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“I thought my way through the puzzle of the poem”: A Conversation with Niki Herd

Jessica Wilbanks discusses the craft choices Niki Herd made while writing her poem “Bird.”

Niki Herd’s poem “Bird,”

The Language of Shedding SkinLaura Hershey: On the Life & Work of an American MasterCopper NickelOxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature Literary HubThe RumpusSalon

Jessica Wilbanks: What was the first image or idea you started with when you began writing “Bird”?

JW: Can you share some details about your writing process?

JW: One of the many pleasures of reading “Bird” is the process of discovering so many correspondences between these two scenarios. For instance, the way each event so quickly became a spectacle, something that couldn’t help but be watched.

Initially the speaker blends into these two separate crowds, viewing the events along with them, but at the end of the poem, when “each watcher retraced their steps back home / to find their families, to rejoice over food, to laugh and settle the night,” the speaker is not with them. Instead, she seems to remain watching, transfixed, as the birds remained “steadfast” in the parking lot.

I found that image so extraordinarily powerful: the child, now grown, standing before a plague of grackles that brings with them the memory of a similarly haunting event. Can you speak a bit about the way that these two separate events commingled and spoke to one another during the writing process?

JW: Did the process of juxtaposing these two images end up changing your thinking about either one of these experiences?

JW: I love the way you describe the creative tension that resulted from putting these two images in conversation with each other, and the way doing so provided you with a puzzle that you had to figure out. It reminds of me of a podcast episode from Jessica Abel’s “Out on the Wire,” in which she interviews the graphic novelist Kazu Kibuishi.

Kibuishi believes that if he nails a draft the first time, something’s wrong. It almost always means he hasn’t gone deep enough. But when he’s deep in the forest of drafting, wrestling with a narrative that isn’t coming together and solving problems in the moment, then he knows he’s onto something.

Can you talk a little bit about what it looked like for you to experiment with different possibilities for the poem, once you decided to connect these two experiences? Did you think your way through the puzzle, or did you do your thinking on paper through various drafts? Was there a moment or a line that solidified the connection between your father and the grackles, or was it a more gradual process of discovery?