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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鈥檚 Bergeron Fellow.

鈥淒o you hear sex noises through the wall when standing in a field?鈥

The library was silent after award-winning poet and this year鈥檚 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 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 鈥済ame鈥 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.

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

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.

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

It鈥檚 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.

鈥淧oetry is the one art form that people always try to interrogate and go like, 鈥榃hat does this mean?鈥 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,鈥 she said. 鈥淚t won’t answer you.鈥

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.

鈥淚t’s different from a sad loneliness,鈥 she said. 鈥淚t’s like a kind of 鈥榩eopled鈥 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.鈥

A quote that has stuck with her is in the words of Frank O鈥橦ara: 鈥淭he poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.鈥 Bird said it speaks to the aspiration of a poet to explain something from arm鈥檚 length.

鈥淚t’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,鈥 she said. 鈥淵ou get a sense that you’re kind of trying to communicate something. It鈥檚 very different. It’s a different type of solitude.鈥

O鈥橦ara 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 , 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 鈥淧ersonism: A Manifesto,鈥 which he was fabled to have written in an hour as his publisher was en route to retrieve it.

O鈥橦ara wrote extensively on loneliness, publishing works like 鈥淗ow to Get There鈥 and In 鈥淧ersonal Poem,鈥 O鈥橦ara names several poets he knew and whether he liked them, dousing each stanza in an enjambement that evinces the narrator鈥檚 uncertainty. The ending is hung, suspended without any punctuation to indicate a conclusion: 鈥淚 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鈥

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

鈥淚t’s tinged with a loneliness, but also, you’re constructing something from it,鈥 she said. 鈥淭here’s an alchemy in poetry where you can take what feels like it’s destroying you and turn it into something.鈥

For Bird, poetry is a calling that has always made sense to her 鈥渂ecause it didn鈥檛 have to make sense.鈥 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.

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

It鈥檚 an obsession that must be halted when she is between work. Between poetry books, Bird鈥檚 schedule changes to adapt to playwriting, which doesn鈥檛 seize control like poetry.聽

Bird turns to playwriting, perhaps because 鈥 immediately following up by affirming this as a joke 鈥 she 鈥渕ight just have an aversion to making any money at all.鈥

However, she was drawn to playwriting for a similar pursuit of truth and the unspoken without the 鈥渋nsular鈥 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, 鈥渢he truth is somewhere in the middle,鈥 and if it鈥檚 said aloud instead of allowing the characters to stay 鈥渄ancing鈥 around it, the scene is destroyed.聽

She said the same applies to poetry.

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

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

鈥淭he more you read, the more you can hear yourself in comparison,鈥 she said. 鈥淧eople 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鈥檚 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.鈥

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

鈥淚f it ends, and you think well, I already knew that, I already knew I felt that, then it鈥檚 not finished,鈥 she said. 鈥淚f 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鈥檛 work.鈥

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

鈥淵ou’re always trying to communicate and hide simultaneously when you’re writing a poem,鈥 she said. 鈥淵ou鈥檙e taking whatever’s inside you and decanting it into an idea and disguising it.鈥

Bird compared writing poetry to the feeling of chasing after unrequited romance, attributing her ability to bring an authentic draft to life as 鈥渂eing able to surrender鈥 herself to writing.聽

鈥淵ou will spend a lot of time just going in the wrong direction,鈥 she said. 鈥淧oetry 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.鈥

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.聽

With that considered, Bird said people who love poetry 鈥渒ind of hate 95% of it,鈥 but the remaining 5% is writing 鈥測ou jump in front of a bus for, you love it so much.鈥

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

鈥淭hey 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,鈥 she said. 鈥淪o, you need some poets to keep you company who are doing the same thing as you at their lonely little desks.鈥

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.

鈥淲e forget that there are as many ways of being a poet as there are people who want to be poets,鈥 she said.聽

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

— Caroline Bird

Before beginning to write her upcoming book, 鈥淎mbush at Still Lake,鈥 Bird took her longest hiatus after publishing She stopped writing poetry for two years, in part due to the intimidation of returning to the same blank page with a new direction.聽

She said she had been telling herself, 鈥淭hat book was written by past me. Present me couldn’t do that.鈥

The public launch for 鈥淭he Air Year鈥 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.

鈥淣o one saw it, it wasn鈥檛 videoed,鈥 she said. 鈥淚t was just between us.鈥

The success of 鈥淭he Air Year鈥 as winner of the and one of changed her approach to writing as she said it was 鈥渁 bit confusing for a poet to suddenly feel popular.鈥 Bird found herself in an interim period where her old obsession was fulfilled, and the new one 鈥撀爋ne that would form her next book collection 鈥 had not yet been discovered.聽

鈥淵ou get that sense of like, 鈥極h, I wrote something that people liked, and now I’m definitely going to be rubbish,鈥欌 she said.聽

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.聽

鈥淚n one way, we鈥檙e kind of fuelled by dissatisfaction in what we’ve already created,鈥 she said. 鈥淲e can’t quite grasp ourselves, and that’s what keeps us writing. It鈥檚 that sense of, 鈥極ne day I’ll express it. The heart of my intention.鈥欌

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About the Contributors
Clara Martinez
Clara Martinez, Editor-in-Chief
Clara Martinez (鈥24) is the Editor-in-Chief for The 黄色电影. She began journalism as an editor of the Middle School newspaper The Scroll and joined The 黄色电影 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 黄色电影 in Advanced Journalism.

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