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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Measure of a Manhire

Power and influence are concepts which are not only difficult to quantify in an artistic sphere, but are also features which members of those communities often find distasteful. Bill Manhire has been a publishing poet and commentator since the early 1970s. He has also been teaching at Victoria University since that decade, within the English Literature department until 2001 when he became the head of the newly established Institute of Modern Letters. At the end of this year Manhire will be leaving the IML, ending a long commitment to nurturing writers and thinkers at Victoria University, to write more and breathe easier. Salient’s Rob Kelly went along for an armchair chinwag. 



Rob: Who do you think were the influential figures when you began writing?

Bill: Well, none of them were people that I would meet, they were writers who were dead or lived somewhere else I guess.

Rob: Do you think that’s a result of the lack of influential New Zealand authors when you were starting off? Was it an access issue?

Bill: I think it was, I mean I think there were plenty of writers around at the time, but it was still a fairly recent thing in New Zealand and the school system didn’t have it. But then I went on to University at Otago which had the only writing fellowship in the country at the time.

Rob: Was that Baxter when you were there?

Bill: Yes and so Baxter was there for two years, behaving badly and he was a spectacular figure.And Janet Frame was there sort of scuttling along the corridors, and Maurice Gee had been there. And Hone Tuwhare came down, and I got to know him and hung out with him a bit. So there were these people who came to Dunedin and they became very influential, but more as examples of people who had committed their lives to doing the thing that mattered. So it was great to go to the Captain Cook and drink beer with Hone, but also you knew that… I mean, he would arrive with poems and sort of hand them out, and all the local alcoholics would give him advice and he’d go away with a much worse poem than he arrived with; A sort of anti creative writing workshop. So in terms of influence or models maybe that was good.

Rob: And you began teaching writing I understand in the 1970’s?

Bill: At Cambridge, as part of your degree in English you could submit a little manuscript of original writing and if the staff,if your teachers thought it was okay it could make your degree a stronger one and if they thought it was no good they would just ignore it. So Don Mackenzie thought that would be a good thing to have here.Victoria was a pretty conservative place in the 70s, so it probably needed someone with his rhetorical skills and passion to make it happen. So that’s what was set up. A third-year English student, which meant you had to have studied Pope and Dryden and passed a course in 18th century poetry, could put in a small manuscript of writing for some points which counted towards a BA.And that ran on for a couple of years.

Rob: And that’s when you were working here?

Bill: Yes, so for a couple of years students had this option and then several of them said, well it’s great we’re able to do this but why can’t we meet each other, you know it makes very good sense. It feels a bit lonely and everything else.We study at university, we’re in a class with other students and we can talk about what we’re doing.And at that point I got a bit overexcited.You know,I’m a member of staff and you’re students, you must do this. It was so productive and fruitful and exciting, it somehow all got formalized. So then it slowly drifted and morphed and got bigger and now we have 30 MA students and a dozen PhD students.

Rob: When in your mind did the idea start to ferment of having a formalized writing school as a separate entity within the University?

Bill: Oh, probably during the 90s.

Rob: Can you remember why you thought it needed to be separate?

Bill: Well if I’m to be honest the English department was a dysfunctional and toxic place at the time. It was a place where a kind of civil war was going on, and that’s not an unusual thing for departments of English Literature around the world towards the end of the 20th century. But I basically thought it would be good to take creative writing away from English which in my sense of things was becoming entirely dominated by theory and I felt that the imagination didn’t work well with abstract concepts.

Rob: I promised that I wasn’t going to write an obituary, but do you see the IML as a kind of personal legacy, or is that too morbid an idea.

Bill: No I don’t really, I think, I mean this sounds cute and fatuous but I think whatever it is it sort of belongs to everybody who has been through. All the past students and all the present students. I know it often gets referred to as the Bill Manhire course.

Rob: That must drive you nuts?

Bill: I don’t care for it, I have to say. It’s insulting to the writers who come through.

Rob: And to all the other people who teach at the IML?

Bill: Absolutely, it also implies inside itself that we are in the business of creating clones.

Rob: That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. I can imagine that teaching writing must be a minefield in terms of influential figures, you don’t want to influence someone to write your style.

Bill: Yeah, that’s very interesting really in terms of your issue theme. In a way if you are teaching writing well in an environment like this you’re trying to be as un-influential as possible.What you are wanting to do is for each person’s writing project to become as true to itself as it possibly can become.You’re actually trying, and the whole workshop group is trying to make the thing that the writer wants to bring into being as completely itself as it can become. So your influence is diffused in all sorts of ways.

Rob: NZ’s literary history is vaguely defined in the last 80 years by anthologies.And you’ve been a part of that process as both as a writer and an anthologiser. Does that worry you or do you see it as an essential way to disseminate writers’ works.

Bill: That’s hard to know. I mean you do turn into a bit of a gatekeeper I suppose, or you get perceived as a gatekeeper. I think my problem as an anthologist is that I’ve always thought you shouldn’t edit an anthology and at the same time put your own work in it. Often that’s why anthologies exist, a bunch of new writers come along and they want to tell the world they’re there. One of the them becomes the editor and the editor prints their own work and all the work of that particular group and there they are, in the universe and people have to pay attention, but I’ve always felt uneasy about that kind of anthologising myself so I’ve never made an anthology where I’ve put my own work in.

So from that point of view I guess I’ve never defined a canon, I’ve always stood aside from it.


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