The fearless poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird
One of the shorter, punchier poems in Hera Lindsay Bird's self-titled collection, released last month, is about dead English poets and sex. Bird having sex that is. It features delightfully indelicate lines as:
"Bend me over like a substitute teacher & pump me full of shivering arrows."
It also includes a reference to living New Zealand poet Bill Manhire but the preceding line is a bit too racy to include here. When people ask the 28-year-old to describe her poetry she says it is: "Autobiographical. It's personal poetry, but there's also a lot of sex jokes in it. It's kind of raunchy."
Bird is most nervous about the Bill Manhire line. She works at Unity Books in Wellington and he often comes in but she's not sure if he's read the poem. "I'm actually interviewing him on stage for the Hawke's Bay Readers and Writers Festival so I'll have to bring it up with him at some point."
* National Portrait: Bill Manhire
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* Academy of NZ Literature launched
When the poem Keats Is Dead So F... Me From Behind was published on the The Spinoff earlier this month it went ballistic – visitors to the site soared and every luminary from Anika Moa to Rose Matafeo and Lorde went on Twitter to express their admiration.
Bird's publisher (Victoria University Press) received a level of overseas interest not seen since Eleanor Catton and the morning after her packed-out Wellington book launch, they were already ordering a reprint. "That just doesn't happen," says Kirsten McDougall of VUP. Meanwhile, Bird's email inbox filled up with unsolicited erotic outpourings from aspiring bards.
Bird's poetry is exquisitely unsettling. It's jolting and playful. It's beautiful and it's brutal. At times it's familiar. Other times, I haven't a clue what's going on. And that's okay. Some of it is deeply personal and some of it is about Monica Geller.
Monica Geller off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S
Is one of the worst characters in the history of television
She makes me want to wash my eyes with hand sanitiser
She makes me want to stand in an abandoned
Ukrainian parking lot
And scream her name at a bunch of dead crows
For five pages Bird rants about Monica Geller. It makes for a strangely satisfying read. Other poems in Bird's collection include: Children Are The Orgasm Of The World and The Dad Joke Is Over and The Ex-girlfriends Are Back From The Wilderness.
Asked whether there is a particular poem that makes Bird feel most laid bare she says: "Not really. I have to say a couple of them, when I first wrote them, I had a couple of days where I thought; 'F..., I can never publish this'. I think that there's something about putting your most hideous mistakes and personal failings and the worst parts of your relationship on paper that somehow makes those parts of your life even more palatable."
Bird refers to the first poem in her collection, Write A Book, in which she talks about wetting herself in the supermarket.
To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly
At a supermarket checkout
As urine cascades down your black lace stocking
And onto the linoleum
"That's the kind of thing I wrote and then thought f..., I can't share that with anyone. But after one day of it being on paper I thought: I don't care any more."
Is Bird ever criticised for being an oversharer? She's not having a bar of that.
"I think that's a lazy criticism because most of the people we read and love are, in some sense, oversharers. The poets I really love – people like Frank O'Hara and Adrienne Rich – are people who revealed so much about their lives... For me when I read, I enjoy the experience of other people talking about their lives honestly, that is what I go to writing for. If I wanted to wear a lot of corduroy and pretend I didn't exist, I could do that in my own life."
Bird wonders too, whether this is, in part, a reaction against the proliferation of young women sharing their stories on the internet. "We do get this huge amount of what other people would describe as 'oversharing' – people revealing really intimate details about their lives. . . But I think it's a fundamentally good thing that people are able to be so open about their lives. Oversharing for who? The people who seem to have a problem with oversharing are, well, let's be honest, it's older men, isn't it? But it's not for them."
Bird was born in Thames to hippie parents who encouraged her and her brother to be involved in a range of creative pursuits, including pantomimes. She started writing as a child.
"I think the first thing I remember being published [in the local newspaper] was a story about Santa's workshop when I was six."
Her interest in poetry came later, in her early 20s, after taking a course at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Her teacher, Lauren Gould, was a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
"She introduced me to a kind of poetry that I hadn't seen before and that was what really made me fall in love. It was a lot of contemporary poets from the States. A lot of them were very funny. Like, I didn't think of poetry as something that could be humorous. She just showed me a bunch of stuff that really changed my mind."
Bird completed an MA in poetry at Victoria University and went on to win the Adam Foundation Prize in creative writing for the best portfolio – previous winners include Eleanor Catton and fellow poet, Ashleigh Young.
Bird was approached by VUP which was keen to publish her manuscript, And Together We Fight Crime, but she didn't think her work was ready. "It was a really great year to experiment but I didn't feel like ultimately, at the end of that year, the collection was finished enough."
In fact, not a single poem from her portfolio made it into her new collection Hera Lindsay Bird.
In 2013, she moved to Dunedin to live with her partner at the time and it was there that Bird wrote most of the poems that have ended up in this collection. Does she write every day?
"No, not even close! There's only 21 poems in that book and they took me about four years to work on, so I'm really slow. The longer ones probably took me about a month each. Some of the shorter ones were knocked out over a couple of days but that's unusual for me.
"I have to say I'm not a very disciplined writer. A lot of people get up in the morning and put on a suit and sit at their laptop, but I'm quite sporadic, really. I was lucky I had a lot of time in Dunedin. I wasn't working fulltime so I just kept my own hours."
Now she's back in Wellington and, in between working full-time at Unity Bookstore and her poetry, Bird is writing a children's detective novel. The Agatha Christie fan says it's to be aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, though it's too soon to tell. "It could be wildly inappropriate by the time it's finished."
New Zealand poetry is in a good place right now. Alongside Bird, poets Ashleigh Young, Nick Ascroft, Gregory Kan and Chris Tse are enjoying growing profiles. But despite this increasing attention, poetry still seems to make many people wary. Does Bird have any thoughts on why this might be?
"Poetry has traditionally been very elitist and probably still is. Often, I think people are right to hate poetry. There's a lot of poetry I really hate. The way we are taught it at school is difficult. Our school system makes you kind of unpick things, makes you dig into the material and look for the deeper meanings and you're like knee-deep in the wasteland looking up this obscure Italian quote which is from one of the ancient Greek plays or something. We are looking at it like we are doing an archaeological dig, but I think that's contrary to the spirit of the poetry I really like. I don't think that poetry doesn't reward deeper reading, but when you are forced to unpick it at a sentence level in a classroom structure, it's not going to win many hearts and minds, especially when there's such good, vivid writing in other mediums. I think that probably the best writing of our generation is on the television. We've got The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. Why would you pick up Wilfred Owen?"
Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press) is out now.
- Sunday Magazine