Tag Archives: Bill Manhire

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

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

Three new books by three VUP authors get an art gallery outing

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We warmly invite you to a reading from three new books
by three celebrated VUP writers.

The internet of things, new poetry by Kate Camp
Some Things to Place in a Coffin, new poetry by Bill Manhire
Lifting, a new novel by Damien Wilkins

on Wednesday 12 April, 5.30pm–7.30pm
at Adam Art Gallery,
Gate 3, Victoria University, Kelburn Parade.

Refreshments will be served.

All three books will be for sale courtesy of Vic Books. Guests will also be able to purchase Tell Me My Name, a collaboration between Bill Manhire, composer Norman Meehan, vocalist Hannah Griffin, and photographer Peter Peryer.

All welcome.

Terrific interview on Radio National: Kim Hill with Bill Manhire and some new poems

 

Bill Manhire: collected riddles

From Saturday Morning, 10:35 am 4th March
Bill Manhire

 

Bill Manhire has two new books out this year – a collection of poetry called Some Things To Place in a Coffin and Tell Me My Name – a collection of riddles along with a CD of songs composed by Norman Meehan, sung by Hannah Griffin.

Bill Manhire founded the International Institute of Modern Letters, which is home to New Zealand’s leading creative writing program. He is now Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing at Victoria. In 1997 he was made New Zealand’s inaugural Poet Laureate, and in 2005 he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and in in the same year was named an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate. He holds an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Otago and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. He received the Prime Minister’s Award for poetry in 2007. In 2016 Victoria University Press published The Stories of Bill Manhire which collected new and published short fiction.

Entries open for Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award 2017

 

Friday, 24 February 2017

The judge of the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award is prize-winning New Zealand poet and fiction writer Bill Manhire. Manhire has won several New Zealand Book Awards, a number of significant fellowships, and he was the 1997/1998 New Zealand Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate. He was also honoured with the 2007 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.

This prestigious biennial poetry award from Landfall and the Kathleen Grattan Trust is for an original collection of poems, or one long poem, by a New Zealand or Pacific permanent resident or citizen.
Individual poems in the collection can have been previously published, but the collection as a whole should be unpublished.

Entries are accepted until 31 July 2017 and must be either received or postmarked by this date. The result will be announced in Landfall 234 (November 2017), and the winner receives $10,000 and a year’s subscription to Landfall. Otago University Press has the right to publish the winning collection.

For full entry details, and to learn more about Kathleen Grattan, please visit the Award Page.

bill manhire

Poetry Shelf The Summer Season: Poets pick poems – Tim Upperton picks Bill Manhire

 

Kevin

 

I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.

The one far place I know

is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,

there’s that dark, celestial glow,

heaviness of the cave, the hive.

 

Music. Someone warms his hands at the fire,

breaking off the arms of chairs,

breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort

surely to keep alive. Soon he can hardly see,

and so, quietly, he listens: then someone lifts him

and it’s some terrible breakfast show.

 

There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.

They lift us. Eventually we all shall go

into the dark furniture of the radio.

 

©Bill Manhire, Lifted  Victoria University Press, 2005.

 

The eldest of my children published a poem in a recent issue of Sport about the two of us. The poem ends, “We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin.'” I forget who Kevin was, but of all the poems of Bill Manhire’s that I admire, this one, “Kevin,” this secular prayer, is the one I admire most. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” another secular prayer: what is there, when we all must die, and we have lost religious faith? Arnold finds an answer, of sorts, in personal relations: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” Manhire finds it in human continuity, perhaps the poetic tradition he has inherited, which includes Arnold: “There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.” The man “breaking off the arms of chairs, / breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort / surely to keep alive” is no doubt a metaphor, but I think of the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, in the winter famine of 1918-1919, who did exactly this. This poem conveys harsh truths, unironically, sympathetically, and in its hopelessness – as in Arnold’s hopelessness – there is a glint of hope, or consolation. Perhaps the only afterlife is in “the dark furniture of the radio” – one of those stained oak radios of my childhood, its transistors humming, a vehicle for the voices of the living and the dead. “They lift us” – “lift” being a particularly resonant word for Manhire – in the way that hymns lifted previous generations. This is such a sad, desolate poem, but every time I read it, it cheers me.

Tim Upperton

 

Tim Upperton’s poems have been anthologised in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (VUP) and Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House). His second book, The Night We Ate The Baby (Haunui Press), was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016.