FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you to it?
CAROLINE BIRD: When I was about eight, I wrote a poem about a man who could only go out in the summer and a woman who could only go out in the winter and their doomed relationship. Ha ha. I didn’t realise I was writing poems exactly, I just thought they were little stories without beginnings or middles or ends written in these skinny columns, and I’d write them in secret in this little alcove behind my bunk bed with a bean-bag stuffed into it. It felt truer than writing a diary because a diary just contained facts about my day which never seemed to actually describe my day.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
CB: When I was thirteen, I won The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and the prize was a week-long residential poetry course with the Arvon Foundation, and that course changed my life, no question. There’s something about being trapped in a house with a group of other young people who share (what you thought was) your unique weirdness that lets you surrender to being a writer. At the beginning writing is fuelled by permission more than anything else, and Arvon has permission oozing out of its brickwork. I realised that a parallel universe existed, where I could be a poet, where ‘being a poet’ was an actual real thing that people were allowed to be. Now I teach there regularly and I’m still just as obsessed with it as when I was thirteen. We need parallel universes where we can feel real.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean to you?
CB: One of the first poetry books I ever owned was The Forward Book of Poetry 1999. I must have read it at least ten times, cover to cover. I remember then buying Jo Shapcott’s My Life Asleep with my pocket money. It was so helpful to me, starting out, because I had such a hunger to devour poems but I also had no idea where to start looking and the anthology was like this flip-book of glimpses into these different, deliciously painful adult worlds that I was so impatient to see. The shortlisting hasn’t really hit me yet, I keep forgetting then remembering and then grinning. When I write poetry I trick myself into thinking that no one will ever read it, that it’s just going to exist in the privacy of my imagination and I don’t need to censor myself or pre-empt judgement; so it’s always a shock when I’m suddenly aware that the poems have been experienced by other brains, it’s like waking up from the poems – it feels vulnerable and exposing – and so I’m very grateful to wake up to this.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
CB: I wanted my writing process to mimic my subject matter – the epigraph (by Tomas Tranströmer) is ‘In the middle of the forest there is an unexpected clearing that can only be found by those who have gotten lost’ and this, for me, was both a perfect description of falling in love and also a writing prompt. With each first draft, no matter how long or short the finished draft would end up becoming, I deliberately wrote and wrote until the poem ‘got lost’. I wanted to truly write into the nothingness: if I reached what felt like the conclusion I deliberately carried on, overshooting the finale to find the ‘unexpected clearing’, the dark untamed place where the poem stops obeying the poet and instead starts speaking back. I had several different strategies for staying lost – one was giving myself a first line that I did not understand – for example when I wrote ‘The hotel was called Naphthalene Heights’ I literally did not know the meaning of the word Naphthalene (I’d stumbled across it in a James Tate poem I think) so I threw it down on the page and then I was simultaneously googling the meaning of the word as I was writing, so the confusion of the speaker mimicked my own confusion. Similarly, with ‘Nancy and the Torpedo’ when I wrote ‘Nancy found an entire torpedo in the forest’ I had no idea who Nancy was or what on earth a torpedo was doing in a forest so the characters in the poem were responding to the situation at the same time as me. I’m fascinated with the idea that poetry is about inserting a mystery into the reader’s life not clarifying one; that by the end of a poem you should know less than you did when you started, that a poem is a kind of amnesia injection that makes the immediate world strange again – I work hard at having no clue where I’m going. Of course, the irony is, when you get lost, your subconscious takes over and the poems then develop a kind of thematic synergy with each other which seems intentional; the road keeps leading you back to the same places and pains.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
CB: It’s so interesting how poetry changes its own meaning in different lights completely independent from its author. When I wrote the book, ‘The Air Year’ referred to the first year of a relationship, ‘the anniversary prior to paper’ when everything is turned upside down, up in the air, breathless, uncertain, exciting but perilous, transformative but unstable, and you feel like a cartoon character the moment after they sprint off the cliff, when their little legs are still running in the air, just before they realise their own mortality. That’s what I thought ‘The Air Year’ meant. However now of course we all find ourselves in a kind of universal Air Year, suspended in time and running on a road that doesn’t seem to exist yet under our feet. We’re all permanently preoccupied with the invisible, and the temporary – we’ve all been flung into space.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
CB: I think most poets have a ‘first poetry love’ that never leaves them, that imprinted itself when their brains and hearts were like wet cement. Mine is James Tate. He’s been my favourite poet since I was thirteen and that hasn’t changed. As I grow (then shrink then grow again then shrink again) as a poet I meet his poems with new eyes, and learn (and unlearn) more. Anyone who knows me knows I can literally talk about him all day until even the wallpaper gets tired of hearing about it. I also love Selima Hill, she’s a genius. Other poets I love are Jane Yeh, Ada Limon, Richard Hugo, Mona Arshi, Rachel Long, Luke Kennard… I could go on for ages.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
CB: I don’t know, I go through ‘poetry seasons’ where I write all day and night for about six months as if my pen and life is on fire, and then it calms down again for a bit while I shed my skin and become a slightly different person, then the season returns. I’m between seasons at the moment but the itch is starting to come back.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
CB: Read a hundred times more than you write – this was the advice Ann Samson gave me on my first Arvon course when I was thirteen (everything happened when I was thirteen it seems). Don’t try and ‘know’ or ‘say’ anything, follow the images until the poem starts revealing things to you not the other way around. My favourite quote (by Wisława Szymborska) is ‘whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know’ and I reckon that’s the best advice there is.