Poet Victoria Kennefick“A coming-of-age book about what it means to be a young woman growing up in a world where the world wants to eat you.”

As heard on arena

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When poet Victoria Kennefick declares that, as a vegetarian, she doesn’t judge meat-eaters, Arena host Kay Sheehy jumps in, saying, “I think you might.” It’s a fine gotcha moment from the pair’s engaging discussion of Victoria’s début collection, Eat or We Both Starve. And Victoria concedes that maybe she does – but she tries not to. But the book isn’t just about consuming what is commonly regarded as food, but also about how we consume idealised versions of what it means to be a woman.  

“I think this book is, in many respects, a coming-of-age book about what it means to be a young woman growing up in a world where the world wants to eat you.” 

There are extremes in the collection, Kay says, and takes the example of a short poem called Hunger Strikes Veronica Giuliani (1660–1727) – one of a series of poems, which Victoria calls a broken sequence, about female saints and martyrs from the medieval period and beyond who engaged in extreme behaviour when it came to food and self-harm.  

“They certainly engaged in very extreme behaviours around eating, around self-flagellation, around self-harm, that, obviously, when we look back at that, we would view it now as being, you know, a huge cause of worry and, indeed, you know, perhaps indicating very significant mental health issues.” 

But, Victoria argues, the behaviours of these women may have been a way of gaining power and been the only strategies they had to ensure their survival. And, indeed, many of them – if they survived – thrived later. Hunger Strikes Veronica Giuliani (1660–1727) describes the physical torments that the Veronica is subjected to buts ends with her mind “clear as light”. 

The book celebrates a range of women, not only saints and martyrs, but also including people like Mary Tyler Moore and Audrey Hepburn. Kay wondered what qualities Moore and Hepburn had that drew Victoria to them. The answer – it’s all about using people’s perceptions to push your ideas forward: 

“They had this particular kind of star quality, obviously, but also a very unthreatening femininity that was palatable, I think, to audiences and to network executives and to movie goers at the time.” 

This allowed them, Victoria says, “infiltrate the enemy lines” and move the narrative forward in terms of what women were “allowed to do” at the time. As an example of this, Victoria cites Mary Tyler Moore wearing pants on screen, something that hadn’t really been seen before in a 1950s TV housewife. And Victoria was particularly fascinated by Audrey Hepburn when she was a child: 

“I loved her as a child and looked up to her as being the absolute epitome of feminine perfection. You know, so beautiful, so doe-eyed, so elegant, so graceful. And, of course, underneath all of that, grappling with her own issues around anorexia…” 

The young Victoria’s admiration of Audrey Hepburn was, she says, lovely in one regard, but also quite damaging in terms of what she expected of herself. An idealised version of what it means to be a woman that the young Victoria was consuming. 

You can hear Kay’s full conversation with Victoria Kennefick – including Victoria reading some poems from her collection – by going here

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick is published by Carcanet. 

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2021

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