Interview with Bill Manhire

Lesley Wheeler Click to

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia, Heathen and Voicing American Poetry. She is the Henry S. Fox, Jr. Professor of English at Washington and Lee University and a recent Fulbright winner..



            Bill Manhire, New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate, is one of that nation’s most distinguished and influential writers. His many books include recent poetry volumes Victims of Lightning and Lifted; prose collections Doubtful Sounds and Songs of My Life; and numerous anthologies, including The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica and, most recently, The Best of Best New Zealand Poems, co-edited with Damien Wilkins. Born in Invercargill, one of the southernmost cities in the world, Manhire was educated in Dunedin, New Zealand and London, England. His first book, Malady, appeared in 1970; since then he has garnered many prizes and an international readership. Manhire taught English for many years at Victoria University of Wellington, where he now directs the International Institute of Modern Letters.

This interview occurred by email over the southern hemisphere fall of 2011. I lived in Wellington for several months and held a Fulbright grant to conduct research on kinds of poetic community among twenty-first writers and audiences, with a particular focus in how local commitments intersect or compete with transnational affiliations. The International Institute of Modern Letters, abbreviated IIML, proved an interesting case study for how university-based communities work; its success demonstrates the portability of workshop pedagogy and the relatively new discipline of “Creative Writing.” Manhire founded this program but has also catalyzed other creative ventures and collaborations, some of which are described below.


LW: You began to teach “Original Composition” at Victoria in 1975 as an English Department course. During that decade in the United States, the popularity of creative writing exploded and many graduate programs were founded. What did you know then about “creative writing” as an academic discipline? What models were available to you as you developed your own way of teaching writers?

BM: There weren’t any models, really. Creative writing was just an assessment opportunity for third-year English majors at first—the workshop somehow got added as an afterthought, with me as the harmless department poet detailed off to manage the meetings. So there was a lot of trial and error as we went along. I’d heard of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but only because I’d read the work of some of its poet graduates: James Tate and Marvin Bell, for example. And I was aware of the MA course recently started by Malcolm Bradbury at East Anglia.

So I knew the activity existed. A probably more important thing is that somewhere in London in the early 70s, when I was studying Old Norse, I’d picked up a book called Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, a gathering of essays by American writer-teachers. I remember being especially excited by Grace Paley’s “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken.” Also, now I look at it, I see that the back cover copy (which is made up of extracts from Jonathan Baumbach’s introduction) ticks off all the things that have become fixtures in my own thinking: “what one wants is to create a classroom situation which creates occasion for discovery”; “a writing class needs to be a community”; “a writing teacher has to . . . get to what’s unique and alive in each of his students—the real voice as opposed to what John Hawkes calls the ‘voiceless’ written language of our schools.” Imaginative discovery, a feeling of community, voice recognition—those have always seemed to me more important than instruction in the details of craft.

I’d had a little personal experience of those things when I was a student in Dunedin. A shifting group of poets would meet monthly in different writers’ houses or flats —the group included established figures like Charles Brasch and James K. Baxter, as well as younger hopefuls like me. The poems were cyclostyled (sometimes copied on Banda machines!) and distributed, and people read their work aloud and then comments were made. I remember Baxter once saying that a poem of mine was “a beauty.” That was a big moment!  Charles Brasch also proposed a poetry game to me at one point. He would look through his notebook and choose a phrase that had never quite found its way into a poem, and each of us would write the poem we thought the other might have produced. It was rather a good process: it made you read hard, and surprise yourself. I think I’ve always enjoyed the mimic possibilities of poetry writing.

So I say there were no models, but I guess I was predisposed to have some interest in writing prompts and group discussion well before I started leading workshops at university.

LW: By 1997, Victoria was offering New Zealand’s first Master’s degree in Creative Writing, and in 2000, with the assistance of US philanthropist Glenn Schaeffer, the program became known as the International Institute of Modern Letters. Why “International”?

 BM: “International” wasn’t there at the beginning. I’ve just looked out Glenn Schaeffer’s original out-of-the-blue letter, dated January 11, 2000, and written on creamy Mandalay Resort Group notepaper. “Dear Professor Manhire: I’d like to propose a notion to you. I’d like to back the formation of an Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University that operates in conjunction with your writing program.” He goes on to mention, as potential linkages for funded writer and student exchanges, UC Irvine, Cornell, Iowa, and the American Film Institute.  He suggested a lot of other astonishing initiatives. I remember thinking back then that some wicked friend had stolen some Mandalay Bay letterhead and was playing some kind of strange millennial practical joke. But no.

I gather the word “international” was subsequently suggested by Wole Soyinka, who was part funded by Glenn into some sort of chair at UNLV. The New Zealand connection must have been part of the justification for the word; likewise the establishment of UC Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation, whose home page still says: “a partner to the International Institute of Modern Letters.”

It’s an odd name, though—and we’ve never quite worked out how to shorten it.  And then, a nice irony, a few years ago one of the Auckland Universities, AUT, started a creative writing programme more or less overnight and semi-cloned our name—suddenly there existed something called The Centre for Modern Writing. A kind of magical thinking, I suppose—and the venture failed after a couple of years.

LW: So there was an element of accident. Do you think the notion of international connections is important to the program now, a decade in? The IIML nurtures literary production in New Zealand-specific ways, too, and I wonder if there’s any conflict between those two aspirations.

BM: Well, I love accidents, and what they can generate—poems as well as penicillin.

I don’t know how important the international connection thing is. As far as the teaching of creative writing goes, there are growing pedagogical networks, which have their value (like the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, the US Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and a range of learned journals), but I’ve always felt happier with informal arrangements—far more than firm inter-institutional understandings.

I do think it’s important that New Zealand writers actively look for readers off-shore, partly because some of them (well, the novelists) might find a larger audience that in turn might generate something a little like a subsistence income. Certainly New Zealand literature, like New Zealand itself, vanishes when you leave the country. But then the smaller English-language literatures aren’t and never were of much interest to publishers and editors in New York and London. There’s still the old problem of there being no cross-city buses. Information continues to go in and out from the old imperial centers, so that you have the bizarre situation of New Zealanders and Australians knowing more about the latest middling English poet or novelist than they do about each other’s major writers. I do find it astonishing—and depressing—that poets like Allen Curnow and James K. Baxter are hardly known in North America. Maybe they don’t wave to the world in sufficiently exotic costumes. But then, the other extreme is some sort of dispensation where we all stand around blandly admiring the carpets in airport transit lounges, which would be a lot worse.

LW: How did the affiliation with the Iowa Writers Workshop come about? How do you expect it to evolve?

BM: Again, it all feels a bit serendipitous. Back in 1995, when we were thinking about setting up the MA here at Victoria, I did a sort of whistle-stop tour of the States, and called in on about a dozen creative writing programs, one of which was Iowa. At the time the late Frank Conroy was directing the Workshop (they love that capital W), and he said that he had only one piece of advice for me: “Get out of the English Department!” —which is what I did a few years later, courtesy of Glenn Schaeffer.

The current connection comes about because of Glenn Schaeffer, too. Maybe I need to mention that Glenn was himself an Iowa MFA before he became a casino tycoon. I think he was at a stage in his life where he was looking for various kinds of continuity. Anyway, he set up some one-year student fellowships at the various branches of the IIML —one of which explicitly took one of Victoria’s MA graduates each year to Iowa. Usually Iowa found some sort of funding package for those who wanted to stay the second year and complete the MFA. Those who’ve done so include Paula Morris and Alice Miller and Ellie Catton. I think the sort of personal friendships—I’m trying to avoid that creepy word networks—they all make might become important in the way they ripple out into the wider writing community. There’s even been one marriage, which means New Zealand has acquired at least one young American poet. So maybe it’s good for the cultural balance of payments.

Glenn’s fellowships also funded a couple of Iowa MFAs to come out here each southern summer and run workshops. Alas, however, all of his fellowships have been suspended since the financial crisis, which I believe has done him no favours.

We’ve had some Iowa graduates come here in other ways—one on a Fulbright: Nick Twemlow, an American with some Māori whakapapa, did our MA as part of the Fulbright arrangement. And another is currently here doing our PhD. We’ve managed to keep the summer workshops, led by Iowa grads, going, too. So there’s still a connection but the traffic’s a bit one-way at the moment. As for the future, who knows? If anything evolves, I expect it will still be pretty informal.

LW: The word “community” comes up often in how you write about the “Original Composition” course and the IIML. The more I think about the word, though, the more slippery it becomes. What does it mean to you? What elements are crucial to generating that feeling of mutual connection and why is it important?  

BM: It’s not just slippery—it slithers away when you try to touch it! I suppose I’ve used the word community as a way of talking back to the idea of the lonely Romantic genius, which still rules the known universe, but you certainly don’t want community to be a synonym for a comfortable like-mindedness. In the old Original Composition course and the first years of the Master’s, we had a great mix of genres in a single workshop: poets, short story writers, novelists, the occasional memoirist and dramatist. I recall that as a very good thing—which I guess remains alive inside the meetings of our PhD group.

I suppose I also think of community as an alternative to the canon, or maybe as the canon in an individualized form. At the heart of things there’s the small community of the workshop, with its particular range of voices—but there’s also the wider community of writers who matter to us as readers. We help our Master’s students design individual reading programs—i.e. books and authors they’ll read and write about (in journals) and maybe discuss in seminars during the year. So again we push against solipsism—we want our students to develop their own voices, but we also want each of them to feel they’re one of many.

We use a lot of exercise work early on—the students all suffer equally, but individuate themselves as writers at the same time. The big thing is that they should surprise themselves. A room full of writers astonished by a sudden sense of their own capacities is a wondrous thing.

Then there’s the baking. Whenever someone’s work is up for discussion, they have to bring agreeable edibles. Most of the time, any latent competitiveness gets diverted into the baking.

BM: You’ve done a lot of work to promote conversation across borders in your critical work and your teaching. It’s there in your poetry, too, and in the poetry of IIML graduates. You praised New Zealand writing for being “impure” in the 1991 essay “Dirty Silence” and argued that poems “ought at least to be sociable and surprising in their behaviour, in the way they voice and acknowledge the range of languages which the community gives them to use.” What do you think about that essay now—does it still describe contemporary verse in this country? Does it still capture what you yourself are up to as a writer?

BM: Most New Zealanders have only one language: local English. We feel ashamed when we travel—or meet, say, an Icelander who can get by comfortably in English and German and French. The essay you mention was originally a lecture given in a bicultural (i.e. Māori and English) context but I guess by language I finally mean something more like register—in which case I’d resort to Ezra Pound’s term, logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” I think that poetry in New Zealand is more richly textured in terms of tone than it once was. I’m occasionally struck by the fact that someone like Allen Curnow wrote serious poems under his own name, while his light, “public” verse was written under a pseudonym: “Whim Wham.”

I think you can see that richer texture inside single poems, single utterances, in a recent anthology I’ve been involved with, Best of the Best New Zealand Poems, which brings together work by about 60 poets from the last decade. The mix is certainly there in someone like Jenny Bornholdt, especially in her book The Rocky Shore. I’m sure this aspect of her poetry—the shuttling and looping between registers—has been important for several younger writers. Damien Wilkins in his introduction to Best of the Best New Zealand Poems talks about a kind of buoyancy he finds in the poems there. He quotes Calvino on “‘the thoughtful lightness [that] can make frivolity dull and heavy.’” I do admire that sort of lightness when I meet it—and I feel I meet it quite often—in contemporary New Zealand poetry. Certainly the poems I like least, whatever their formal allegiances, are the ones that are over-elocuted.

As for my own work, I never quite know what I’m up to as a writer. I’ve got reasonably good at explaining what I have been up to, and I can pass it off as some sort of currency. But I do believe that we write best out of unresolved inner stuff, out of imaginative puzzlement and commotion. Anyway, this means I can make a virtue of my own ignorance. I heard a neurologist on the radio the other day, talking about ideas of the self and how bundle theory might help us understand such things. Alas, that kind of thinking is too hard for me; but if my brain was up to it, I think it might provide an interesting means for exploring what poems are—and communities.

LW: Many of the poems in your new book, Victims of Lightning, were inspired by your collaboration with jazz composer Norman Meehan; it was fascinating to hear them voiced alternately by you and by singer Hannah Griffin in a recent concert. Collaboration is one escape route from that myth of solitary Romantic genius, and so is live performance. Do you think those ventures are changing the work you write for the page?  

BM: I think I’ve always enjoyed collaboration, but across art forms it’s been, for me, a side-by-side thing—as with work I’ve done with the painter Ralph Hotere. There needs to be some temperamental affinity. With Ralph, it’s—well, we’ve tended to come out of our respective caves, sit alongside each other, and grunt a little.

That temperamental thing has also been important with the work with Norman Meehan. I’ve always liked the story about Mallarmé being very positive to Debussy after hearing his musical take on “Afternoon of a Faun,” and then saying to a friend the next day, “I thought I had set it to music already.” I’ve always believed that a good poem will perform itself fully on the page.

But Norman set some of my poems, and I liked what he did with them, and so have been writing words specifically for him to set. I’ve enjoyed this—producing words that perhaps overstate their case, yet are somehow insufficient, needing someone or something else to bring them to life.

But then the world is full of collaborations. In “The Waste Land” Eliot collaborates backwards with Dante and Spenser, and then I suppose collaborates forwards with Ezra Pound. The poem is both his and not-his. And now we live in the world of the mashup and the remix—which represent odd new formations of tradition and community. I like my cave too much to want to stand in the corner with someone like David Shields. I can’t bear all the noise from the megaphone. But it’s a corner that no longer looks dusty and uninhabited.

LW: One last question about the IIML. You have announced that you’re retiring at the end of 2012. What qualities would you like to see in the next director? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee for the Institute in its second decade?

BM: I guess the person needs to be a first-rate writer, with maybe some ability to move across genres. Someone who is very well read in contemporary literature, and doesn’t just “get up” a knowledge of New Zealand writers for a job application. Someone who can talk well about fiction and poetry and theater and film but isn’t lost to bombast. Someone who likes the fact that the code for all our courses is CREW. I’ve always attributed my apparent success as a teacher to my early training as bartender. Maybe that should also be a prerequisite for the job.

As for the Institute, I hope it can remain small and fairly independent—part of the university, but not lost inside some larger academic entity.

Perhaps more partnerships—or just friendships—with similar programs in the USA, the UK and Australia would be good, too. No one likes to say so, but the tyranny of distance is still fairly tyrannical.


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