FLIPPING THE BIRD: NOTES ON HLB

I don’t dislike Hera Lindsay Bird’s poetry – It’s worth the devotion of some solemn thinking time to it. I take it that seriously. Playa respects game, and in the kangaroo courts of social media one has felt somewhat misrepresented. It’s easy to misconstrue description as hostility when trying to unpick postmodern irony, anti-aesthetic and literary persona, when, in the space of reading Bird’s poetry, I find myself trying to match it, sarcasm for sarcasm. It’s not particularly my cup of tea, but it deserves to exist and clearly has a readership. At worst, like Bill Manhire, it’s a matter of hits and misses; the hits knock you on your arse and the misses leave you shrugging. In the spirit of Richard Rorty’s ironic pragmatism, it’s not the end that matters but the means the author chooses to try and get there.

The persona that forms the kernel about which it is constructed is evidence of Bird’s skill and talent. Some of the extended metaphors are striking enough to linger in the memory for a long time after reading. It’s well constructed on the whole, and it captures the ephemerality and online Zeitgeist of “Instapoets”. This, though, is, perhaps, something of a liability when published in with the semi-permanence and exaggerated sacral prestige of book form by a university press, and is no doubt better in performance than on the page – and Bird, I think, knows this when she writes: “My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book / And I agree with her / I agree with her ………… in principle.”

Some influences are acknowledged; Mark Leidner, Dorothea Lasky, Chelsey Minnis – so far, so Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but Bird is, by far, the more conscious of the needs and frailties of her readers than most of these. Maybe I was slow to warm to it because it also reminds me a little of a cross between the manipulative faux-naïf schtickery of Thought Catalog alt-lit (remember Tao Lin? Let’s not), and a budget brand version of Cat Marnell’s confessional mode with less drugs and more Jezebel. There is, however, a method to this madness, and Bird is almost certainly affectionately satirising these self-mythologising pop-cultural voices with their fulsome self-regard where sincerity can’t easily be distinguished from façade.

It took me a while to find a way in. That’s nothing to do with frame of reference – we’re both small town-born queeresque xennials – but more to do with me being less cynical about the Western cultural project as a whole, I suspect. What I eventually realised is that Bird is breaking ground in the literary equivalent of the “Relational Aesthetics” that captivated visual arts from the late 1990s and is currently going out of fashion in favour of something less conceptual and more Romantic. Relational Aesthetics was the term coined by the French curator Nicholas Bourriaud in 1998 to describe art that takes its point of departure from the public and social rather than the private and independent. The aesthetic was insouciantly slapdash, DIY, irreverent of gallery pretensions and heavily invested in the culture and language of the internet.

I get, therefore, the postmodern conceit of describing the Emperor’s new clothes while self-consciously signalling that you’re in on the joke. I get that the carefully self-sabotaging (like a Jean Tinguely sculpture) banality, the recherché nihilism, the noncommittal polemics, the cliché aphoristic tone and formulaic nature are intentional (that’s what makes her a better poet than Rupi Kaur, who presumably isn’t in on the joke even if her agent, one suspects, is). Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” is older than I am, and one may look to parallels in the “Bad Painting” movement that emerged at the end of the 1970s with its low fi, demotic slacker ethos.

Bird has said as much herself, telling the Guardian, “Many people want poetry to be a streamlined vehicle for meaning, but I’m more interested in poetry that allows room for ugliness and error – I prefer that on an aesthetic level”. In terms of the mass-published word, however, it sounds suspiciously like the reverse psychology of Brer Rabbit asking not to be thrown into the briar patch, a marshalled air of faux vulnerability.

One may speak of the fey, angsty, performative ironico-cynico-trivial whiteness of it in the same breath as the cultural output of Miranda July, Wes Anderson, Lena Dunham, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Michael Cera (and vaguely wonder what would happen if a New Zealand publisher put that much effort into a Māori or Pasifika poet – or would that be too political?). Can such irony survive in a world that has become, gyre on gyre, intrinsically ironic? Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Is that why it so often reverts to self-conscious teen diary Heathers/Mean Girls sarcasm? Is it stuck between the rock of the illocutionary and the hard place of the perlocutory? What is the nature of the ambiguous relationship between author and poetic persona? What is personal and what is process?

These are all tropes and techniques that have been around forever. It’s good shit, if a little monotonous, and when you strip away the surreal extended metaphors and anachronistic teenage sarcasm (Bird was, after all, born in 1987, back in ye olde twentieth century, and it’s definitely sarcasm rather than irony), it’s often debatable whether there’s much left. Some of her best lines aren’t even hers – the title “Children are the orgasm of the world”, while appropriately contextualised as read off a tote bag, is specifically a misquote from yoga accessory manufacturer Lululemon’s corporate manifesto, “Children are the orgasm of life”. No doubt this actually does appear on tote bags and I wouldn’t dream of doubting this wasn’t inspired by actual experience. Found poetry is a noble tradition and Duchamp and the Dadaists would have approved.

Some of the poems are merely nostalgic, vaguely ekphrastic paraphrases of 1990s/early 2000s movie and TV show plots, such as “Bruce Willis you are the ghost” (no prizes for guessing that’s about M. Night Shyamalan’s only decent film, starting with the spoiler) and “Monica” which is about the sitcom Friends as a springboard for private meditations of suspect authenticity that go on for far too long (intentionally) and that deliberately and distractingly drops weirdly incongruous Eastern European imagery (parodies of the Homeric metaphor?) down like a screen whenever the reader looks like they might be getting a little too close. These function like the modest pan-up in a 1970s daytime TV soap opera or the stained-glass window in Keats’ “Saint Agnes’ Eve” (but more of poor old Keats later). It feels like generational hat-tipping or conspirational fan service, and that pseudo-intimacy is the gingerbread cottage that lures you in. The first taste is always free.

These are often the least successful of the poems, deliberately so, unless that’s some kind of tricksy pre-emptive strategic gaming of the system. What’s the point of putting poems that don’t work into a collection? Isn’t that slightly disrespectful to the critical reader? But then Bird isn’t interested in the critical reader – that’s secondary to the process. She’s not asking for permission, explaining is losing, and as W. H. Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen”. Tim Upperton said of “Monica” in North & South that “like Friends, the long-running sitcom it’s about, needs its own canned laughter to carry it”, and I’m inclined to agree. Stephanie Burt in the London Review of Books makes reference to stand-up comedy, and Sarah Silverman particularly, but even Silverman regrets the OTT edginess some of her early material.

There is an undeniable wit to the poems, a spark and sparkle, but Bird’s apotheosis to Helicon over many other undeniably talented young writers remains something of a puzzle. It’s good, certainly, but is it really better than the rest? We all have our own lists of the up and coming, after all. Or really, as one suspects, does its outward appearance just more tidily conform to a marketing agenda? It’s instructive to return to the example of Rupi Kaur, because there are discernible parallels. Chiari Giovanni in a piece on Buzzfeed notes that much of Kaur’s popularity is down to her disingenuously generalising the collective trauma of South Asian women into a marketable stereotypical persona, and asks:

Is her poetic engagement with trauma valid as a defence against any critique of her style? After all, honesty, vulnerability, and a willingness to tackle tough issues are valuable qualities in any writer, but content and form are ultimately separate, and one does not cancel out the other. In an age when increasing attention is being paid to narratives of female trauma — particularly those communicated in a confessional vein — it can easily lead to the exploitation and commodification of those who experience said trauma.
I don’t think it would be completely out of the question to apply a similar criticism to Bird. When her poems give the impression of staking out the intimate and confessional, there is little to suggest the raw authenticity of specific experiences, nor a concreteness in the language or imagery that might give the impression of nailing anything down to a time and place. Literary criticism of form and style is deflected with the magical forcefield of fourth wave feminism and a muddying of medium with content (as if those later incarnations of feminist theory weren’t themselves born of literary criticism – who would dare criticise the undeniable trauma of female experience?), or dragged into the mythopoesis of the Bird persona to become part of the narrative (nothing moves books like a juicy feud, especially with old, white men).

Rather, we are left with what feels like a generalised and calculated, protective pastiche or Baudrillardian simulacra of female vulnerability and anxiety, selling young women their own paranoid, projected feelings of shame and awkwardness back to them. Are we looking at the map or the territory? But maybe that ambiguity is the point, reparative – the paradox of the Wonder-Everywoman expectations of society versus the personal self-care of the fragile introvert. But where does introvert end and asshole begin? It may be a truism, but many millennial readers seem to have difficulty separating unreliable narrator from author – this essay, emerging from the outcry over a satirical piece of doggerel about faddish white Chinese food enthusiasts by Calvin Trillin, being the apotheosis of the mentality. Not that they can be blamed for their confusion in the era of “fake news” and the return to a neo-Ruskinian style of cultural criticism that demands an improving moral.

The hyperbolic melodrama and absurdity aren’t a bad things in themselves; they were often, after all, the bread and butter of Sylvia Plath, but then again that invites unenviable comparisons to Hyperion when you may only be a precocious satyr lobbing fairly low-stakes squibs at pale stale males safely in the grave who may or may not deserve it (videKeats is dead so fuck me from behind” – what did Keats ever do to her? I think they have a lot in common, he famously describing himself as a “rebel angel” – it is, to be fair, a very good poem, though it does lend itself too easily to parody).

Even Plath over-egged the self-mythologising from time to time; consider her appropriation of Holocaust imagery in “Daddy”, and Plath’s work was still often overshadowed by her autobiography, so you can understand Bird’s desire for distance. This is a delicate point in Bird’s career – will she or the shtick win in time for the sophomore volume? A David Bowie-esque reinvention is probably inevitable, and that’s fine, though will the millennial fan base stick around? I hope so.

However, when Bird says things like, “The people who seem to have a problem with oversharing are, well, let’s be honest, it’s older men, isn’t it? But it’s not for them,” one can’t help but feel the urge to mansplain that she’s not “oversharing” – she’s not sharing at all; quite the opposite: she’s giving us a straw man (an Aunt Sally), or perhaps even a tar baby, of angst. The literati might get it, but your average reader (à la Oprah’s A Million Little Pieces scandal) might not appreciate the subtlety. It costs, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, a lot of social and cultural capital to look this cheap. I'm really not sure what I feel about it.

If one may make, I think, a flattering comparison, it would be Elizabeth Bishop, who likewise strove to strip the authentically intimate from her poetry, keeping her complicated true life on the down low. Bird, on the other hand, distracts us from the presumably introverted “real Hera” with the hyperreal “HLB”, nihilistic, looming and lurid, loudly and proudly declaiming her bisexuality in the poem “Bisexuality” (hardly edgy to the literati in a liberal Western democracy in the second decade of the twenty-first century, which is perhaps the theme, and far from the most interesting factoid about Ms Bird), feeling like a sort of parody of Frank O’Hara’s “Homosexuality”, skewering already obsolete clichés while creating new ones, and signalling the deliberately confected bombast and fakery of the whole endeavour in the lines:

'There's such a thing as too much sexual freedom....'
Heidegger wrote that and he was bisexual too
It’s a little Borgesian pseudepigraphical flourish. As far as I know, Heidegger didn’t (though something of the sort might be intuited from Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz and I’m happy to be corrected), and as far as anyone knows, he wasn’t, but it’s a good name to drop, juicily problematic (like Werner von Braun, he’s a Nazi too useful to just flush), highbrow and random. But then randomicity permeates Bird’s poetry – it’s how she erases the autobiographical and expressive from her poetry.

And that’s perfectly ok. Andy Warhol’s art is like that too, avoiding all those Bloomian problems of the anxiety of influence by screenprinting newspaper photographs, or Gerhard Richter painting with a squeegee. It creates an aesthetic distance from the popular romantic nonsense people imagine about art, delays gratification, and was a pure ideal for the modernists. James Joyce describes it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is also an element, too, of what Louise Gluck described in Emily Dickinson as "hermetic coyness".

Some of Bird's poetry, influenced by Gregory Kan, uses an algorithm, putting words and phrases together at random. This has a noble enough tradition going back to the cut-ups of the Beats, William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Ted Berrigan rearranged the lines of his sonnets – we could probably go all the way back to Emily Dickinson’s peculiar syntax (Bird’s hyper-extended ellipses, like a line of rabbit scat trailing off into the distance, may allude to Dickinson’s peculiarities of punctuation, by way of Chelsey Minnis’ similar use of ellipses, or the alluded to dirty bit in an old novel by a prudish publishing house) – but those writers were consciously rearranging their lines for effect.

Bird’s texts feel more mechanical than that, flatter, explaining both the startlingly original, if two-dimensional, counterpoints in imagery and similes, and the discordant awkwardness that they are often set in like jewels in a lead turd in the best tradition of Renaissance emblemata. Recall Lautréamont’s umbrella and sewing machine getting jiggy on the dissection slab, and AI is going to put us all out of a job. That doesn’t have to be a pejorative observation – consider the French Decadent poets and their New York followers (Bird’s literary persona owes so much to Rimbaud and Frank O’Hara it hurts) and the pop artists who did that sort of thing to great effect and frisson. And in the end, the inclusion of the mechanical process comprehensively contradicts any protestations of “sharing” or “sentiment”.

When in 1955 W. H. Auden chose John Ashbury’s Some Trees over Frank O’Hara’s manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets series, Auden cautioned O’Hara about, “the great danger with any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue”. I am inclined to agree with Auden, but Bird is welcome to respond as O’Hara did (as Jeff Dolven reports in his new book Senses of Style from Chicago University Press), “I’d rather be dead than not have France around me like a rhinestone dog-collar” – a statement more visually concrete than surreal.

Bird plays these for hip McSweeney’s-esque laughs, but when the laughter dies, what then? It seems such a shame when Bird is capable of profound moments of sublimity such as this from “Love comes back”:

Love like Windows 95
The greatest, most user-friendly Windows of them all
Those four little panes of light
Like the stained glass of an ancient church
vibrating in the sunlit rubble
of the twentieth century
Perhaps the cynico-nihilistic façade stems from some kind of Clement Greenberg-esque phobia that conflates sentiment with sentimentality and kitsch (not something I understand because I think sentimentality and kitsch are earnest and genuine responses as a psychic defence against the existential crisis – they have their own integrity). Bird has said elsewhere that she is emphatically in the camp of sentimentality, but this is simply not borne out in her poetry. Authenticity is never cool, and Oscar Wilde would have denied it was art. But, always the paradox, the style is itself kitsch, or at least camp. Alas, shouting “boo” at the squares and philistines only goes so far, even for Rimbaud. Bird doesn’t seem to like people having sentimental responses to poetry, famously declaring at that Wintec Press Club lunch, “People are like, fuck poetry, but they’re willing to bust out some Philip Larkin for their mother’s funeral.” We hear through the grapevine that Mr Braunias was not amused.

Putting aside the lack of Larkin poems all that suitable for a mother’s funeral (“This Be the Verse” being an outside favourite), this seems strangely hostile and specific, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone busting out Bird for consolation at a moment of personal tragedy. Still, young people turn to Bird’s poetry for exactly those reasons – the poems distil the contemporary experiences they empathise with to their irreducible essence and polishes them up with literary lustre, for all they may have been fathered on pop culture by an algorithm. It accurately reflects the society of spectacle predicted by Walter Benjamin, where most experiences are manufactured and received in the “arcades” of capitalism and social media. Modern life is ersatz. In that sense Bird’s poetry is almost a kind of anthropological realism, but the poet seems torn over whether to signal the fact too unambiguously, playing dumb lest it alienate the fanbase, like Joanne Rowling hiding behind her asexual initials lest little boys be frightened off reading Harry Potter.

The present format appeals to a youth culture of collective on-line catharsis and sensitive kids who haven’t quite found their own voices yet (in another time they’d be listening to Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey and Bronsky Beat), but might also be read as problematic and exploitative. Is she taking the piss out of those edgy, emo kids? This is especially problematic when loaded into the machinery of the likes of Victoria University Press’ marketing, slick and connected, as is that of the IIML (the relationship between the two being similar to that of café owner René and the French Resistance whom he “does not know” in ‘Allo ‘Allo). One doesn't want to get all Baby-Factory-slightly-bitter-and-misogynist-Patrick-Evans-before-the-VUP-publishing-deal-for-Gifted on it, however.

Paul Shimmel articulated this rather better than I can, from the safety of Australia, in his discussion of the Bird phenomenon "No Country for Old Men" in the Winter 2017 issue of New Zealand Books, but it seems to me that the heavy marketing and PR boulder threatens to squeeze out the disposable mend-and-make-do subtleties from the poems like a fine and rare wine. But it is not alone – it collaborates with the grass roots (bordering on astroturfing) push from social media’s tight-knit and defensive clique of (mostly Wellington) social influencers taking the words at face value, and thence to the click-hungry Spinoff and heartbreakingly earnest Pantograph Punch. Someday someone will write it all up as a case study in twenty-first century viral marketing, and it works beautifully in a small country, particularly when you have a lot of media concentrated in the capital anyway. Remember to curate your circle of friends well - the YouTuber phenomenon seems an obvious model. One doesn’t begrudge Bird the success - it’s always nice to see poetry on the best seller lists, but familiarity breeds contempt and popularity may very well end up a liability in the next cycle.


Perhaps a more suitable analogy might be found in pop music, not least because Bird’s first collection is self-titled, rather precociously, like a debut album that someone was too timid to edit properly. In the end the effect, for me at least, is a little like Taylor Swift’s latest self-reinvention in the single “Look What You Made Me Do” – a manufactured and self-aware scrim of hyper-conscious and petty-but-recognisably-human-and-empathetic flaws, seemingly without purpose. But there is a purpose, possibly at our expense. That’s the secret depth of the poetry that Bird seems to be trying to shepherd us away from (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain) – the possibility that Bird is a Camusian absurdist simultaneously screaming into and laughing at the arbitrary abyss. 

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