"I’m in it for the jokes": Hera Lindsay Bird on her poetry
As she tours the UK, New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird talks us through the humour of her poems, the weirdness of the form, and the emotional crux at the heart of her work
“It’s really hard!” exclaims Hera Lindsay Bird when asked how she describes her poetry. “It’s kinda mostly comedy narrative poetry but also very sincere, most of it is love poetry. There are a lot of dick jokes, a lot of pop culture references. It’s also pretty colloquial; I try to only write the very high language of poetry when I’m making a joke about poetry."
If you don’t know who Bird is, you clearly haven’t been on the internet much over the last year or so. Or maybe you’ve read her poems that have become viral sensations but lacked the bylines. Monica – a poem about falling in love with a friend while rallying against the character Monica 'off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S.' – and Keats is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind – a poem imagining the deaths of the Romantic poets while the speaker is, well, fucked from behind – were shared by thousands when they were published online in 2016. Since then, the New Zealander has published her first self-titled book and garnered a cult following.
Ahead of her UK and Ireland tour, we catch up with Bird, who started seriously writing poetry during her MA creative writing programme. “It was the least academic writing I’ve ever written within the most academic context,” her disembodied head tells us over Skype. “I would write the word ‘blowjob’ in a poem and [my tutor] would just laugh for 15 minutes.” Doing an MA allowed Bird a year to completely devote herself to writing. “I think it just sped up the process for me. Maybe I could have [written poetry] without the course but it would have taken me another couple of years because it was that concentrated period of time."
"I’ve recently realised that I’m in it for the jokes..." - Bird on the humour in her work
When her poem Monica went viral, it was the humour and pop culture references that piqued people’s interest. Lines like 'Monica Geller from popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S/ Was the favourite character of the Uber driver/ Who drove me home the other day/ And is the main reason for this poem/ Because I remember thinking Monica???' and 'I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it/ Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire/ And don’t even get me started on Ross' encapsulate Bird's ability to juxtapose the epic with the trivial and the funny with the romantic, usually simultaneously within the same line.
For being one of her poetry’s most defining features, humour was something Bird avoided for several years. “When I first set out writing poetry, I was like I’m going to write this really beautiful, really sparse poetry,” she says. “I think it was the end of the MA year that I realised that I can’t do this, I need to crack like 75 more jokes because it’s just my normal way of being in the world. It’s not something that I think I ever sat down and intended to do but definitely reading the poetry of Mark Laidler and Chelsey Minnis – who are my favourite American poets and their books are just joke after joke after joke – that gave me permission to say yes, this is the kind of thing I’m best at doing. I’ve recently realised that I’m in it for the jokes more than anything else and I need to channel that appropriately."
Bird’s humour tends to come at moments when the masquerade of poetry slips and she turns to address the reader with a wink. The opening poem of her eponymous collection, Write a Book, kicks down this fourth wall: 'To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly/ At a supermarket checkout/ As urine cascades down your black lace stocking/ And onto the linoleum/ Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet […] 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?'
However, acknowledging the reader isn’t a conscious decision on Bird’s part. “I can’t help it!” she says. “I remember reading an article about a poet and this person was saying that the worst thing you can do is say the word poetry in poetry because it’s such a 'wink wink' to the audience which I totally get but I also think writing a poem is trying to get at the truth of something or be honest about something and, to me, you can’t really do that without acknowledging the weirdness of the format in which you’re doing it. So making those light-hearted jokes about poetry is a way to expose the medium a little bit more and tear down the curtain. To pretend that it’s happening in this place outside of culture and outside of anyone writing it, just seems wrong."
On confessional poetry, and the 'Instapoet' label
Dick jokes aside, Bird’s poetry is most explicit in the emotional crux that holds her poems together. She has no reservations saying that her writing is autobiographical: “It’s partially why I named my collection Hera Lindsay Bird. It’s to signal to people that I’m okay for it to be read as a personal book. That isn’t to say that the rest of the poetry I’ll write will be like that, but definitely that first book is.” So far, nothing has been off limits. “Sometimes I write something down and I read it and I’m like ‘ugh it’s too personal, I can’t publish that.’ But usually when I sit with that feeling for a day, I just no longer care. And for me, it’s more a lack of awareness more than anything. I know that people are reading my poetry and I know real people are in my book but it’s hard to feel that on some levels, so it doesn’t stress me out that people know those things about my private life.” When we ask if she gets offended by people calling her poetry “confessional”, she shrugs. “I don’t mind them calling it confessional because of what it implies. I think it’s funny because confessional implies a reluctance to tell the truth but I’m kind of beating you over the head to death with details about my private life so it doesn’t really feel reluctant."
Like other young, female writers such as Rupi Kaur, Bird has been labelled an “Instapoet,” largely down to fans also being young and female. “People get so shitty about poetry on the internet or Instagram poetry,” Bird says, “but I don’t know why everyone is so stressed out about it. Surely everyone has the capacity to understand that we can have multiple things in the world at once. It’s like you can’t watch a Tarkovsky movie every night, sometimes you want to watch an episode of Coronation Street – and both things don’t negate the other. Honestly, I think it’s people’s feelings being hurt. There are a lot of poets who see Instagram poetry going viral and they’re like ‘but I made seven references to Virgil in my book!’ But it’s not for them. I’ve been to a signing with a really famous Instagram poet and her line was like seven lines long out the door and all those girls in that line were so unbelievably stoked to be there and it’s like, why would anyone even bother being shitty about that? When you’re a girl that age you just want someone to tell you how it is and how to live and reading hundreds of pages of Wilfred Owen is obviously not as applicable as someone writing honestly about their life. There need to be writers for everyone at every point in their life because those are people you can connect with.”