Steve Braunias interviews the amazing Wellington poet Hera Lindsay Bird, author of the smash hit poem ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind’.
This week Hera Lindsay launches her first collection of poetry titled Hera Lindsay Bird. It includes her breathtaking poem posted yesterday at the Spinoff, ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind‘, and her earlier Spinoff poem ‘Monica‘, about the Courtney Cox character in Friends – that poem went crazy on Facebook, it was hilarious and confessional and lyrical, it was like nothing else no one is writing in New Zealand or maybe anywhere in the world.
She was born in 1987. She lives in Wellington. She studied creative writing at the Damien Wilkins School of Approved Literature at Victoria University, where she won the 2011 Adam Prize as the most outstanding student. Previous winners of the award include one or two losers but also accomplished and brilliant writers such as Paula Morris, Ashleigh Young and oh yes that’s right Eleanor Catton.
Someone on the judging panel claimed, “Hera’s poetry is as refreshing as spearmint toothpaste.” In fact her poetry needs its mouth washed out with soap. Sexual content may shock, or at least stun. “All the fucking in the poems is just brilliant, I feel,” comments Ashleigh Young, the editor of Bird’s new book. “Because it’s direct and often very funny. It doesn’t feel gratuitous to me; more just… necessary.”
Some poems are addressed to girlfriends and some to boyfriends – her second poem posted at the Spinoff was ‘The Ex-Girlfriends Are Back From the Wilderness’. It became the most read poem ever posted on our site until the Monica one. I sent a link of that poem to Courtney Cox on her Twitter account. Perhaps she read it, but did not wish to respond to lines such as the one where Bird writes of the characters in Friends, “What cunts they all were”.
The poems are very often litanies. Lists, even. One idea is described and attacked over and over, a nail bashed and swiped at in interesting ways with a crowbar. There is plain speaking, jokes, also images of staggering beauty. The poem about Monica concludes, “I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it”. Then: “Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire”. Ending with: “And don’t even get me started on Ross”.
Earlier this year she held a “pop-up creative non-fiction workshop” in the Aro Valley Community Hall in Wellington; her advertisement for it was in the manner of her litany poems. It was directed at potential students. Sample: “YOU HAVE NEVER WRITTEN BEFORE. YOU HAVE BEEN WRITING ALONE FOR YEARS BECAUSE YOU NEVER WANTED TO GO INTO DEBT FOR YOUR ART AND YOU FIND THE WHOLE CULTURE OF ACADEMIA WEIRD AND ISOLATING. THIS IS YOUR FIRST CREATIVE WRITING COURSE. YOU HAVE TAKEN MANY CREATIVE WRITING COURSES BECAUSE YOU NEEDED THE STUDENT LIVING COSTS TO STAY ALIVE AND NOW YOU ARE WORKING FOR MINIMUM WAGE WHILE YOUR FRIENDS ARE MAKING A KILLING AS IT PROFESSIONALS IN LONDON. YOU WERE RECENTLY DUMPED BY SOMEONE WHO WAS MORE INTERESTED IN THE IMMERSIVE SOUNDSCAPES OF SIGUR ROS THEN THEY WERE IN YOUR FEELINGS AND YOU NEED SOMETHING TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF IT. … YOU LIKE TALKING ABOUT YOUR EMOTIONAL LIFE AND SOMETIMES OTHER PEOPLE ASK YOU TO TALK LESS ABOUT YOUR EMOTIONAL LIFE BECAUSE YOUR EMOTIONAL LIFE MAKES THEM UNCOMFORTABLE. THAT’S OK. THEY PROBABLY THINK GOOD WRITING IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A TENURED PROFESSOR FUCKS A TALENTED CO-ED AND THEN IT’S AUTUMN FOR 6OO PAGES.”
Brilliant. As for the workshop, I asked around, and heard this: “It was very fun, a little bit drunken, and lots of writing got done and good conversation had. All you want out of a writing workshop. But it was definitely an unconventional one – free and BYO.”
The unconventional Hera Lindsay Bird, c/- a haunted wheelbarrow… And so to the Spinoff live email interview, held last week on a Wednesday night, starting at 8 and ending at 1.24am.
Hi Hera, you all set? Where are you?
I’m in a house in Newtown watching someone shop for virtual clothes in a fantasy Playstation game.
Grand. Okay so welcome to the Spinoff live email interview, conducted on the occasion of your first collection of poems which is named after you. Now that in itself is striking I think, because so many collections of poems have wan titles like Flowers in June or The Haunted Cupboard. But no, there’s you with all three of your names flung out like a flag on the pole of your book.
I asked you when we met recently if it was a made-up name, a stage name, and you said no and that you used your middle name because you got sick of people going, “Hear a bird! LOL.”
But I asked in the first place because you’re like a stage act, almost – your poetry is so out there, so explicit; you’re this incredibly exciting arrival on the scene, with your long, chatty, confessional verse, your filthy mind, your knock-out images.
So – who you are, anyway? What’s been your life sort of thing? Weren’t you brought up in Upper Hutt or something? How come poetry?
OK so that’s a very vague question Steve.
I wish my parents had named me The Haunted Cupboard but you have to work with what you’ve got. I like my name – my parents could have chosen anyone in (or out) of the Greek mythological canon to name me after, but for whatever reason they chose an embittered queen who once made someone boil their child alive.
I grew up in Thames in the Coromandel which is an old ex-mining town where hippies go to retire and concentrate on making wooden butterflies and rustic lawn ornaments. My parents were straight out of a commune. My dad won Sale of the Century. We moved to Wellington when I was a teenager and I’ve barely left since.
I don’t know why I like poetry. I wish that I didn’t. I don’t think it’s a particularly sexy art form – but it makes the most sense to me. That and detective novels are basically all I read.
You say poetry “isn’t a particularly sexy art form”, but that’s a nonsense. It’s sexier than creative non-fiction for fucking starters. And then there’s this: I was asking around about you, and I got told, “One of the best poetry readings I ever saw was at the National Library, and she was reading with Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde. They got up and did their thing and that was very poetically good and proper. And then Hera read this incredibly full-on thing about masturbation. She read it in a sort of stern voice and no one seemed to know whether to laugh.”
What was all that about?
Okay well it’s hard to make poetry sexy because everyone is an arts evangelist, and it takes all the fun out. Whenever I tell people I write poetry I feel like someone on the street with a lanyard and a clipboard everyone is trying to avoid eye contact with.
Oh my god, I remember that reading – it was a big deal because it was Ian Wedde handing over his laureate baton, and I picked something incredibly inappropriate because most of my work is inappropriate and I don’t have a lot of scope in that department, but the audience looked really uneasy.
It’s not as bad as the reading I did for the Adam Prize ceremony though. They told me there would be a small gathering of people and I should prepare something to read, and then when I got there it was this really formal event and everyone was in their seventies. There was even a National MP. And I had chosen something really raunchy to read because I thought it would just be my classmates.
But that one went better because all the old people were dirty at heart and shook my hand nicely afterwards.
There you again with the raunch! Which reminds me, I have it on good authority you are bisexual. I base this suspicion on your poem which is called ‘Bisexuality’. Now your sexuality is your own business obv but the thing is: there you are, giving public readings about masturbation, and writing poems called ‘Bisexuality’, and your latest Spinoff poem is called ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind’.
You are frank. You are fearless, apparently. Putting all this out there – you do it so wittily as well as explicitly. Is part of this kind of like you have made a pact with your poetry to be honest, to write what’s really happening in your life?
Maybe it’s extreme to make this stuff so public, but I have to say that the dirty parts of the book are something I’m not overly concerned about sharing. I don’t think there’s a lot of shock value left in sex, but there are still jokes to be had. It’s probably easier to be dishonest when writing explicitly about sex and love because you at least have the facade of openness. You can get away with a lot. I try to be as honest as possible in my work, but I always put the poem before the truth, otherwise what’s the point? Work that’s intended to be shocking often doesn’t involve a lot of real emotional risk on the part of the writer. The book is incredibly personal though – the dick jokes are just extravagant camouflage.
We feel very almost sort of proprietorial about you at the Spinoff because we’ve posted four of your poems since January, and we’ve loved them and watched as thousands of other people loved them, too. The first one was ‘Hate’, which had a great ending:
I tell my hate to my girlfriend and she laughs
she laughs and laughs and laughs
she laughs until she cries, at the ungenerous things I say
and then looks kind of worried………………………………
Was she in fact so worried that you broke up?
That would be a good reason to break up with someone, but unfortunately I have many other worse traits.
And then your next poem at the Spinoff was ‘The Ex-Girlfriends Are Back From the Wilderness’, and it had this incredible image about ex-girlfriends “dragging their heart like a wet cape through leaves…”
And after that everything just went crazy with your poem about Monica from Friends. It’s had 7,963 views and research shows it’s not just the most read poem in Spinoff history but the most read poem ever in New Zealand, probably.
And yesterday we posted the Keats one, in which you issue the orthodontic demand, “pull my stockings down with your teeth”.
A lot of people love your work Hera, including people who never read poetry otherwise. How do you feel about being popular, hyped, described as “the next big thing”?
I love it when people who don’t usually like poetry like my poetry. It’s a mean joke, like tricking someone into joining an improv troupe. But it’s cool that so many people are reading all my bad thoughts. I love attention. I absolutely write with other people in mind.
All of my favourite writers are show-offs. If there was a nuclear fallout tomorrow and I was the only person left on the planet, I wouldn’t bother anymore with poetry. I’d just watch Agatha Christie remakes and wait to die.
“All of my favourite writers are show-offs”: we have to talk about Frank. The poetry of Frank O’Hara knocks on the door of just about every line in your poems; he’s not the only influence or whatever, and anyway there’s a lot going on other than influence, but certainly he’s a writer who you dig big-time and I think that shows very obviously in your writing.
And there’s a thing O’Hara said – “I don’t like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve.” That is a terrific remark and again it makes me think of you. Do you go on your nerve, too? And, are you quite deliberately wanting a very chatty kind of poetry, conversational, casual, loose, rambling even sometimes – that is, are you wanting to release it from the shackles of form, are you trying to set it free?
Yes, I totally love Frank O’Hara. He is one of the few writers whose work makes any emotional sense to me. I steal from a lot of writers, but I didn’t just want O’Hara’s candlesticks and DVD player, I wanted his dirty towels and spare lightbulbs too. I feel like he’s less consciously in my work now, but whenever I’m sulking in a robe, his ghost isn’t far off.
I absolutely think you have to go on your nerve. I’m not trying to set anything free, but I like the ugly music of conversations. I like my poems to be at least 25% awful. An elegant poem is a dead poem. A competent poem is a dead poem. Anyone can write a competent poem. Anyone can think about the past while watching a flock of birds suddenly taking off. Love is difficult and there are always spare pigeons at the shopping mall.
You know when I first started reading your writing, I thought, “What on earth is this and how come I like it a lot?” And I didn’t know the answers, so I asked Ashleigh Young, your editor and also an oracle. I emailed her, “What makes ye of Hera Lindsay Bird’s verse? I am really taken with it, and dig its blatant O’Hara craziness and length of lines; I wonder if it’s also sloppy, loud, unformed.”
And she answered, “This thing about sloppy, loud, unformed – sometimes I can see that too. And when you read a lot of her poems one after the other, it can be exhausting, because you’re being flung around all over the place and bombarded from all sides. But actually I think it’s deliberate. She doesn’t withhold very often. So much of poetry (or, the stuff we’re meant to think of as good, accomplished, serious poetry) is about withholding, and that’s fine, but it’s also really good to see someone blasting that apart.”
You, “flinging”; you, “bombarding”; you, “blasting” – what do you think of that? Is that you she’s talking about? Has she got you right?
I mean it is deliberate, but only because what else would I do? It’s not a marketing strategy, just a way to escape boredom. Life is sloppy and loud and unformed, and I don’t want to rag on anyone else’s aesthetic fetish but I can’t help loving overkill. I own more than one PVC snakeskin coat. I don’t really know how to answer this question other than to say that being good, accomplished and serious to me would be miserable, which I know because I have a lot of serious, accomplished, emotionally withholding poems in a draft folder somewhere which I’m saving to read at the funeral of an enemy. I mean, I am reckless but it’s an intentional recklessness. Most of those poems took me a month each to write.
Ah well there’s reckless and then there’s really reckless. I mean you nearly killed Bill Manhire! You know what I’m getting at: a month or so ago you sent in the ‘Keats Is Dead’ poem, with its closing lines about Bill not getting any younger, with the suggestion he was on his way out sort of thing, and we were about to publish it and you emailed all like WAIT WAIT WAIT DON’T PUBLISH FOR CHRISSAKES – what you actually wrote was, “I’m an asshole, but there’s such a thing as better, if not good timing.” Because the news had come through that Bill was taken to hospital.
He’s fine, thank heavens, but you – what’s wrong with you?
Well, I thought about changing the name in the last line to CK Stead, but the line wasn’t funny because I don’t particularly like CK Stead. I do like Bill Manhire however. Honestly, I hope he doesn’t mind me including him. It may be bad taste, but it’s written with fondness.
Why don’t you particularly like CK Stead? And do you think Sam Hunt is any good? What about Baxter? How do you regard New Zealand poetry – as something vital and varied, or intolerable, dull?
You are trying to make me say mean things about people in public LOL. I draw the line at the whole country though, you know what NZ is like when it has hurt feelings, it was probably bullied as a child.
It makes me bored to talk about the state of NZ literature. People ask this question all the time, and my first response is always to not care, and then to find a different conversation, preferably one about Survivor. There are poets in this country I like. There are poets I don’t like. There are poets I’ve never even heard of, who have probably abandoned semiotics entirely and gone to live in the basement of a abandoned shopping mall. I hope they are all happy, and continue on in perfect serenity.
CK Stead is clearly the Mr Burns of New Zealand poetry.
But it’s silly and insulting to say that about Stead.
Of course it is. It’s deeply juvenile, which is clearly why I said it.
I said before a lot of people love your writing but some people totally hate it and take the view that it sucks. You, too, have attracted silliness and insult. There was a most entertaining spectacle on Twitter after your poem ‘Monica’ appeared, and someone called Andrew Paul Wood scorned it, and you mercilessly took the piss out of him with a series of tweets: “UGH you know I hate it when you drag me on Twitter daddy. Don’t forget to sign my permission slip for the ski trip…. Please don’t ground me again, you KNOW it’s Tiffany’s birthday this weekend…. Did you not like the quilted robe I got you for Christmas????…. It must be hard for you to see me growing up so fast. I’ll still come visit on holidays!”
It was an exhilarating mismatch. The guy looked ridic. He asked for it – “I’ve shat better,” he said of the poem, and in a hamfisted parody of it he referred to VUP “publishing any old bollocks so long as you’re a pretty young female IIML grad”. Wretched fellow!
But of course your work is open for criticism – intelligent criticism, that is – and I don’t know if this qualifies but I wonder if your work is too formulaic, that the same pattern keeps being followed and followed and followed. Many of the poems are litanies. Chants. Ashleigh mentioned it can be “exhausting”, and maybe there’s that thing of it being much of a bombardment muchness. ‘Bisexuality’ has the fantastic image “naked on a black leash, scrubbing the telephone” – you know, if it weren’t for lines like that, then I don’t know if I’d give a flying fuck. Mind you, there are a lot of lines like that.
Beyond that, though, is there depth, variation, range? What might happen to Hera Lindsay Bird? Can her poetry evolve? Because it can’t keep being these energetic reckless litanies that run on a lot of nerve, can they?
My poetry in this book is incredibly formulaic and although I’ve departed from the litanies recently, I can’t promise that my emotional range has expanded significantly. But I’m not unduly distressed about it. What should I do? Write a painstaking second book of nervous verse with a few smug references to Virgil? Take me out behind the supermarket parking lot and shoot me. Besides, I love formulaic writing. Wodehouse, Christie and Shirley Jackson are three of my favourite novelists and they wrote one book each, multiple times.
I don’t think I could go back to this book though, or the format of these poems. I don’t know if there will be another collection after this. It’s been a long process and I’ve run out of things to say about the world. Maybe, I too, will go live in an abandoned parking garage with all the other failed poets. I’m okay with that.
An abandoned parking garage! We can’t leave you there like that, so one more question. I ask this without irony, and certainly without inviting irony, because I hate it at the best of times – the question is, simply, are you happy?
My favourite quote about irony is the Mark Leidner one which goes “sometimes there is too much irony all piled up in the barn, and you have to / pitchfork another steaming pile of irony on top of it all, and you have to / pitchfork another, and another, and another / when the world is shit-streaked with irony that is when beauty will emerge / love is irony / purists sure hate farce / but pushing against things is the only possible way to live” But pitchforks aside, this book to me is completely sincere, even the jokes. And yes, I am happy.
Grand. What are you going to wear at your book launch on Thursday?
I was looking on trademe for a Statue of Liberty costume for a while, but I eventually decided a gathered, mint green sheet isn’t the most flattering outfit. It works for the statue, but I just don’t have the complexion. I don’t know what I’m wearing yet. Most of my clothing is temporarily in storage, but I expect it will be a white dress, probably with flowers on it. This is my first wedding, and I want to keep with tradition.
Photos courtesy of Rachel Brandon. Read more poetry from Hera Lindsay Bird here.
Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press, $25) is onsale at Unity Books from Thursday. Place your orders now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.