An Interview With Poet Bill Manhire

Nick Twemlow

Bill Manhire is one of New Zealand’s most visible writers and certainly its most visible poet. The country’s inaugural poet laureate, Manhire is the author of more than ten books of poems, including Lifted, recently published by his long-time New Zealand publisher, Victoria University Press.

Throughout his career, which spans over four decades, he’s also managed to find time to write a children’s book, a collection of short stories, and several nonfiction titles, as well as serving as editor of several anthologies, most recently 121 New Zealand Poems, published by Random House New Zealand. His day job, as director of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, may be what brings Manhire into international focus.

Manhire’s IIML is a component of the literary organization of the same name that Glenn Schaeffer, the president of Fontainebleau Resorts, founded six years ago at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in order to support established and emerging writers worldwide and to help persecuted writers prevail against literary censorship. The IIML in New Zealand, which is similar to programs at the University of Iowa and the University of California, Irvine, operates a one-year MA program in creative writing—the “Manhire Course” as it’s known in Wellington, famed for honing the talents of many of New Zealand’s brightest young and midcareer writers. In an effort to foster an antipodal literary exchange, two recent graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop visit New Zealand each summer to teach an intersession writing workshop at the institute.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Manhire about the genesis of the IIML.

Bill Manhire: We’d had a very small creative writing course at Victoria since the mid-70s. It was called “Original Composition” and was a tiny undergraduate element within an English literature degree. It became famous—well, famous in New Zealand—for the quality and publishing success of its graduates, so in the mid-90s we moved to expand it into a graduate MA program. I remember travelling around the States and talking to various people: Frank Conroy at Iowa, Charles Wright at the University of Virginia, Elizabeth Tallent at Stanford, among others. Then, in a sort of millennial moment in the year 2000, I got a letter out of the blue from Glenn Schaeffer—on Mandalay Resort Group letterhead. It was at the time he was setting up the IIML, and he had somehow heard of our program and wondered if we would like to be part of this particular piece of literary activism. In a way, I think Glenn was joining up a few of the dots in his own life. He had graduated from UC Irvine and from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now he lived in Las Vegas but had also started visiting New Zealand. His support meant that in our case we could step away from the English department, which I think was a very good thing. Indeed, the one piece of vigorous advice I remember Frank Conroy giving me was, “Get clear of the English department!”

The thing to remember is that New Zealand’s is a very small literary culture, so that the creative writing program here at Victoria probably has even more visible presence than Iowa in the USA or UEA [University of East Anglia] in England. The usual accusations about gate-keeping and clone-production get made—maybe because, although we’re a very derivative community, our local myth is still a frontier one of self-sufficiency and independence. In theory, we can all build our own houses. Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, actually did so. The idea that you might learn, semi-institutionally, to do something you ought to be able to do instinctively from deep within yourself strikes against the national sense of individual resourcefulness as well as against romantic ideas of composition. But, in fact, most of our writing graduates are very distinct from one another—partly because we mix the genres up in our graduate program; the novelists and short story writers and poets and memoirists workshop together—so that the old idea of finding a voice is a sort of daily fact rather than just a good intention.

P&W: This exchange seems to hold great promise for both Kiwi and American writers.

BM: I think the exchange thing will become increasingly important for New Zealand writers. We need to stay local but develop some sort of global reach. You can do this a little through initiatives like the Best New Zealand Poems Web site, but individual contacts are probably even more important. Given the Web, there’s still the problem of physical remoteness. “Distance looks our way” is the famous local articulation. We get overlooked.

P&W: Can you give an example?

BM: Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry. In this case “international” means many, many poems by writers from the USA and other language cultures, plus two poems by D.H. Lawrence and one by Philip Larkin! So, nothing from the English-speaking worlds outside the USA. Nothing from Ireland, Australia, Canada, Scotland…well, you can make the list yourself, and New Zealand will probably come last on it. Another example is J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, which deliberately omits writers from all English-language literatures on the grounds that they are “more readily available.” I bet most people reading that anthology will already know who Pablo Neruda, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott are. But very few will ever have heard of Allen Curnow or Hone Tuwhare.

P&W: Even in Australia, right?

BM: Mark Twain has a nice joke somewhere about the fact that [there is] 1,200 miles of ocean between us, and the two literatures—probably because of the old Imperial trading patterns—have very little to do with one another. Maori writers [indigenous to New Zealand] are maybe more energetic than Pakeha [non-Maori New Zealanders] in taking their work to the world: They’re very much on the post-colonial circuit and are key members of the growing indigenous writers’ networks.

P&W: For most American readers, the only exposure to Maori literature may well be Hulme’s The Bone People, which remains the only New Zealand book to win the Booker Prize. From your perspective as a Pakeha, can you talk about the idea of there being two New Zealand literatures, Maori and Pakeha?

BM: Maori literature in the Maori language is clearly distinct. There's an extraordinary tradition of oral composition in Maori—song poems, largely—still thriving. On the other hand, there’s very little writing in Maori that works with Western literary forms—a few short stories, one or two plays, a novel. But if we think of writing in English, then some of our greatest and best-read writers in English are Maori, and of course they write about a Maori world. As well as Hulme, you’d want to add writers like Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, and Hone Tuwhare, and a host of younger writers coming after them. Maori theater has been very strong, too, and has been good at bringing “theatrical” elements from everyday Maori ceremonial practices over to the contemporary stage.

Some Maori writers in English would feel a great degree of connection with indigenous writers in Australia, or North America, and of course throughout the Pacific. I don’t think we’re at all like the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium, though, where the two literatures have nothing to do with one another. There’s plenty of cross-fertilization. The Maori poet Hone Tuwhare learns from the Pakeha poet RAK Mason; the Pakeha poet Glenn Colquhoun learns from Hone Tuwhare. And both Tuwhare and Colquhoun would be greedily reading poets from elsewhere in the world. It’s probably more like the Scots and the English—there are different traditions, and to some extent aspirations, but by and large we rumble around together. The deep power of Maori culture is that it scavenges what it needs from all over the place, yet stays true to itself—or true to its various selves, for it’s a strongly tribal world. I say this as a Pakeha, of course; I daresay some Maori would feel that there’s something much purer and uncontaminated, which might be recovered or returned to.

P&W: I’d like to turn to the 121 New Zealand Poems anthology. For readers unfamiliar with it, in both its incarnations, can you talk about the genesis of the first volume, 100 New Zealand Poems? Did you assemble the volume as a corrective to prior New Zealand anthologies? And was the new edition a corrective to the earlier edition?

BN: We do a lot of lecturing to large groups of students in New Zealand universities, and while I was in the department of English I got used to talking about poetry in ways that weren't too reductive yet left the students at least wanting, or so I hoped, to read some more poems. I thought it was okay for poems in some crucial way to be part of the world of everyday entertainment, and that it would do the academy no great harm to acknowledge this. So I suspect the anthologizing impulse comes out of that discovery in my teaching life. This means that 121 New Zealand Poems is only a corrective to previous anthologies in the sense that it is happy to entertain the reader in a range of ways. You know, “It must give pleasure.” There are earlier New Zealand anthologies that have a polemical function—especially the Caxton and Penguin anthologies edited by Allen Curnow—and some which mainly set out to announce a new bunch of kids on the block, like Arthur Baysting's early '70s gathering, The Young New Zealand Poets.

P&W: Can you talk about the decision to not include poets’ names on the pages where their poems appear?

BM: There was a bit of low cunning in the anthology’s principle of design—one poem per poet, and the poet’s name only available on the contents page or from the endnotes. If you know anything about the local “tall poppy” syndrome, you’ll understand how such a book might find its way to a fairly wide readership. Somehow it was possible to point to excellence but mask it by this structure that suggested everyone was equal.

P&W: Would you quote a few lines and talk about a poem or two in the anthology that might provide a glimpse at some of what you find uniquely Kiwi about New Zealand poetry?

BM: The best known poem in 121 New Zealand Poems is probably Denis Glover’s “The Magpies.” It’s a sort of ballady, Audenesque poem about rural life during the Depression, making some fairly familiar points about the wickedness of big money, as well as the fragility of human endeavor in the face of the natural world’s relentlessness. Tom and Elizabeth, Glover’s brave farming couple, fail; but the magpies, these rather unglamorous articulations of the natural, don’t.

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations

Couldn’t give it away.

And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies say.

It’s a great refrain noise—quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle—and it runs mockingly through the whole poem, not just there in the last quatrain, nicely catching the sound we hear magpies make: like someone trying to yodel under water. But it’s weirdly instructive that this should be the best-known line in the whole of New Zealand poetry. It’s always struck me that the word that line is trying to find its way to—unsuccessfully, though it tries over and over—is “warble.” We don’t seem to do lyric grace very comfortably.