearmer prize for The Poetry Review this year, and the poems of two more debuts caught my eye; I’d advise snapping up Romalyn Ante’s Antiemetic for Homesickness  and Phoebe Stuckes’ Platinum Blonde.

In another vein, I’m greatly looking forward to the new edition of Charlotte Mew’s poems, and Julia Copus’s new biography of Mew coming from Faber soon. Mew is a glorious writer, and along with H.D. has been terribly overlooked (I wonder why; oh, wait…).

The old loves stay the same, Lucille Clifton has been with me a great deal of late, and Sharon Olds, and as always I’ve felt Gerard Manley Hopkins’ presence as I’ve been walking the lanes this spring.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

FB: I’m working on some poems about school, and also some poems towards the various myths of Europa, Pasiphaë and Crete.

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

FB: If you need to write, write. Make space for it. It is yours.