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Poetry in Aldeburgh residency: Ben Rogers interviews… Julia Bird

“What motivates me to produce, promote or write anything is the idea that there will be people around to receive it meaningfully”

Five ‘short film’ poems feature in your first collection Hannah and the Monk. What interests you about the short film medium?


I think it was genre rather than medium that was interesting me most when I was writing them – I was trying to see how far I could miniaturise the elements of various full-length film types but still be able to hear and see them properly. And because I’m a sucker for a structural constraint, I was also taking them down 10 words at a time as I was going along. There’s a 50 word road movie that takes place on the drive of a cul-de-sac house, a 40 word rom-com that lasts for the duration of a supermarket transaction, a 30 word musical set in a lift, and a 20 word creature-feature starring the bacteria in a grubby kitchenette.  “The stranger kicks open the doors of the pasty shop” is a Western in 10 words – although the West is more English than Wild.

Can you share a favourite short film, and a few words on why you like it?


I’m not really a short film aficionado, but what does interest me is the relationship between music videos (seen a lot of those), tv adverts (seen an awful lot of those) and poetry. If, in a poem, I could explore the approach to narrative, compression and colour taken by these little films selling or shilling me their songs and air-fresheners, I’d be very happy. I haven’t worked out how to do it yet though. Last time I tried, it was a poem about fish tanks, but it was no good at all.

Previously, you’ve written about light for a Hayward Gallery project.  Can you tell us a bit about the Jaybird Live Literature project ‘Beginning to See the Light‘ that you’re taking to Aldeburgh, and why you find light to be such an inspirational topic? 


I’m fascinated by light as a subject – any angles of it, congregating endlessly – from photosynthesis to fairy-lights. Maybe I’m trying to recreate poetically the effect on mood, health and imagination that a fade between fluorescent strip and chandelier has on a person. Someone once asked me where my poetic omphalos was. The closest I can get is me, bedazzled at 7, with my grandparents in Cwmbran BHS lighting department. Fawzia Kane, in a Poetry School course, once inspired me to live by candle-light alone for a week. I’d recommend it. You feel the meaning of the phrase ‘worth the candle’.

When I found out that the theme for last year’s National Poetry Day was light, I thought I’ve got to make a show about that! Working with the Poetry Society and funded by the Arts Council, we commissioned six poets to write new pieces about light along a twenty four hour timeline – more details here. We then interspersed them with some classic light poems, and then made them into a show with a gorgeous lighting design (dapples, spotlights and darkness) for NPD itself. At Aldeburgh, Holly Corfield Carr – one of the six poets – will be reading the new poems and the classics, and will introduce the new film-poems we also made as part of the project.

With Jaybird, you create theatrical poetry experiences, and you’ve in the past mixed poetry and origami (Porigami). How important do you think it is for poetry practice to connect or collaborate with other art forms?


Because I make my living as a poetry promoter (a niche within the niche of career arts administration), I’m never too far away from an audience. What motivates me to produce, promote or write anything is the idea that there will be people around to receive it meaningfully, and more often than not I have to make the box office balance too. I started to produce poetry shows because I was interested in the idea of centralising the experience of the poetry-unfamiliar audience member. What will happen when you put poetry in a familiar theatrical setting for them? I’m still finding that out, though I know that we get lots of people who come to Jaybird shows that have not been to any other literary events at all, let alone a poetry reading.

The poetry-and-origami idea came when Southbank Centre asked me to create a drop-in poetry activity for one of its festivals. You’ve never seen hastier retreats than those beaten by people unexpectedly invited to sit down with a stranger and write a poem. But if you say come and make a paper beetle with me … you and your kids too … fold this here … put your finger where my finger is … now open up your beetle and write a mysterious message to your best friend there … people will do that. They’ll join you, and the poetry sneaks in. (I’ve also got happy memories of Hannah Lowe teaching a lot of us round a kitchen table in an Aldeburgh house-hire one year how to make a flying bird – she influenced the poetry-and-origami too.)

My poetry practice is about connecting and collaborating with an audience – sometimes other artforms help with that.

What writing conditions do you find most ideal and least ideal for creating poems?


The way I write has changed recently. The Salt books cleared my head of a lifetime’s accumulation of earworms, niggles and urban myths that I wanted to preserve and pass on, and it would have been a total barrel-scrape to try and carry on writing like that. I needed to find a different path into my imagination, so I’m going up and down the scenic sequence route at the moment. I’ve written one sequence of poems which is the slightly imaginary biography of an artist from the 1930s (but also the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written), and I’m working on another which is a response to an American psychologist’s research into systemising the process of falling in love. ‘Project books’, the poetics-codifiers call ‘em.

To get any writing done, I need to be by myself for two days with no exciting evening entertainment planned. That gives me a proper faffing about run-up time, but isn’t a long enough period for me to start feeling socially isolated and antsy. Pens, paper, beds and deadlines are ideal; screens, desks and distractions are unideal.

Your poem ‘A Pebble Cairn’, written on a previous trip to Aldeburgh, features the line: “All I’ve ever taken is a stone/ from every beach I’ve stood on”.  Can you tell us about how that poem came about? Will you be taking a pebble from your next visit to Aldeburgh?


The poem came when I started thinking about at what point you stop taking souvenir stones from the beach and start putting them back. If you reach that point, are you ready for nothing more than a burial at sea? Stones are literally the only thing I’ve ever stolen – I never even nicked so much as a lip-balm from Boots – so I’m also using the poem to reflect on a life of non-crime.

I’ve got a jar full of beach pebbles, but the meanings that were attached to them have all gone. I can’t remember who I was with when I collected this one, I can’t remember why that other one was beautiful any more. Maybe I need to top up my jar. One last heist.

Julia Bird grew up in Gloucestershire and now lives and works in London. She’s the Creative Director of the Poetry School and produces touring live literature show through her company Jaybird Live Literature. Her collections Hannah and the Monk (2008) and Twenty-four Seven Blossom (2013) are published by Salt.

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