Portrait

Visiting New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird in Wellington. By Romy Ash.

Poet Hera Lindsay Bird

“I keep a list of poem titles which are really quite specific. If I still find them funny six months later – I found one in my phone last night which is – it goes something like: ‘Each Night I Wonder When The Last Time I’ll See Jim Carrey’s Face Is’. They’re just like these really improbable things, and if I still think they have a weird energy to me after a couple of months I’ll use them,” says Hera Lindsay Bird, speaking over the sound of gulls screeching. We’re by the waterfront in Wellington, New Zealand, drinking coffee, in the kind of place where the waiters never let your water glass empty. The day is bright and the wind pulls at strands of Bird’s dark hair. She’s talking about poetry and process and her first book, Hera Lindsay Bird. She has a habit of not finishing her sentences, jumping from thought to thought. She pauses to see if I’ve caught up.

“With poetry,” she says, “I just think, if you’re one of those people that has to turn everything in their life into a joke and then you start writing poetry and you don’t leave any of that in, it’s just a bit disingenuous. Like, you know, I want to write poetry that has honesty about love and relationships and all of that kind of stuff, but I also want it to have that kind of levity to it, because that’s just what I feel it’s like to live in the world. So for me to have honesty in poems…”

She leaves off. Pauses again, to see if I’ve caught up.

Bird grew up in Thames, a town on the Coromandel Peninsula, on the North Island, but she has lived most of her life in Wellington. She tells me Thames is the sort of town that’s populated by retired artists who make wooden butterflies to put on the front of houses. Her book, Hera Lindsay Bird, sold out of its first print run after her poems “Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind” and “Monica” went viral. She has a chapbook out in Britain, called Pamper Me to Hell & Back, and another project she doesn’t want to talk about yet.

“I feel like I’m not that funny in person, although I try to be,” Bird says. “But probably that’s most people who write, they have some sort of failure of communication with the outside world, which is why they’ve all put it all on paper and sent it to someone. Which is why – like, I’m the worst joke teller in the world. I cannot tell a joke. I always say the punchline at the beginning of the joke, ruin it immediately, tell everyone to forget what I’ve just said, I’m just…”

She looks away, then tries to explain again. “A lot of the real basic, good, dirty jokes in my book come from playing with metaphor. It’s just a fun, easy way to find it. If you just throw a whole bunch of dirty words in with a whole lot of poetic words…” She explains a process of randomisation she used when writing Hera Lindsay Bird, which involved “impossible lists of 10,000 nouns”, words that she really liked, “metaphor lists and thousands of different combinations”.

“I have lots of boring nouns in there, like moon and lavender. But every now and then it will throw up a combination like ‘ass buffet’ and I’ll just laugh for 20 minutes. Chelsey Minnis has been there way before I’d ever thought about it,” she says of the American poet she admires. “I guess there are lots of explicit jokes in there, but to me they’re just one note, a throwaway line, and that’s not even really the heart of the joke…

“Now, I’m trying to think more about just starting with a single line and let each line follow on from the next, which is a really obvious thing that everyone in poetry already, always does, but it was my personal lesson and it’s actually more fun to write poetry that way, but I think it just required a little bit more trust that…” She stops herself and laughs. “God, it sounds so fucking wanky, but yeah, poetry is wanky, so that’s okay. Just trust in the poem.”

After we say goodbye, I search for her reference to “ass buffet”. I find it in the poem “I Am So in Love with You I Want to Lie Down in the Middle of a Major Public Intersection and Cry”.

your teeth like a graveyard …….. in springtime

your tongue like a mattress …….. in a graveyard ………… in springtime

your tongue on my cunt like a mattress …….. in
a graveyard ………… in springtime

my pubic hair like the black carpet on the titanic

my ass ……………………….. like an ass buffet

I laugh for a long time, and then I read the rest of the poem, and it’s so good I feel winded by it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "A lady in the Keats". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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