Rebecca Bird was born in 1991 and is co-editor of Hinterland Journal of Contemporary Poetry. She also contributes articles to Planet Ivy and reviews for Sphinx. Rebecca’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in magazines including Iota, The New Writer, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Bakery and Envoi, and in the anthology Enemies Within (Five Leaves, 2014.) Rebecca is currently studying and working in Leicester.
I was struck first by the energy, economy and sparkling clarity of the imagery of Rebecca’s poetry during a performance at one of Leicester’s regular Shindig! poetry nights, and was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for this series. I knew her answers would fizzle with the combination of intelligence, humour and devotion to poetry which Rebecca displays in conversation.
Her poems have been described by Ian Parks as having ‘… a tensile quality to them, as if the language has been pulled to the point of breaking; a new-minted quality to the images that makes the experience of reading them at once so challenging and rewarding. She is an excellent lyric poet, attuned to all the possibilities of what can be done in that form; an outstanding new talent marked by its intelligence, subtlety, and confidence”
and by Simon Perril as having “genuine lyrical flair, vivid image construction(and) inventive phrasing”
Hi Rebecca. I know you write prose fiction as well as poetry but that you have primarily been published as a poet up to now. What draws and excites you about poetry in particular?
Coleridge said poetry is the best words in the best order and I suppose part of me will always favour it as a form of literature for that reason. To me, poetry is molecular chemistry: the intricate combination of so many different ingredients and how they are used to create something more than the sum of the parts. Poetry excites me because it is the espresso to prose’s filter coffee: more extracted in less time. Poets can’t fool anybody that the writing gets better after the first chapter: every word has to be agonized over. Every word has to capture and relate. This may be the reason no one says that everyone has a poem inside of them. Poets are all in some kind of agony; every single one.
Do you have a sense of being of or from a new generation of poets or do you see yourself as part of a timeless continuum? Are there any writers, past or present that you particularly admire?
Oh gosh. What a question. I think new poetry (2010 onwards) is closely linked with the internet age. Nowadays, the previous taxonomies of British poetry and American poetry have been muddled by the fact that vast amounts of poems are available to anyone who wants to look for them. I personally became greatly influenced by Anne Sexton and Alice Fulton without getting my feet wet in the Atlantic. There is a long list of poets I admire and adore and an even longer list of poems I admire and adore as well: I can’t really give any special mentions but I will say that the extremely talented poet Maria Taylor was the first person to look at my work and say: ‘So why aren’t you doing anything with this?’
Congratulations on the recent launch of the impressive Hinterland magazine which you edit with Ian Parks. The web edition is brilliantly designed and I was delighted to see that there are plans for a print version. What prompted you to start the magazine? What have you learned about editing so far? What catches your eye when looking at submissions? What are the best things about being an editor and what, if anything, do you find difficult about the role?
Thank you for the compliments. Ian and I started it in the same way all great things are started: we were in the pub and we thought we could have a go. I can’t tell you what Hinterland represents per se: we are truly just in it for the noble art of publishing amazing poems. We’ve published and turned down established poets, newcomers, friends, Brits, Americans, students… for us it is all about the poetry.
Concerning editing, I tend to scan first line, last line first because if they’re not very good, the rest of the poem won’t be either. Metaphor catches my eye actually. (What can I say, I’m old school.) Small problems such as slightly off-line endings don’t tend to prejudice me against the poem: I can advise the poet about them, but metaphor is really the be-all, end-all.
The best thing about being an editor is to wake up to an inbox of poems that you’ll be one of the first to see. I think Ian and I both make the role of poetry editor so similar to a prospector in the gold rush. Occasionally, we’ll text each other happy and animated at the amount of gold that has washed up in our river.
I know everyone says this, but it really is hard to say no to someone: to reject a piece. We both need a good five minutes to ourselves with a glass of Bourbon after rejecting. You think to yourself: this is someone’s work and good or bad they’ve poured every ounce of their agony into it. It is very hard.
The poems of yours that I’ve read are very distinctive and I feel that although I’ve only seen a few I’d have a good chance of recognizing a poem of yours. I wondered how long you have been writing and if your style has changed much since you started or if your earlier poems quite different.
My early poems were abstract, sentimental potato waffles about nothing in particular, but there were hints at something in them, so I just cut away the rubbish and got straight to the something. My style is pretty weird compared to most contemporary poets. A friend once said that my writing isn’t ‘afraid to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and part of that I think is rooted in that I like poems about real things that occasionally squelch in the muds of the surreal. Life is sometimes that way. I’ve been writing for a very long time – I used to design the dust jackets of all my future books when I was quite wee. I’ve only been getting published in the last two years, though. I put this down to the fact that the amount of work going into my writing has quintupled.
Selima Hill has said that talent is only 10 per cent of being a poet and that the rest is obsession. Do you agree? Do you think you that your interest in poetry could be described as an obsession, and if so, are you happy to be obsessed?
Selima forgets the 5% stationery fetishism.
I don’t know about talent in writing: I think a curious and intuitive mind is a big plus, but I would say being a writer/poet is 99.9% obsession. John Holt said ‘we learn by doing, there is no other way’. There really really really really really is no other way. If you don’t read or write, you’re not a writer. The people that think writing ability is innate are bonkers. What if a surgeon didn’t go to medical school? You think he’d do a good job on your appendix based on his aptitude to be a surgeon?
I wanted to be a writer, so I wrote and I haven’t stopped. My partner wants to be an oncologist, so she’s learning and practicing and hasn’t stopped. Are we talented? We’ll spend the rest of our lives guessing. Are we getting somewhere, though? Yes. Always yes.
3 poems by Rebecca Bird.
I still blush around you,
but I call it mechanical.
Your gold spittle,
your bittersweet tooth
are lead shot left in meat
to break my jaw.
And darling, it is you,
it is you. You make my name
a syllable storm.
When you salt me,
under your flyweight rut,
Remember – when the beef
was too pink, the gravy
too thick? You dipped
my face in blackout.
In your closed palm,
the crumbs of a china shop.
Published in the Bakery, October 2012
Concerning the night
you broke a leg falling from your bicyclette:
Plaster of Paris is better left on
all the buildings of Paris.
Paris is better left on
all the buildings of bones.
And I suppose I realise now:
the poster of Endurance above your bed
like a stain – was more than that
the ship, knee-deep,
in a lacerated sea
healed over like scar tissue.
I used to trace her with my fingers
the true unsinkable, stopping
under the milk-shimmer
of gelatin silver pack ice.
The rig, the bow, the stern,
cast snow mosquitos in amber.
When you slipped through the river,
cracked through hard caramel,
I traced you too.
The contour of cheekbone
wearing the winter
like a stage weight.
Published in Envoi 164, February 2013