FORWARD PRIZES: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
FIONA BENSON: I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this poem shortlisting. I’m at that horrible stage of having finished a manuscript and dreading its reception in my very bones. I know that I am not the only one who feels that all their poems are rubbish once they’ve wrapped up a book, but it doesn’t feel any less real when you’re inside that feeling. This next one is a quieter book than Vertigo & Ghost, my last publication, and I’ve just been feeling uneasy, like an ant about to get stomped on. Having the Forward Prize judges shortlist ‘Androgeus’ feels like a reassuring hug. At least one poem is okay!
FP: 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 a sequence in my next book called ‘Translations from the Pasiphaë’. It is a retelling of the minotaur myth, which tries to reinstate Pasiphaë, the minotaur’s mother, at the center of the story. Androgeus is her firstborn son, who is killed by a bull in mainland Greece.
I wrote these poems in lockdown in a captivating rush – I love it when poems come like that – although Robin Robertson, my editor, will tell you that there were far too many of them, and my quality control was seriously awry! (There’s been a massive cull since – though possibly not massive enough) I thought at the time that I was indulging in a great act of escapism, travelling in my imagination to sundrenched Greece. But looking back at them they are all about being trapped – Pasiphaë by her position as a woman confined by continual pregnancies, the minotaur by his disability and the cruelty of his imprisonment, other creatures by their fate.
‘Androgeus’ came pretty fluently and quickly for me, but perhaps as a result was still a bit loose when I sent it to Camille Ralphs at the TLS. Rather wonderfully, she helped tighten the screws on a couple of the phrases, and the poem is much the better for it. I’m so grateful for her help and for entering the poem for the single poem category; it is such a kindness.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
FB: There are so many poets that feel absolutely necessary to me. I like to have the collected poems of Lucille Clifton always within reach, like a touchstone; her poems are so pared down and yet carry so much. They are loving companions in my life. I laugh with them and cry with them and feel angry with them.
I have a running joke with one of my current mentees, Sarah Hemings, about how much I reference Sharon Olds. She is such an incredible poet of female emotional and physical life, and her cadences are always with me.
I love Gerard Manley Hopkins for the ecstasy of his language and the intensity of his poetry – that sheer headlong energy that runs through both his poems of celebration and his poems of despair.
There are so many poets that just feel part of my DNA, that have irrevocably altered the way I see the world – Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver, Arthur Rimbaud. There are also poets I just watch with my mouth open – I cannot conceive how they do what they do, and am just in awe – poets like Anne Carson, Danez Smith, Robin Robertson (don’t tell him), Ilya Kaminsky, Rita Dove.
And so many contemporaries, whose work is absolutely necessary, but I don’t want to name them here, because I will forget someone and maybe hurt their feelings. Perhaps I will say that two poetry debuts I read over the past year have hit me hard – Inua Ellams’ The Actual is a fierce, enraged, and radically compassionate book; the final sequence ‘F*** Empire’ is heartbreaking in its anger and beauty. Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions has lingered with me in unusual ways; her portrait of female friendship is a rare and beautiful thing. Lastly I am massively looking forward to Hannah Hodgson’s debut with Seren, coming out next year. Her poetry is thrilling – surreal, compassionate, truthful, wonderful.
I am also delighted that my daughter Rose, who is six, keeps writing me poems! They will be precious to me as long as I live.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
FB: My next collection Ephemeron is coming out with Cape next year. At the moment I’m beginning again, which is exciting and terrifying. I have a commission with Poet in the City and the British Library to write towards their exhibition Unfinished Business, about the continuing history of feminist activism, and am looking forward to exploring the history of fertility rights in conjunction with some of Exeter’s library communities.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
FB: You know, I’m not sure the next generation need my advice! I had the great privilege of judging two poetry competitions over the last year, the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and the Magdalena Poetry Prize, and I reckon that poetry is in good hands. The next generation are going to write poems like we’ve never heard before. I would say to them: you’ve got this. I trust you. I trust the wonder of your many voices. Your experience is interesting to me, and to everyone else. Tell me your stories, I’m listening.