Monday, September 13, 2010

Iain Sharp on Bill Manhire

The 22nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the April 1996 issue. The coverline was “Bill Manhire: Victoria’s Secret”.

The intro read:
At last month’s Writers And Readers Week in Wellington, Bill Manhire launched three new books: My Sunshine, new poems; Sheet Music, early poems, long unavailable; and Songs O f My Life, his collected short fiction. This must be a record – as must the success of so many students of his famous writing course at Victoria University. He has influenced at least one generation of New Zealand writers through his wit, fondness for surprise, ambivalent attitude to academia and above all, as long-time fan Iain Sharp reports, his devastating cool.

At the beginning of 1975, without really fancying my chances, I applied for a year-long tutoring job in the English Department at Victoria University. To my surprise, I was accepted. However, as the day drew nearer for me to leave my home in Auckland and fly to Wellington, my exultation gave way to the fear that I would soon be exposed as a fraud. The household I came from was far from intellectual. I grew up reading comics, chuck­ling at Get Smart and the Beverly Hillbillies and playing air guitar to songs by the Who and the Kinks.
Never having set foot before in a university staffroom, I had no idea what academics talked about when they were alone together. In my callow ignorance, I imagined that they spent their spare time discussing the finer points of one another’s publications. “Ah, Wilkinson, dear chap,” I pictured some gouty old pundit calling out cheerily to a companion, “if you have a moment, I’d like to query the allusion to anal retentiveness in the third paragraph of your paper on Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’.”
In fact, as I soon discovered, nothing could be further from the truth. Academics generally read one another’s work only when their career advancement depends on it. In the staffroom, they prefer, like everybody else, to gossip about the previous night’s television, fluctuations in the weather and the alleged sexual peculiarities of colleagues who are out of earshot.
But in January 1975 I did not know this. Afraid of being identified immediately as an ill-informed lout, I began to read everything I could lay my hands on written by members of the Vic English Department, including the poetry of a young specialist in Icelandic literature named Bill Manhire.
By this time Bill had published two books. Because I’ve always enjoyed eccentricity, the quirkiness of the first of them, Malady (Amphedesma Press, 1970), delighted me. A meditation, I guess, on the vicissitudes of romantic love, the volume consists almost entirely of the repeated words “malady” and “melody”, arranged in different configurations by Bill and his friend, the Dunedin-based painter Ralph Hotere. On the final page two further words are introduced: “my lady”.
Although it contains a couple of hand-written poems as well as five drawings by Hotere (including a mystifying, globe-shaped “portrait” of Manhire, recently reproduced on the cover of Landfall 191), the second book, The Elaboration (Square & Circle, 1972), is a more orthodox production, gathering together 18 of Bill’s spare but eloquent early efforts.
In the late 60s and early 70s, young New Zealand poets generally insisted on their right to express themselves freely. Enamoured of their own voices and fuelled by an enthusiasm for such long-winded, oracular American bards as Ezra Pound, Charles Olsen and Allen Ginsberg, local writers like David Mitchell, Ian Wedde and Alan Brunton tended to warble on at exuberant length. Bill worked in the opposite direction.
Pared down to the essentials, his enigmatic little poems conjured up whole worlds in a few syllables. Since I’m a rather slow reader who bores easily, I’ve always appreciated Bill’s economy.
If the language in The Elaboration is often whimsical, surreal and mysterious, the book is also full of astute observations about the difficulties of courtship and other everyday joys and disappointments. Cursed myself with an obstinate nature, I particularly admire the way that the title poem describes how a quarrel between lovers is prolonged through pride:
I make fists at the air
and long to weaken
ah, to visit you
is the plain thing,
and I shall not come to it.

Impressed as I was by Malady and The Elaboration, what really confirmed me as a Manhire fan was the selection of Bill’s work which appeared in Ten Modern New Zealand Poets (Longman Paul, 1974). Bill is represented in this anthology (edited by two former high-school teachers, Harvey McQueen and Lois Cox) by 18 poems: seven from The Elaboration, four that would later be part of How To Take Off Your Clothes At The Picnic (Wai-te-ata Press, 1977), one which turned up, years later, in Good Looks (Auckland University Press, 1982), three that were included in The Old Man’s Example (a limited edition of early poems – just 150 copies printed – which Bill circulated quietly among his friends and acquaintances in 1990) and three (“Growth”, “Gull” and “Threnody”) which have not been embraced, so far, in any of the collected volumes.
More than two decades later, I still think the Longman Paul selection is an excellent introduction to Bill’s characteristic techniques and concerns. His fondness for bringing cliched phrases comically back to life through weird juxtapositions can be seen in such poems as “The Pickpocket” and “The Cinema”. His irreverent humour is evident in a couple of spoofs of English grammar lessons: “Declining The Naked Horse” and “Pavilion” (“We sung, we sang./ I have forgot it.”). Again and again he mixes flights of fantasy with reflections on universal themes (grief, aging, the problems of sustaining adult love).
I pored over the Longman Paul selection repeatedly on my flight to Wellington in 1975. I wanted to know more about Bill than the brief biographical sketch told me. Other young New Zealand poets of the period were noticeably keen on being photographed and interviewed. Many of them liked nothing better in the world than to declaim their works aloud in pubs, coffee bars and student quadrangles. But Bill seemed to shy clear of such vulgar forms of publicity. I had no idea what he looked like.
Embarrassing as it now is to admit, when I first met him I was startled to discover that he was not, as I had imagined, a Maori. Pakeha New Zealanders like myself were appallingly ignorant about the Maori language in the early 70s. It wasn’t uncommon back then to hear pale-skinned students pronounce Hone Tuwhare’s surname as “To where?” – as if they were selling tickets in a railway station.
Aware of Manhire’s friendship and collaboration with Hotere, some of us got things the wrong way round. Believing Ralph was the European one, we thought his rather strange surname should be pronounced “Hot ear” or perhaps “Hot air”. Assuming Bill belonged to the tangata whenua, we stretched out his surname to three syllables: man-hi-re to rhyme with weary, query and theory.
In spite of its idiocy, this was a common enough fallacy in 1975 for Virginia Goldblatt, one of Bill’s colleagues in the English Department, always to refer to him, with a malign smirk, as “the famous Maori poet”.
When I brought up this matter recently during the session I chaired with Bill as part of the Wellington Arts Festival, he patiently explained his name to the audience. Manhire is apparently of Cornish origin. It’s a variant of “menhir”, which means “a tall, upright, monumental stone”. Fans of Goscinny and Uderzo’s famous comic strip might recall that Asterix’s burly companion Obelix often totes a menhir on his back.
Over coffee with Bill after the session, my irrepressible old friend Michael O’Leary suggested an alternative explanation. Michael was convinced that a name like Manhire must have some connection with male prostitution. Bill made no comment.

Bill often makes no comment. He seems to have learned early in life the wisdom of saying nothing rather than speaking nonsense or losing his temper in a way he might later regret. He doesn’t dodge important issues. He’s quite capable of voicing firm, even harsh, judgments. But he takes care what he says, not only in his poetry but also in his private conversation.
It’s a quality I’ve envied in him since 1975. I’ve always had an unfortunate tendency to blurt out big, bold, stupid opinions which I’m later forced to recant once sanity returns. I’ve been known to yell idiocies like “I hate John Milton! He can’t write poetry for shit!”
Sometimes, too, I go on talking when I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I made many blunders during my year at Victoria. In one tutorial I got the 18th-century poet and lexicographer Samuel Johnson hopelessly confused with the 17th-century playwright Ben Jonson. Bill would never make a fool of himself in this way. If momentarily puzzled, he pauses; he doesn’t bluff or pretend to knowledge he doesn’t possess. Like the hero of Bob Dylan’s song “John Wesley Harding”, Bill “was never known to make a foolish move”.
He has always been blessed with a kind of unshakeable cool that has nothing to do with wearing the right accoutrements: tight trousers, a leather jacket or fancy sunglasses. These things can be removed or fall suddenly out of fashion, but Bill’s poise is inalienable.
There were many occasions in 1975 when I fled downtown after spectacular botch-ups during my tutorials to console myself with cakes and sticky buns in the Pioneer Coffee Lounge. Gazing sad-eyed down on Willis Street, my cheeks smeared with icing, I would say to myself, “God, I wish I could be cool like Bill Manhire.”
There’s a world of difference, however, between being cool and being cold. Although he collects books on Antarctica, teaches Icelandic and fills his poems with images of snow and ice, Bill is by no means a frosty character. Although I can’t complain of ill treatment from any member of the Vic English Department in 1975, some of the more senior staff, like James Bertram, had seen too many young punks like me come and go to be bothered taxing their already overloaded brains with the fruitless effort of remembering our names. Bill was different.
Admittedly, he was only 28 in 1975, whereas Bertram was 64, but he could still have sneeringly dismissed us junior tutors, had he wanted to, from the far side of a great abyss, because he had permanent tenure whereas we were just passing through on our way to oblivion. Instead, he knew all our names, pronounced them correctly and never made O’Leary-like quips about their possible derivations. He often asked us how we were coping and he proved the genuineness of his concern by occasionally offering to swap tutorials with us to lighten our load.
Bill’s manner is undemonstrative. If you expect him to pour himself all over you like honey on toast, you’ve come to the wrong address. But in his own quiet way he’s a generous man.
Bill’s parents were publicans in various Southland and Otago taverns. I’ve always thought, if he tired of academia, Bill would make a splendid publican himself. Everyone would be given a fair chance in his establishment. Troublemakers would be dealt with firmly, but Bill would enjoy trading gossip with the regulars.
In 1975, the head of the Vic English Department was Professor Don McKenzie, one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of printed books. As a teaching tool, Don ran a printing shop (the Wai-te-ata Press) according to 17th-century principles. Because I pretended to be interested in such matters too, he invited me to join his Monday night classes.
The project we worked on was hand-printing a new collection of Bill’s poems. I can still remember the satisfied grin on Bill’s face when he popped into my office one day to tell me he had just thought of a title: How To Take Off Your Clothes At The Picnic. I can claim a letter-by-letter intimacy with some of the poems in that book, because I helped set up the pieces of type from which they originally printed.
I wasn’t very accomplished at this task, however. I suspect that the notorious misprint which transforms a phrase in the poem “Leaving Home” from “nodding in the wind” to “nodding in the wine” might have been one of my butterfingered slips. There were plenty of others, but Don McKenzie’s eagle eye generally spotted them before permanent damage was done.
Some of the poems in Picnic, as we usually referred to it in Don’s printing class, baffle me as much today as they did 21 years ago. What on earth is “Turtle” about, for instance? But there are many others that I have loved for their cheeky risk-taking since I first read them in manuscript. “The Procedure”, for instance, opens like this:

I spend a lot of time on
the lavatory because my
food is determined never
to leave me.

Picnic is packed with impudent references to the English Department syllabus. Although he has said in interviews that he considers it a privilege to be able to spend his life reading books and talking about them, Bill has always been ambivalent about his position in the academic world. He loathes pomp and pretension. He can’t stand reductive kinds of literary criticism that rob poems, plays and novels of their mystery and ambiguity.
In his own lectures, Bill offers a few shrewd observations, but there’s never any suggestion that his way of reading a text is the only possible way. His lack of arrogance, combined with his wit, humanity and unquestionable talent, is one of the reasons his students regard him with unusual affection.
When I was young, I wanted to write poems that sounded just like Bill’s: enigmatic, poised, deeply ironic, simultaneously lyrical and subversive. I never came within cooee of success. I was too clunky, too careless, too excitable and, above all, too damned obvious. Still, I kept plugging away at this hopeless endeavour throughout the 70s.
It wasn’t just Bill’s poems I envied either, but the whole enchilada. For a long while, I simply wanted to be Bill Manhire. This psychological condition is not unique. Many others have subsequently been afflicted by the same malady. In private conversations as well as published interviews, Bill has consistently deplored the notion of producing replicas of himself. He argues instead for diversity, flexibility, surprise.
All the same, his voice is both pervasive and persuasive. I’m willing to bet that all the people who have passed through the creative writing course he has run since the early 80s (including such strong-willed luminaries as Barbara Anderson, Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Knox and Emily Perkins) have had to struggle at some point against the desire to emulate the old man’s example.

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