‘Almost nobody I like is well rounded’: A Conversation with Hera Lindsay Bird

HLBHera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird has topped the New Zealand bestsellers list for the last four weeks (okay, one week it came second to Sam Hunt). Bird is self-deprecating and enigmatic. She’s smart and funny. She exhibits almost no self doubt. She has a heap of Twitter followers. Basically, she’s a poetry superhero, and like most superheroes she must have a cover day job; she works at Unity Books.

I reviewed her collection for The Pantograph Punch, but I also had some questions for Bird. Here’s our interview.

Sarah Jane Barnett: First, I appreciate talking to someone who also uses their middle name when publishing. It helps me feel less pretentious. Do you get people calling you ‘Hera Lindsay’ now? On names, apart from celebrities you don’t often name people in your poems, but the poems about ‘Anna’ are a notable exception. I found these more specific love poems worked well alongside the general and humourous poems (which are personal in a different way). In that interview you did with Steve Braunias, he suggested your work could be seen as ‘formulaic’ and lacking ‘depth.’ I can see how someone might accuse you of being one note, but I think that note has depth and variation. Tell me about the process of putting together this sort of collection.

Hera Lindsay Bird: Sorry to disappoint you, but Lindsay isn’t my middle name, it’s part of my last name, like a scared horse trying to escape an evil flower wagon, but if it makes you feel better I manage to find many other opportunities to be pretentious. I often think about what Dorothea Lasky says about choosing to include names of the people she loves, because names carry the residue of a person, but there are also some conspicuous absences in this book.

I’m not especially peeved to be called one note. I know it’s the fashion to make toy handcuffs of your doubt, attach yourself to the coffin of post-modernism and drag it slowly through the forest at midnight whispering ‘objective truth is a construct, man,’ but I unfortunately I am a person with many bad convictions and entrenched wrong ideas, and I find that to be an enjoyable way to live. I have a great private boredom for the contemporary literary imperative to be well-rounded. Almost nobody I like is well rounded.

I also love formulaic writing. Formula is just narrative convention or mental filing cabinets made explicit, and my favourite writing is always work that pushes up against narrative expectation. That tension can be generative or limiting, depending on how you use it. Detective fiction is formulaic. Sitcoms are formulaic. Jokes are formulaic. Formula is often used as shorthand for easily reproducible, but just because you can identify a writer’s structural or linguistic tics, it doesn’t give you 10+ XP literature points, bringing you closer and closer to finally understanding Ulysses.

SJB: My favourite poem of the collection is ‘Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird.’ It reads as an argument for complexity; for the way the ‘heat’ and ‘hunger’ of life imprisons us, but also gives us beauty and pleasure. Personally, I’ve always liked the hopefulness of Oliver’s poetry, as though something as simple as looking at birds can help with the fact that, as you state, ‘Life is hard / and pain is hard.’ Your poems often trail off at the end or end on a joke; they resist neatness and the transformative lyrical moment. Do you think people crave simple answers? Do you? Is it lazy writing to lean on such imagery in a poem?

HLB: Listen, you can have as many geese in a poem as you like. You can have double the amount of geese that Mary Oliver had and there’s nothing she or the department of health can do about it. You could write a poem called ‘Even MORE Wild Geese’ or ‘Now That’s What I Call Wild Geese: Volume Two.’ You can have the world’s most picturesque arms race. There are a lot of geese around, and long may they continue to bestow aesthetic boners on poets and Bob Ross alike. I have no problem with geese. What I really have an issue with is the bad, new-age logic of the poem. Do geese ask forgiveness? Of course not, they’re fucking geese. Give me a break. Geese are wild birds and as such don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with the consequences of their inherently morally neutral behaviour. This is a very specific and petty grievance which has nothing to do with the transformative lyric moment, but if this poem makes you feel better about something nasty you’ve done, maybe try holding yourself accountable instead of projecting new-age fantasies of negative-culpability (lol) onto animals that regularly get sucked into jet engines.

Bob Ross.

Bob Ross and his aesthetic boner.

But to answer your question properly; I don’t actively resist the transformative moment, it’s just that I’m wary of forced epiphanies, or maybe it’s just that what’s emotionally transformative to me doesn’t lyrically register as being so. I don’t crave simple answers, because I don’t have a lot of questions these days. That’s not to say that life is simple, but demanding too much out of existence feels like staring at a painting by Monet like it were a magic eye puzzle & expecting a ship or a horse rise up out of the static.

I don’t think it’s lazy to use sublime imagery in a poem. I just think Mary Oliver is a pain in the ass. Compare her poem to ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ by James Wright. They’re not profoundly aesthetically different (although let’s be real, Oliver can’t touch Wright) – but you can feel the difference in your blood.

SJB: Your poems make great use of figurative imagery. I’ve never seen so many similes and metaphors packed together, and all of them so bright, true, and original. For instance, ‘It’s like freezing containers of vomit to reheat and pour down the toilet,’ or ‘Love like Windows 95 / The greatest, most user-friendly Windows of them all.’ Reading your poems is like repeatedly banging my head against something beautiful and strange. Do you think, in the end, that love is indescribable?

HLB: Not to get too Phil101 about it, but language doesn’t just describe the world, it also builds it. The act of describing love changes love. I mean this in the most morally-neutral sense possible.

SJB: The first poem of the collection states, ‘I wrote this book, and it is sentimental / Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world / To write a book is not a right-sized reaction.’ I read this and thought, sure thing, because writing often seems ridiculous to me, let alone that people read my work and sometimes even pay for it. Then I thought differently: I know reading and writing poetry makes me feel less alone. So writing a book seems like the perfect-sized reaction to the world! What do you think? Do you want to write another one?

HLB: There is no appropriate reaction to the world. Becoming an investment banker who recreates medieval battle scenes on the weekends doesn’t make sense either. But I suppose we all have to do something with our lives.

I don’t know if I will write another book. It’s too soon to think about it. It took me years to have enough material for one. Besides, I don’t want to write poetry books, I want to write poetry. I don’t want to make a career out of my bad feelings.

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