Fiona Benson’s poem ‘Toboggan Run’ appears in Granta 126: do you remember. Here, she talks about hysteria in poetry, working against resistances and breaching taboos. You can read her poem, ‘Demeter’, here.
RA: For me as a reader, your poems subvert both the maternal and the natural so that what would otherwise be soothing or sublime becomes loaded with threat. I think of the beginning of your poem ‘Sheep’:
She’s lying under a low wind
bedded in mud and afterbirth
Her three dead lambs
knotted in a plastic bag.
Crows have pecked out her arse
and now the hen
that’s been circling all morning
tugs at a string of birth-meat
like she’s pulling a worm in the yard.
When that threat is realized, the resulting effect is a kind of hardened survival. Do you think through this subversion you are positioning yourself against received ideas of the modern lyric poem?
FB: I wish I was being blindingly original, but of course I’m not. There are plenty of precedents for threatening natural or maternal spaces in poetry, but I’m most immediately led to think of Sylvia Plath – the threatening landscape of ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ for example (‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse, / Its black spikes, / The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers’).
I think I have been conscious in recent years not to enforce an epiphanic uplift in my poems though. ‘High Meadow Path’, a poem in Bright Travellers, taught me a lesson there – I think I wanted the poem to open up into some kind of experience of momentary grace but the ending just wouldn’t come, and eventually, after many muddy drafts, I realized that I was faking it. . . and so in the end the poem fumbled towards a far more earthbound and unwinged ending, which I think is more honest, though less spectacular. But I’m not really trying to do anything with the lyric form when I write – that seems like a very grand thing, to challenge the lyric form! I think I work far more instinctively than that – when a poem first comes it’s this sort of excitement in the language and heart, and then I just try and get the right words in the right place, and try not to get in the way of the poem too much, although of course very often I fail.
As for the maternal, in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices’ we have two of the women’s voices expressing the kind of hardened survival you mention – one after a miscarriage, and the other after giving up a child for adoption (‘I had an old wound once, but it is healing’). I guess my poem ‘Sheep’ is not dissimilar – in many ways it is about survival, about coming through a hard thing and finding nevertheless that you can pick up with your life again. I think too that some of the later poems that deal with being a mother, rather than miscarriages, are not hard things, they are sometimes full of joy. Although motherhood is also a terrible site of anxiety and contradiction, and so there are also poems in the book that deal with some of the fallout – the hysterical, unbearable level of anxiety in ‘Demeter’ for example.
In regards to ‘Demeter’, its hysteria and unruliness work to make it so moving. You’ve captured the animalism of motherhood. I’ve been reading Marianne Moore’s biography, and thinking about how she fell completely out of favour with feminists and feminist readers for many years as she was seen to be yielding to male tastes. Now her work is experiencing a resurgence. I’m interested in the shifts in female writing over the last fifty years, where there has existed both criticism for writing within a formal, ‘masculine’ structure, and criticism for displaying any kind of extreme language, opinion or emotion, associated often with writing from women. How have you found reactions to your work, being edited and published? Have you experienced any of this criticism? Is it something you’ve ever felt yourself working against?
Well I think there are two issues at work here. The first is a certain taste for restraint generally in contemporary British poetry and particularly within the workshop environment. As beginner writers we are given all sorts of rules: show don’t tell, don’t repeat words, avoid overstatement and heavy-handedness and overlap – less is more et cetera. And perhaps to begin with those guidelines are useful; but at the moment I’m trying to allow myself greater freedoms with emotion and language, to be less bound-up and cloaked and suggestive. In the end this is probably a frustration with myself and only myself! But I do think it’s a mistake to think that there are rules – a poem can do anything it wants to. Perhaps this is what my recent fascination with American poetry stems from – I’m drawn to the poems of writers like Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg and Matthew Dickman for their daring and generosity and honesty and their very human recklessness.
I guess a couple of the reactions I got to ‘Demeter’ came out of that culture of restraint; one friend suggested cutting the second half of the poem (where Demeter comes in) altogether, which might indeed be better, but would make it a very different beast. Another friend said that the poem made them want to throw a bucket of water over my head. And I thought, well good! It’s a heifer-in-a-china-shop of a poem, and the more smashed pots the better. I introduce it these days by saying that it’s meant to be hysterical.
The second issue here is a feminist one about what women in particular feel permitted to write about. A writer I have an enormous amount of respect for once described writing about the body as a trap for women, and I felt very downcast for a while, as I often write about the body. But of course that’s the trap – to think that you should or should not write about a certain subject because of your gender. Women can write about anything they want or need to. But yes, I am constantly working against resistances in my writing – I often feel that I am breaching terrible taboos. I’m quite a private person so the explicit poem about childbirth in the book for example – well I can hardly believe I put it out there. I think I’ve somehow retained an obstinate sense of secrecy – I tend to write poems in private, in my room, and draft them for a long long time, before anyone sees them. And then I have a first reader who I trust immensely. So my writing is very protected.
But is that sense of taboo something that is personal to me or something that is influenced by my gender? That’s a much harder question. You come across all sorts of comments as a young writer in workshop and then from editors of magazines over the years – that writing about art is somehow secondary or inferior, that I should not write about conflicts I haven’t participated in, that my poems are too heavy-handed, that my poems are too quiet, that ‘baby poems’ are bad. . . Would this feedback be different if I were male? It’s impossible to pin down.
I think the idea comes up in your previous answers concerning a friction that might exist between study and a poetics born more from an instinct to write; a tension between different approaches. You studied for a PhD, I wonder how did you find balancing this with writing poems?
My PhD itself was not a creative writing PhD, it was a study of the Ophelia figure in Early Modern drama, and it feels like a very long time ago now! I was very superstitious about not letting it cross over into my poetry practice. I think I felt that the academic discourse might infect my poems. And I’ve always wanted to write from the gut, to write instinctively rather than cerebrally. So I kept my academic work in the library and didn’t bring it home or into the bedroom, where I still seem to do most of my poetry writing. And I try not to think of poetry too academically but try and approach it more practically. But I was reading such amazing plays and poems for the PhD – Shakespeare, Webster, Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, the popular ballads – I really hope it wasn’t all lost on me and that some of it seeped into my own writing without my looking. It would be lovely to think that it had.
You are writing a number of poems about Van Gogh. Would you be able to tell me more about this project, what it emerged from and how it’s progressing?
‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ was born out of a time of not writing actually, I was depressed and wordless; and I was flicking through a book of Van Gogh paintings, and the first poem in that series, ‘Yellow Room at Arles’ came through. Two more poems came almost immediately. ‘Yellow Room’ is a kind of cry for help from a place of sadness and muteness, and then I wrote ‘Exercise Yard’, which I eventually dropped, but which explored that mad, sad place, and then finally I wrote ‘Place du Forum’, which concerns the redemptive and empowering nature of the creative act itself. There’s a great deal of slippage between the speaker of the poems and my usual lyric ‘I’ – the speaker is at once a fiction and deeply personal to me, and I suppose having that speaking persona there allowed me to take certain risks with what I was saying.
Anyway the wonderful poet Ann Gray suggested after those first three poems that there was more material there for me, and a longer engagement with the paintings began. I had the experience sometimes of sort of leaning against the paintings and somehow falling through into a secret I hadn’t found a way to write about yet. . . I had this dream at the time about pushing at different panels until one swung through into a priest hole, only the priest hole wasn’t the claustrophobic crawl-space I was imagining but was vast, letting through into dizzying cathedral spaces and open skies and meadows. I think that was how I felt writing those poems; they were very freeing. Something about the paintings also invited a looser style than I’ve used before, although that greater expansiveness was probably also influenced by some of my recent reading in American poetry. Falling in love with Walt Whitman can’t have helped.
Alongside Plath and Whitman, who else do you like to read?
I love writers whose work I couldn’t possibly begin to emulate, who are working in very different ways to me – Frank O’Hara or Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Rita Dove, Joy Harjo or Anne Carson for example. And then there are writers who I’ve felt are great trail blazers and permission-givers for my particular line of work; and again, I can’t hope to emulate them, but perhaps I can flounder about (drowning) in their wake – poets I’ve already mentioned (Olds, Clifton, Berryman, Ginsberg, Dickman), Mark Doty, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Jamie. . . these lists really could go on forever and I’m leaving so many poets out.