National Portrait: poet, teacher, father of New Zealand creative writing Bill Manhire

Reading is the key to finding your writing voice, says poet, teacher and father of creative writing in New Zealand, Bill ...
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Reading is the key to finding your writing voice, says poet, teacher and father of creative writing in New Zealand, Bill Manhire.

"The past seems empty until you turn and stare at it. I find myself short of sequence and narrative - the and then of my own life defeats me - but the clutter of moments are everywhere." - Bill Manhire in Under the Influence

You probably know him as the father of creative writing in New Zealand. The silver-haired guy who founded that course with the ridiculous name that all our best writers have on their CV.

The rest of the world knows him as a poet, and a fine one. A poet commissioned to contribute to a Battle of the Somme commemoration in Norwich. A poet who last year was a visiting professor at British creative writing giant East Anglia University - sandwiched between Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin.

Manhire's 2015 anthology of short stories included a revealing essay about his early childhood.
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Manhire's 2015 anthology of short stories included a revealing essay about his early childhood.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Bill Manhire is better known here for teaching. He's the first to admit the culture doesn't give a stuff about poetry.

There was a day when Kiwis would recite poems at midnight - in the pubs Manhire was born in, grew up in, worked in and imagined he would eventually run. Sure, we dust it off for weddings and funerals, but poetry has ceased to be populist. No matter, says Manhire. Poetry keeps on keeping on, making magic from unlikely language. Every five years someone declares poetry dead, "and poetry wanders around the corner and does something else".

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It's been three years since Manhire retired from the writing school he founded - Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) - to become a "proper writer". How's that going, I ask?

He laughs. He's writing neither more nor less than when he was helping tease out the voices of New Zealand's next creative talents. But it has given him time for commissions, such as the Somme poems, which launch today.

For someone whose World War I knowledge came from British war poets and Blackadder Goes Forth, it was a revealing and upsetting experience imagining epitaphs for lost soldiers - those Known unto God.

He hopes he's created something of heft - not just "an emotional yelp". Something like Erebus Voices, the poem he wrote for Sir Ed Hillary to read at the 2004 Erebus commemoration in Antarctica. But good or bad - that's for others to say.

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It's hard to hear him above the whine of power tools - they're earthquake strengthening his central Wellington apartment building, a remnant of the Hannahs shoe empire. The bookcases made from old shoe shelves reach for the ceiling despite their heavy load. Hotere paintings stud the walls - dark fruit of the pair's long collaboration.

Manhire and wife Marion have been here for years. Having been shuttled from southern pub to southern pub as a child, Manhire likes to stay put. His father Jack drank and socialised and drank some more, while his mother Maisie ran the taverns. They must have been a proper family once, he observes in the essay that concludes The Stories of Bill Manhire - the short story collection he published last year.

"A soft self-pity was on his breath like whisky," Manhire says of his father. When he was 6 or 7, his mother read him Requiescat by Matthew Arnold, about an exhausted woman finding peace in death. He imagines that's how she felt.

It frightened him, that poem. Enough that he can recite it, still. That's what poetry is, Manhire says - something that gives you a "strange, slightly shaky, out-of-body experience".

Not that he thinks of death as a release. Far from it. He's an avowed atheist but admits to a completely irrational fear that his consciousness would linger on after death, that he would feel the worms wriggling in.

That's lessened now he's faced death's reality. Having not been in hospital since the age of 3, the 69-year-old found himself undergoing 12½ hours of surgery, having been diagnosed with early cancer. He's good now, though, and if death is like anaesthetic absence then he's OK with that. 

Manhire was obviously a precocious reader and writer. His mother - a former school teacher - would take the rail car from Clinton to Gore library every week to fetch books. He set up his own library to trade titles with the other kids. He discovered an un-returned war story the other day. Its owner is now a retired judge. He's waiting for his summons.

Manhire wrote his first poem at 6 or 7, about a plane:

"Like a giant metal bird

it flies along, unseen, unheard

far below, a patchwork quilt

seems to rise and fall and wilt."

No-one encouraged him, so he switched to writing Biggles serials. That's where poetry goes wrong, he reckons. Kids appreciate the magic of language and rhyme, but by the time they get to high school English, poetry has become about themes and meter and spelling onomatopoeia. We don't dissect songs or films, we experience them. So why not poetry?

"There is this sense in the culture that poetry has to be there at the big rites of passage. And yet the culture doesn't give a stuff about poetry.

"I think most people's experience of poetry in high school is an experience in intimidation and mild humiliation."

Of course Manhire doesn't just write poems. His short stories are witty and clever and sometimes eviscerating of interviewers asking stupid questions. There is an unfinished novel from the 1990s. Or three chapters of it. It's set in the 1950s. Queen Elizabeth is in exile in New Zealand. Margaret is in charge in England and hunting her down. Things got complicated with his life and he shelved it. He occasionally pulls it out and wishes he'd taken it further. There's still time.

Manhire doesn't miss the teaching desperately. It was a bit like being barman in one of his father's pubs - nudging people to talk. Helping them find their voice in the same way we grow into speech, copying the language of our parents until our parroted phrases mature into something original and new.

"The people who never become writers are the people who say 'I don't read anything at all, I'm spinning my webs of genius out of my internal pain all the time'. That's nonsense."

When they named the IIML building Bill Manhire House last month, someone called the writing workshop the "dream with a deadline". He rather likes that. His IIML successor, Damien Wilkins once called him IIML's Colonel Sanders -  "He's not actually cooking the chicken, he's a luminous cloud hovering". He doesn't mind that either.

"I've eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken and quite liked it."

 - Stuff

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