Sex, death and ironic punctuation in the poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird

“Everything in my life I have to turn into a joke”

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Hera Lindsay Bird’s self-titled collection of poetry opens with a beautiful description of her wetting herself. “To be fourteen,” she says in “Write a Poem”, “and wet yourself extravagantly… Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet.” It’s a bold choice to begin your first book with a urination metaphor: the embarrassing, exposing act of standing in your own mess for all to see. But it’s also a perfect, intimate introduction to Bird’s work: personal and tongue-in-cheek, vulnerable yet petty, both literary and proudly silly.

“To write a poetry book that’s full of good behaviours, and appropriate language, and nuanced and quiet intelligence…” Bird wondered aloud when we met in a coffee shop in central London, “to me, it felt disingenuous.”

Bird has made her name thanks to this tone. Two poems in particular made waves online before her first collection was published. “Monica” has Bird rail that “Monica Geller off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S/Is one of the worst characters in the history of television”. “Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind” is a carpe diem poem, in which Bird reels off a list of increasingly absurd fictional deaths of great poets (“Shelley died at sea and his heart wouldn’t burn/& Wordsworth...... /They never found his body”) alongside increasingly specific sexual demands (“Bend me over like a substitute teacher/& pump me full of shivering arrows”).

Since then, she has released her first collection, Hera Lindsay Bird, and a pamphlet, Pamper Me to Hell & Back. Her poems are simultaneously earnest and ironic, full of extra-long ellipses that function like an arched eyebrow, or sudden punchlines that undercut a long, sincere phrase.

In a time where the straightforwardly “authentic” Instagram poetry of Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav tops sales charts, Bird is stranger, more playful, and ultimately more rewarding. On Instagram, her biography reads: “I’m not an Instagram poet.”

Born in New Zealand in 1987, Bird grew up in Thames, a small beach town largely populated by “retired hippies”. Her parents met when her mother was working in a dessert factory that used to be a morgue – an anecdote that suits her in its mix of the camp and the macabre. “I went there once, because I won a free voucher,” Bird said cheerfully, “and it was horrible.”

After school, she went to Victoria University of Wellington, where she earned “half” a degree in gender and women’s studies – “the most useless degree of all time” – when the course shut down halfway through. She was accepted on to Victoria’s MA in poetry without a full undergraduate degree. “It wasn’t very rigorous,” she said, smiling, “but I had a lot of time and a little bit of hand-holding.” She works as a children’s specialist in an independent bookshop in Wellington – her most frequently recommended title is Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, “this surrealist comedy for children about domestic abuse in the wake of the Second World War”.

Wearing a long black dress with white polka dots, Bird often apologises for being “really bad at finishing sentences” and has a habit of putting her palms calmly on either side of her face so she resembles the figure in The Scream – which seems fitting for a poet prone to ellipses and  hyperbolic emotion.

“When I first started writing poetry,” Bird explained, “I was really into people like Anne Carson, so I was trying to write these really serious, literary poems. And then I realised I’m incapable of doing that. Everything in my life I have to turn into a joke. At some point I was like, ‘OK, well, fuck it, I just have to embrace it.’” She was liberated by the humour of American poets such as Mark Leidner and the hyperfeminie “Gurlesque” of Chelsey Minnis and Dorothea Lasky, trying on their voices until she found her own poetic style.

Did she ever fear that too much sex and humour would dampen her literary credentials? “I didn’t want to have to beg the academy for respect,” she insisted. “I knew that the people that I wanted to reach were young people, and queer people, and particularly young women.”

Bird’s poetry has been called “outrageous” but she insists that Hera Lindsay Bird is “a traditional book of love poems”. “It does have a bunch of off-colour jokes in it, but I don’t think that any of the R-18 content is very shocking at all. But I can understand why the marketing department are like, ‘All right! This book’s got like, three blow jobs in it. Let’s go!’”

Writing personal poetry has its risks. “The things that people have got upset about in my poems are things that they’ve perceived to be about them when actually they were about someone else. But all of the ones that are specifically about someone, I’ve always checked with them before publishing them,” she said, seriously. Then she flashed a grin. “Unless I hate them! In which case I don’t care!”

“You might think this book is ironic”, reads “Write a Poem”. “But to me, it is deeply sentimental/like if you slit your wrists while winking – does that make it a joke?”

“I’m really interested in irony and sincerity, particularly because there was such a big divide in the Nineties, with Bret Easton Ellis on one side and David Foster Wallace on the other,” Bird said. “People talk about them like they’re contradicting forces, but I think you can have both at the same time, and by having both they elevate each other.” She paused, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Now, there’s a new generation of women writers – who know how to multi-task.” 

“Hera Lindsay Bird” is published by Penguin

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead