Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Victoria Bennett

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Victoria Bennett‘s new poetry pamphlet To Start the Year From Its Quiet Place (Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.) tells of the love and pain of giving palliative care to her mother. Bennett’s previous awards include the Northern Debut Award for non-fiction (2020), the the Mother’s Milk Writing Prize (2017), The Writing Platform Digital Literature Bursary (2015), Northern Promise Award for Poetry  (2002), and the Waterhouse Award for Poetry (2002).Victoria is also currently working on All My Wild Mothers, a nature memoir that examines motherhood, loss, and the ancient art of wortcunning. This work- in-progress was long-listed for the Nan Shepherd Prize (2019) and the Penguin WriteNow Programme (2020). New Writing North and The Society of Authors, awarded Victoria the Northern Debut Award and an Authors’ Foundation grant to complete this work. Victoria lives and works in rural Cumbria with her husband and son. Diagnosed with a collision of rare genetic diseases, she juggles a rebellious body with writing and full-time care. When not juggling, she can be found where the wild things are.

There is real heartache in your work, that cuts like a knife – what emotional toll does it take on you to write lines like ‘When she can no longer move,/the doctor cuts it from her skin,/frees her flesh from its hold/This garden has grown wild.’?

The experience of end-of-life caregiving and seeing my mother die was so intensely demanding, emotionally and physically, that I could not find that quiet space during that time. When it came to writing the poems, finding this space allowed me to grieve and give voice to that experience.

Poems like Words for Dying To are sure to resonate with readers who have similar experiences as those described within this collection – to what extent were you aware of this when you set about writing these poems? And, did this knowledge inform what you created?

I wrote the first drafts of the poems with no view to them being shared. Some of them began life in sessions with my bereavement counsellor. Some, I scribbled in my notebook when my son was doing his swimming lesson. Whenever something came up, I wrote it down. Words For Dying To is written entirely from things my mother said in the last weeks of her life. I wanted to get them down before I forgot them. In the crafting, I was more aware that there would be another reader, and hoped that they would resonate.

You have handled sensitive subject matter with such delicacy, it is truly admirable. Do you think that you will continue to write in this vein, or will you perhaps feel the need to put distance between yourself and work like this?

Thank you. I really feel that, as a society, we need to find ways of sharing our grief stories, and talk more openly about the emotional and physical experience of death. Because I have experienced several close bereavements in short succession, it is something that I feel needs to be written.

How important do you think it is to pepper a collection like this with moments of light and levity?

I think that there can be an authenticity to showing all the sides of caregiving and grief. There were often moments of tenderness, and joy, even in the most painful of times.

Given the nature of the work in To Start the Year From Its Quiet Centre  – how did it feel to start sending this work out into the world?

Writing about something as intimate as my mother dying presented challenges on many levels. There is an ethical question about whether we, as writers, have the right to tell the stories of the dead. It was something I had to think about very hard, and I was nervous when it was published, but my editors, Dawn and Ronnie at Indigo Dreams, were absolutely wonderful in supporting that process, and everyone has been really positive when it came out. That has helped a lot.

What does a good poem look like to you?

A good poem for me, is one that feels authentic, startles me in some way, makes me see things more brightly, and cuts through the noise of daily living. Sometimes, a poem is a signpost too, a way of seeing things more clearly, and feeling connected.

What most excites you about poetry – reading or writing?

Both. I see it as a balancing of the scales. Sometimes, I am absorbed in writing, then I need a long period of just reading.

What was the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?

Resident Alien — a really clever TV comedy series about being an outsider and not calibrating with the world around.

How do you deal with inevitable successes and failures that befall any writer?

I started writing when I was six. I am fifty this year. I tend to approach this whole writing life with the intention to just keep trying to put the right words in the right order. If I write with authenticity, and I take joy in finding my way to that writing being good enough to resonate with me, and if that writing then finds a connection with another person, then the concept of failure doesn’t really come into it.

With our recent expansion at The Broken Spine into Twitch, and our desire to fight for video games to be read as literature – we’re very interested to hear more about #WildWomanGamer – can you tell us more about that project?

My work with Wild Women Press has always been about creating platforms for women to connect and share their stories. #WildWomanGamer is one of those platforms. Games offer an empowering platform for storytelling that give agency in a way that doesn’t exist in other story-spaces. I am really interested in exploring that space as a writer and creator, and as woman. #WildWomanGamer is a space for women to engage in dialogue and creative exchange around the games we play, and the potential of meaningful, authentic, women-led narratives as an agent for radical change. 

Do you know what your next project will be?

In 2020, I was awarded a Northern Debut Award from New Writing North, for my debut memoir, All My Wild Mothers, which I have just completed. I am also working on an XR project, Human Geographies, using poetry, memoir, and VR/AR to examine how immersive, digital spaces can be used to share both our personal grief stories, and our shared experience of ecological grief or ‘solastalgia’ in the face of a rapidly changing planet. I’ve been lucky enough to be awarded a DYCP grant from the Arts Council of England to support this work over the next year. My hope is to encourage a creative dialogue around how literature and immersive spaces can engage new audiences and creators in the sharing of authentic and meaningful narratives around our individual and collective loss.

Tell Me Lies by Victoria Bennett

Please, do not tell me of your perfect deaths.

Do not speak of surrounding light,

slipping serenely out of sight.

Please, do not tell me of your perfect goodbyes.

Tell me nothing or tell me lies.

In turn, I will tell you mine:

that the drugs do work,

that the pain is short,

that once the oxygen stops,

the heart will start to give.

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