Few writers have gifted the New Zealand poetry community to the degree Bill Manhire has — not just in the richness of the poetry and essays he has published and the anthologies he has edited, but in the extra curricular activities he undertakes (and has undertaken) as mentor, teacher, commentator, panelist, tweeter (consistently comes up with useful links), reviewer, interviewer, and all-round promoter of New Zealand poetry.
Bill’s work has been acknowledged in the numerous awards: winner of the New Zealand Book Award four times, and the Poetry Category in 2006 for Lifted. He has received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry, is an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate, was the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate, was an Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellow, and a Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellow in Menton, France.
Bill was born in Invercargill in 1946, and grew up in the Deep South, where his father was a publican. Bill studied at the University of Otago and University College London, and recently retired as the founding director of The International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria.
Last year saw the publication of Selected Poems, a collection that I reviewed for The New Zealand Herald (Victoria University Press). The book itself is elegant — lovingly produced, with an exquisite cover featuring Ralph Hotere’s portrait of Bill. You get the very best of Bill when you enter the book – poems spanning decades of writing, poems that reflect his characteristic wit along with his sideway entries into the world. His poems often hold a little moment that you step into, and even though they may be stitched together with a handful of words, you feel compelled to linger (‘The Lid Slides Back,’ ‘Old Man Puzzled by His New Pyjamas,’ ‘It Is Nearly Summer,’ ‘Girl Reading’). Other poems tackle grand subjects without subsiding into melodrama, cliché or sentimentality. Instead they return to the age-old comfort of rhyme and repetition, with the agile lines building (and building) with musical finesse, and soft lines of traction hinting at the deposits — emotional, political or philosophical (‘Hotel Emergencies,’ ‘Erebus Voices,’ ‘1950s’). These are poems that stick to you, that become part of your daily routine. Perhaps, it is because they hark back to the joy of being read to, some kind of magical incantation that can be short or long, but that always draws you in and leads you back out into the ordinary extraordinariness of a moment, or of the world (‘The Ladder,’ ‘Kevin’).
Bill kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf:
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? I loved the analogy you made between the tree-hut and writing on Poetry Box – like a tree hut, you say, it is good if there is room to get in, and maybe even sleepover.
Well, the best hut my brother and I built was an urban one – in the abandoned lift shaft of the old Carlton Hotel in Dunedin, which was out the back of the Crown, where we lived. The location was like a bombsite – there’d been a fire; there was lots of dead concrete, mangled steel, desperate vegetation. All that remained of the Carlton, really, was the brick lift shaft, still climbing up the side of the Grand Hotel. I suppose it was a lift shaft. We built several floors in there. It was a bit dark and pointless, though it felt like a triumph as we did it. It’s all redeveloped now – part of the Southern Cross.
If I think about that, it begins to look emblematic – setting down a pattern. Building your house in an abandoned house – as if you needed the past in order to make something new. All things fall and are built again, as Mr Yeats said, and a lot of poems are built in the ruins of older ones – Eliot’s The Waste Land would be the great example.
Making huts involves making and shaping – getting things to fit – as I think I said on Poetry Box. But, in building a hut, you’re also copying adult ways of managing the world, which is what you do as a beginning writer.
What about growing up in pubs?
My whole childhood was pubs – country pubs until I was 12 – which was more drunks and racehorses than it was poetry. My mother read poetry though. She had a copy of The Golden Treasury, and a poem she could recite by heart (and which I pretty much can, too) was Arnold’s “Requiescat”. It’s about the yearned-for release of death. I think the poem expressed for her just how bewildering and exhausting her life had become – in pubs in rural Southland, 12,000 miles from her home in Edinburgh:
Her life was turning, turning,
In mazes of heat and sound.
But for peace her soul was yearning,
And now peace laps her round.
Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? I am thinking back through the Big Smoke collection (which is vibrant and vital, but there were other strands of poetry kicking and breathing).
I started at Otago in 1964, just after I turned 17. I remember we studied Spenser and the Metaphysicals and Shakespeare’s Sonnets in English I – much better for me than a creative writing workshop might have been. There was actually a pretty big poetry-writing world in the universities nationwide. The NZUSA even had a cultural arm: the New Zealand Students’ Arts Council. There was an annual student arts festival (music and theatre primarily), which moved from campus to campus. There was an associated student “literary yearbook” (edited from the campus where the festival was in any particular year); and all universities had their own yearbooks, too. I think Review (at Otago) might be the only one that still survives. Campus newspapers were much more interested in literature and student writing back then, too.
I co-edited the 1969 Arts Festival Literary Yearbook with John Dickson. Ian Wedde had edited it the year before, Denis Glover’s son, Rupert, was editor the following year. A lot of now familiar names appeared in the yearbooks: Albert Wendt, Renato Amato, Ken Arvidson, Michael Jackson, Rachel Bush, Vincent O’Sullivan, Hilaire Kirkland, Bob Orr, Chris Else, Peter Olds, Jan Kemp, David Mitchell, Alan Brunton, Russell Haley, Murray Edmond . . . There’s a poem by Patrick Evans in 1967, which he won’t want to remember.
I also co-edited the Otago Capping Book, so maybe some sort of satirical impulse was there early on. I’ve always felt that poets should have a disenchanting function as well as an enchanting one. Sometimes the two impulses can live inside the same poem . . .
Yes, poetic friction can be as inviting as poetic harmonies. Not just that playful irony. Sometimes the music is a sweet tonic for the ear, but then there are the points of darkness, the mystery, edge, fear, grief and so on (I think of your poems ‘Erebus Voices’ or ‘Kevin’).
Looking back, it wasn’t just that grassroots material in print, but the poetry gigs and tours that were also a sign of the times.
The NZSAC was fairly entrepreneurial. They toured the American poet Robert Creeley in the early seventies. And ran national poetry tours involving people like Hone Tuwhare, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Jan Kemp, Alan Brunton.
Otago University and Dunedin were out of the swim in some ways. There weren’t any poets in the Otago English Department (unlike Auckland: I remember one of the academic staff at Otago referring to Auckland University as “that nest of singing birds”). The much-mythologised Freed was essentially an Auckland project.
But Otago had the Burns Fellowship, which brought people like Hone Tuwhare down to Dunedin. And there was Trevor Reeves, with Cave and the Caveman Press; and Don Long’s Edge was coming out of Christchurch – both of them chasing a vision of how local and global might inform each other that was distinctively different from what existed in a journal like Landfall.
In recent times, graduates of writing classes seem to maintain contact as ongoing, supportive writing groups. Were there early versions of this when you were starting out?
There was the monthly poetry group that people like Brasch and Baxter and Iain Lonie were part of, as were a bunch of aspiring writers like me. It was really an early version of a creative writing workshop, though it moved around from house to house, the way book groups do these days. We cyclostyled our poems, read them aloud, commented on them. I remember challenging Charles Brasch’s use of the word “squalid” in his poem “Red Sea Amber” when he brought it to one session. (He was courteous and unaffronted and entirely unconvinced.) I also remember Charles bringing his “Lady Engine” poem to a meeting and explaining that it was a writing-out of a dream not long after the death of his mother. That sort of thing was useful news to me. Even the editor of Landfall didn’t necessarily know what a poem “meant” at the time that he wrote it.
When you began writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman were important for me at age 16, my last year at high school; a couple of years later, it would be Larkin, and Plath’s Ariel. Then James Wright. Robert Creeley was the transforming encounter: I bought his collection, For Love, in 1966, and it feels like I read it several thousand times. But I liked the ballad form, too – and its modern versions, especially as produced by someone like Bob Dylan. It’s easy to forget how important the world of folk music was back then. (I have a sudden memory of writing pastiche numbers for the Band of Hope Jug Band, with Gordon Collier. I don’t think they came to anything. I hope not: “She’ll take you in the kidneys / and she’ll take you in the brain; / she’ll take you so you’ll never be / the same old man again.”)
I can remember the first album I bought was Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and my father immediately said, ‘Well he can’t sing.’ Years later, he admitted that Bob could definitely write!
It is also interesting looking back to a time when we wrote without computers — no easy access to a delete button.
Getting a typewriter was a big thing. It’s hard now to imagine just how big. The gap between handwriting and the typewritten page was an astonishing thing: you could suddenly see what you’d done, what its quality was. And even then, every word counted: you couldn’t just delete/copy/paste etc. I remember typing out whole volumes of poetry that were in the university library but I couldn’t otherwise get hold of. A couple by R.S. Thomas, for example, which puzzles me now. Fugitive poems by Ted Hughes and others that were in journals but not yet in books.
I did the first version of Malady on a typewriter. I can’t imagine doing something like that on a screen. That expression “analog warmth”, which I think points back to the world of vinyl, also speaks to the feel of a typewritten poem. In fact it applies to most of the poems I love.
My weirdest typewriter story comes out of editing the Arts Festival Literary Yearbook. Alan Brunton sent some stuff in, prose and poetry – including some versions from Catullus – and the thing was, there were no spaces after any of the punctuation points. I thought this was all very avant-garde and deliberate and worked very hard to make sure the typesetters at Caxton didn’t add the spaces back in. I asked Alan about this years later and he said, Oh, big mistake: that was because I didn’t know how to use the space-bar on the typewriter.
There were a number of significant poets in NZ from the 1940s onwards (Curnow, Mason, Glover, Baxter and so on). Was there one in particular that you connected with?
For me, the one-in-particular would be Mason, though I can see that in terms of achievement he might well be fourth on that list. I bought his Collected Poems in 1963, Whitcombe and Tombs, Princes Street, Dunedin. I loved the way the feelings in them fought against the formal controls: even the punctuation collapsed under the pressure of feeling, yet the shells of the stanzas held firm – just. We know now, I guess, that that particular aspect of the poems probably had something to do with Mason’s bipolar illness. His were poems that suited me emotionally at the age of 17, and still suit the adolescent tucked away inside me.
Do you think your writing has changed over time? I see an increased thoughtfulness and an ability to tackle big subjects in ways that are utterly moving but still firmly embedded in the everyday (with those trademark flecks of irony and wit).
Yes, I think I’ve grown up and stepped a bit more fully into the world – mainly because life requires you to. Yet there’s still that thing they say about always feeling like the youngest person in the room. I think it’s quite good for writers to feel out of their depth. Inner muddle is much better for the work that gets made than a belief that you can walk on water.
“All poets are young poets actually,” says Seamus Heaney – and that seems right to me. You can be young, or wild and old and wicked – but as far as the poems are concerned you can’t afford to be middle-aged.
There has been shifting attitudes to the ‘New Zealand’ label since Curnow started calling for a national identity (he was laying the foundation stones that we then had the privilege to use as we might). Does it make a difference that you are writing in New Zealand? Does a sense of home matter to you?
In my head I’m more local than national – and local for me still means the deep south, the Southland and Otago countryside. There’s that childhood imprint. The hills are the right shape, and sit against the sky as hills ought to.
More generally, I think poets live in actual and virtual communities, and the circumferences keep shifting. There are the poets you know and read in your everyday life. At the other extreme, there are all the poets dead and alive whom you feel you know well through reading their work. Emily Dickinson is supposed to have been this curious recluse – but if you read her letters, you see that she was intensely alive in a huge community of poets. I myself have spent a lot of time hanging out with her in that upstairs room.
What irks you in poetry?
What delights you?
Back to Emily Dickinson: I’m with her on the physical response that poems produce when they’re really working. You feel as if the top of your head has been taken off, or so cold no fire can ever warm you. That’s how you know you’re in the presence of a poem. Also – and maybe this is a contradiction – I like the fact that poetry is in some basic way part of the entertainment industry.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
Peter Bland, My Side of the Story
Jenny Bornholdt, Summer
Geoff Cochrane, The Sea the Landsman Knows
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
I’m in favour of grandchildren just at the moment.
Not all poets are good at performing their work, but once you have heard Bill Manhire read a poem such as ‘Hotel Emergencies’ aloud then the musicality of the writing becomes even more apparent (we are then able to play the LP of Bill in our minds as we read). Are you aware of this aspect as you write?
Not consciously, not actively. But the music of the poem, whatever kind of music it is, needs to properly complete itself for the poem to be finished. Meaning is irrelevant to that.
I used to sway a lot when I first read poems aloud. I still do a bit. That’s an odd thing in someone so physically inhibited. I also make those strange incantatory, shamanistic noises that poets make. I can’t help it.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
I like Twitter, but not Facebook. I don’t really know what this means.
Eleanor Catton recently suggested there is no reviewing culture in New Zealand in The Guardian. Do you agree?
I suspect Ellie is looking for a culture of discussion and ideas that’s in the society generally, not just locked away inside writing festivals, Kim Hill interviews and the odd university seminar. Something a bit more convincing than the national shame of Parliamentary Question Time.
But, for reviewing, I suppose it is pretty thin, though maybe – as usual in New Zealand – it’s a population thing. It’s a general anxiety everywhere – that the review culture is thinning out, books pages shrinking or vanishing, especially in newspapers and weeklies. But in New Zealand we had much less to go on in the first place. The danger is that you end up mainly with salaried academics doing the reviews because they can afford to write without a fee; or people with axes to grind and a bit of froth around the mouth. It’s hard to know whether the increasing richness of the internet compensates for this (the-axes-to-grind thing) or exacerbates it.
As both a reviewer and a reader, I am drawn to reviews that build rather tear apart – that’s not to say you can’t be critical, but I want to explore what a story or a poem is doing. I am not really interested in filtering a story or poem through preconceived ideas (prejudices?) of what a story of poem ought to be.
There’s less range and texture and quality in, say, the poetry-reviewing scene than there is in contemporary NZ poetry. But if you add to the Listener, which still sets the pace, forums like New Zealand Books and Metro, plus online developments like this one, things don’t look too bad. The greatest danger in a place like New Zealand is that you get a few people who want to run out onto the field as players, yet also want to blow their whistles and hand out yellow cards. That’s a very difficult thing to bring off.
Finally if you were to be trapped (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day, for a decision) for hours what poetry book would you read? Actually I think the context would affect which book to large degree.
A new book from James Brown wouldn’t go astray. Every waiting room should have one.
Bill’s page, Victoria University Press
New Zealand Book Council author page
Arts Foundation biography
Tuesday Poem, Hotel Emergencies
Bill on Twitter
Making Baby Float: Bill with musicians at Frankfurt
Three Islands review of Selected Poems
Paula Green review The Victims of Lightning
Interview with Guy Somerset in The Listener
Interview for NZ Poetry Box here.