'Writing About Sex and Love Is Juvenile? What Else Is There?' An Interview with Poet Hera Lindsay Bird
The New Zealand writer, who went viral with her poem "Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind", talks about bisexuality, Janet Jackson and pissing off old men.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Imagine the kind of person who'd name their book after themselves. Either an egomaniac or someone lacking in imagination – or the person you wish you could be. Hera Lindsay Bird's collection of poetry reads her name twice. Once so you know it's by her, a second time because she can.
"It was kind of my homage to one of my fave pop stars from the 90s. Janet Jackson named three albums after herself," says Bird on a late-night call from her New Zealand home. "I actually wanted to perfectly re-create Janet Jackson's first album cover for my book cover, where she's coming out of the swimming pool with flowers on her head, but it ended up being too time-intensive." It was also a decision that allows her readers to immerse themselves in her life. "I wanted to give people permission to read it as my personal book. With anything autobiographical and confessional, it's assumed the writer's talking about themselves, but it's not always said explicitly. I wanted to put it straight out there."
The 28-year-old's poems are painfully naked. In July, her poem "Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind" went viral. Women in particular connected with its vague loneliness, stark depiction of sex ("Bend me over like a substitute teacher & pump me full of shivering arrows"), beautiful imagery ("the days burn off like leopard print") and mention of pussy. Lots of angry men didn't like it. When the poem was mentioned in a piece on the Guardian, she was pelted with messages. "Some of them were in Latin and others wrote back in poetry," she says. "Old men think I'm personally responsible for the death of TS Eliot or something. It's bizarre, because usually people don't care enough about poetry to negatively comment on it."
Writing poetry about sex as a 20-something-year-old woman is still enough to rattle the old guard. "In my writing class in New Zealand, there was a real feeling that it was tacky or juvenile to be writing about love and sex. You had to earn your right as a poet to write about it. Feeling like it was in bad taste or off-limits spurred me on to see how far I could push that and still get people to like my work. And what else is there to write about?"
When Bird grew up in a small New Zealand town, Thames in the Coromandel, her parents didn't have much money. But they were interesting. "My dad won a gameshow when I was a child. The prizes were bizarre furniture and stuff like that. So we were quite poor, but had these expensive leather lounges," she remembers. Her parents split up when she was about six and like most millennials, she has a host of step-parents. Creative endeavours run in her family; her younger brother is an artist who makes body-builders out of bubble wrap; her mum went to art school when she was in her 50s and her dad is a drug and alcohol counsellor but wrote Bird poems every year for Christmas. "I remember my dad used to read us Lord of the Rings. He would do any accents he wanted to. Boromir was always Jamaican."
When she was a teen she moved to Wellington, one of the country's two big cities. All the material was there, but it was only as an adult that she started writing poetry. "I hated university so I was basically trying to pass it by getting credits for as many creative writing classes as I could. There was this woman called Lauren Gould, a contemporary poet, who showed us poems of her friends and I was like, "Fuck? I didn't realise poetry can be like this?"
Old men think I'm personally responsible for the death of TS Eliot or something.
As it can be in Britain, poetry in New Zealand is either archaic and stuffy or done at slam shows, and it's a turn-off for most young people. "I wish I didn't love poetry," Bird explains. "The only times anyone wants to hear it is when someone dies or gets married. Here we get poets brought out to read at big vineyard openings. It's similar to you guys with Carol Ann Duffy, who writes some horrible poem about the Olympics. Every couple of years someone decides to have a big state of the nation about how we're going to rescue poetry and bring it to a new generation. Actually, the most effective thing to do is for all the people to leave it the fuck alone." That's what happens when you get thousands of girls sharing a poem on the internet.
Some of the most astute observations are on bisexuality, based on Bird's own relationships. In "Bisexuality" she writes, "To be bisexual is to be out of office, even to yourself / Like a rare sexual Narnia and no spring in sight". Later she adds: "Everyone assumes you want to fuck them...and they're right". There are many contradictions to sleeping with men and women, and she pins down a lot of them in a way that feels both foreign and uncomfortably familiar.
"If you're a bisexual woman you're a unicorn," she says on the phone. "People are always looking for someone to fill their threesome. It still feels embarrassing to tell people that you're bisexual. Lesbians don't like it and men just get turned on by it. Plus the only bisexual character on The L Word was horrible." It's true. "My favourite authors are women from the 20s who gambled heaps, had affairs with both men and women. The kind you wouldn't want your daughters to invite to dinner parties. Instead of my poems saying 'not all women are like that', I enjoy that histrionic, trouble-making stereotype."
Most of the poems are very funny. She says she feels more in common with stand-up comics than with poets, which you can believe. In "The Ex-Girlfriends Are Back From The Wilderness", she imagines old partners sloping back the past to sniff around – as they so often do, at the same time – and she is the museum director, "walking talent on a gold leash". Here and elsewhere, she's worried she's been mean and "pissy" in them, but those digressions only makes her work funnier and more true to human emotions.
In her opening poem, "Write a Book", you'll see her modus operandi clearly stated. "You might think this book is ironic / But to me, it is deeply sentimental / like... if you slit your wrists while winking–does that make it a joke? / To be alive / Is the greatest sentimentality there is". There are winks littered through its pages, but thankfully, refreshingly, you don't need to dig through the lines to find layers of wry meaning. Death to irony and insincerity, the twin plagues of our generation.
It took her three years to write this book. With her partner at the time, she moved from Wellington to Port Chalmers, a small town with a tiny population, built for cruise ships to dock. "It had a store with rocking horses and antiques. I spent all that time in that weird, small town just trying to finish the book and not working very much and occasionally get high and go on a big trip to your equivalent of an ASDA. I'm a very slow writer and I really don't have much work. I'll work on one poem a month so everything I wrote during that time is in that book."
Now she's back in Wellington, the town she spent most of her teenage years. She works as a children's book specialist in a book shop and is writing a children's crime book. But she's on a break from poetry. "The reason my book took so long is because I write autobiographically. Sometimes it takes a while to have enough happen to you in your life. If you've been in a solid relationship, living in a small town, going to the store once a week and watching heaps of Judge Judy on YouTube for three years you don't have a lot of emotional material. I guess I'll just have to wait."
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