Not-so Sad Girl

Hera Lindsay Bird
Hera Lindsay Bird, Penguin, 2017

Pamper Me to Hell & Back
Hera Lindsay Bird, Smith|Doorstop Books, 2018

‘It’s halfway between comedic deadpan and bratty, valley girl hyperbole.’ This is how Hera Lindsay Bird describes her poetic voice as we chat via email. This seemingly paradoxical statement is entirely true. She makes jokes that fall flat, or never land at all, amongst gushing, enjambed lines about the type of love that renders anything outside of it obsolete. Bird’s poetry is always oscillating ‘halfway between’ poles: sincerity and irony, profundity and profanity. The very process of swinging between states is inherently frustrating, or, ‘like a passive aggressive gun that fires……nothing instead of bullets’, as she says in ‘Lost Scrolls’. Bird consistently subverts our expectation, but, given the autobiographical nature of her poetry, can we really blame her for living a life that resists poetic convention?

Bird grew up in a small New Zealand town, Thames in the Coromandel, and moved to Wellington as a teenager. She completed her MFA at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University Wellington, and Victoria University Press published her first collection of poetry, the self-titled Hera Lindsay Bird, in 2016. Penguin published the book in the UK in 2017. Bird’s latest publication, Pamper Me to Hell & Back, is from a number of pamphlets selected by Carol Ann Duffy as part of the Laureate’s Choice series. To put it succinctly, Bird has now ticked off a chunk of the widely accepted ‘literary success’ indicators. With the aid of her Annual Arts Award of New Zealand, and her reduced hours working at a bookstore in Wellington, she is almost able to be a full-time writer.

Outside of the prizes and the publishers, Bird’s online presence is key. Her Twitter account (@HeraLindsayBird) provides an extension of her poetic persona, and her website heralindsaybird.com is a hub for her poetry, online articles, and handpicked ‘things I like’. The internet facilitated Bird’s rise to prominence when her poem ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind’ went viral in 2016 – an event that triggered wide interest in her poetry. Despite her recent support from the literary establishment, Bird often publishes her poems online before in print. This was the case with her recent poem ‘Pyramid Scheme’, which appeared online in Poetry magazine ahead of its publishing in Pamper Me. Bird’s Twitter account has evolved from the form of a scrolling poetry feed to a space to discuss books she likes and upcoming events, which has recently included readings at the Keble Poets’ Series in Oxford, the Writing School at Manchester Met and the London Review Bookshop as part of her UK tour. After reading her poems religiously over the past few months – becoming increasingly obsessed with her flat wit, her dialogue with the poetic canon, and, more recently, her refreshing approach to sentimental love poetry – I got the chance to chat to Bird at Keble after her reading. Within a few minutes I found myself telling her about personal life details and wishing we could talk all night – which I think is a testament not just to her personal genuineness but also the consequent sense of closeness offered by her poetic voice.

Bird’s first collection of poetry, Hera Lindsay Bird, is the perfect introduction to this voice. She wants us to know that her decision to self-title the collection, as well as nodding to Janet Jackson’s also self-titled debut, gives us permission to read it as a personal book. Bird’s voice is excitable, even gushing, and oddly positive in the face of what should be crippling negative emotions. In her poem ‘Having Sex in a Field in 2013’, where the speaker is not actually having sex but listening to a voicemail message, Bird reflects on the affective dimensions of heartbreak:

I love to feel this bad because it reminds me of being human

I love this life too
Every day something happens and I think
so this is the way things are now

It’s difficult to tell how Bird really feels: her tone is both flat and strangely positive, and her content is halfway between legitimate existential crisis and indulgent melodrama. Bird’s tone harnesses a sort of poetic energy, the repetitious ‘I love’, starts to build momentum, seeming to strive towards poetic transcendence. Despite the energy, Bird introduces a flatness in ‘so this is the way things are now’ to undercut the potential for profound feeling. The poem is aware of the readerly demand for emotional payoff, but avoids ‘going there’, instead favouring the frustrating oscillation of ‘betweenness’. At the end of the poem, Bird listens to a voicemail from a group of friends, where she hears one of them say ‘did she just hang up on us’. The return to the immediate, and trivial, event of hearing a voice message frustrates the expectation of a ‘big’ poetic experience. Bird’s generalised metaphors and excitable tone purport to write a universal love poem, but she shifts, with comfort and familiarity, to minor occasional details to prevent the reaching of a profound experience.

Many of Bird’s poems follow this structure. Having half-imagined the profound experience of realising no love will last in the poem ‘Having Already Walked Out On Everyone I Ever Said I Loved’, the minor event of knocking on her lover’s door (‘I pause for a moment at your door’) reveals the experience that gave rise to the poem in the first place. The image of knocking at a door is telegraphed and concise: it is so small and seemingly insignificant, but carries the potential to follow a path towards a greater poetic experience. The circumstantial details of Bird’s poetry are also in dialogue with the aesthetics of Twitter: the immediate details in some of Bird’s lines feel like a response to the ‘what’s happening?’ stimulant question used by the platform. Tweet-like responses are increasingly prevalent in writing that has emerged with the rise of the internet, including in Mira Gonzalez’s poems (see ‘today my alarm went off at 12:30pm’) and Darcie Wilder’s Twitter novel literally show me a healthy person. Bird’s ‘responses’ are expectedly mundane, but following their minor circumstantial details offers an alternative route to poetic transcendence, subverting the conventional notion of exceeding the limits of the self through an extraordinary experience.

Not only do Bird’s poems frustrate the desire for a profound encounter, they are painfully funny in doing so. She adopts the structure of the ‘mother joke’, a form born out of the death of the ‘dad joke’. In her poem ‘The Dad Joke is Over’, Bird slights the puns, the cringy-ness and the ‘knock knock’ format of dad jokes. She then inaugurates the mother joke, a form which has no punchlines, nothing to laugh at except ‘the unceasing bitterness of life’, and where ‘everything is wrong, but you can’t stop laughing’. Bird’s unfulfilling jokes run throughout her poetry, for instance in her poem ‘Hate’:

Some people believe in forgiveness
and other people believe in…………..dwelling on things

[…]

And if you don’t like it………………………….well
buy me a drink and you can finish the poem

This poem is particularly frustrating to read. Bird drags out obvious and unsatisfying comebacks, exacerbated by the hyperbolic use of ellipses. This tendency is inherited from poet Chelsey Minnis (to whom Bird has repeatedly noted indebtedness and dedicates her poem ‘Pain Imperatives’). Minnis uses the ellipsis extensively, particularly in her book Poemland. The sheer amount of dots is initially quite comedic, but, after the third or fourth time, it feels like overusing the same painful joke structure, frustrating the desire for a cathartic humorous release. When Bird teases ‘And if you don’t like it…………………..well’, the ellipsis offers a gap for us to fill with what we expect the poem to say next. We could never guess, though; and ‘buy me a drink and you can finish the poem’ lasts as one of Bird’s sharpest, and most memorable lines. Bird told me she wanted to move away from the use of ‘one-liners’ in her poems, and her bathetic joke structure means her lines lean on each other as a reminder of how unfulfilling the previous ‘joke’ was. The accumulative frustration is matched only by Bird’s increasing smugness: she knows we are suspended, and we know Bird’s love for the anticlimactic is what holds us there.

Bird’s poetry continues to frustrate us even as she gestures out beyond the space of the poem. She often looks to skies, open fields, and horizons, in a mission to ‘take us beyond the confines’ of the poem, as she notes in ‘If You Are An Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’. Yet, her references to the idyllic landscapes of Romantic poetry paradoxically produce claustrophobia. Despite a multitude of ‘wildflowers’ and natural imagery, she talks heavy-handedly about the nature of poetry itself, continually pulling us back from the horizon and to the page. Bird’s landscapes remind us of conventional poetic effects, rather than providing us with a springboard to enter and experience the poetic sublime. You don’t have to read much Romantic poetry to know that the landscape is the primary figure of the sublime and of transcendence of the self’s limits. Bird’s use of landscape imagery ‘tests’ the success of her own aesthetic: she uses symbols and figures such as the wild geese in ‘Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird’ that are designed to achieve the opposite end (i.e. profound experience) to the one she aims for. In Bird’s rewrite of Oliver’s poem, the wild geese do not act as a reminder of love and beauty, but instead are humorously reduced to a ‘flock of migratory birds’ who obviously cannot give ‘relationship advice’. The Romantic image is frustrated and unable to achieve the end for which it was originally designed.

Bird’s conversation with the poetic canon is carried through from Hera Lindsay Bird to Pamper Me to Hell & Back. In ‘I want to get high my whole life with you’, she jokes about being ‘overcome with wildflowers AGAIN, and the poem isn’t even halfway over yet’. Now we are familiar with Bird’s poetic voice, we realise that she may never be finished with Romantic imagery, or the meta-discussion about the nature of poetry itself. In our email correspondence, Bird revealed however that one of the biggest misconceptions about her work is that her poems are ‘all about hating older white men’, and that in turn her poems are manifestos. Deliberately provocative titles like ‘Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind’ might be responsible for this reaction. However, the reader who experiences a visceral reaction to Bird’s “disrespectful” nature towards the canon will have their initial suppositions subverted as soon as they enter the poem. The poem itself doesn’t really care about Keats at all, nor does it wish to disregard the centuries of (white male) verse that have come before it. She imagines the Romantic poets alongside vignettes of sexual foreplay (see ‘Byron, Whitman, our dog crushed by the garage door / Finger me slowly’) but never namedrops purely for shock factor. Instead, Bird teaches us how to read her poems. Sex undercuts the serious, the serious engages the canon in a dialogue – but the canon itself is dead compared to the pulsating energy of Bird’s verse.  

After reading ‘Keats is Dead’, we might be inclined to scan the rest of Bird’s poems for references to canonical authors. And whether it’s Wordsworth or Shakespeare, we’ll find them. Bird’s refractions of the canon do not operate within a man-hating agenda, though. It’s a conversation, loaded with presuppositions waiting to be dispelled. The conversation is continued as we become familiar with Bird’s own aesthetic, but even as we realise her poetry has offered an alternate route to a profound poetic experience (or not), we aren’t left eager to burn our canonical poetry anthologies. What Bird has offered is a renewed engagement with the canon that encourages responses rather than the two static poles of either awe or disapproval.

The American poet and friend of Bird, Patricia Lockwood, who has more than 70 thousand followers on Twitter, also writes in witty dialogue with the poetic canon. Her poem ‘The Ode on a Grecian Urn’, is a rewriting of Keats, but specifically a response to William Faulkner’s claim that the poem is ‘worth any number of old ladies.’ Lockwood writes a satire imagining exactly which ladies might be sacrificed for Keats’s poem, and, like Bird, frustrates the reader in her oscillation between supposed profundity and spiralling conversation about the nature of poetry. ‘Beauty is truth, and truth…’ Lockwood begins, ‘but already I am losing it’. Like Bird’s style, Lockwood’s verse teases the potential to access profound universal truths through poetry, before making a diversion away from the conventional poetic experience. Despite her comical imaginings of the ‘old-ass bitches’ who died for Keats’s poem, Lockwood says of the ode: ‘you stood in me like a spine.’ She versifies the way in which our favourite poems are kept alive inside us, and offers a moment of sentimentality without a dash of irony. Or rather, like Bird does with ‘Keats is Dead’, Lockwood teaches us that the funny poem can be sentimental without losing its wit, and that humour, as well as frustrating the opportunity for the conventional poetic transcendence, can actually navigate our reading towards an even greater experience.

After a vignette about Bruce Willis, comes the poem ‘Speech Time’, the first long poem in Pamper Me. It has a similar-yet-extended introductory purpose as ‘Write a Book’ in Hera Lindsay Bird, and sets the tone for the rest of the pamphlet. Bird announces ‘[t]he only reason for poetry is to have a meadow in which to burn yourself alive in’. We laugh at first, and rightly so. Many of Bird’s readers, myself included, are part of a generation who enjoy, and are accustomed to, humorously revelling in one’s own misery. This habit is in part influenced by the aesthetics of the internet. Twitter encourages oversharing because we see the rest of our timeline talking about their anxiety – but feeling comfortable in doing so – providing the tone is affectless, and snippets of inner turmoil sit amongst witty comments about pop culture. Bird agrees with this, and cited ‘joke style, punctuation and delivery method’ as the elements of her poetry most influenced by the internet. There is a wealth of Twitter accounts whose tweets exemplify the integration of deadpan humour with moments of darkness: see Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz), Darcie Wilder (@333333333433333) and Melissa Broder (@sosadtoday). These emerging women internet writers have harnessed a collective tone. It is distinctly flat, distinctly internet, and despite the thousands of miles between contributors, it has weaved its way into Bird’s poetry and the online dialogues surrounding it.

Disappointingly, Bird’s subversion of the canon and her bathetic jokes have rendered her susceptible to the typical reception of the “fearless” woman poet image. So many of the responses to Bird’s poetry lean on branding her with weighty adjectives like “irreverent” or “defiant”. She is read as a “risqué” poet for her use of expletives, presentation of queerness and mockery of dead poets. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival last September, Bird gave a series of short lectures on topics including sentimentality, irony, and Julia Roberts. She said, ‘to have to position yourself as a serious woman in order to have your work read is a fucking pain in the arse’. Bird is entirely right. Her poetic voice is read as a surprising beacon of boldness in the same way that women comedians are read as brazen, unfunny and even annoying compared to their male counterparts. The more that women’s writing is described as ‘exclusively intellectual, nuanced, rigorous, critical, unsentimental, in an attempt to preempt reluctance’, Bird explains, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She wants us to know that reading her poetry as “serious” (amongst other synonyms) isn’t necessarily the compliment it purports to be. That eerily pleasant surprise that her work is actually good reasserts stale assumptions that women’s poetry is by default weaker than men’s. Bird doesn’t want compliments of bravery: in part because women’s poetry shouldn’t need defending, and also because she sees her own life as ‘big and stupid and full of jokes.’

If we free Bird from confinement within the above adjectives, we begin to uncover the antidote at the core of her poetry: sentimentality. In her short lecture On Sentimentality, Bird identifies as a self-confessed hyper-sentimentalist, who believes that even staying alive at all is a sentimental act. Bird’s first collection of poetry reaches in this direction, but it is in Pamper Me where her sentimental love poetry blossoms. The titles of the poems are clues in themselves – witness ‘I want to get high my whole life with you’ and ‘I am so in love with you I want to lie down in the middle of a major public intersection and cry’. Bird’s final poem in the pamphlet (described on Twitter as the one thing she would save ‘if the internet was on fire’) is where her sentimental love poetry fully flourishes. Like some of her older poems, ‘Pyramid Scheme’ contains minor, circumstantial details – namely an actual conversation about pyramid schemes and economic prosperity – which, as we found earlier, reveals the moment that gave rise to the poem. However, unlike some of her older poems, ‘Pyramid Scheme’ doesn’t revert back to the trivial to undercut the opportunity for emotional payoff. It leaps over the boundary constructed by our expectations for “serious” women’s poetry, and asserts itself as a happy love poem that is equal parts sincere and ironic. When Bird compares love to a ‘cartoon black castle with a single bird flying over it’, she means that love is illustratable, clichéd and stupid – but also where the deepest moments of being alive occur. As the poem gains momentum, Bird walks us through a kind of ‘what I have learned’ list of sentiments, that relate both to love and poetry itself.

i used to think pain was meaningful
i no longer think pain is meaningful
i never learned anything good from being unhappy
i never learned anything good from being happy either

Love, in Bird’s poetry, is also a thing completely detached from a wider purpose. It doesn’t function as a means to teach people about “the meaning of life” – it is just a thing that exists and that we feel. We start to learn why Bird’s poetry subverts the Romantic notion of self-transcendence: it’s because she just doesn’t experience life that way, and so to write a poem following such a formula would feel false.

The closing line of ‘Pyramid Scheme’ reads ‘i have never been so happy’. It’s almost strange to receive such a sense of closure from Bird, whose poems frustratingly oscillate between poles of sincerity and irony, leaning on the structure of humour to continually fuel the suspension. But in the final poem, she offers a stylistically very simple line. She gives us chance to rest. Through the jokes, the sex, the good comebacks and the terrible ones, Bird’s poems suspend our emotional response, usually without offering alleviation. Bird admits that, in her early days of writing, she used to think that you would have to ‘work really hard’ in a poem to be able to arrive at the point where you could say you were happy in a way that carried all the intended depth and sincerity. The closing line confirms the advantages of saying what you mean in the simplest way possible. The general technique makes sense, and in theory, boiling down emotion to a simple ‘I feel x’ formulation seems straightforward.  But there is a skill in executing this style, and Bird wants us to know that saying things in the plainest way possible does not indicate amateurism, but is actually one of the hardest skills to get right.

It is easy to fake the language of sincerity, Bird admits, but it is almost impossible to fake sincerity itself. It would feel like something is missing. At the end of her talk at Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2017, Bird’s closing sentiment was that in order to write happy love poetry, love would have to change her, making her the kind of person who could say they were happy in a poem and mean it. As we reach the end of Pamper Me, we are assured that her love poems have in part grown out of what must be a beautiful relationship. From the poems about breakups to her latest gushing accounts of love, we feel close to her, and want to celebrate her happiness.

Reading Bird’s poetry as I reach the end of an English degree is somewhat strange. She seems to do everything I’ve been taught… but backwards. She insists that we read her work as personal, when literature as a discipline tells us to consider the ‘speaker’ in a poem rather than the poet themselves. She writes about love in a way that privileges its messiness rather than placing it on an inaccessible, quasi-divine pedestal. A turning point for many writers is discovering that one poet whose work makes you realise that poetry can be “like this” – whatever “this” is for you. Reading Bird’s poetry and getting to know her voice has instilled in me the clichéd (but entirely true) notion that expectations exist to be subverted. And after three years of formally studying poetry, she has left me excited by the prospect of writing sentimental Sad Girl poems without having to defend my purpose.