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How Bergeron Fellow Caroline Bird creates, destroys loneliness through poetry

Ruby Rogers
Caroline Bird speaks to students in Pride Club during a lunch meeting March 1. Bird spent a week at the school Feb. 26 to March 1 as this year’s Bergeron Fellow.

“Do you hear sex noises through the wall when standing in a field?”

The library was silent after award-winning poet and this year’s Bergeron Fellow Caroline Bird concluded her first poem, holding the attention of the audience of students, parents, faculty and alumni who came for the annual Bergeron Lecture Feb. 29.

Bird had just finished reading a piece titled “Patient Intake Questionnaire,” inspired by her time at a rehabilitation center when she decoded what the employees were really trying to find out about her. The crafted structure of a poem is what Bird calls the “game” of it, and, for this piece, the game was one question after another, leaving the audience unsure of where the final question mark might land until silence eventually gave way to applause.

“The air after a poem is like white space, and you never know how it’s going to be inhabited,” she said. “The silence is always different.”

In the expanse of a blank page or the held attentiveness of a seated crowd, Bird finds meaning that is invisible to the naked eye. She communicates a raw emotion, pure in its attempt to be authentic to the way we feel without requiring a concrete explanation.

“I love poetry because it seems to hold all the mystery and not pretend that life can be paraphrased or summed up,” she said. “We’re under such pressure all the time to justify things, to explain, to clarify… Poetry breaks all of those rules.”

It’s not a stretch for her to consider poems as life forms that demand creation, partly because they reciprocate the human tendency to ask questions. Just as poems ask something of readers, the audience must also ask questions in return. So often, Bird said, we are asking the wrong ones.

“Poetry is the one art form that people always try to interrogate and go like, ‘What does this mean?’ Right, but that’s the wrong question to ask a poem, just as it’s the wrong question to ask, you know, the ocean or a face or a tree,” she said. “It won’t answer you.”

When you’re sitting right in a poem for hours and hours, you kind of do feel like you’re speaking to someone.

— Caroline Bird

Thus, the creator is left to wrestle with the solitary task of bringing a poem to life. Although, Bird said, the isolation of writing is simultaneously a necessary means of untethered connection.

“It’s different from a sad loneliness,” she said. “It’s like a kind of ‘peopled’ loneliness because when you’re sitting right in a poem for hours and hours, you kind of do feel like you’re speaking to someone.”

A quote that has stuck with her is in the words of Frank O’Hara: “The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” Bird said it speaks to the aspiration of a poet to explain something from arm’s length.

“It’s almost like you’re leaning through the window of the page, kind of shouting down to some street, but you can’t, you can’t really see people’s faces,” she said. “You get a sense that you’re kind of trying to communicate something. It’s very different. It’s a different type of solitude.”

O’Hara was an art curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York throughout the 1950s and 60s, occupied with spinning conversations of art, music and dance. According to the Poetry Foundation, he was not only known for the company he kept among artists but also for the ease with which he wrote, evident in the creation of this quote that was pulled from “Personism: A Manifesto,” which he was fabled to have written in an hour as his publisher was en route to retrieve it.

O’Hara wrote extensively on loneliness, publishing works like “How to Get There” and “Personal Poem.” In “Personal Poem,” O’Hara names several poets he knew and whether he liked them, dousing each stanza in an enjambement that evinces the narrator’s uncertainty. The ending is hung, suspended without any punctuation to indicate a conclusion: “I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi / and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go / back to work happy at the thought possibly so”

Bird believes solitude and real loneliness are different. At least, she said, this is the truth with writing.

“It’s tinged with a loneliness, but also, you’re constructing something from it,” she said. “There’s an alchemy in poetry where you can take what feels like it’s destroying you and turn it into something.”

For Bird, poetry is a calling that has always made sense to her “because it didn’t have to make sense.” She writes late into the night on scraps of paper, sometimes forgetting to eat because her only focus is figuring out what the poem needs to say.

“You just feel like the poem needs to exist, and you have to figure out a way to make it work,” she said. “Every poem is like an obsession where it’s almost like being some detective in some ITV late night drama where you’re like, ‘I will crack this case.’ You know, all your loved ones are saying, ‘You’re spending too much time on this, Bob,’ whatever, but that’s because the poem just won’t leave you alone.”

It’s an obsession that must be halted when she is between work. Between poetry books, Bird’s schedule changes to adapt to playwriting, which doesn’t seize control like poetry. 

Bird turns to playwriting, perhaps because – immediately following up by affirming this as a joke – she “might just have an aversion to making any money at all.”

However, she was drawn to playwriting for a similar pursuit of truth and the unspoken without the “insular” nature of poetry.

You’re always trying to communicate and hide simultaneously when you’re writing a poem.

— Caroline Bird

For example, Bird said to picture three characters in a scene, all of which are wrong. But, “the truth is somewhere in the middle,” and if it’s said aloud instead of allowing the characters to stay “dancing” around it, the scene is destroyed. 

She said the same applies to poetry.

“You have to hold it, but you can’t,” she said. “You can’t try and sum it up because then the poem kind of wakes up from itself and gets ruined.”

In addition to playwriting and swimming in her time between collections, Bird said she continues reading poetry to enrich her own approach to writing.

“The more you read, the more you can hear yourself in comparison,” she said. “People often worry that if they read a lot of poems, or other poets, somehow, they’re gonna start copying them, or they’ll be influenced, and, actually, that’s not how it works. It’s almost like you fill your head full of the possibilities of language and imagery, and so then when a poem comes, you feel more equipped.”

As Bird revises her poems, she said every decision is made to release emotion differently, starting from the first draft. 

“If it ends, and you think well, I already knew that, I already knew I felt that, then it’s not finished,” she said. “If you don’t have a discovery in the first draft, you can rewrite it as many times as you’d like, make it really, really neat, but it’ll just be like giving mouth to mouth to a log. It won’t work.”

Using metaphor and imagery to construct the words on the page, Bird said a poem’s intentionality is both the creator’s attempt to express feeling and stay out of sight. 

“You’re always trying to communicate and hide simultaneously when you’re writing a poem,” she said. “You’re taking whatever’s inside you and decanting it into an idea and disguising it.”

Bird compared writing poetry to the feeling of chasing after unrequited romance, attributing her ability to bring an authentic draft to life as “being able to surrender” herself to writing. 

“You will spend a lot of time just going in the wrong direction,” she said. “Poetry doesn’t care about your time. Poetry is a bit like, you know, being in love with someone who just spends all day laughing at you.”

To Bird, poetry does not fit into a binary of like or dislike. She said poetry should be considered an individual taste akin to music, in the way that no one decides they dislike one song and write off the medium entirely. 

With that considered, Bird said people who love poetry “kind of hate 95% of it,” but the remaining 5% is writing “you jump in front of a bus for, you love it so much.”

And, as a writer herself, Bird said exploring the work of other poets makes her feel less isolated during lengthy periods of introspection.

“They make you feel less lonely because writing is really a lonely job most of the time, and it happens in the privacy of your imagination,” she said. “So, you need some poets to keep you company who are doing the same thing as you at their lonely little desks.”

Bird pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket, adding to two sheets that already lay on the desk. They were covered from top to bottom in scrawled handwriting, columns of names that left no white space on the page. She said she had just been thinking of poets off the top of her head and came up with 400 in between sessions with students and teachers during her visit to the school.

“We forget that there are as many ways of being a poet as there are people who want to be poets,” she said. 

We can’t quite grasp ourselves, and that’s what keeps us writing.

— Caroline Bird

Before beginning to write her upcoming book, “Ambush at Still Lake,” Bird took her longest hiatus after publishing “The Air Year.” She stopped writing poetry for two years, in part due to the intimidation of returning to the same blank page with a new direction. 

She said she had been telling herself, “That book was written by past me. Present me couldn’t do that.”

The public launch for “The Air Year” was canceled amid the COVID-19 lockdown, so Bird celebrated in her home with just her and her wife. They laid out sandwiches, and Bird read her poems aloud to her solitary audience member.

“No one saw it, it wasn’t videoed,” she said. “It was just between us.”

The success of “The Air Year” as winner of the 2020 Forward Prize and one of The Guardian’s books of the year changed her approach to writing as she said it was “a bit confusing for a poet to suddenly feel popular.” Bird found herself in an interim period where her old obsession was fulfilled, and the new one – one that would form her next book collection – had not yet been discovered. 

“You get that sense of like, ‘Oh, I wrote something that people liked, and now I’m definitely going to be rubbish,’” she said. 

Yet, Bird has always found her way back to poetry, pushed by a sense of changing self that forces her to reassess how she sees herself. 

“In one way, we’re kind of fuelled by dissatisfaction in what we’ve already created,” she said. “We can’t quite grasp ourselves, and that’s what keeps us writing. It’s that sense of, ‘One day I’ll express it. The heart of my intention.’”

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About the Contributors
Clara Martinez
Clara Martinez, Editor-in-Chief
Clara Martinez (’24) is the Editor-in-Chief for The Standard. She began journalism as an editor of the Middle School newspaper The Scroll and joined The Standard in Grade 9. Martinez is drawn to investigative news stories and profiles, although she does enjoy producing the occasional broadcast or photo gallery. In or out of the newsroom, she can always be found with a pocket-sized notebook and pen in hand.
Ruby Rogers, Media Team
Ruby Rogers ('26) is a member of the Media Team for The Standard in Advanced Journalism.

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