JR: I read a reviewer describing you as brave. What does it mean to truly be brave in your writing? What do you think of this descriptor? Is it just a reductive anti-feminist slogan or does it have its place? Is bravery a bad hill to die on?
HLB: When people talk about my work as being brave, they’re almost always talking about the more sexually explicit parts of my work, but, for me, that isn’t bravery. Sex isn’t shocking anymore. Blowjobs aren’t revolutionary. Too many genitals make for dull reading. I think that the concept of risk is intensely personal, and therefore different for everyone, but for me, I never felt like I was risking much to write about sex in that way. The stakes were low. The most risky parts of the book were the parts that veered towards sentimentality and emotional vulnerability, especially joy, rather than despair. Maybe earnestness is the last great risk, but maybe the last great risk isn’t an important concept anymore. I don’t think work is always at its best when the emotional stakes are highest. I know that’s an unpopular belief, but I don’t truly love anything that can’t also make me laugh. I think that misdirection and irony and playfulness and jokes are just as important as sincerity and vulnerability. It’s the interplay between these things that makes writing alive.
There was a time when I was living in Dunedin, and I was trying to write this tragic long-form book about Shirley Jackson and ghosts and queerness and my failing relationship, but it was torture to write and it came out dead on the page. It was too earnest, too self-indulgent. There was no humour in it, and there has to be humour. Otherwise I feel like I’m doing life a disservice. Aesthetic misery can be just as shallow and sentimental and banal as kittens on biscuit tin. Even in my worst moments, I can’t help making a joke out of life. Even the most iconically miserable writers like Dorothy Parker or John Berryman or J D Salinger are the funniest to me. Life is funny. Life is terrible, but it makes me laugh always.
JR: Your similes are perhaps the best, and most thrilling, feature of many of your poems. I learned about similes as one of the first real writerly techniques when I was younger and now using them too enthusiastically or even ‘unconventionally’ feels a bit furtive or naughty. When will the art of simile return from war?
HLB: The similes come from Minnis and Leidner. Similes are the most fun I have with writing. I don’t think I’m using them necessarily unconventionally, but comparing things to other things is one of the great joys of my life. It’s also a great way to get as many helicopters into a text as humanly possible. There is very little to say about the world. I think people hate metaphors and similes because they’re given so much profundity and weight, but I like my similes to be offhand and cumulative. Metaphors and similes are a failed project, because nothing is really like anything else. Having a surplus of them is a way of acknowledging that, but they also usher the world in. Forests, toilets, sequined handbags, civil war. Personal poetry would be so claustrophobic without them.
JR: You’re probably well-seasoned in having your work discussed, do you read your reviews or can you resist the seduction?
HLB: I read most of my reviews, when I see them. I can understand why other people don’t, but I’m pretty thick skinned. The worst thing to me is a positive review that fundamentally misunderstands what I was trying to achieve, or attributes a political or aesthetic motivation to my work that I wasn’t intending.
JR: Thank you for taking the time to share these schemes with me. And now for one final scheme: what are your writerly plans for the rest of the year?
HLB: I have very few plans, apart from visiting Australia for a couple of festivals. It’s probably a great laziness, but I don’t like thinking in terms of projects – for poetry at least. I want to write poetry, not poetry books. I’m looking forward to coming over and seeing a few of your great and terrible national birds and whatever beetles you have going.