14 Jul 2016

Interview: Hera Lindsay Bird

1:58 pm on 14 July 2016

The poet talks love,  oversharing, and getting to the bottom of your shit.

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Photo: Russell Kleyn

In her poem 'Having Already Walked Out On Everyone I Ever Said I Loved', Hera Lindsay Bird tell us that the official theme of all of her poetry is: "You get in love and then you die".

Her self-titled debut book of poetry, released today by Victoria University Press, explores this theme widely, as well as touching on dad jokes, wishing on satellites, and the New Zealand poet Bill Manhire. There’s a brilliant one about Monica “off the popular sitcom Friends” you have probably already seen, too.

A graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters, Hera won the 2011 Adam Prize for best folio. After spending the last couple years living in Dunedin, she has returned to Wellington, where earlier in the year she ran a free non-fiction writing course, Too Much Information (TMI). At TMI she actively encouraged students to overshare, just as she has so generously done with her book.

We caught up with Hera ahead of tonight’s launch party at Wellington’s Unity Books to discuss poetry, her experimental writing process, and getting to the bottom of one’s own shit.

You decided to give the book your name as its title. Is that a reflection of how personal the content inside it is? Were there any other titles you were playing around with?

I think the first title I thought of was Sex and Death, but someone has already done that. I also thought about calling it Planet of the Apes, but then no one would be able to find it on the internet. And then when I thought about Hera Lindsay Bird, it just made the most sense to me, because it is permission for people to read it as a personal book of poetry, and I want to give people that permission because it’s all taken from my life.

But also it’s funny to me because that is how all the 90s pop stars, like Janet Jackson, named their first album. So it was a bit of an homage to pop music as well.

Tell me about the image you chose for the cover.

I knew I wanted to have an image of myself on the cover of the book because I thought if I had photo of myself on the cover it would again [show] that it was me writing personally about my life.

Ashleigh Young [my editor] has a friend called Russell Kleyn who is a really great photographer and she set me up with him. I had quite a different idea; I have quite a funny portrait of myself and I wanted a really Dorian Gray thing, where there was a portrait of me holding a dorky portrait of myself, but it actually didn’t turn out that well.

He saw this yellow raincoat in this weird attic I was living in and he just wanted to take a few photos of that, so it was kind of a random shot. But I really like the way it turned out and that it obscures my face. What I told him was that I kind of wanted [it to have] an Yvonne Todd vibe about it - feminine but also a bit creepy and off.

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Photo: Unknown

Did you write all these poems while you were living in Dunedin?

I wrote most of them in Dunedin. A couple of them had been from Wellington a few years before, and then when I had to hand the book in at the end I was like, “Fuck, I need like five more poems really quickly,” so I went and spent a week or two in Whanganui.

Some of the poems were physically written there, because I would stay with my mum and that was a good way to get some work done. [The book] spans the length of New Zealand doesn’t it? To be honest there isn’t a lot of physical geography in it that’s specific to New Zealand. There are a lot of images in the book, but a lot of them correspond to medieval fields thousands of years ago as opposed to inner-city Hamilton.

Was there any kind of theme that you wanted to tie all the poems together, or is it more about a cohesive tone?

I have to say I really didn’t think at all about the selection process when choosing poems from the book, because basically everything I had written over the last five years is there. When I write a poem, I don’t have like, a draft folder full of stuff that I don’t write. I just work on something until it’s done.

The nature of the things that I’m interested in made it a cohesive collective by accident, because I do tend to just write about love and sex, so it had an inbuilt theme. But that wasn’t an intentional decision, it was just that’s the only thing I really care about writing about. I actually didn’t have to think too much about what to include or how to tie everything together.

Why do you think it is that love and sex is the only thing that you care to write about?

I don’t know. When I say love, I don’t always mean romantic love. There are lots of poems in there about friendships, or hidden moments. I think when you read the collection you’ll think that they’re all really explicitly about romantic love, but there’s actually lots of bits in there which I think my friends all recognise as having being about them or hidden moments.

Maybe it’s a time of life thing. Maybe I’m emotionally stunted, but that’s all I ever care about reading. I just care about reading about other people’s lives and their relationships with their friends and there are jokes in there as well. It would feel really unnatural to sit down and write an evocative poem about the landscape or something. My brain doesn’t work that way.

I read a lot of books about other people or other experiences in life and they don’t often resonate as being relevant to mine, but when you do find someone who is able to describe an aspect of your life that you haven’t been able to put into words before, it’s just the best feeling. Even when I’m reading, that’s what I’m always looking for.

Would you say that the poems in this book represent your whole self or a part of your self or more an era in your life?

I think that they are all explicitly about my life but it’s very clear that they are very staged and performative as well. They’re definitely a version of me that I’ve thought about presenting. I’ve thought a lot about how I have put them together and about the mood behind them.

I think there’s a weird level where if you met me in person you probably wouldn’t recognise the character of me which is kind of there in the book. But the book is probably closer to the way I feel in the world and the way I think about the world. It does really reflect my internal thought process.

Obviously, it couldn’t not, because how could you write a book that didn’t do that. It is quite personal to me, but it is very deliberate in the way that it is staged.

You’ve said that it takes you about a month to work on a poem. What was your writing process like?

I have quite a boring and technical writing process, which is probably not of interest to anyone else in the world, but it’s hard not to talk about this without mentioning my best friend Gregory Kan, who also put out a book this year called This Paper Boat. I met him when I was in a writing course and we did the Iowa Writing Course together, which is one at the IIML; we became really close friends after that.

In that course he kind of introduced me to text randomisation and cut out techniques. To get a lot of the images in the book, a lot of them started off from generative exercise-y things, like, Greg built a really amazing text randomiser that will garble sentences and things like that. I don’t want to say I just put it into a machine and it came out that way, I have done a lot of work around it to pick the good things out.

There is a lot of sifting that goes into it, but random text generation and playing around with images, that is the first processes that I go through, particularly with one of the really long poems that has heaps and heaps of images in them.

It’s kind of a funny thing to talk about in New Zealand because a lot of people get weird about it, because we have this real idea that you want to sit down at the keyboard and let inspiration strike you and that is the most real and organic way of writing, but I really like these processes, because it’s the same sort of feeling as what I was talking about earlier, when you recognise something in a poem that someone else has written, you’re like oh my god, that’s my life. Random text generation has the same feeling.

How have you felt about the reception to your work?

It’s kind of crazy. Especially the last couple of days. I think the poem I had up this week, Keats is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind had 10,000 views on The Spinoff, which is kind of crazy. Nobody would have read my work that much before in any context. It’s been quite full on.

My mum is really concerned about it and sends me comment threads of people saying mean things about my work. But it is super cool as well, because it is such a privilege to have so many people read your work and engage with it.

It’s funny because at the moment I work at Unity Books so I have been sending off my books this morning as part of my job to these random people around the world. One has gone to Texas, some have gone to Sweden and one’s going to LA and I have no idea who any of these people are. It’s quite full on, but it’s exciting and it’s great and I appreciate it.

Earlier in the year you ran an experimental non-fiction writing course. Did you get out of it what you hoped you would?

It was a totally random experiment and I didn’t really know what the outcome would be, but I just adored everyone in the class and their writing was so mind blowing every week. We’re going to have a potluck at the end of this month. It was a really great, cool community.

I had a great time doing it and to me it wasn’t so much that I thought I had all of this stuff that I wanted to impart on other people, but just that writing classes have been such a big part of my life and I wanted people to have the opportunity to do that.

Because the course was called TMI people shared really personal stuff, which is what I absolutely love to read, so it was just so cool to hear people talk about their lives that way.

One of the questions you asked your students at the start of the course was “How do we get to the bottom of our shit?” Were you able to get to the bottom of your shit with your own poems for this book?

I usually try to. For me good poetry is poetry that has an element of uncertainty or a question or an argument at the centre, rather than, “I’ve got something to say and I want to tell everyone.” I think if you start off from a point of, “I don’t know how I feel about this,” or some point of conflict or tension within the poem, your poem is going to be better as well.

Like everything I do, I do poetry first. If I was trying to figure something out in a relationship and I wrote a poem about it, the poem would come before me trying to sort that out, but I find that to be a really helpful way for me to think about my life anyway.

Has poetry always been your favourite way to express yourself or untangle your thoughts?

No, I never wrote poetry. I wrote a little bit when I was a child because you do that in school, but I didn’t write it until I was in my early 20s. I wrote fiction before that. It still feels new to me.

It’s funny, it’s been about six or seven years now, but it definitely didn’t occur to me to use it as an art form until I was introduced to a couple of poets who I really fell in love with and then I was like, okay this makes more sense to me than anything else.

Who were those poets you fell in love with?

The American poets, if you read their collections I think you could hear them very strongly in my book because I was just so obsessed with them. They’re Dorothea Lasky, Chelsey Minnis and Mark Laidler. They’re the three who I’ve read so much of and adore.

But also Frank O’Hara is a big one and also my friend Greg as well. I don’t think you would read both of our writing together and think, “Oh this sounds similar,” but actually Greg’s work has been super important to me.

Are there any other New Zealand poets or other artists you get similar inspiration from?

I really like Stacey Teague, who is a New Zealand poet. She publishes mainly overseas so we don’t see a lot of her, but I think her poetry is really great. And I really like Jackson and Caro;

Jackson Nieuwland and Carolyn DeCarlo, who are a couple but they each have their own poetry projects and they do stuff together sometimes and they’re really fucking cool. I love Pip Adam. Everything that Pip Adam writes is great.

But a lot of the people I am really obsessed with in this country and take heaps of inspiration from are actually female pop stars and musicians, which is kind of funny. I know that might sound like a weird comparison because I am writing poetry, but i.e. Crazy, who was Dear Time’s Waste, I love her stuff. And I love Chelsea Jade and Tiny Ruins. Nadia Reid as well. I love Coco Solid. Sorry, I’m just name dropping heaps of names now.

Hera Lindsay Bird is published by Victoria University Press.