NZ’s next best poet
Arts Awards winner, scandalous poet and viral tweeter Hera Lindsay Bird talks lit fests, her hatred of the word “confessional”, and the reality show she’d most definitely watch.
“Eat my pussy from behind/Bill Manhire’s not getting any younger” are the immortal final lines of Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind from her eponymous 2016 collection. And verily did Bird, who had not met Bill Manhire at the time of writing the above, snatch the crown of our new favourite bard, less to adorn herself with it than to perform unspeakable acts upon it, no doubt from behind. Her book upturned all that was good and sacred in contemporary New Zealand verse, winning Best First Book Award for Poetry at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and praise from Lorde, The Guardian and anyone with eyes and access to the internet. In August, she travelled to Scotland with Courtney Sina Meredith, Sarah Laing and writer/curator Rachael King to present work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and she’s just been in Newcastle, Australia for the Young Writers’ Festival. She also took time to chat to Paperboy about being given a New Generation Award (which comes with a cheque of $25,000) by the Arts Foundation.
JULIE HILL: How was Australia?
HERA LINDSAY BIRD: Awesome. I don’t know if you ever went to Camp A Low Hum [music festival], but the Young Writers’ Festival feels more like that than any other traditional literary festival I’ve been to.
So it’s less earnest? To be honest, it’s still pretty earnest. I think that’s kind of an inescapable part of literary festivals. But it’s more casual. A lot of the writing that the Australian people are doing is very funny. I feel like we’re kind of missing that a little bit in our literary culture over here sometimes. I think there are a lot of funny writers but we don’t have a venue specifically for comedy in literature.
How do you find the performance aspect of poetry? I find it really fun to just read. You go to these panels at literary festivals and hear what people’s ideas are about – these really specific topics, but you don’t really hear people’s original work. So unless you’re seeing a famous author and you’ve read all their work, you’re often in the dark as to what the actual style of their writing is.
Do we need fewer conversations and more reading in our festivals?
Panels are a necessary evil at festivals but if you go to enough panels, you realise people say the same things again and again and again. There’s only so much ground you can cover in an hour.
And there’s always someone who talks way more than everyone else.
Yes. And there’s the classic thing of audience questions at writers’ festivals, where the people that put their hand up first usually don’t really have a question, they have a long complicated statement that they just want to make to a roomful of people.
Have you seen the Australian man on YouTube literally mansplaining your Keats poem?
Yes, I was sent that. I was astonished that someone had gone through and deconstructed it line by line. I certainly didn’t put that much effort into writing it.
I enjoyed the video you made of Jeff Probst from Survivor on YouTube. He’s quite unhinged.
The reason that interview is so amazing is that it was livestreamed, so clearly his production team were not able to mould what he was saying into something more palatable. When I found that video I was so happy because it just confirmed all my secret suspicions about Jeff Probst, which is that he loves Survivor so much. He’s so into the game, it’s so much part of his identity. He probably lives on the island and makes dioramas of all the people in his spare time.
Your tweet about the election (“godDAMN this stupid milkloving piece of shit dumbass mean spirited sale at briscoes racist sexist 40% off deck furniture piss country”) made me think perhaps you weren’t so stoked with your fellow Kiwis.
That tweet went viral after the election but I actually wrote it during the election campaign. It specifically refers to Metiria Turei being forced to resign. I found that a really upsetting moment in the recent election because I really like her and I’m a Green Party supporter, and I found it so depressing that she was bullied out of politics when she’d been trying to open up this conversation about poverty.
Do you think it was racism or sexism?
There were certainly elements of both, but also our country just universally hates beneficiaries. But every year we look at the statistics of how much money is lost through benefit fraud versus how much is lost in large-scale corporate tax fraud, and the numbers are not even close to each other.
When you did your MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria, had you always wanted to write poetry?
I actually applied the year before I got in with a fiction project and I got turned down. And when I applied for the poetry stream I hadn’t actually written that much poetry before, so I didn’t even think I’d get in then. But it was during that year that I found the poets that opened poetry up for me and made me excited about it. I was still learning all the way through that year and actually, from the collection I wrote that year, not a single poem has survived. There’s maybe only one or two in old journals and I hope nobody looks at them. I mean, they’re not bad poems. I did win the prize [the Adam prize for best folio].
And Victoria University Press offered to publish them.
I was just really wary about publishing a first collection just because someone had said it was good enough. You can only do your first collection once. So I really wanted to make this first book that I wrote something I was quite proud to share with people. I’m glad I took the five years after my MA just to kind of sit with it and try some other stuff. To me, there were a lot of disparate pieces that were halfway there but I wanted something that felt whole as a collection.
This is making me think of Project Runway.
I love Project Runway. It gives me really crazy ideas of things I want to do with my clothes but it traditionally never ends very well.
You’re no good at construction?
I can sew but I just don’t have the best taste in clothes.
That show feels as much about fashion as a study in emotional fragility.
Yeah. I really love reality TV but I couldn’t be on there because, even though I’m quite an emotionally level person most of the time, I feel like as soon as I got on TV I would automatically feel the pressure and burst into tears.
Lucky there’s no New Zealand’s Next Best Poet.
Yes. For many reasons, yes. Though I would watch the hell out of that show.
So would I. Who would be on the panel? Are we thinking of a Voice-style set-up?
You have to turn your seat around so you can’t see how beautiful the poet is. We’ll work on it. We’ll pitch it to TVNZ.
I read an article recently about how women musicians get called confessional but not men. Is it the same in poetry?
You definitely get called that a lot. Yes, they love the word confessional in poetry.
I don’t really understand what is meant by it.
Every single person who’s known as confessional fucking hates the term confessional, because it sounds like you’re in a police cell and someone’s shining a desk lamp in your eyes and they’re like, “tell us about the breakup of your relationship!” or something. Which is contrary to the whole spirit of poetry. You’re not confessing anything. You’re actively trying to get people to read about your personal life. Confession sounds so reluctant. No one’s torturing you. You don’t need to ask me twice to get me to talk about my personal life in a public forum.
You must have met [poet] Bill Manhire by now?
Yeah, in Wellington I see him at various events. I often get put on panels with him now because I wrote that line.
So you’re forever condemned to recite it in front of him?
I am, unfortunately. Luckily he’s got a really good sense of humour. It was meant in a generous spirit. It wouldn’t be funny if it was about someone I really didn’t like.
Are you still working on a children’s detective novel?
I’ve kind of been taking a break from that at the moment because I’m trying to get another collection of poetry together. Even though it’s a children’s novel I really don’t have the proper attention span of a writer. That’s why I’ve been able to write poetry, because you can write something in a day then move on from it. The patience it takes to write a whole novel is beyond me. I really need to hire a mean matronly woman to make me sit at my desk every day and do the work that’s required.
How are you going to spend the 25g [the $25,000 prize awarded for each New Generation award winner]?
Even though my book has sold lots of copies, I still work four days a week in retail [at Unity bookstore in Wellington]. My job is great, and my boss Tilly Lloyd gives me a paid day off every week to work just on my writing, which is incredible. But what I would really like to do with the money is have an extended amount of time off. If you’re in customer service or on your feet all day, you just want to come home and watch seven episodes of Survivor. So the plan is for me and my partner to go overseas for a bit and find cheap accommodation and use it as a year to write something. We’re going to go to Wales, where his family is, and maybe to Russia and Greece. My book came out with Penguin in November, so it’ll be helpful to be in the UK so I can do a little bit of publicity stuff for it.