This year Fiona Benson, Eric Gregory and Faber New Poets Award recipient, read at Bath Spa University’s music and performing arts venue Burdall’s Yard. The venue was populated with only a handful of people but the poetry presented had a way of making the room feel full to capacity.
Fiona Benson read from her debut collection ‘Bright Travellers’, a collection split into five section, filled with human experiences from miscarriages to paintings to cave bears and skulls (fun stuff!). My first impression of Benson was that she was quiet, possibly overwhelmed by performing her poetry on stage, relying on little jokes – that seemed more so for her benefit than for her audience. This changed, however, when Benson started reading her first poem.
‘Cave Bear’ told of the skulls of a mother and baby bear cub in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay. Filled with death and loss, Benson described the experience as “excruciating”. Benson’s demeanour changed from somewhat overwhelmed, and quiet, to strong and bold. I found Benson’s poetry to be direct, bracing, tackling the emotionally draining experiences with an honest I found quite intimidating and in contrast to her demeanour out of reading.
The images in her poetry leave a deep impression on the mind with lines “the cub is dead. You show your teeth as the massive slab of your heart” from ‘Cave Bear’; to the more racy “you hear they finger themselves in the dark” in ‘Still life at Red Herring’. She read her poem ‘Sheep’ in which the animal is “bedded in mud and afterbirth, her three dead lambs knotted in plastic bags”. This image, along with crows pecking at the bags, left me feeling uncomfortable as she moved to what I believed to be a more personal experience of childbirth for Benson: “afraid to look down for what I might see”.
At pinnacle moments in her poetry, Benson would scan the room, making eye contact with the audience as if to inject them with her feelings – I confess, when she made eye contact with me I felt guilty for her loss, as if I was the cause of her pain (no word of a lie). I felt the room transform once Benson started reading; the audience fell silent and after she read each poem, applauded.
In the question and answer session, a member of the audience asked:
“What does it feel like to be successful, and how do you know what to submit from what not to?”
to which, surprisingly, Benson shied away from the mention of her achievements explaining, in short, that they were just awards, and that she wrote because:
“It’s the only thing I know how to do”,
which was brought back to another of her poems called ‘Iris’ that encourage writers to keep writing. On the subject of submitting work, Benson said that she edited and re-edited work and was continuously submitting to a number of competitions, ending the night with an encouraging message of perseverance and reward.