Hera Lindsay Bird belongs to the new school of poets — who, along with the likes of Kate Tempest and Rupi Kaur, is bringing the art form to a whole new generation of readers. Her work is playful and accessible, covering everything from the pain of love to popular culture.
We caught up with her ahead of the Sydney Writers' Festival and found out she's as witty in interviews as she is in her poems.
SWF: How you became a poet? Was it a vocation or an accident?
Hera Lindsay Bird: I was supposed to be a short story writer, but my stories were all too short and about myself so eventually I had to concede defeat. I wrote poetry as a child, about swans and the moonlight and all the rest of it and then at university I took a couple of writing classes with a graduate of the Iowa writer’s workshop. She introduced me to many of the poets I’m still obsessed with.
Poetry is often (and perhaps unfairly!) seen as primarily autobiographical. How much if your own life makes it into your poems?
Not all of my life makes it into my poems, but all of my poems are about my life. I mean, if there is such a thing as an autobiographical poem about why I don’t like Monica from Friends. There are plenty of fake Winston Churchill quotes and exploding helicopters in my writing, but they’re just literary devices. I don’t even know what it would sound like to write a non-autobiographical poem. To me, the idea of a non-autobiographical poem is I guess like Tennyson’s 'The Lady of Shalott', which is fine if you like sad women in boats, but it almost feels like a different genre of writing to me.
Your poem 'Keats is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind' went viral after it was featured in The Guardian. What was the fallout from that, good or bad?
Well, the only fallout was in the comments section of The Guardian and by fallout I mean a small population of older British men with a classical education going to waste. But it was a great thing to have happen just before my book came out. It’s a privilege to have your work read, even if it means dividing strangers over which body of water Shelley drowned in (it was the sea, dumbasses, get over it.)
How has your relationship with poetry changed over time?
It took me so long to even find the poets whose work I really loved, and I’ve spent the last five years trying to catch up. I’m still figuring out how to write — I think you’re supposed to feel like that until you die though.
'Not all of my life makes it into my poems, but all of my poems are about my life.'
You're appearing in conversation with fellow poet Rupi Kaur at this year's Festival. What do you envision as some of the topics of discussion?
I like a rambling, digressive conversation so I don’t really know where it will end up. Aphorisms, the idea of the political poem, letting your grandmother read your work, sincerity, TV. I am also a bookseller, so I will definitely ask her how she got every single teenage girl in New Zealand to read poetry.
Which writers do you most admire and why?
Shirley Jackson, Mark Leidner, Chelsey Minnis, George Saunders, P.G. Wodehouse, Frank O’Hara, Hilton Als, J.D. Salinger, David Sedaris, E.L. Konigsburg, Dorothea Lasky. All of them for the same reason: people who take risks with language, who have a surreal, imagistic sense of humour, who are surprising and who risk vulnerability. All of these people have such a distinct and unusual voice — nobody can really imitate them.
For me, refuge is…
Being able to live without life-ruining impediments.
Is there book (or piece of writing) that you consider to be your sanctuary?
I read Mark Leidner’s Beauty is the Case They Gave Me and George Saunders’ Tenth of December to re-remember what the world is for. I read Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse when I need the opposite. Shirley Jackson was my favourite for years, but I accidentally over mythologised her and now we’re on a break.
What physical environment is your favourite place to read?
Bed. I do everything in bed. I write in bed. I watch movies in bed. Once I was living in an attic and I had an electric frying pan and occasionally I would fry an egg from bed without even getting up. But how do you sleep properly, all my enemies demand to know? Very well, thanks for asking.