Bill Manhire is writer, professor and New Zealand's first inaugural poet laureate. He was also, until recently, the director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, centre for Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. In this interview he speaks about New Zealand's evolving literary landscape and the poem featured in Griffith REVIEW 43, 'Erebus voices', written for Sir Edmund Hillary to read at Scott Base, Antarctica to commemorate the passengers and crew who died in the 1979 Erebus disaster.
In your introduction to Mutes & Earthquakes (Victoria University Press, 1997) you make the case that writers need to stay open and ignorant, to write what they don't know or else fall into a trap of replicating the same structures, voices and language as hundreds of other writers. Is that a lesson you had to learn through your own work over the years?
Well, there's one kind of replication I'm in favour of, especially for beginning writers, and that's learning through copying. Infants learn to speak by copying the strong adult voices around them, and yet they end up sounding both like their parents and somehow distinctly themselves. They find their voice through steady, experimental, repeated imitation. It's beginning writers who fail to read other writers - who don't want to be 'influenced' – who are most at risk of sounding like everyone but themselves. My own great early influence was Robert Creeley (especially his sense of counterpoint), but I tried singing along with lots of others. There are dangers in this as the years go by: you don't want to spend your whole life trying to sound like Frank O'Hara. As for open and ignorant, I'm probably less open than I was, but I think I've managed – for good and bad reasons – to stay productively ignorant. I remain a great fan of 'Write what you don't know.' Confusion and inner commotion always beat complacent wisdom.
When you began writing when you were younger, New Zealand's national literature was much less established than it is now. Did you have a sense of yourself as a fundamentally 'New Zealand' writer when you were younger?
I think so. Place imprints itself, even when notions of nationhood don't. My generation was probably the first that felt staying home was a real option. Earlier writers – and maybe this is true in Australia, too – either stayed or left. But then we coincided with cheap air travel – we could leave and return, and leave and return. That sense of possibilities makes a big difference to your head.
You're widely regarded as having formed the discipline of creative writing in New Zealand in the form of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and the Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Obviously there are nearly always accusations of gate-keeping and the production of literary clones with any creative writing program, but I wonder how your ideas about 'creative writing' as an academic discipline have changed over time, and what you tried to make unique about the Victoria program while you were the director?
I fell into it all by accident, really, and slowly learned by trial and error. A lot of creative writing programs in Australia and New Zealand, and recently in the UK, have been invented from the top down by some sort of management fiat – partly because of anxieties about student enrolment levels, and hence job security, in departments of English. In the UK especially you get the impression that ten years ago half the poets in the land woke up and found they were professors of creative writing. That might not be the best way to set things up. A great writer isn't always or often a good teacher; while a successful academic doesn't always have a sufficient track record as a writer. Victoria has always managed to have first-rate, well-known writers who are also inspiring, attentive, time-generous workshop leaders. One of the things that was unusual about Victoria for many years is that different genres lived within the same workshop. Jenny Bornholdt and Elizabeth Knox and Ken Duncum were in the same workshop group. That pluralism has pretty much drifted away now, as the program has grown and professionalised itself. But I still think it's good for the soul, as well as the craft, for fiction writers and screenwriters and poets and creative nonfiction writers to hang out together – even inside the same person.
I read an essay of yours from 1990 called Dirty Silence, in which you praised New Zealand writing for being 'impure', and you argued in favour of poetry in particular being 'made impure by the languages and meanings which are busy conversing somewhere inside it.' Over two decades have gone past, but I'm wondering if those are still your feelings, and whether you think it still describes New Zealand writing?
Yes, more so, I think. I might have been overstating the case back in 1990, or even offering a bit of disguised polemic. 'Logopoeia' was Pound's word for it, and it feels like there's now a lot of it about – especially in current Pasifika poetry, which gets a lot of energy out of its afakasi/half-caste status. The poet Andrew Johnston has also suggested a connection with fusion – which of course is something New Zealanders are good at, and sometimes believe they invented.
The poem in this edition was written to commemorate the Mount Erebus disaster, and it's divided between two points of views – that of the mountain and that of the dead. How do you go about writing a poem which is designed to pay tribute to national tragedy?
I said a reckless yes to a sort of commission back in October 2004. I was just off the plane from Menton, where I had spent six or seven months as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow, and suddenly there was this phone call from Peter Beck, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral. He was leading a group of people down to Antarctica for a service commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Erebus tragedy. Sir Edmund Hillary was going, and had agreed to take part in the service, but since he was no longer a practising Christian he didn't want to read from the Bible. So could I try writing something for him? It probably helped that I had spent the past seven months in Menton, unusually for me, being a full-time writer. I felt that I could do things. So I was jetlagged and on a poetry high, and just said yes – without thinking, really. Ten minutes later I thought: 'Oh my god.' But I realise now that I had spent that year writing elegies: for Kevin Cunningham, for Michael King, for Joanna Paul. So I wrote the Erebus poem quite quickly. I was in the zone.
Writing about a national tragedy, I would imagine that it might be easy to subside into melodrama and sentimentality, but it feels like any urge to do that is circumvented by the nimble, musical building of lines, and by using rhyme and repetition, which are almost comforting poetic techniques in this instance. I wonder whether you could expand on your structural decisions in writing this particular poem?
The first part owes something to early Auden, and also to the Anglo-Saxon riddle, where an object speaks, often metaphorically but in ways designed to confuse or mislead. If you just had the first half of that poem, minus its title, you'd wonder what the thing addressing you actually was. After I'd given the mountain words to say, I realised that there needed to be a response – some kind of benediction. And so the dead make their reply. I wanted them to say to the bereaved that it was okay: after so many years of distress, controversy and recrimination, they could now be remembered as the people they once were rather than as body parts. I was quite worried about the poem's potential to hurt or offend. But Sir Ed's reading was on the television news, and he gave it heaps (one of his best friends had died in the crash). And other people who lost loved ones have told me they're happy that the poem is in the world.
New Zealand's literature has obviously developed significantly in the past three or four decades, and so I suppose it raises the question of how you encourage a literature which is both local but which still has global reach. How do you see that developing?
Building an audience beyond the local one, without resorting to a kind of placelessness, strikes me as the big challenge. The internet helps in obvious ways. But the oddest thing, as I guess we all know, is the lack of traffic across the Tasman. I suspect it's a cultural cringe overhang, more than sibling rivalry. Australian and New Zealand writers still tend to have a colonial relationship – only paying attention to one another when someone in London or New York suggests we should. That's changing, and maybe Pacific Highways is one example, but the pace is still pretty glacial.