Sunday, April 15, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Hera Lindsay Bird

Hera Lindsay Bird is a writer from Wellington, New Zealand. Her debut poetry collection Hera Lindsay Bird won the 2017 Jessie McKay prize for best first book. She is also the recipient of the 2011 Adam Prize, the 2017 Sarah Broom Prize and the 2017 recipient of an Arts Foundation New Generation Award. Her second chapbook Pamper Me To Hell & Back was published with The Poetry Business in 2018. 

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book changed my life in lots of ways. I got to travel overseas to literary festivals in countries I’d never visited - Mexico, Canada, Scotland and I have a few more international trips coming up this year. This is a big deal if you live as far away as I do. I also got to meet and read with many of my heroes like Eileen Myles, Kim Addonizio, Mark Doty, Patricia Lockwood. I still work in retail to pay the bills, but money has become easier. Now, for instance, I can go to the dentist.

My chapbook is pretty similar to my first book – I think of it as a continuation, but it’s a little bit freer and comes from a more concentrated period of time. I don’t know how other people will read it, but to me it’s more joyful and less structured

I think the biggest difference is knowing what it takes to complete something. Before you have written a book, the idea of writing a book seems impossible, but as soon as you publish something it’s like, oh, ok, I just need to work a little harder.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

It could have been any of the three, but poetry suited me because it allowed me to write personally about my life, not worry about narrative structure and to show off enormously. I’d like to write fiction and non-fiction too, but poetry was an easy way in for someone with a short attention span. I also get a weird kick out of the stuffiness of the medium, and it feels more satisfying to break the rules of poetry than it does to break the rules of fiction, because everyone gets so butthurt about it.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It’s changed a lot over the years. Lots of my earlier poems were more formally constructed, using laborious meddling with randomization processes & cut-ups – which is how I taught myself to create metaphors, but eventually I stopped and am trying to going more on my nerve these days. I rewrite something constantly while I’m working on it, so the first draft is also often the final draft, but only because I’ve reworked each line so many times in the initial stages. I think that a poem works best when each line follows on from the last, and builds a kind of momentum. To get that momentum, I have to work line by line.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I only ever thought of my book as a book, when I was choosing the cover photo. I’m not very interested in concept poetry, and I have a narrow range of interests, so my books come out sounding thematically linked anyway. For me, each piece has to stand alone.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to hate doing poetry readings, because I usually hate attending poetry readings and you should do unto others etc etc. My preference is to consume art alone in my room. It’s not specific to poetry. I just like my house. I enjoy reading sometimes, but only when I’m performing particular pieces.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I would never think about it like that, but I suppose all writers do. My questions around this recent book were: how do you write honestly about happiness? I know that sounds like an Eat Pray Love question but it was interesting to me. Sometimes I feel like Frank O’Hara was the only happy poet. It’s always been easy to magnify suffering & pain in poetry, because it feels so intrinsic to the form, but I found myself in a period of life where things were going really well, and I had to learn how to be honest about that too, which is harder than it sounds! I don’t think most good poetry answers questions though.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I don’t think the role of the writer is any different to the role of the citizen.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I revised my first book so heavily, that by the time I sent it to a publisher it didn’t get changed much. I was lucky to have Ashleigh Young, a writer and friend as my editor, and I usually accept all her suggestions. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Writing advice is so arbitrary – the person whose advice makes the most sense to me is George Saunders, but people write in different ways. The best advice is just common sense, but I’m going to say it anyway, which is learn to work in the way that feels most natural to you. I spent years trying to change my processes based on advice that worked for other people, but I eventually gave it all up when I realised my writing worked best when I just ignored it and did what felt right.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I work in retail most days, so I don’t have much of a routine. I write when I have the energy. That’s one of the luxuries of writing poetry I guess.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I switch between reading my favourite books and books by my contemporaries that I don’t like. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. The books I love fill me with excitement, and the books I don’t like make me feel competitive. Sometimes you have to make your emotional shortcomings work for you.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I’ve moved so often I don’t have an honest answer to that question. Maybe my mother’s perfume – Elizabeth Arden’s sunflowers.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Yes, of course. Most of the best writing happens outside of poetry. I love High Maintenance the tv show, Stewart Lee’s stand-up comedy, lyrics from people like Aldous Harding. I’ve been watching a lot of youtube streamers at the moment – Video Game Dunkey is one of the funniest people alive.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Solve a MURDER on a TRAIN. Also I really want to go to Minnesota. Does anyone want to bring me to Minnesota? There are some other writing related things I want to do, but I can’t say them without getting the emotional satisfaction that comes from saying you are doing a thing you haven’t actually done, and then forgetting you have to do it.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s always felt obvious to me. There are other things I love, like music, that I don’t have a propensity for. One of the great advantages of writing is that you can be a total control freak, and you don’t have to play nicely with others. Most of the other art forms I love involve a certain amount of collaboration, so I don’t know if I would be happy.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

You love what is familiar & comforting to you, and you love what you’re told you’re good at. I grew up in a house full of books, and my teachers and parents encouraged me to write. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really that basic, and usually, I have to concede that it is. It feels more mystical than that sometimes, but then I have to remember that mysticism is usually good luck with more jewellery on.  

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The last great film I saw was Lady Bird.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I never answer that question sorry!

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