The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for April – the frighteningly-talented, ultra-cool, Caroline Bird.
Caroline Bird was born in 1986 and grew up in Leeds before moving to London in 2001. Caroline won the Foyle Young Poet of the Year award two years running (1999, 2000), and was a winner of the Poetry London Competition in 2007. She has intermittently won more awards than we have room to list.
Caroline has had five collections of poetry published by Carcanet – Looking Through Letterboxes (published in 2002 when she was only 15), Trouble Came to the Turnip (2006), Watering Can (2009), The Hat-Stand Union (2013), and In These Days of Prohibition (2017), which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
Natalya: Caroline, you seem to have immersed yourself in everything from a very young age. I’m thinking here of how much incredible poetry you had already produced in your early teens. And then you went on to study some heavy-duty literature in university. Did it feel overwhelming to have all that success and dense studying colliding?
Caroline: I was thinking about this last night. I was at the award ceremony for the Ted Hughes Awards and the National Poetry Competition. It was held in this massive, very posh club called the Saville Club, with gilded walls and incredibly high ceilings. I was thinking about when I was 12 years old and I won the Foyle Young Poet of the Year award. I went on a coach to go to London. At the Royal Albert Hall, and they gave me this sticker to put on my chest before I walked in the room. Everyone was taking poetry so seriously. Before that I had only written poetry in my room on my beanbag chair. I never showed my friends. Occasionally I would show my dad. It was completely the opposite of public. It was all done in secret.
Natalya: With the Foyles award you were suddenly aware of this new world.
Caroline: Yes, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t take that sticker off my jumper for months. It was amazing, but scary as well. Part of winning that competition was being able to go on an Arvon course for a week. It was like this parallel universe where if you wrote poetry you were cool. I was told there to read as much as I possibly could. At the time I had recently saved £50, which was a tonne of money, to buy a portable TV because my dad used to take the wire out of the TV so we couldn’t watch it. But instead of buying the portable telly I bought poetry. I went into the bookshop and looked at all the spines. I didn’t know what was good, so I just picked the titles that I liked. One of them was Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs by Selima Hill. And I remember that I would shout at my parents because I wasn’t allowed to watch Trainspotting, but I was allowed to read Hill in the living room. I had access to all this rage, joy, lust, and regret.
Natalya: It was your public secret.
Caroline: Exactly. As a kid, you’re at the threshold of adult experiences, but you’re outside the house peering in a window. Suddenly I had permission to cross the threshold.
Natalya: As poets are we creating a secret code, somehow, where we veil the material of a film like Trainspotting with the intellectual study and training of literary devices.
Caroline: Yes, and you need some of that Trainspotting to nourish you. You need someone to acknowledge that those feelings exist. Otherwise you think, ‘This darkness only exists in me,’ and that makes it very heavy.
Natalya: Did that Arvon experience leaven the loneliness?
Caroline: Yes. Suddenly I had other people. I wrote non-stop, and by the time I was 14 I had 100 poems. I sent some off to PN Review, but I didn’t know that they were connected to a publisher. So, by the time I was 15 I had a book published by Carcanet. I called it Looking Through Letter Boxes because I was at that threshold, and I felt I was looking through to adult lives. Some of that work, I look back at and I feel proud because I could never write that now. Once you’ve experienced things for the first time, that’s it. By the time I got to university I felt poetry was my secret world, but it was where I was understood, and I understood it as well. It was something that made me feel free, rather than anxious.
Natalya: I was just writing about the wave of poetry the other day for a newspaper piece. Do you get the wave – where you’re anxious so you write a poem, which frees you; then you realize someone might read it and you feel naked and terrified again; but then it washes out to other readers who feel some sort of release? And, is the writing process kind of like that too – you start with your terror, but then you pull back and put that special code around it to restrain the poem, and then it releases you through that little secret code? The craft and discipline you build around it keeps you going back for another release.
Caroline: You’re right. That anxiety does go, but it comes back afterwards. But that’s what makes you write the next poem. You’re, like, ‘Oh, right. I’ve got it. I’ve caught hold of a piece of air. Wait. Of course I can’t hold air!’ And the attempt to hold it sends you back again.
Natalya: May I ask you about your experience with addiction, and how that has played out in your poetry – between secret worlds and public worlds.
Caroline: With my most recent book, most of these poems I was scribbling out at a table in rehab 10 years ago. Back then I couldn’t have been more ashamed about what I was writing. I was writing to criticise myself, to examine things that made me feel weak. And then it’s strange to be at the other side of a journey where you’re getting applause. Your shame is suddenly being celebrated. But I feel so lucky to be part of this profession that celebrates transformation. You’re able to take the thing that destroys you, and just by the nature of writing about it you make it constructive.
Natalya: That word shame comes up a lot, mostly when I speak with women and female-identifying poets. May I ask you about shame, sexuality and how coming out informed your writing? Did shame collide with coming out and addiction?
Caroline: I’m trying to think of where to begin. In rehab one of the exercises you have to do is to make a timeline of your life. I remember looking at my timeline and thinking, ‘Fucking hell, how did all of these things happen so early and all at the same time?’ I came out as gay when I was 13.
Natalya: Was your family supportive?
Caroline: My parents were very supportive. They already knew. But by the time I was 15 I had a book out, and I was also in a relationship with a 28-year-old woman who was an alcoholic. I was picking her up off the stairs, whilst doing my GCSEs, and then I was staying up all night writing poetry, because that was the only time I could write. Poetry sped everything up.
Natalya: Do you think that, no matter the home life or circumstance you come from, there is an inner-working of shame that leads us to addiction? There seems to be inevitable shame attached to gender, sexuality, sexual abuse, class division, socioeconomic division… It’s a miracle if teenagers survive.
Caroline: When I was 13 and still living in Leeds, my teacher waited until I was away one day and held a meeting with my class to ask them if anyone was traumatized by my coming out.
Natalya: Holy shit.
Caroline: Yeah, I know. I came back the next day and my mates were all, ‘You know we had a whole class about you yesterday?’ And it wasn’t like the teacher was doing it to make everyone be lovely to me.
Natalya: It was for her discomfort.
Caroline: Yeah, and there was always an assumption that I shouldn’t have said something. Even up until very recently, I could never just say something in passing at a dinner party about a girlfriend. You’d see a flicker in someone’s eye – even a supposedly supportive person – where they were thinking, ‘Oh, did you need to say that?’
Natalya: Whereas I never think twice about whether or not someone’s going to cringe if I say ‘my husband… my son…’ It’s as though you’re not considered to be a human being.
Caroline: I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately. All those little moments of cringe – they all feel like coming out. I’ve been working on a poem for this anthology about pride. I’ve been thinking about pride as a general human emotion compared to gay pride. We would never have had to be proud if it weren’t for people telling us to be ashamed. Pride has anger in it, and memories. It is the opposite of being in the basement of bars. Pride is you having to come out into the light. It’s a reaction to all that history of being told not to be seen. Coming out is coming up out of the ground where we were driven down. That does leave a sentiment of shame in you.
Natalya: I was thinking about your time in rehab, and I remembered doing those timeline exercises when I lived on a psychiatric ward. (I’ll edit this out to cloak my relentless narcissism, Caroline, don’t worry!) But when you spoke about being driven underground, I recalled some of the girls I lived with on the psych ward saying, ‘We’re the underbelly of society. Don’t you see that we’re naked in our gowns and this room has no windows!’ And suddenly I saw how we were huddled around a table making fucking papier-mâché napkin rings, supposedly being encouraged to talk about what nightmarish event had brought us to this ward, but we were still the separate, loony bin girls. And there was this sense of, ‘Do your timeline and talk about what horrible thing happened to you, but do it in coloured pencil crayons with no underpants on, and don’t show anyone outside of the craft room.’ Today I wonder if there’s even a twisted knot where there’s a shame about writing about the shame. Stop me Caroline!
Caroline: That was amazing. You should leave that in!
Natalya: Ha! I have to lie down on the floor for the rest of our conversation. And I’d like to add that I am in no way comparing homosexuality to psychiatric illness. I just meant to compare the idea that sexuality and mental health are both treated as attacks on the status quo.
Caroline: But, think about it. I went to rehab in the middle of the Arizonian desert. And that’s very useful because nobody can throw drugs over the wall, but you are very much outsiders. There’s all this shame in actually being there in the first place. There was this phrase that people kept using, which was ‘that last house on the block’ – that rehab was where you go when you can’t go anywhere else. You’re with all of these people that you have nothing in common with, but what you have in common is that you’re all on your knees.
Natalya: Yes, Caroline. It is the end.
Caroline: You can’t pretend anymore. And that end of the road is the place that poets thrive on. When I’m writing a poem, it’s trying to step out of that world, and look back in through the window. It’s holding the world at a distance, just enough that you can examine it afresh.
Natalya: When I read your poems – particularly from In These Days of Prohibition – I think often of the rehab or psych ward breakfast table. You know, where you’re all sitting there having coffee with no appetite and no sharp objects? The laughs I had around that table were the best laughs of my life, to this day. We would be, like, ‘Look at the state of us. This shit is dark. And this shit is hilarious.’ In your poems I see that sinister, sometimes grotesque, statement.
Caroline: Yes! I get asked a lot about this idea of humour in poetry. People always want to look at it as in opposition to sadness. For me the humour is ingrained in the sadness. The ridiculousness, and the bit of laughter, comes from that house at the end of the block. You’re all sitting there, going, ‘How did it come to this?’