The third installment in the Quick Ten Interview series.
Arguably New Zealand's best loved poet. Bill answers questions about musicality, collaboration, lightning strikes and the muse.
Bill Manhire hardly requires any introduction but you can read his NZ Book Council profile here. Manhire’s published books include a Collected Poems (2001) and Lifted (2006), and many anthologies. His most recent book is The Victims of Lightning (2010) from Victoria University Press. He was the inaugural Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate in 1996–97, received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate award in 2005, and in 2007 received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry. He directs the creative writing programme (IIML) at Victoria University of Wellington.
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Today - Thursday September 23rd, Wellingtonians can listen to Manhire's lyrics set to Jazz music by Norman Meehan at Te Papa.
There are affiliate links in this interview. I’ve found The Book Depository to be the cheapest and quickest place to find books and recommend them without hesitation. Free delivery anywhere in the world is an amazing thing.
HH: What does working with other disciplines like jazz music bring to your creative process?
BM: It makes me less predictable to myself, I guess. It shuffles my head around. There’s also the odd satisfaction of seeing my poems translated by an expert, but for once I have a reasonably good grasp of the target language.
HH: What comes first for you - words or music (or should I say the musicality of the poem)?
BM: I think I almost always start in musical territory – with a cadence, or a musical phrase – and then add more phrases, until there’s something there that has meaning, that manages to be more than noise. Then I try to follow the meaning and the music at the same time. I have to admit that I would always sacrifice meaning for a fine musical effect.
If I could get away with it, I would probably call every one of my poems “Song”. For me, the music you hear in your head off the page is more amazing than anything that happens in performance – the rhythms of the lines play against the rhythms of the sentences, and that’s something you simply can't get in prose.
HH: What do you enjoy most about collaborating with other artists?
BM: Well, I guess – in an entirely pleasurable way – I get pushed out of my comfort zone. See above. Suddenly other possibilities turn up in the world, and I can follow them or adjust them or somehow use them for my own purposes. I guess there needs to be some temperamental affinity in the first place, but often collaboration feels like the wrong word. Illustration isn’t right, either. With Ralph Hotere, for example, I’ve sometimes put things in front of him – even things I’ve done specifically for him, like the PINE sequence – and watched in astonishment as he made something far more remarkable than what he started with.
Sometimes there's more equivalence, if that’s the word – as with the Plunket birthday piece I wrote with Eve de Castro a couple of years ago. We were writing for the NZSO and children’s choir, and we agreed to use some found text (from Plunket books) and to include work associated with small children (a round, a lullaby) plus the names of Plunket nurses – and then to end where we'd begun, with a child being born. That’s the big effect of babies entering the world: they make life circular again.
HH: How do you get writing done - what is your creative process?
BM: I don’t know any longer! I used to need several days of empty-headedness, an expanse of time in which to rid my head of all the trash that’s usually there, so that other stuff could find its way in. But I haven’t had space in my life for those empty days for a long time. I'm surprised to find I like commissions; or arbitrary challenges – again because they push me into territory where I surprise myself.
In the end for me it's all magical/alchemical. You toss a bunch of sounds and meanings into the pot, and see what happens. Sometimes it's just a question of bringing together words and phrases that have never coincided before: e.g. "nest of weapons" / "lyrical foliage". Much of the time the result will be inert; occasionally you get some sort of precious metal that looks nice but has no apparent use; and very, very rarely you get some weird substance that you feel you could build a whole new city from.
HH: What advice would you give budding writers about craft and revision? How much time do you spend on it?
BM: Well, there’s nothing abstract about it – you pick up craft by actively writing, and by reading. It’s not a matter of being able to define dactyls or Petrarchan sonnets.
As for revision, it really is the biggest thing. You want any poem you write to seem effortless and inevitable – even in its roughnesses. But poems tend not to come fully formed. The best ones make you feel they do, mainly because of all the invisible revising work that's gone on somewhere off-stage. It's like The Wizard of Oz – big effects throughout the land, but the poet is just a little figure behind the curtain.
HH: The anxiety of influence - your poem "On Originality" muses on this - who were your poetry idols when you were younger?
BM: I loved early Robert Creeley, and Spanish poets in translation – the poems in The Elaboration are essentially Creeley crossed with Lorca. But mostly I tended to like poets who produced work that looked tidy and symmetrical on the page – yet inside the apparent tidiness all sorts of imaginative and emotional leaps were taking place. R.A. K Mason would be the local example - all those manic, teenage contortions. And I was full of my own teenage contortions when I first read him.
Plus big chunks of Donne and Herbert; Browning. But also Carl Sandburg, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson. I eventually developed weirder and wiser pleasures, too: John Crowe Ransom, the clunkier bits of Wordsworth and Hardy. I came across a great phrase in a Wordsworth poem the other day: “beyond participation”. The poem is “The Affliction of Margaret”, and I suppose it describes what bereavement feels like. "Beyond participation" points to the dead, who can no longer participate in life, and so it might indicate Margaret's son, dead seven years. But she uses the phrase of herself. It's how she feels. Amazing.
I also read a lot of the generation of American poets who began writing in the late 50s and 60s. I gave a talk about this once – it’s reprinted in Doubtful Sounds, and is also posted at the NZEPC.
HH: In an interview with Mark Broatch - Sunday Star Times it says “The Victims of Lightning takes its title from poet Randall Jarrell's line that good poets get struck by lightning five or six times in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms; a dozen or more and the poet is great. Manhire says every poet is capable of writing work beyond themselves. "I suppose what I'm saying to [students] is that you can construct the atmospheric conditions for lightning to strike."
Can you clarify? You don’t mean that poets need to wait for the muse do you? How do you make it easier for lightning to strike?
BM: One of the things I'm thinking of is workshop exercises. You can use various kinds of constraint to generate accidents that you can then consciously turn into something that is entirely yours – yet you would never have found your way to it without the initial trigger.
So you play with chance, but you also take responsibility. I like the story Charles Simic tells about Octavio Paz going to visit André Breton after the second world war:
He was admitted and told to wait because the poet was engaged. Indeed, from the living room where he was seated, he could see Breton writing furiously in his study. After a while he came out, and they greeted each other and set out to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.
“What were you working on, maitre?” Paz inquired as they were strolling to their destination.
“I was doing some automatic writing,” Breton replied.
“But,” Paz exclaimed in astonishment, “I saw you erase repeatedly!”
[Ah, said Breton] – “It wasn’t automatic enough.”
Constraint: producing accident, and then volition – you always have to be able to seize the moment, and yet be willing to erase repeatedly. Maybe I’ve just started answering question 5 . . .
HH: Can you tell us a bit about “Buddhist Rain”?
BM: Well it started with Norman Meehan setting some of my poems, and me feeling interested in what he’d done and then suggesting to him that I try writing texts specifically for him to put to music – with him having as much freedom to rework or abandon words as he wanted. In the end the wildest thing he did was to add an extra “la” to the “la la la la la la la” chorus of “Across the Water”. It was a very good "la", though! The project has become bigger than the CD that’s about to be issued by Rattle I'd say there are another dozen songs waiting in the wings.
At one point I sent Norman a list of possible titles, and asked if he and Hannah Griffin would like to choose the ones that interested them, and I would try to write the lyrics. So that’s where several of the texts published in The Victims of Lightning – “Pacific Raft”, “Buddhist Rain”, “Making Baby Float” – came from. There were also some that Norman liked but I never quite got round to, for example “The Third Piano”.
HH: I'm curious about the PhD programme, is it working out how you imagined? What did you imagine? What does the multi-disciplinary approach bring to the projects?
BM: Actually, we're not doing anything especially original. Most creative writing PhD programmes in Australia and the UK offer something similar to our mix of creative and "scholarly" elements. Some of the mixing of creative and critical, the complementarities, are wonderfully interesting and provocative. You can see the sort of projects that are underway on the IIML's website Some brilliant work is happening.
I suspect the process is hard for some people: you get articulate in one language (the novel you're writing, say), and then you have to abandon it and try to speak convincingly in another language altogether. We hope that some of the writers may be able to produce hybrid projects, where you can't separate the creative and critical components.
There are bound to be some bumpy moments, some of them of the university's making. I don’t think rule-making academics understand that excellence takes many different forms. A lot of PhD regulations and protocols seem to be based on an anxious Social Sciences need to mimic the evidence-based objectivity principles that inform the hard sciences. So there's constant talk of theory and methodology, and lots of noise about Literature Reviews. These academic requirements may not be terribly helpful when you're embarking on a novel or just emptying your head so that unexpected words and thoughts can slide in. I still think E.M. Forster got it right: “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” Or here’s Margaret Atwood in a recent interview – "Q: What can we expect next from you? A – I never know. It's unknown to me."
HH: What are you reading at the moment?
BM: I've been reading a couple of newish – to me – American poets:
Mary Ruefle and Ben Lerner. They both do well what many of their contemporaries do by rote. Also, the English poet Alice Oswald, the Irish poet John McAuliffe, the Shetland poet Jen Hadfield.