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Poetry Shelf interviews Bill Manhire – I get great pleasure from a poem when at some point it pushes me sideways from myself

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Photo Credit: Grant Maiden

 

‘Did you all survive?

On that first day of school, I mostly remember

being terrified: the dark interior, the children in rows

at their separate desks, and I was now to be one of them.

In a field by the school, there were bales of hay.

I remember inkwells.

That was perhaps a harder day.’

 

from ‘The Question Poem’

 

 

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Some Things to Place in a Coffin Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, 2017)

 

Bill Manhire’s new collection of poetry offers the reader a sumptuous reading experience: there is coolness, heat, air, movement, suspension.  There are some poetry books that maintain a cavernous distance as I read, but I just click with Bill’s poems. My review of Bill’s book of riddles, Tell me My Name, is here.

Bill  lives in Wellington, and is an emeritus professor at Victoria University. His first book of poems, The Elaboration, with drawings by Ralph Hotere, appeared in 1972.

 

PG: What challenges you most when you write a poem?

BM: Getting properly underway.  I’m quite good at finding phrases that nag away at me, and I keep them in my head or on paper – but finding my way forward from them can be a problem, or even knowing if I can find my way forward.  I seem to know how long a poem is going to be, roughly what its shape will be and so on, but things often collapse about two thirds of the way through. I suspect there are quite a few poems over the years where it looks like I’ve landed on my feet near the end but I’ve actually broken my ankle.

 

PG: What delights you most?

BM: Knowing that a poem is actually there, but that it needs some work to be fully itself.  Doing that last little bit of work – so different from whatever inspiration is supposed to be – is strangely exhilarating.

 

PG: Your new collection, as with Lifted and Victims of Lightning, refreshes what poetry can do: how it can soothe and challenge and prompt wonder. Initially the Zen-like movement of the poems struck me (or you could track an oxymoron effect): silence yields music, stillness leads to activity, simplicity yields knots, economy yields richness. Such movement prolongs contemplation. Have you ever thought of your poetry in this way?

BM: I don’t think I think very deeply or coherently about poetry, especially my own. I don’t have any aims when I write, even with a commissioned poem like ‘Known unto God’. But I get great pleasure from a poem when at some point it pushes me sideways from myself, pushes me out of habitual assumptions, changes the pace of my inner life. I like it when a poem starts off quietly and then starts resonating – a sort of ripple effect – and I certainly like it when a poem looks innocent and amiable then suddenly gets dangerous and agitating. Tonal shifts – code-switching, logopoeia – seem to be key to individual poems, too; and maybe even more, inside a book, to the way poems keep each other company.

 

The window waits for light.

The path to the river waits

for twigs and stones ands feet.

The day hopes to be successful,

a prose day really, nothing untoward

and so it, too, waits. Also the car waits.

from ‘Waiting’

 

PG: There are several ‘waiting’ poems and it seems to me this book has benefited from a different relationship with time (a little like your Menton sojourn did for Lifted). Away from your hectic university life, has your time with poetry changed to the degree you are able to wait with a poem differently?

BM: It’s not in the least relevant, but I think Waiting for Godot is the great poem of the 20th century.

I don’t think this is what what you’re getting at either, but we all start out in the world full of appetite and desire and with a strong sense only of the immediate moment. And then I suppose there’s that troubling, invigorating phase later that mixes memory and desire, to borrow the start of Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Your past and future are fighting it out in the present. And then if you last the distance there’s a lot more past and much more of this thing called memory, which as someone said is pretty much the imagination in reverse. I think I’m in this last time zone. I’ve even prefaced the collection with a little poem about memory.

 

PG: I found the ‘waiting’ poignant because it felt both philosophical and political.

BM: That’s a generous way of putting it. I suspect it’s more that I’m very much a fatalist. This probably has something to do, someone once told me, with being the child of an alcoholic – you’re totally under the circumstances. The great human beings are the ones who change the circumstances, or have a shot at doing so. But my feeling is that most of the time most of us are under the circumstances, and so how you behave is what measures your worth as a human being.

 

They dug me up in Caterpillar Valley

and brought me home –

well, all of the visible bits of me.

Now people arrive at dawn and sing.

And I have a new word: skateboarding.

from ‘Known unto God’

 

PG: The collection seems open to anything (Chairman Mao’s impersonator, surveillance notes, the school bus, the trenches, a Sunday School mural, a body blown to bits, war, Ralph Hotere’s coffin). Do you have no-go areas as a poet?

BM: I’m pretty protective about my personal life.  No one could accuse me of oversharing. If you were to try and turn the first-person I in my poems into someone called Bill Manhire, it would all be pretty baffling. Sometimes it’s someone else altogether, sometimes someone with some of my features, sometimes (but rarely) the full myself. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.’

Of course the life is there in certain poems, but displaced or approached obliquely.  ‘The Question Poem’ deals with the aftermath of an event like the Christchurch earthquake, but the speaker in the poem, trying to deflect the very direct questions about catastrophe, reaches back to memories of his first day at school – and I guess that’s essentially my own first day at school.  Likewise, ‘The Schoolbus’ is fairly true to a particular patch of my childhood.

But I’m never a completely missing person. I’m there in every poem in some form or other, even if it’s just via a small tonal inflection or a tiny hesitation.

 

How Memory Works

 

Come over here

we say to the days that disappear.

No, over here.

 

PG: You are the master of the miniature poem—I liken your examples to a drop of wine that dances on the tongue. What attracts you to this form? What holds your attention in a small poem?

BM: I think I’m drawn to the short poem for visual rather than auditory reasons.  There’s nothing more wonderful than a few words, just two or three lines, sitting in the middle of a white page. The words and letters start to grow out into the space around them  – which I guess is what you also want the reader’s imagination to do. In some ways the words look vulnerable, but to me they’re powerful.

I like putting little poems on Twitter, and that’s partly because I miss the days when I could type out a handwritten poem and see it as it as itself without my protective care.  You need to find ways of making poems remote, independent – there they are on the screen, out in the world. But there’s something undermining about the way Twitter clutters the screen, so it’s not the same.

 

 

Soon enough the enemy will come,

limping out of a place that will not heal.

And soon enough it will be gone,

this world that you once woke into.

from ‘The Enemy’

 

PG: Initially I view your poetry as steered by a mind drifting, stalling, looping. I was watching the surprising lines of a gull at the beach this morning, the way it arced and stretched, hovered with such grace, landed with light feet. I was fascinated by the beauty and the unpredictability and began to compare it to the way your poems move. Which led me to the way politics also feed the poems. There are subtle entries and there are toothpicks: ‘That is why China waits,/ and America waits.’ ‘You cannot reach the beautiful world.’ In this world under threat, is it now more important that political views are visible, whether overt or subtle?

BM: There are poems in the new book with a political dimension, and maybe there are more of them than there used to be. It’s highly satisfying to make a local-body politician say, ‘I do not think that I am rubbish’!  And sometimes a political element’s there but a little oblique. ‘Poem in an Orchard’, for example, is about rendition. I don’t set out to write politically.  I’m not into palpable design. But I’m a citizen who votes and signs petitions and tries to pay attention. And I’m a human being, so I can do gasping and outrage and anxiety and distress – and sometimes hopefulness – in poetry just as others can.  I think the US invasion of Iraq intensified some of those things for me, and that’s probably evident in some of the poems written since then.

I’ve always felt slightly ashamed that I let the Listener mildly censor a poem I wrote years ago called ‘Wellington’.  It was a piece against Muldoon, and included the lines ‘the boys from Muldoon Real Estate / are breaking someone’s arm’. They wanted to change it to ‘Beehive Real Estate’, and I weakly said yes.  Was it better for the doctored poem to appear in the Listener than not? I don’t know. I restored the true reading when the poem appeared in a book. But I don’t imagine either version would have hastened Muldoon’s downfall.  Labour’s Grant Robertson once told me  that there was briefly a Dunedin band called ‘Muldoon Real Estate’, which is nice. Probably one of those stories that’s too good to check.

 

PG: The poem, ‘Falseweed’ was originally published as a little pamphlet by Egg Box Publishing in Norwich. It has a different feel to your other poems. The words are scattered like seeds on the expanse of white page. There is linguistic inventiveness that boosts both music and image, particularly in compound words:

leafcandle  pencilheart  wintertwig  scribblegrass  anchorwhite  tongue-true.

What are the origins of this poem? Did it feel like you were shifting your musical key in terms of the words on the line?

BM: Yes. there’s some sort of musical shift – in some ways back to poems like ‘The Seasons/If I Will Sing There’ or ‘Wulf’.  Your seeds image is a good one, as the poem is pseudo-botanical. I started noticing, a bit obsessively, just how many poets in the UK and North America were using the vernacular names of plants in their poems: poets like Jen Hadfield, Alice Oswald, Robert Hass.  It’s maybe connected to Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks project recovering regional and dialect landscape terms. For a pakeha New Zealander like me it’s possible to feel envious of these language troves. About a year ago the English poet Sasha Dugdale tweeted: ‘Path on Seaford Head through restharrow, agrimony, moon carrot & selfheal.’ Now there’s a lyrical outing!

Anyway, I thought I would try to make a poem that teased that whole fashion – seed-packet poetry, I’ve heard it called – along with my own language inadequacies, by inventing my own weeds and grasses. But then as I wrote I found myself producing a poem very much about writer’s block and a kind of world-weariness.

 

Now darkness brings out

the little paperclip

plus a clump or two

of scribblegrass –

*

If we had seeds
we would scatter them

scatter them –

*

oh pencilheart –

oh smudge-of-lead.

 

PG: Is there one poem in particular that really works for you in this collection?

BM: I’d have to say ‘Known unto God’ – in part because of publisher generosity with formatting. I like the way it’s been able to sit like a small chapbook inside the larger book.  Each speaker in the poem gets their own page – so that that thing I was talking about earlier in terms of small poems, the mix of vulnerability and powerful presence, is made visible. The fact that the sequence effectively opens with a double-sided black page sets up the elegaic mood, too. The whole thing looks right.

 

PG: Which poem took you by surprise?

BM: Again, ‘Known unto God’.  I want to say I didn’t know I had it in me, but of course I didn’t have it in me – it was always out there in the world. My work was to catch it, edit it hard, and get the choreography right.

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Susanna Andrews shares her review on Radio NZ National

Bill describes his writing day for The Listener

‘This Reading Life: Bill Manhire’ for NZ Festival

A southern poetry reading and poem sampler: Carolyn McCurdie on Rhian and Robyn

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Rhian and Robyn

You know that something is going on when the café is not just packed, but has a crowd three-deep along the back wall. The Dog with Two Tails Café and Bar in Dunedin is usually full for the Octagon Poetry Collective’s monthly readings. But for the March readings, I was the host, and I knew that the word had gone out. I knew that people were juggling dates in their diaries to be there. They’d told me. And the reason was the same for all – Rhian Gallagher.

I was as aware as anyone that Rhian hadn’t read in public for a while, and so was feeling chuffed that she’d accepted my invitation to be one of my two featured poets in March. My second guest was Robyn Maree Pickens, a young poet, less well-known, but with a growing history of publication and a growing local following. Some of the crowd had come to hear Robyn as well.

From a host’s point of view, one of the many advantages of featuring much loved poets, is that other poets turn up in numbers, and the quality of the open mic readings is pretty impressive. This Wednesday night, it was great. We encourage new readers. Established poets also take their turn at the mic and set a standard that lifts everyone’s game. Over time, you can hear wobbly beginners develop confidence and an individual, deft use of words.

I divided the evening in two. After the first half of open mic readings I introduced Robyn. When I’d invited her to read, she’d expressed doubts that her work was ‘good enough’. I had no such doubts. She’d also said how nervous she was. Well, on the night, it didn’t show. Her poise was flawless, or looked that way to an outside observer. The standard of her poetry, and the way she presented it earned well-deserved hearty applause from a poetically discriminating crowd. Robyn Maree Pickens. Watch out for that name.

Then more open mic readers, a break, and time to introduce Rhian. People settled. People hushed. Rhian has a kind of reserve about her. She will undoubtedly think this report is over-blown. It ain’t. Her voice is quiet, measured, and the reserve means that she almost removes herself, and the words take over. And suyes. Rhian Gallagher is an exceptional poet. She finished reading. No one wanted to leave.

 

Carolyn McCurdie 2017

 

Into the Blue Light

for Kate Vercoe

 

I’m walking above myself in the blue light

indecently blue above the bay with its walk-on-water skin

here is the Kilmog slumping seaward

and the men in their high-vis vests

pouring tar and metal on gaping wounds

the last repair broke free; the highway doesn’t want

to lie still, none of us want to be

where we are exactly but somewhere else

bending and arrowing

the track a tree’s ascent, kaikawaka! hold on

to the growing power, sun igniting little shouts against my eyeballs

and clouds come from Australia

hunkering over the Tasman with their strange accent

‘get out the sky mate!’ I’m high as a wing tip

where the aches meet the bliss

summit rocks exploding with lichen and moss –

little soft fellas suckered to a groove

bloom and bloom – the track isn’t content

 

©Rhian Gallager 2017

 

All the way

 

To whet a structure like this:

a temple; a palace; a tomb;

I bring my roosting being down

from an adjacent planetary system,

and feel the dew lining each blade

of grass.

 

I offer fresh pineapple chunks

and pointy rose quartz crystals,

twelve distinct species of lichen,

and a harvest of fine salmon bones.

 

I bend unpruned effusion; quiver

like a minnow free; become human sap

that slips out the side of the mountain.

 

I smell what bees taste; feel my forehead

crease into the occasional sun; greet

the raindrop that finds my eyelid; trace

the soft down dune of your neck; drift

into immense fields of information:

microbial, arboreal, mycorrhizal. Palpating

organs that bring salt to the pore; lift

heat from the asphalt; hold the glisten

in an ear of corn.

 

Till we are limbed-loose and I live all

the way through to you; tendered

to the meat-earth; to the black peat;

the mantling mica, oracular bracken, ur-apple.

Craving, lifting into this flowering temple.

with an end, flax rattling their sabres,

tussock like miles of heads

drying their hair in the stiff southeasterly; the track wants to go on

forever because it comes to nothing

but the blue light. I’m going out, out

out into the blue light, walking above myself.

 

©Robyn Maree Pickens

Victoria graduates ‘send tigers to the moon’ on Radio New Zealand

Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and Radio New Zealand (RNZ) celebrate the infinite creative possibilities of radio in a new reading series, Page Numbers.

The series will showcase work by graduates of Victoria’s Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme.

Page Numbers will run from April 3 – 7 and features fiction, creative non-fiction, drama and poetry by Nicole Phillipson, Eamonn Marra, Rebecca Hawkes, Harry Meech, Ben Wilson and William Connor. All six graduated from the IIML in 2016 with an MA.

“Radio is a magic place for a writer, where anything can happen on the most modest of budgets. Send a tiger to the moon? Why think so small? Alpha Centauri, the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, the inside of someone’s head—it’s all possible on radio, just waiting to be voiced, and waiting to be heard,” says IIML senior lecturer Emily Perkins.

The new series continues a long-standing connection between the IIML and RNZ. IIML director of scriptwriting Ken Duncum sends his students to RNZ for workshops on writing scripts purely based in sound.

Ms Perkins says the impetus to expand this relationship came from the students themselves, or rather, from the sound of their words.

“Listening in workshop, as we do every week, it struck us that some of the students’ writing would be just right for radio, that they had the necessary sense of rhythm, timing, character, the snap of language, the pull on a line.”

“Part of what we should be able to do at RNZ is make use of opportunities to champion and celebrate new writing and new young writers,” says RNZ’s commissioning editor of drama and readings Adam Macaulay. “RNZ is very proud to be part of this collaboration with the IIML. It’s exciting projects like this that make RNZ different in an increasingly amorphous and sadly uniform media environment.”

The aural nature of the creative writing process makes radio its natural home in many ways.

“We work with our mind’s ear,” says Ms Perkins. “We listen as we write. Often, we read our work back to ourselves aloud, to test it for leaks or dodgy rattles. If it sounds off, you know instantly—and if it lands right, you’re on your way. The ear doesn’t lie.”

Page Numbers will air on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand National’s The Reading at 10:45am.

Reading schedule:
10.45am Monday 3 April, Forever Setting Off then Going Back Inside by Nicole Phillipson
10.45am Tuesday 4 April, See You at the Airport by Harry Meech and three poems by William Connor
10.45am Wednesday 5 April, Hookworm by Rebecca Hawkes
10.45am Thursday 6 April, Plain Crazy by Ben Wilson
10.45am Friday 7 April, My Friend Rod by Eamonn Marra and three poems by William Connor

Following the initial broadcast, listeners can also go online to listen to the series again and pick up bonus material.

More on RNZ Drama’s Facebook page.

For more information contact Emily Perkins on 04-463 6905 or emily.perkins@vuw.ac.nz.

On reading Bill Manhire’s Tell Me My Name

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The road goes by the house

the wind sings in the tree

we sing the travelling worlds

we sing quietly

(we sing quietly)

 

from ‘1’

 

I have never learned to meditate but running on the beach is a way of being completely in the moment, of absorbing sky, sea and sand, with everything else on hold. I find the same thing happens when I do cryptic crosswords—whether as a bedtime ritual or in a waiting-room—the head clatter dissolves. I have, courtesy of Bill Manhire’s Tell Me My Name, discovered a new floating aid: the riddle poem.

Bill’s book is a collection of riddle poems with alluring photographs by Peter Peryer and a CD where the riddle poem becomes song, courtesy of Hannah Griffin’s voice and Norman Meehan’s music.

 

I’m made of where you’re going

I’m made of north and south

I’m made of possibility

I’m made of somewhere else

 

from ‘4’

 

Upon first reading, I meet the poems with the riddleness waiting in the rhyme, the echoes, the porousness, the enigma, the sweetly crafted melody.  I let song wait and then the poems start to sing themselves because they are music rich. There is such openness, as though you enter a vast field that might be corn or might be sunflowers, that generates both movement and stillness.

Upon second reading, I pay attention to the riddles and drift in and out of an atlas, a memory, a shadow. Now I have my floating aid. I am not sure what things are or the answer to the riddles, and that is the unexpected joy of it (like the rhythm of running or cryptic clues where there is a Ha! at arrival which is good but not as good as the travel). One day I will look at the end page and discover the names of things, but it will puncture the delight of currently never knowing (in many cases). Perhaps I have found a bridge, an ocean, an echo, a family tree, a watermelon, a muddy puddle, ice, the dark, longitude and latitude. I am thinking this is the perfect book to take on a long haul flight, to have in my bag for steamy queues, but I don’t want to lose it. The riddle poem as flotation aid is like a strip razor sharpening your mind, a shot of vitamins that restores equilibrium.

And now the CD. I keep playing it over and over to fall into the honey gravel lift and dip of Hannah’s voice or the textured music, the delicious pared-back feel so that each note— whether violin, piano, whistles or voice—resonates.

Victoria University Press has produced a beautiful hard-cover book. It is going in my carry-on bag.

 

I’m always at the cinema

I’m always at the beach

I’m waiting in that secret place

that lovers try to reach

 

from ‘5’

 

Victoria University page

Interview with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ National

The Poet Laureates are heading to Dunedin in May – from my experience it’s unmissable

 

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I got to see the Wellington Writers and Readers Festival version of A Circle of Laureates – and it was a rare and special occasion. I just loved it to bits, as did everyone in the packed-out room. I can’t recommend it highly enough.  My post on the event.

 

At the Dunedin Writers Festival in May:

A rare treat: nine of the ten New Zealand Poet Laureates will gather to read their work, with Rob Tuwhare joining them to represent his late father, Hone Tuwhare. Twenty years ago, John Buck of Te Mata Estate Winery created the Te Mata Estate Laureate Award; in 2007 the government took over funding of a Poet Laureate and vested responsibility for the Award with the National Library. This session of New Zealand’s poetry elite features Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner, Jenny Bornholdt, Rob Tuwhare for Hone Tuwhare, Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan and current Laureate C.K. Stead. Fergus Barrowman (Publisher, Victoria University Press) will MC the event.
Tickets can be booked here.
In association with the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.