Bill Manhire: Wizard of odes

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 23/09/2012
Bill Manhire

"Cultural Olympian" Bill Manhire will soon finish up as a professor at Victoria University to make a go of life as a fulltime writer.

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A few months ago, back when Nadzeya Ostapchuk was still bulking up on steroid-dusted cornflakes and our  best athletes were wondering how many pairs of shoes to pack for London, another of our top performers was already there, being Olympian in New Zealand's name.

Prime TV didn't broadcast it in HD, but in late June Wellington's literary multi-tasker Bill Manhire took part in London's "Poetry Parnassus" - a week-long jamboree involving one poet from each country competing in the Games, (well almost - they had terrible trouble finding poets from Monaco, Liechtenstein and Vanuatu).

The notion of 150 wild-haired young bards limbering up for haiku-writing speed trials or holding a quatrain throwdown is appealing, but sadly the gathering, part of a four-year nationwide ''cultural Olympiad'', was a non-competitive one. ''Poets are very loving creatures,'' says Manhire (who is 65, and has short, silvery, receding hair) ''so we supported each other like nobody's business.''

The main bill was a Friday night reading by the biggest stars, which was how Manhire found himself at the Royal Festival Hall, in front of 2500 people, sharing the stage with Nobel Prize winners Wole Soyinka and Seamus Heaney and former United States poet laureate Kay Ryan.

Manhire is, in other words, probably New Zealand's most famous living poet. He's published numerous collections and won awards including fellowships to Menton in France and Antarctica. When Sir Ed Hillary needed a poem to read during the Erebus memorial service in Antarctica in 2004, Manhire got the call. In 2005 he became a CNZM (that's the middle of the five gongs).  His books get nice reviews in the Guardian and New York Times and sell rather well for poetry collections, though he claims to have no idea of the actual numbers.

He's confident, though, that he couldn't have lived on the earnings of poetry alone. Which until now has been no big deal,  because he's also a professor at Victoria and founder of the university's creative writing course, whose graduates include some of the country's best-known writers - Barbara Anderson, Jenny Bornholdt, Ken Duncum, and Emily Perkins, to name a few.

But in January Manhire is quitting, and his directorship of Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML)  will pass to colleague Damien Wilkins.

''For many, many years I've been saying I have to leave the university and give myself a chance to be a proper writer. Now that's what I'm doing. It could be quite scary.''

Manhire's urge to run the show started young. As a publican's son in the South Otago town of Clinton, he started a children's library at his parents' pub. He founded the school stamp club and newspaper. By the 1970s, in between postgrad degrees in his specialist subject of Old Icelandic sagas, he set up a press to publish his and friends' poems. He's forever editing anthologies, developing new courses at IIML - making stuff happen.

For all the influence he wields, though, he likes to be ''quite invisible''. He thinks it's a sort of Wizard of Oz syndrome, common among painters, poets and musicians.

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''You want what's produced to be big and booming and occupying the whole world, but you're just the little person behind the curtain, crossing out this word and putting in a better word.''

The wizard has a soft and low voice. He's round-faced, boyish somehow. He and his journalist wife Marion McLeod live in a converted warehouse in central Wellington. (The children, Vanessa and Toby, are long grown up, with their own wordy careers in publishing and journalism.) The apartment is a high, airy space wallpapered with paintings, most of them by Ralph Hotere, with whom Manhire has collaborated since the late 1960s. (''We've always had this arrangement that he can help himself to my words at any time, and I can help myself to his images at any time.'')

Where there aren't paintings, there are bookshelves, and he has a new book to add to them, a Selected Poems culled mainly from nine earlier collections.

The poems he's most pleased with are those written during his six months in Menton in 2004, ''the first time I'd actually been a writer day after day after day''. They include elegies to friends including historian Michael King.

He's not impressed by all his work.

''There's earlier stuff that I feel a little embarrassed by, in the way that I feel troubled if I see photographs of myself at the age of 23, with desperate sideburns and floral shirts.''

In the 80s he took a break from poetry altogether, because, as he put it in one interview, ''it began to feel as if I were becoming a cheap imitation of myself''.

The kind of Bill Manhire poem he was trying to exorcise ''would be fairly short. It would probably have a little bit of irony attached to it. It would try to be charming and disarming the way a small child might tilt their head on one side ...  Something slightly cute and syrupy''.

He switched to prose, mainly short stories, for most of the decade. Where his poems had been ''little machines that were designed to work some kind of enchantment on the reader'', the short stories were ''disenchantment machines'' - attempts to look at the world sceptically. His experiments included The Brain of Katherine Mansfield, a spoof of those ''pick-your-own-ending'' children's stories so popular at the time, which merrily shreds cliches of Kiwi identity while directing the reader to choose between the Pounamu Decoder, the Jump Thermos, or the Swiss Army Knife.

Does Manhire worry his work isn't serious enough?

No. ''I think people who take themselves absolutely seriously and think they're making serious, important interventions in the world we live in are really awful  ...  I'm quite happy for poetry to be part of the entertainment business. There's some point where you can't tell the poet doing a reading from the stand-up comic doing a routine.''

Yet poetry can do bigger things as well. ''I'm glad that people pull out poems at funerals and weddings and  naming ceremonies and Anzac Day.''

In late 2004, just back from Menton, Manhire got a phone call from  Peter Beck, dean at the time of Christchurch Cathedral, who was leading a service in Antarctica marking the 25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster.

''Ed Hillary was going to go as well, but [Beck said] Hillary was not a practising Christian, and while he was happy to be part of the service he didn't want to read a Christian text, therefore could I write something for him.''

He wrote the poem, Erebus Voices, quickly. ''I'm someone who doesn't believe in this thing called inspiration. Hard work is the thing that produces possibility.''

Deadlines are a creative constraint, rather like the exercises Manhire has foisted on his writing students over the years, such as asking for a story constructed only from words found on a newspaper's racing page.
Such exercises work, says Manhire, because ''if you insist on a really ridiculous set of rules it makes people more inventive''.

At Frankfurt he'll take the stage with a writer from Iceland, last year's country of honour, to chat about the  similarities between two remote island nations with a love of reading.

His years studying Old Icelandic won't be much use though - the language he learnt is to modern Icelandic as Shakespearean English is to how we speak.

''When I was in Iceland I only knew how to pronounce Icelandic in a sort of  reconstructed medieval way. I would go  up to someone and say 'Gadzooks varlet, ist yon the route to Reykjavik?', and they'd all laugh politely and then speak back  to me in perfect English. So I'm expecting perfect English at the Frankfurt Book Fair.''

When Manhire was in London for the cultural Olympiad, he got a kick from hearing the different languages.

''The big thing about poetry is that it's language used musically. Not necessarily to tell a story or evoke a mood, but to do something musical. So to hear the different musical systems, like the tonal languages of Vietnam or Thailand or whatever, was very exciting.''

Something else struck him too.

''This sounds a bit fatuous, but it was very good to be in an environment where you realised it was true that poetry was a central thing in every culture and in every language in the world.

''You can live in a place like New Zealand ... and think you're practising something outdated and irrelevant. You've just got a bad habit that people would like to cure you of. It was good to see how crucial it was to people, and to meet people who had friends shot because of poems they had written."

Manhire is reading at Te Papa on October 6 and 7: These Rough Notes: An Evocation of Antarctica. See eventfinder.co.nz.

- The Dominion Post

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