The Millennial Poet Writing About Sex, Heartbreak & Monica Geller

Photo: Courtesy Of Penguin Random House
She's been hailed as "the most arresting and original new young poet" by Britain's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, can count Lorde among her fans and is one of the new generation of "Instapoets" taking social media by storm. Yet Hera Lindsay Bird is still just 30 years old and juggles her writing career with a job at a bookshop in her native New Zealand.
Bird's much-celebrated, self-titled debut collection flew off the shelves when it came out in her home country back in 2016 and was released in the UK last November with Penguin Random House. Her work has become known for its unique blend of rich, elaborate metaphors and casual (often sexual) obscenity – a charming juxtaposition typified by the viral poems "Monica" (a five-page rant about the Friends character-cum-love poem), "Hate" and the unforgettably named "Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind", which all feature in the collection.
Bird began writing poetry as a child but it wasn't until her undergraduate writing course, run by someone from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who introduced her to a roster of contemporary US poets, that she got serious. Currently taking a short break from poetry to write fiction, Refinery29 talked to Bird about romance, sexuality and Monica Geller.
You’ve called writing poetry "the cheapest kind of therapy" – do you find it cathartic?
Yes, it can be cathartic, but most of my poetry comes from a place of romantic love and humour rather than deep-seated psychological traumas or whatever. I’m actually sickeningly cheerful most of the time, but being able to write things out is absolutely a productive way to transform jealousies and griefs, or at least milk them for their literary byproducts.
What's your writing process – what inspires you? How long does each poem take you to write? And where do you like to write?
My writing process has changed a lot over the course of the last few years since my first book was published. It used to be a lot more meticulous and I'd play around with text generators and write very slowly, trying to build up these extravagant metaphors, but these days I’m more interested in being a little more flippant and off the cuff. I’m writing fiction at the moment and that, however, is painstakingly slow. I rewrite each piece I’m working on from the beginning every time I edit, so it's a laborious process, but it’s the easiest way to make yourself slow down and pay attention.
You’ve described yourself as a romantic and most of your poems are about love. At what point in a relationship do you tend to write poetry about it, and what impact does this have on the relationship?
Constantly, throughout, but I’ve also been writing the same love poems for the same person for a couple of years now. Some of the earlier love poems in the first book were five years in the making and the person I was with changed regularly enough that they didn’t really feel specific to any one person. Sometimes I can’t even remember who they were initially written for, which is a dreadful thing to say. But all the love poems in the new chapbook are very specifically about one person, who, luckily is also a writer and therefore understanding. I don’t know what impact it has on my relationships – but it’s also so integral to my life that it feels redundant to speculate.

Sometimes it’s best to just walk around in pure annihilation and watch six seasons of 'The Nanny' instead of trying to make your pain seem profound.

How has poetry helped you get over relationships and deal with heartbreak? How do you write with a broken heart? And how would you deal with those feelings if you couldn’t write about them?
I remember once reading a scientific study where they were trying to prove the efficacy of journal-writing for dealing with difficult feelings. They assumed the study would show that writing about pain regularly would help people work through things, but instead the study showed the exact opposite. I think about that study sometimes but I also, on a deeper level, don’t really care.
I’m actually fairly uninterested in heartbreak – I usually find that falling in love again is the best cure, better than writing. But I like to document that stuff too, although usually my "heartbreak" poems were written well before or after the actual event. Sometimes it’s best to just walk around in pure annihilation and watch six seasons of The Nanny instead of trying to make your pain seem profound. I actually find heartbreak to be a deeply boring experience, more like an intense psychological flu than anything, so I just listen to lots of music, put being productive to one side and wait for it to pass.
Some of your poems are quite sexually explicit – in "Having Sex In A Field In 2013" you refer to "a stranger [with] his tongue between [your] legs", while "Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind" is peppered with sexual references. Why did you decide to write about the nitty-gritty of sex? Were you aiming to make some kind of statement?
Most of the sex in my book actually takes place in the context of jokes! People sometimes talk about my book like it’s Anaïs Nin, but most of the explicit references are just filthy one-liners. Sex is funny to me, because I have the sense of humour of a 10-year-old girl. To me, it wasn’t conscious, but it’s part of the human experience just like everything else, and it felt disingenuous to leave it out. But there are just as many helicopters exploding and weird meat references and TV shows as there is sex in my book. I just think people pay more attention to it, because people are horny and perhaps it’s slightly more rare in the context of contemporary poetry. But look at Catullus! He was writing far dirtier stuff thousands of years ago.

The things that upset the real people in your book are never what you think they'll be and are almost impossible to predict.

I'm intentionally provocative sometimes­, but I also think an undue amount of attention gets paid to the sex in what is really a very nostalgic, straightforward book of love poems. I could get into the reasons for why that is, but I think it’s too obvious to say.
How does it feel to have the world, and presumably your family and friends, know your innermost romantic and sexual thoughts? Do you ever regret anything you’ve written?
I only regret things I’ve written if I retrospectively decide the poem is weak, never due to the content. People who write autobiographically will always tell you the same thing, but it happens to be absolutely true so I will parrot it, that the things that upset the real people in your book are never what you think they'll be, and are almost impossible to predict and therefore prevent. I have a lower amount of shame than other people, but a lot of that is due to having an exceptionally liberal family with a great sense of humour. I work in a bookshop, most of my friends are writers or artists and I know I'm extremely lucky in this regard, because it has allowed me to write whatever I like without any fear of social repercussions. I know a lot of other people don’t have it that easy.

Bisexuality has a rich and wonderful history of histrionic, flighty and badly behaved women, and I wanted to celebrate those women.

Honestly, I forget that people actually read my work, so I think there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance at play where writing these fairly private things doesn’t actually feel public in any real sense. But it has to be said, even in writing that feels intimate and private, there are elements of performativity and selective editing – so I’m always in control of the information readers receive about my life. What the reader is getting is always a very carefully constructed kind of intimacy.
In "Bisexuality" you write about your sexuality and the stigma around being bisexual. What were you hoping to achieve with the poem and what do you make of the way it's been received?
Photo: Courtesy Of Penguin Random House
I wrote that poem at a time when there was a huge public backlash against the stereotyping of bisexuality, which, ultimately is fair enough, but which I found dreadfully earnest. It’s boring to have to be constantly policing people’s perceptions of you, from both the straight and queer community, and sometimes it’s more fun to get thoroughly on board and beat people at their own game. Sometimes it’s better to hijack the train of public opinion and drive it straight into a river. I thought, instead of earnestly arguing on message boards about inclusion, whatever bad things you think about me, fine, let me make them worse. Bisexuality has a rich and wonderful history of histrionic, flighty and badly behaved women, and I wanted to celebrate those women too, the hedonists and degenerates and socialites.
How do you feel about being dubbed an "Instapoet" and being named alongside a roster of other female poets? As far as I can see you're not even on Instagram, although you are on Twitter.
I only have a private Instagram account and every time someone writes about me as an Instapoet I get all these requests I then have to turn down. I don’t think the term "Instapoet" is Instagram-specific anymore, it has more to do with online dissemination of work, but honestly I find it dumb, and fairly sexist. Most of my work is longform and traditional, but because of how it’s shared it gets lumped into this weird amorphous category that means very little, but I guess you could say that about most literary categorisations. It’s basically just a marketing angle, so I usually just sigh extravagantly and then let it go.

There's a perception that the poetry on the internet is exclusively teenage girls writing about their menstrual cycles.

What impact has the internet had on poetry?
I grew up when the internet was just taking hold, so I can’t really imagine another world. Nothing is every truly democratic, but the internet has made it so much easier for people to share their work, and it has changed what it's possible to both read or write. More people have access to poetry than ever before, which can only be a good thing, and I find most of the people who don’t think so are threatened by the perceived infiltration of their boring and elitist hobby. There's also a perception that the poetry on the internet is exclusively teenage girls writing about their menstrual cycles, but that’s deranged. Everything exists on the internet, which is the whole point of the internet. How brilliant is it to be able to read out-of-print Joe Brainard books in the middle of Copenhagen, or check what Rimbaud said on your phone in the middle of a crowded airport?
How does it make you feel when your work goes viral? Your poem "Monica" struck a chord online. And how should we interpret it when certain things go viral over others?
I felt uneasy about the "Monica" poem at first, because I didn’t think it was one of my best, but after some time has passed, I've come to understand what people warmed to in that poem, and it wasn’t what I initially thought it was. The experience of that poem going viral allowed me to think more critically about my own writing. In general, my poetry aside, I think the public are by and large good critics. I use Tumblr to read a lot of 20th-century poetry and my favourite works are extremely well represented and intelligently discussed. There is this idea that public consensus can only be reductive and limiting, but often I find myself surprised by how good the collective subconscious is at selecting and championing brilliant pieces of writing, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the lowest common denominator.
Most of my poems that get shared now are generally the poems I feel are my best. It’s true that the internet sometimes prioritises the explicit or controversial, but that’s an unavoidable facet of human nature that long predates internet culture. I also think it’s one of those reductive and often repeated beliefs held by people who are nostalgic for the world of paper but actually spend very little time online. If they were genuinely engaged in contemporary literature circles on social media, they would find it’s not the case.

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