AN INTERVIEW WITH BILL MANHIRE
IAIN SHARP: The authorís note for The Elaboration says that you were born in Invercargill, but somehow I had the impression that Clinton was your home town.
BILL MANHIRE: I was born in Invercargill, which I think Rudyard Kipling described as the last lamp-post in the world, but I hopped around the Southland and Otago countryside while I was growing up. My father as a returned serviceman went into the hotel trade with his wife, who was a Scottish war bride. She sailed into Wellington Harbour on St Valentineís Day 1946, on a ship packed with war brides. My father met her and they drove down the South Island. She said to me once that she remembers thinking somewhere on the West Coast that they could just drive and drive forever, and never get to Scotland. They started off in Invercargill, working for the Licensing Trust, and then moved out to Wallacetown, just outside the Trust boundary. One Tuesday morning or Monday evening when I was young, the court news in the Southland paper had three of our customers caught travelling back into Invercargill from Wallacetown Ďdrunk in chargeí. You could drink after hours outside the Trust district, you see. One of the customers was drunk in charge of a motor vehicle, one was drunk in charge of a bicycle, and one was drunk in charge of a horse and cart. Whenever I think of my childhood, I imagine this strange procession heading back from the pub where I was currently living to the city where I was born. Later on, we lived in Mossburn and Clinton, where we had a pub called the Oak Tree Inn, an absurd name for a hotel. I gather that when I was a boy I had a very good singing voice, and during our time in Clinton I would be occasionally hauled out of bed late at night and made to stand in the bar, and indeed on the bar, to sing the Invercargill March. Eventually we ended up in Dunedin, still in the hotel business. Nowadays, whenever I meet Lindsay Rabbit, another poet who lives in Wellington, I have an immediate rapport with him, because we both grew up in pubs in the bottom of the South Island. There are things we know about that no one else in Wellington does.
Clinton was the place of my greatest triumphs. I learned to play the chanter with the Clinton Pipe Band. I was a senior sixer in the local Wolf Cubs. This meant that I had three stripes on my arm and when everyone squatted in the circle, I was the one who cried, ĎPack! We shall dib dib dib dibí, and everyone cried back to me, ĎWe shall dob dob dob dobí. I started the Clinton Junior Stamp Club and spent half my time writing off for approvals. I started a school newspaper, The Book for Bookworms, all written by me, including a science fiction thriller about cosmic villains who could travel through time; it only ran to two issues. I even started a childrenís lending library, which worked on the happy basis that all the other kids in town gave me their books, which I then kept in a room at the Oak Tree Inn, and they could take them home to read from time to time. My world fell about me when Iíd been running the Clinton Robin Hood band for a few weeks and the merry men revolted and said someone else should have a turn at being Robin Hood. I solved the problem by deciding I would be Alan-A-Dale, abandoning vast political power in favour of the arts.
IS In the 1960s, Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond and Russell Haley were all living in Auckland, and they seemed to constitute a tightly knitt group, whereas you were a lonelier figure on the literary landscape. Did you feel isolated at all living in Dunedin?
BM Itís true that there was a group of people I didnít know, who lived in Auckland, a big place a long way from Dunedin, and who were sort of glamorous. But the fact that I was physically distant from them doesnít mean I wasnít aware of them. I was reading their work (puzzled by a lot of it, I think), and I was in touch with Ian Wedde. At one stage we wrote what, Iím sure, were very solemn, self-conscious, self-important letters.
IS Fortunately lost?
BM I hope so. But there was a whole range of interesting writers in Dunedin as well, including people like John Dickson and Kevin Cunningham. I think there were groups of writers in all of the university cities in the sixties. The Burns Fellowship was the only writing fellowship in the country at that stage, and it brought people like Hone Tuwhare to Dunedin while I was a student. There were interesting painters around too, because of the Hodgkins Fellowship. So, no I donít think I was a solitary figure who was somehow missing out on the action. I was never sure there was an action one ought to be part of, in any case.
IS Youíve said elsewhere that your correspondence with Wedde was partly concerned with your shared enthusiasm for Robert Creeleyís poetry. With the exception of Creeley, however, Iíve always suspected that you were influenced by different American poets from the Auckland group. I mean, itís very noticeable that the people connected with Freed magazine generally wrote long, sprawling, egocentric poems, whereas right from the start your work was tight and enigmatic.
BM I think I was reading poets like James Wright, Louis Simpson and even the dreadful Robert Bly in those days. I read Olson too, but I never felt that I wanted to write like that or live like that. I guess Iíve never been very interested in that sense of self-mythologising which Baxter had, or which Alan Brunton has, where the raw material of your life becomes the material for a mythology that you offer to the world. I donít find that very useful. The American poets I read with most interest somehow use words to make the world a little more mysterious. I liked the enigmatic quality , to use your word. Living in Dunedin in the early sixties, which was really still the late fifties, you needed a bit of mystery in your life.
IS Dunedin wasnít sufficiently mysterious in itself?
BM No. Every street in Dunedin is name after a street in Edinburgh. Every street in Invercargill is named after a Scottish river, hence that short story by Owen Marshall, ĎA Town of Riversí. I lived in a fairly predictable, secure world, and I was very happy in general to be there, but somewhere inside my head I also wanted a sense of mystery.
IS The connection with Ralph Hotere must have been made fairly early, since your first collaborative work, Malady, was published in 1970. How did you get to know him?
BM Iím not sure now. Ralph came to Dunedin as the Hodgkins Fellow. I guess we met at parties and something clicked. Heís one of those people who itís easy to sit in a room with for half an hour, or an hour, or a whole afternoon, and you donít have to make small talk, or chat about the state of the nation or culture, or whatever people feel obliged to talk about. Youíre just happy to be sitting with someone whose presence is agreeable. I think weíve always got on in that very basic way, and presumably the poems I was writing back then appealed to him somehow, and he started using the words. But the Malady thing was just a bad pun, which he made interesting when he put it on canvas.
IS It exists as a series of paintings then, apart from the drawings in the book?
BM I wrote the poem as a cheap typographical display on different pages, and Ralph did some drawings to go with the text, and at the same time he did a series of canvases. I think there was an exhibition of the canvases to coincide with the publication of the book, but I was living in London by then, so I wasnít sure exactly what happened. We needed to invent a press for the book to have come from. Ted Middleton, who was a friend of Ralphís, who had been a Burns Fellow and decided to stay in Dunedin, suggested that we call it the Amphedesma Press. Itís a misspelling, not Ted Middletonís, of Amphidesma, which I think has something to do with toheroa. We used the name for a number of other books we published.
IS Bob Orrís Blue Footpaths was one of them, wasnít it?
BM Thatís right. Thatís a good book. We also did Ian Weddeís Homage to Matisse. There was quite a range of titles actually. Kevin Cunningham and I were both living in London at the time, and for some reason we wanted to publish little books of poetry. We had a very helpful arrangement with John Griffin, who was then managing director of the University Book Shop in Dunedin. If we produced 200 copies of a book and sent them to him, he would simply buy them outright for a sum of money and then distribute them. That was a very cosy and fantasy-world way of being a publisher, where we didnít have to face up to how we sold the books or how we raised the money for the next project. But I think we put out some good titles at a time when not a great deal was happening.
IS Your second book, The Elaboration, was published by Square and Circle. Who was behind that?
BM Charles Brasch wrote to me in London from Dunedin, asking for a poetry manuscript. He and Janet Paul, who had been heavily involved in publishing with her husband, formed a small company called Square and Circle. The joke was always to wonder who was the square and who was the circle. I donít think itís known to this day. They wanted to publish small books of prose and poetry which also involved artistí contributions. Brasch wrote with the proposal that I should supply a text and Ralph Hotere would supply some drawings. As well as my book, Square and Circle did The Loners, Ted Middletonís collection of short stories, again with drawings by Ralph. Then Brasch died.
IS Had you known Brasch quite well in Dunedin?
BM I donít think I was very close to him, but in some ways he was quite an important figure for me. I remember sending him some dreadful poems when I was in my first year at university, or perhaps my last year at high school. Iíd heard there was this person who lived in Dunedin that was a poet and an editor, so I decided to send him a few of my things. I may have written them specially for the occasion. I canít remember the exact contents, but I think they had lines like ĎI stalk the streets of the midnight cityí and were full of soiled sheets and neon and terrible things like that. He wrote back a very nice note, which said very politely and very grammatically, ĎThis stuff is rubbish, but I admire you for trying. Do keep at it.í For some reason I was enormously encouraged by this straightforward response, which nevertheless approved of my desire to write. I think what I learned from Brasch was that it was proper to take yourself seriously as a writer.
He belonged to quite an interesting, floating group of writers in Dunedin, which met once a month and which I went to. Iain Lonie was there; Trevor Reeves, who had started Caveman Press. Baxter would occasionally turn up when he was in town. At one meeting Brasch proposed a game to me. I canít think why. He would supply three lines of poetry from a little working notebook, and the idea was for each of us to go away and write a poem in the manner of the other. I still have my poem somewhere, and I still think itís rather good Ė you know, not a bad imitation of Braschís manner, in so far as I understood it. But I remember eventually getting his version of me, which Iíve lost unfortunately. I was just horrified by it. Again, I canít recall how it went exactly, but I think it was full of lines like ĎI stalk the streets of the midnight cityí.
IS You were still pretty young when you first appeared in Landfall, werenít you, March 1968?
BM It was a huge symbolic moment to have a poem in Landfall. It meant somehow you really were a writer. I owe this great rite of passage to Robin Dudding, who replaced Brasch as Landfallís editor.
IS Dudding seems remarkably astute in how early he picked up on not just you but Wedde as well.
BM I think heís just a brilliant editor. Itís a pity heís not still doing it. I think it was partly that he had time to shape an issue. He wouldnít lumber it with a great thematic idea; he just let it slip into place as an arrangement of parts with somehow its own shape and logic, which wasnít an obvious logic. I think every issue he did of Landfall and Islands had a centre to it. You felt like you were reading a book rather than just a gathering of things that had come to hand over the last three months. But you do need a lot of time for that to happen. I guess thatís why Islands slowly subsided twice. But, yes, I think Robin Dudding is a very important figure in New Zealand writing, and at some stage someone will have to sit down and try to work out just what his presence consists of, apart from the considerable beard.
IS There seems to be a similar shaping principle behind each of your books of poetry. The order of poems in your books is often at variance with the chronology of their first appearances in magazines.
BM I think I started off with the idea that a published book had to be a selection from published work, so hat if you had published fifty poems in magazines you would put only thirty-five in your book. Itís probably not a bad idea. It might improve quite a lot of New Zealand poetry if that principle were applied retrospectively. But I also had a sense that books needed a shape and a particular kind of poem needed to be in a particular place, and if it wasnít there in the work I was producing at the moment, I would grab it from somewhere else. I think Iíve even grabbed poems from earlier books once or twice and moved them. Thereís some kind of editorial, anthologising instinct in me, I think, which isnít necessarily distinct from whatever it is that makes me want to write imaginative pieces of literature.
IS Your career as an editor seems to date back almost as far as your career as a published poet, what with the Amphedesma Press?
BM Yeah, and John Dickson and I edited the University Arts Festival yearbook in 1969, and I co-edited the capping book at Otago University too. I enjoy anthologising. I even get some pleasure out of helping to plan the programme for the Writers and Readers Week in the Wellington Arts Festival.
IS Iíve always had the impression that certain kinds of literary criticism donít interest you at all. Is that so? My guess is that you would much rather be engaged in some kind of editing work than face yet another critical essay which interprets whoeverís great poem or novel.
BM I think Iíve always felt uneasy about literary criticism. I never wanted to do the literary criticism paper at the University of Otago, for example. In my day it was just Aristotle through to T.S. Eliot, of course. Theory doesnít interest me greatly, I think partly because too much of it seems to me totalitarian in its behaviour.
IS Were you a reader of And ?
BM Oh, I quite liked And, because it misbehaved. And was a kind of vehicle for literary theory, but it became part of the variety of things that were going on. I liked it because it made life more various. I liked the essays And ran by Roger Horrocks. I think And took its own life at just the right moment as well. But a lot of people who get involved in theory seem to be at odds with the variety.
IS Because they canít bear to be contradicted?
BM Well, thereís lots in the way of totalising discourse, as they say. I suppose if youíve got enough theories, all competing with one another, it doesnít matter. I think thereís some point, though, at which theory represents the academyís revenge against the imagination. I know itís terribly old fashioned, but I actually do believe in this thing called the imagination. If you work in a university and teach in a department of philosophy, presumably at some point you can see yourself as primary material. Youíre just as important as Aristotle or Wittgenstein or whoever. You can interpret them, of course, but ultimately youíre all sitting on the same shelf. But English literature is rather different. Why should you have to teach John Keats? You might be more intelligent than he was. I notice that a number of students who get into literary theory actually believe themselves to be wiser than the books they study. I canít cope with that kind of arrogance. It just seems appalling.
IS I can quite enjoy it when it reaches the level of magnificence that Leigh Davis sometimes achieved.
BM Oh yeah, that was terrific Ė very bouncy. And there are some great minds working in literary theory, thereís no doubt about it. But the minds that arenít great seem to me less interesting than the minds that arenít great in other areas of human activity. Do you believe thereís such a thing as the imagination?
IS I guess so. Itís hard to see how anything at all could be invented otherwise.
BM Yeah. Iíve never really understood what people like Coleridge are going on about when they start constructing elaborate theories of the imagination, but I do think itís important to be capable of imagining what itís like to be other than what you are. Thatís why poetry matters to me, I think. It constantly says that imagination is important. I think thereís a problem in general with the imagination in New Zealand society. Itís thought of as a bad thing. Or not even thought of. You notice this attitude in our driving habits, in our failure to learn languages other than English and in the way the government tries to introduce superannuation reform without being able to imagine what the likely reaction will be. Thereís a general inability in this country to imagine other ways of being. One of the functions of poetry is to ask us to imagine, and imagine actively Ė read these words and create a world from them.
IS You would be strongly out of sympathy then with the Wystan Curnow kind of postmodernism which declares the imagination redundant?
BM I just find most of the Language poets very boring. I get no pleasure of any kind from reading them. I guess thatís a very sad thing for me to say. But itís like any other kind of activity. Some people do it well, and some donít. Iíve really enjoyed some of Lyn Hejinianís writing.
IS She gets taught in the American poetry course at Auckland University, along with Ron Silliman. Do you like Silliman?
BM Yeah, I do quite like him. Itís hard to get hold of stuff, though. You have to live solemnly within the various information networks if you want to keep up. But whoís the one who came round New Zealand not so long ago? Charles Bernstein? I think heís awful. Heís just boring.
IS He did a pretty weird reading at the Gluepot in Ponsonby.
BM Language poetry overlaps a lot with theory, I guess, and heís in there overlapping as madly as he can. I think that theory and Language poetry are two areas where people are thought to be interesting simply by dint of declaring themselves part of the activity. I find that rather annoying. Iím very happy to make distinctions between those who are interesting and those who are not.
IS Distinguishing between lesser and greater talents isnít very fashionable at the moment, of course. Weíre all supposed to be democrats.
BM Whatís the phrase thatís used? False valorisation? Who knows? Some of the words are great fun. I was very pleased when people started to pick up on the phrase I used in one of my stories, ĎVentriloquialí Ė Ďdiscourse substituteí. Itís sort of a racing term.
IS Thereís a lot of racing terminology in your work. Where does it come from exactly? Do you go out to the racetrack every weekend and bet furiously?
BM No, but I used to go to the races when I was a kid. It was a really exciting family event. Or in Clinton there was the Railways picnic. We would get on to the steam train and chuff out to Lake Waihola, where there would be a lolly scramble and overheated people playing bagpipes. But pubs are centres for gambling as well as drinking in New Zealand. Every pub has its in-house-bookie, the radioís relaying the track commentaries. A lot of the conversation in pubs has to do with the races. So you could say I grew up in a racing atmosphere. Actually, my father was the part-owner of various horses at various times, none of which ever did him any good. One of them was called Detain, which was a perfect name, because it always came last. All that stuff from my childhood has somehow lingered on in my poems. I agree that racing is everywhere in my work Ė ĎWingatuií, for instance.
IS The old Wingatui railway station was up for sale about four years ago. I wanted to send you a window or something, but I couldnít afford to be lumbered with the expense of removing the whole station. But how did you feel when ĎWingatuií appeared in Private Eyeís Pseuds Corner?
BM Oh, I was deeply flattered.
IS Was there a New Zealander on the staff of Private Eye at the time, do you think?
BM No, though I have an idea that one of the current editorial people is a New Zealander. I think ĎWingatuií appeared in Pseuds Corner as a bit of surrealist waffle. There was a poem by Paul Muldoon in the same column. Probably both entries came from the same outraged Times Literary Supplement reader.
IS A quotation from Allen Curnow turned up in Pseuds Corner not long afterwards Ė the one about having to be in the Mediterranean to understand the Pacific.
BM Oh bugger.
IS You thought you were the only New Zealand poet to be featured? Iím sorry to disillusion you.
BM But as Ian Wedde and others have pointed out, there was a language problem with ĎWingatuií. Poems sometimes need more translation than we initially realise when they move from one English-speaking country to another. I think this is especially true with the Poms, who have become parochial and provincial without noticing it. I think the area where horses parade before a race, which we call the bird cage, is known as the paddock in England. Of course, that means something else again here. Someone said to me the other day that if Rupert Brooke had been a New Zealander, instead of Ďsome corner of a foreign fieldí, he would have written Ďsome corner of an overseas paddockí.
The Brits often make the complacent assumption that they know best. The English guy who replaced Anne French for a while at Oxford University Press and worked on Dirty Silence, for example, made all sorts of happy, blithe changes and sometimes got things wrong. When I said I was born in the South Island, for instance, he changed it to Ďin South Islandí, because he assumed it was just like Ďin Northern Irelandí. One of my other favourite stories about this kind of thing concerns Maurice Geeís second novel, A Special Flower, which in the published version has a chapter that begins, ĎAt Christmas the Frasers rented a beach on Waiheke Island.í
IS They must have been remarkably rich.
BM Eventually you realise itís a misprint for Ďbachí. When Maurice sent his manuscript to Hutchinsonís in London, the English editors obviously thought, ĎBach?í This word is not spoken by anyone we know. Therefore it doesnít exist. In the colonies where Maurice Gee lives, you probably can rent a whole beach quite easily.í Maurice corrected the mistake on the galley proofs, but eventually when the page proofs came back for him to check he found that the editors had changed it to Ďbeachí again. He made the correction a second time, but it still appeared as Ďbeachí in the final published form. I guess thatís what I mean about the Brits being parochial without realising it.
IS On the whole, though, your work seems to have had quite a good response in Britain?
BM Yeah, people read the stuff there and publish it.
IS Youíve published much more in Britain than in the States, havenít you?
BM Yeah. Itís probably just that I knew which British magazines to send stuff to, because I lived in London for three years in the seventies, and I was there again for another year in 1981. Iíve published a couple of stories in America, and I did a reading tour there.
IS Who was that with?
BM Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera and Lauris Edmond. We must have made a very strange troupe. We were mostly reading at university campuses, and it was all brilliantly timed to coincide with their vacations, so I donít think it was a big promotional success.
IS Has any of your work been translated into foreign languages?
BM I donít think much of it has. Iíve seen some funny translations of things into Russian and Chinese. There was a time when the Russians and Chinese were translating everything they could find. But I canít imagine my poems would translate very well. Thereís too much tonal shifting. Loose versions of some poems might work, I suppose, but it would have to be a language which let irony exist.
IS Youíve done some versions of Old English poems Ė ĎWení and ĎWulfí and ĎThe Anglo-Saxon Onioní. Do you plan to do any more translating?
BM Occasionally I think I might want to. I have a rough version of a long, early Danish poem somewhere. What Iíd really like to translate is some skaldic verse, but itís so complicated I canít even understand it properly let alone translate it. A surface translation might work, just following the wild image patterns without worrying too much about the sounds or what the images refer to. But Iím very bad at languages. Iíve half-started learning a great many and given them up at the point where some real work was involved.
IS What made you want to translate Camille Flammarion?
BM Oh, ĎContemplation of the Heavensí isnít an actual translation. Rather, itís theft from a translation. I didnít translate from the French either, but from the English. The sub-title says ĎAfter Camille Flammarioní, so thatís probably where the confusion comes from. I just wanted to acknowledge the source of the misty phrases I was using. Flammarion wrote the most wonderful, romantic, astronomy texts the world has ever seen.
IS Iím not quite sure of the chronology. When was it that you began to teach at Victoria University?
BM In 1973 Ė a long time ago now. I came straight to Wellington from London, where Iíd been doing postgraduate work on Old Icelandic.
IS Your teaching career seems to favour the practical over the theoretical. You teach people Icelandic, and you run the creative writing workshop. Has this been a deliberate policy on your part?
BM I think itís all been fairly accidental. I mean, the original composition course was set up by Don McKenzie, one-time professor of English at Victoria, who wanted something like the arrangement at Cambridge, where students could submit a manuscript of creative writing as part of their degree, so that Sylvia Plath, for example, submitted a book of poems. There was a stage where the English Department at Victoria had a creative writing course, which I think was a third-year course, but there was no real exam and there were no classes. As a prerequisite, students needed to have passed a course in eighteenth-century poetry.
IS As proof of their sincerity?
BM Yes, as proof that they really were English students. If they submitted a folio of writing, they were given six credits out of the 108 credits they needed for their arts degree. But after a year or so the students began to feel lonely. They wanted to talk to one another and have someone teaching them. I was the person who ended up coordinating a number of meetings between the students. Eventually the meetings got more structured, and I started having power fantasies and started suggesting things they might like to try and write about. Over a period of a few years, we changed the prerequisites, so that now anyone can apply for the course. You donít have to be an English major. A lot of people do apply. Twelve people are accepted each year, and in the last couple of years seventy-five people have applied. Itís been very hard work choosing the right people, and obviously the right people have sometimes been left out.
IS The course seems to me to have developed real power, so that now Wellington appears to be the place where most of the action is, as far as young New Zealand writers are concerned. Itís almost as if there were a Wellington school of writers.
BM Whatever the effect Charles Brasch had on me when I was young, thatís the effect I would like to have on the people that come through that workshop. Again, I think itís very much a matter of getting them to take themselves seriously as writers. That doesnít mean pompously, solemnly or self-importantly. Iím not talking about a po-faced seriousness, but just that Iíd like to make them aware that writing is something their lives can consist of. But Iíd hate it if there were a Wellington school, your phrase, where everyone sounded the same, because the one thing I do believe very strongly, and again itís not a fashionable thing, is that each writer has their own voice, and in an important way everyoneís task is to find out what that voice is. I try very hard to make sure that the students in the course chase off in a direction that is theirs, and to that extent I keep myself separate from the assessment procedure. There are ways of teaching courses like this where the person in charge simply says to the students, ĎYou write as you wish during the year, and weíll have exercises and meetings and so forth, and Iíll just give you a grade, but pretend itís not happening.í Well, at that point, of course, they all try to work out how to please the person awarding the grades. So Iíve devised a useful system where Iím not involved in the assessment programme, and students can go in whatever direction they feel they want to. Though, again, I keep trying to change the direction they came into the course with, because I think thereís often a problem with younger writers that they have a very limited sense of their capacity. They think they can do only one thing, and probably theyíre capable of many others.
We do a lot of exercise work. I try to set exercises which make the students jump the tracks imaginatively and do things they probably wouldnít try otherwise. I think this has been very successful. Itís surprising how, when people are faced with a set of constraints, they become astonishingly inventive and powerful in the way they use language, much more so than if theyíre simply given a sheet of white paper and told to get creative and imaginative and deeply meaningful. Itís always interesting to see pieces I remember being set as exercises turning up in magazines or winning short-story contests. I immediately ring up and ask for a ten per cent cut! No, Iím only kidding. But rather than acting as an imaginative straitjacket, the exercises usually work as a release mechanism.
Iím very happy to take some of the credit for persuading people to take themselves seriously as writers, or to take language or the fact of an audience seriously, or to take a few imaginative risks. But Iím not at all happy to be seen as some kind of mentor figure. Finally the students have to find a voice that is theirs, and thatís their business and no one elseís.
IS Do you regularly participate in the exercises yourself?
BM No, no, Iím just the crazed authority figure who sets them. I wouldnít have the time. I make them work far too hard. I couldnít work as hard as that. Although theyíre given six credits at the end of the course, they do about eighteen creditsí worth of work. You can really take advantage of peopleís desire to write.
IS The students must have a lot of literary ambition to get into the course in the first place?
BM Yeah, but equally they can be very tentative about showing their work for the first time. Thereís a lot of real coming out of the closet stuff with people who have previously shown their writing only to their mums or their best friends, who of course just say, ĎWell done! I always knew you were a genius.í Reading their work aloud to the class and having other people make comments on it is often a huge step for the students. I think it would be strange if it wasnít.
IS Did you have people you could show your work to when you were young?
BM Just friends. We all knew we were total geniuses and so on. Actually, thereís a part of me which totally disapproves of this creative writing workshop culture which is now growing up.
IS Under your supervision?
BM Yeah, thereís part of me which doesnít like it at all. And yet some extraordinary work comes out of it. I think itís important that people donít become totally wedded to the group, where thereís an instant audience, and everyone tends to be too nice to one another. For that reason, the workshops at Victoria stop at the middle of the year, and after that the students work by themselves, putting together quite substantial folios of their writing without the support of the group. Of course, strong friendships often develop between people in the course who find one anotherís writing interesting, but I think itís healthier if these friendships take place outside of the organised occasion.
IS Speaking of jumping the tracks imaginatively, was it a conscious decision on your part to switch from poetry to prose, at least for a while, in the mid eighties?
BM There was a stage where I felt, rightly or wrongly, that my poetry was becoming stale. I could do very good copies of my own poems Ė you know, I could do a good impersonation of Bill Manhire Ė but it began to feel as if I were becoming a cheap imitation of myself, although it might have been the case that I was the only one who could tell the difference. I wanted to go on writing and ultimately I wanted to go on writing poetry. Switching to prose was just a noble idea, really, to set me off in what I hoped would be new directions. The mania for short-story competitions also started around that time, so there were these wonderful deadlines for me to meet and there were carrots of money dangled in front of me. My book The New Land began to shape itself while I was on sabbatical leave in 1987. Stepping outside of New Zealand somehow helped me to see the patterns and to realise that New Zealand would be at the centre of the book. I think that being overseas partly accounts for the sort of disenchanted-cum-whimsical-cum-satirical tone of those stories. At some point I must have decided that I would try to come at New Zealand in a variety of different ways. Iíd have my science fiction story, my total realism story, a crazed surreal piece, a phoney literary interview, and so on. The Brain of Katherine Mansfield was originally going to be part of the book too, but then I decided it would be nice to publish it separately. Iím very pleased with The Brain of Katherine Mansfield actually.
IS The timing ended up perfect, with The Brain of Katherine Mansfield coinciding with the Mansfield centennial and The New Land coinciding with New Zealand 1990 celebrations.
BM Maybe Iím just opportunistic. I must have arrived in London just before Christmas 1986. My brother works for a publishing firm in London, and he gave me a big cardboard box full of science fiction, including some choose-your-own adventure books. For some reason, I went to New Zealand House Ė I suppose all New Zealanders go there when theyíre in London Ė and it was in the middle of some kind of promotional exercise where there were lots of brochures about New Zealand, which were all very sunny and colourful and presented a stupid fantasy-land in stupid tourist language. I think I was feeling rather homesick at the time but the only evidence of home I could find was this nonsense. I was also feeling middle-aged. I remember going to the British Museum on December 27th, which was my fortieth birthday, to look at the latest bog person that had just been discovered Ė the one they were calling Pete Marsh. I thought he was better preserved than I was. So I was feeling rather aged and homesick when I started to write The Brain of Katherine Mansfield, which is a half-nostalgic, half-satirical story about people romping about in the bottom half of the South Island, which Iíve always regarded as my home territory, since itís where I had my childhood adventures.
IS When you returned to poetry in Milky Way Bar, the general mood of your work seemed to have changed. At least, your previous book, Good Looks, struck me as generally pessimistic in tone, whereas Milky Way Bar, although not necessarily optimistic, is much more playful.
BM Yeah, I think writing prose must have shifted me around somehow. Some of the poems in Milky Way Bar developed an oblique narrative behaviour.
IS Very misbehaved narrative, though?
BM Yeah, but thereís still a sense in which ĎHirohitoí tells the story of Hirohitoís life, for example. I donít think Iíd written anything with that kind of clear shape to it before. I didnít set out to write narrative poetry, but somehow the idea of narrative crept into my poems.
IS Perhaps you should attempt a Norse saga?
BM That would be all right, but it would be very pessimistic Ė total fatalism, in fact. I think prose writing generally attends to the physical and social surfaces of the world more readily than poetry, which tends to drift into a private universe. I think the short stories I wrote helped to bring the world back into my poems. I started writing about things outside myself.
IS Including things which donít usually appear in poems, such as reference to B-grade westerns and Ďlowbrowí magazines like Pix, Post, and People.
BM Yeah, I wonder why thereís so much of that stuff.
IS Perhaps itís the result of a fierce dislike of preciousness?
BM It must have something to do with the fact that simply as a reader I have felt very, very strongly that poetryís important, and therefore I object violently to the kind of precious, poseur element that gets into the poetry business. I donít like that high cultural view of poetry at all, where it becomes a vehicle whereby people offer their superior wisdom to the world, saying, in effect, ĎI am a poet, therefore I am wiser than you are.í I donít think poets are necessarily any wiser than people who read poetry. I think that some poems can be pretty resourceful, of course.
IS Iíve never had the impression that any older New Zealand writer has had a powerful effect on your writing, not at least in the way that Baxter and Curnow were obviously powerful presences which helped shape C.K. Steadís approach to poetry, or that Kendrick Smithyman has been an important presence for Murray Edmond.
BM I donít like the idea of being part of a literary salon, and I donít think it matters much whether itís a salon consisting of contemporaries who live in the same city or a chronological salon located in your culture. Iíve always enjoyed reading a range of poets who probably wouldnít speak to one another if they were in the same room. I think Philip Larkinís terrific, for example, but equally I like John Ashbery. And I like both Ashbery and James Fenton, who certainly wouldnít get along together. Itís never seemed to be a problem to me. I guess itís amazing that I have any sort of voice of my own, given the diversity of my reading interests. And it may be that I donít. Perhaps I just make a range of mimic noises. In fact, e was quite a good mimic when I was a boy.
IS As well as being a fabulous singer? You could perform the Invercargill March in different voices?
BM Yes, and Iím also a brilliant ballroom dancer. You should ask my wife. But I think a certain mimic skill is part of writing anyway. Some writers are afraid to let any element of mimicry into their work, because theyíre desperately trying to be original. They confuse originality with authenticity and integrity. I think you acquire your voice as a writer by listening to and imitating other voices, just as in the most literal sense you acquire your voice as a child by mimicking the various noises you hear around you, as well as the size of your diaphragm, or however that mechanism works.
IS You were commenting before on a sense of staleness you had with your poetry in the mid Ď80s. Actually, I felt that the steam had gone out of English language poetry just about everywhere at that time. Did you share that feeling?
BM I guess so but I donít feel it so much now as I did a few years ago. To suggest it happened everywhere seems a bit sweeping, though. What happened in New Zealand, I think, was that the idea vanished of one generation having to front up and take on the generation before it, in order to speak at all. Iím one of the so-called Ďyoung New Zealand poetsí, who with a bit of luck have all finished their mid-life crisis by now, but in the eighties there didnít seem to be a generation coming after us telling us we were middle-aged. There wasnít a new group who were thinking collectively in a different way and displacing the one before it. Instead, there was a kind of broadening out. People were saying ĎYou havenít looked here, and you havenít looked over here.í Women and Maori poets came along for instance.
I did think American poetry had lost its edge in the mid eighties. Instead of the range of voices that had amazed me in the sixties, the American poets all seemed to be speaking with a similar, synthetic sort of voice. Actually, I suspect creative writing courses had something to do with that Ė places like Iowa.
IS Do you have much contact these days with the other so-called young New Zealand poets?
BM When someone invents a title like that and sticks you in an anthology, people tend to assume that you spend a great deal of time drinking in pubs with the other poets in the collection and attending one anotherís parties. People assume that I see a great deal of Ian Wedde, for example, and in fact he is a friend, but I see Ian only about four or five times a year. We feel comfortable with one another when we do meet, as people do who have a certain amount of shared experience, which might just mean born in the same year. I try to steer clear of affiliations and tribal groupings, but I suppose people only understand the world by inventing tribes, affiliations and categories, assigning X to this one and Y to that one.
IS In the last few years something odd seems to have happened to the notion of the line in New Zealand poetry. Younger writers like Jenny Bornholdt and Virginia Were produce texts which are a curious typographical mixture of verse and prose. I donít think itís just a matter of carelessness about lineation either. Particularly in Jennyís case, the various pauses and breaks seem carefully worked out.
BM Iím not sure where that comes from. Dinah Hawken does it too. Perhaps itís not so important now for New Zealand writers to opt for one thing or another. I make a point in the original composition workshops of mixing things up. The poets have to have a go at prose, and I make the prose writers produce some poetry. Sometimes some lovely hybrid work results.
IS But you continue to make clear distinctions between poetry and prose in your own writing?
BM Oh yes, I even like to have very tidy stanzas. I suppose what I really like is to set up a system which looks wonderfully secure when you first encounter it on the page, but within the framework there are crazy things which tip the reader off-balance. I like to have steady three-line stanzas marching down the page, but within that apparent regularity everythingís all over the place, and readers continually have to regain their balance. Or I like to say crazed and illogical things in a very logical, pedantic, grammatical kind of way. I do care very much where lines break and how the stanzas look on the page, but I also like that tension between security and insecurity, or between incoherence and a patient tone of voice.
IS One of the things I like about Milky Way Bar is the way the lines often sound offhand, even chatty, but each word is craftily chosen.
BM Maybe thatís just a rhetorical device. When I give lectures, I have everything written out beforehand, but I like to deliver them as if Iím improvising.
IS Do you revise much?
BM Ah, I was hoping you would ask that question, since itís one of the ones I included in ĎSome Questions I Am Frequently Askedí. [ The Ďphoney literary interviewí referred to earlier.] I think I used to work very fast to get a text that I would then fiddle with, but now I inch along slowly. Perhaps I take much longer to write a poem than I used to because the process has become one of accretion these days. But I actually enjoy revision, especially when I feel Iím working on something which is quite good anyway. Itís a much less anxious business than getting the first draft. Facing that sheet of white paper can feel like a bad movie of Scott going to the South Pole.
IS You seem not to revise your poems after theyíve been published; the magazine version is the same as the book version.
BM I think I probably go along with whoeverís notion it is that the poems are never finished, only abandoned, but there comes a point when you have to let a poem get by on its own. Thereís a funny kind of conflict where youíre looking for the continuities in your life, but you donít want to create continuities at the expense of the differences. I donít want to go back and smother the person I once was, any more than I want to take a photograph of myself in 1975 and rub out half my hair to make myself look mildly bald.
IS Did you see the interview Robert Mannion did with Michele Leggott recently in the Dominion Sunday Times, where he expressed his outrage at that piece of yours, ĎThe Asterisk Machineí, which appeared in Landfall 177. Robert wasnít at all impressed by two pages of Xs followed by a page with just an asterisk on it.
BM Oh, I got great pleasure out of that. Youíve probably noticed that I like to put asterisks in my poems from time to time. I like asterisks. I think theyíre a much underrated device. I was offered a fabulous sum of money to do something for the Now See Hear! exhibition in the Wellington City Art Gallery. So I thought Iíd set up a text machine which simply sat in the corner and produced a screenful of Xs and then one tiny solitary asterisk. It continued to work away steadily while people were taking their cappuccino, eventually producing something like 120,000 asterisks. The other pieces in the exhibition were much more manic and outrageous. My machine was just hard-working Ė a steady little trundler, to borrow one of Maurice Geeís phrases. Now See Hear! was designed partly to subvert various conventional ways of thinking about language, but I think the asterisk machine may have had the effect of mildly subverting the exhibition itself, since it couldnít produce words at all, only this hopeless little star. The Landfall version simply represents Ė rather lamely Ė what happened.
IS You seem to enjoy technology generally, using a computer, for example, to generate that poem, ĎAllen Curnow meets Judge Dreddí.
BM Yeah, but I donít think Iím very good with technology. I couldnít tell you how a car works, for example. Itís just a magical thing that happens. Iíve sometimes wondered what Curnow made of that poem. Really, it was just intended as an affectionate tease.
IS He probably pretends heís never heard of it.
BM But yeah, I like the things that technology enables you to do with a text. They can be good fun. I was going to produce a whole string of those poems at one stage: ĎLauris Edmond Meets the Dancing Wu-Li Mastersí. ĎLeigh Davis Meets Matthew, Mark, Luke and Johní . . .
IS Are the mechanical devices a means of getting started with your poems?
BM There might be some truth in that. Iíve never been able just to think of a topic I want to write about and then find the words to do it. And the writing I donít like in other poets is often manifestly that sort of writing. But if you constantly want to surprise yourself with what you write, maybe that does mean itís very hard to get going and some kind of artificial trigger is needed. Perhaps I should start going to my own creative writing workshops to pick up a few trigger ideas.
IS You do seem to use more trigger ideas than other poets Ė everything from found language to the battery-operated crystal ball you mention in ĎLife With Madame Rosaí.
BM Itís probably also a way of stopping me from becoming a hopelessly soggy romantic. Give me half a chance . . .
IS And youíll be back stalking the streets of the midnight city?
BM Yeah, I guess itís a matter of striking a balance between being a soggy romantic and being a technological smartarse. I donít want to be either.