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A conversation with Bill Manhire


Photo by Grant Maiden

Photo by Grant Maiden

Bill Manhire is a poet, short story writer, professor and former Dunedin scarfie. He was the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate and is the founder of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

He is the author of many collections of poetry and prose, of which the most recent are Some Things to Place in a Coffin and Tell Me My Name, both published in 2017 by Victoria University Press.

You have a great story called ‘Some Questions I Am Frequently Asked’, which is a fictional interview poking fun at the generic questions writers are asked regularly. Are there things about your poetry that you’re surprised people don’t ask you about more often?

One question might be: ‘Why are some of your poems so weird?’ Another: ‘Why do some of your poems make sense immediately, but others never do?’

Why are some of your poems so weird? And why do some of your poems make sense immediately, but others never do? 

My answer to both those questions is that life’s pretty much like that – lots of weird, and a steady mix of straightforward and totally baffling stuff.

What advice did you receive as a young writer that was particularly memorable or helpful? Who were your teachers and mentors as you were starting out?

I didn’t even realise there were poets, dead or living, in New Zealand until I was 17 and starting university. I thought poetry writing all happened elsewhere, and somewhere in the past. Young writers these days aren’t nearly as ignorant. I guess I developed a habit of intensive reading as a way to learn. My teachers and mentors were other writers – I learned from them just by reading the poems and stories they had written.

I copied a lot of writers when I was starting out. People can make a bit of a fetish about being original, but I think imitation is a very positive thing when you’re just getting going. That’s how you learn to talk when you’re little – you copy the adult voices around you, usually a parent. Yet somehow you end up sounding like yourself.  

I remember finding some of the injunctions of Ezra Pound important. Stuff like ‘Go in fear of abstractions.’ I still think that’s pretty useful advice. And I was excited when I read interviews with writers, as in The Paris Review. It wasn’t so much what they said – in fact they often contradicted one another – as the fact that they all thought quite hard about what they were doing. They consciously worked at their craft. And they had a sense of audience. I think that was an important thing to realise – the importance of readers. You have to imagine real readers for what you write; you can’t just wave at yourself in the mirror and think you’ve made a poem.

I studied the Old Norse sagas when I was at university, and they have a terrific tale about how poetry came into the world. There was a wandering wise man called Kvasir – he could answer any question anyone asked him – who was captured and slain by dwarves. They drained the blood from his body and mixed it with honey. That mixture, blood and honey, is called Kvasir’s Mead, and anyone who drinks it will be a poet. That idea (the blood and honey, tough wisdom made palatable) is rather like one of Carl Sandburg’s definitions of poetry as ‘the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits’. Myself, I’d get rid of the idea of synthesis. I quite like to have biscuits in one line, and hyacinths in the next.

People often struggle with how to approach poetry, common hesitations being that it’s too difficult or inaccessible. Do you have any tips for how to read a poem, which in turn might help young writers with how to write a poem?

I’d say, try not to worry too much about meaning, any more than you would worry about the meaning of a cloud or a tree or a piece of music. In fact, do your absolute best to steer clear of all those grand themes we’re supposed to find in poems. I’ve always liked the answer Bob Dylan once gave to an interviewer who asked him what his songs were about. ‘Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.’ In other words, don’t ask me these irrelevant questions.

Treat a poem in the way you would treat a new song or a movie. Just enjoy the direct experience. If you like what you find, or even half like it, go back to it again. Let the poem declare some grand meaning if it wants to, but don’t demand that it do so. And remember that poems are like the Tardis: they’re often bigger on the inside than the outside. And once you step inside and play with the controls, they’ll take you to amazing places.

Many young writers are also interested in songwriting. How do you approach writing song lyrics, or poetry that is going to be set to music, compared with your usual writing practice? Are there any particular nuances young writers should be aware of?

Damien Wilkins says somewhere that it’s hard to set a poem to music ‘because it’s music on top of music.’ In other words, poems – the really good ones – already have their own music written into them. They perform themselves fully on the page. A song lyric shouldn’t try to do too much on its own. If you’re writing words for a song, you’re creating a musical opportunity rather than a stand-alone performance. I’d say, write very simply, and embrace repetition.

What do you think is different about the New Zealand literary industry for young writers today, from how it was for you at the beginning of your career? What remains the same? 

I don’t think anyone would have even thought to use a phrase like ‘a New Zealand literary industry’ back when I was starting to write. There simply wasn’t one. There were a few literary magazines, but no prizes and awards, no writing fellowships to speak of, certainly no creative writing programmes. And when I was a university student, we studied the canon, the great books, chronologically. I was annoyed by all that at the time. I wanted to study contemporary poetry, not Milton’s Paradise Lost. But I’m pleased now that I did read the great tradition. And anyway I found contemporary poetry for myself, independently, at the same time. It was quite important for me, I think, to find writers I loved who weren’t set texts or classroom favourites. Often it’s the writers who are least ‘teachable’ who are the most inspiring.

The thing that remains the same is that, even though there’s much more institutional support these days, you still don’t make a living out of writing. Writing poetry might be the thing that makes your life matter to you, but it’s not going to give you a steady income. But that would be true across most of the arts in New Zealand.

Your new collection of poems Some Things to Place in a Coffin is in some ways held together by these long sequences of sparse poetry. How did you come to write the long poem ‘The Beautiful World’?

I got it in parts. I wrote about half of it, including the first couple of sections, fairly quickly, then got the rest over a period of months. It wasn’t exactly Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. I had much more text than I eventually used. I wanted to produce a sort of gap-filled narrative where it feels like maybe 50% of the story is missing – so it was important to choose the bits that worked best and get them in the right order. I’m keen for the reader to imagine what happens in the spaces between the various sections. In fact, the poem’s success depends on it eventually being bigger in the reader’s mind than on the page.

Of course you want a poem to look as if it came out pretty much as it is on the page. But a poem is like one of those gymnastic routines at the Olympics, or the sort of figure skating you sometimes see on television. Or some amazing conjuring trick. Everything needs to look astonishing and somehow inevitable, a sort of inspired utterance, but there’s endless and sometimes pretty mundane work sitting in behind the final effect. You revise your way to effortlessness.

Simon Armitage recently wrote that ‘Language is my enemy – I spend my life battling with it.’ How do you see your relationship with language?

I think language is fantastic but imperfect, like a guitar with a broken string – so your job is to play it as best you can.

Hone Tuwhare used to talk about needing to build his word-hoard (an Old English phrasing). You never quite know what feelings and experiences you’re going to record, or perhaps imagine, so you need to be able to reach into your word-hoard for the language that will work best. I would guess the English poet with the biggest word-hoard would be Gerard Manley Hopkins, who kept inventing words because the ones that existed were never enough. I’ve got a pretty limited word-hoard, I think, but I do my best with what I’ve got. I like making words that have never met before bump into one another on the page.

What are the aspects of your own writing skillset that you’re pleased you have become more confident with over time?

I’ve got better (and braver) at using rhyme. (Perhaps the song writing has helped with this.) English is a mean and miserable language when it comes to rhyme. Moon, June, spoon. Other languages – Italian and Russian, for example – are much more generous, and it’s quite natural to rhyme in them. But in English, rhyme is often comic – as with limericks. And it can be disastrous for, say, six-year-olds who are told by a classroom teacher that rhyme words are what matter most in a poem.

On the other hand I think sound patterns are at the heart of poetry – they tug words away from meaning and towards music. And one bizarre thing is that the need to find a rhyming word can force you to move in directions you might not have otherwise imagined. Rhyme can make you surprise yourself.

I’d like to be able to write poems with longer, more complex sentences in them – so that the pauses that the line-breaks signal could play in interesting ways against the syntax and rhythms of a big sentence. But I’m a short sentences person, I think.

You always seem to have fun in your work – there is a joy to it. Were there any periods in your writing career where the writing, or even getting to the practical act of writing, seemed like a real grind or a struggle? If there was, did you develop any strategies for getting through it?

I think it’s always a bit of a struggle. But if I’m entirely stuck, I find that if I free-write for a page or two, not thinking about the content I’m producing, just writing phrase after phrase, I’ll eventually produce a couple of interesting lines, and they’ll be the start of something more interesting which maybe I can more deliberately follow on from. I did have a phase where I was sick of my own poems, and so for a couple of years I wrote short stories. When I came back to poetry, my head had changed a little, which was good for the things I went on to write.

Prompts and exercises can be useful, too, if you feel you’re getting stale – anything that makes you jump the tracks. Some of the writing ideas in The Exercise Book are pretty good, I think.

The greatest danger for poets is self-importance. Some poets really do believe themselves to be wiser and more perceptive than the rest of the human race. For them, poems are effectively a way of preaching from a pulpit, or writing a newspaper editorial. It can all get very pompous. I do think there is a basic enjoyment in writing poetry, and I like poets who let playfulness and humour be part of how they are serious: I mean poets like Jenny Bornholdt or James Brown or Hera Lindsay Bird. I like the story of W.H. Auden asking an aspiring poet why they want to write poetry. ‘If,’ says Auden, ‘the young man answers, “I have important things I want to say,” then he is not a poet. If he answers, “I like hanging around words listening to what they say,” then maybe he is going to be a poet.’

You’re renowned not only for your own writing but as the country’s foremost creative writing teacher. For teachers who might be nervous about teaching poetry or who don’t have a lot of experience with it, can you offer any practical suggestions on how to approach it?

I think the greatest danger for teachers is believing that you should know everything about a poem before starting to teach it. Apart from anything else, you’ll bore yourself to death and, as for the students, why would they want to pay attention when they sense that you know everything already? They’ll listen to you instead of listening to the poem. Better to find poems that you don’t have much acquaintance with – certainly not ones you studied at university – and work with them in class. Don’t think too hard about ‘themes’, and don’t worry if there are bits you and the students find difficult or even totally baffling. The main thing is to find out about the poem – decide what you like or don’t like about it – not before you walk through the door but in the classroom, along with the students. Of course that’s why creative writing workshops are exciting – there’s no pre-authorised view of the poems being presented that you have to bow down to.

So maybe it would be worth trying to run some poetry classes along the lines of writing workshops – except that, rather than bringing their own writing, students would bring along and introduce poems by published poets. Maybe four or five poems in the course of a single class, so that there’s time for proper discussion... and maybe poems could be selected from the last three or four years of Best New Zealand Poems. In fact if you chose from The Best of Best New Zealand Poems, you’d probably be able to hear the poets themselves read the poem before you even start discussion; and you could add the poets’ own background notes into the discussion too. The Poetry Archive is another great source for poetry audio. The main thing would be that no one in the class would have their minds made up beforehand; or be trying to bypass the poem in order to find out ‘what teacher thinks’. It’s much better for the students to bypass the teacher and get to know the poem directly. Paradoxically, a good teacher can help this happen.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know, but then I never did.