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This interview is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Bill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe John McAuliffe
Bill Manhire is New Zealand’s best-known and most celebrated living poet. Since his Collected Poems (2001), he has published four striking, distinctive collections, Lifted (2005), The Victims of Lightning (2010), Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017) and, last year, Wow. The poems are playful, intent, open to the contemporary moment, steeped in the history of poetics, and, lately, very interested in what it is a poem does, an interest that seems in conversation, often, with questions about song and about sequence, and how poems which begin in one place or moment can make occasions of their own.

This interview took place in February 2021. I emailed Bill a question in mid-morning from Manchester and he would respond from the New Zealand evening, the Manchester dawn, timings which set the rhythm of the exchanges, occasionally interrupted as Bill flew south from Wellington to Dunedin (travels which seemed, in every sense, a long way off from here), or university work slowed down the questions here. I began by asking Bill about the title of his new book.

John McAuliffe: The title of the new book is really striking, and it catches one of the ways in which we respond to extraordinary experiences, how we register astonishment. It got me thinking about art which has a ‘wow factor’ (and I do think Wow is astonishing). Your title poem situates its astonishment and marvelling praise as baby-ish. I wondered if you could say something about choosing this as the title poem, and about poetry’s affiliation with astonishment?

Bill Manhire: Well the word itself has the wow factor. You can read it backwards. You can turn it upside down. It’s also ubiquitous and contemporary yet feels, even if it isn’t, strangely ancient. Someone might well have looked at a sunrise 2,000 years ago and turned to a companion and said ‘Wow!’ At first the poem was called ‘Big Brother’ – so that the title was also the first line. And I considered using ‘Also’ as a title at one point. But ‘Wow’, for the poem and then for the book, seemed better, mainly because less grim. I have some optimistic hunch that it’s our groundnote when we’re born – inside the baby’s wail there’s a wow which never quite gets extinguished – and we hear it in ourselves again when we meet great works of art. I like the shilling-life scope of the poem, the ordinary experience of it, in which the day-to-day world of also relentlessly assaults the wow, but can’t entirely win. The death sigh at the end is its own kind of wow utterance.

More generally on the astonishment front, I’d turn to Auden: ‘... there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening’. And then there’s the whole Hopkins notion, which I’m sure I don’t really understand, about the duty of each thing and creature in the world being to utter itself, to sound itself out. Amazement and astonishment and praise and celebration all seem to have some sort of immediacy about them. The trouble is, poems come in lines, and so they can’t help but show you how time passes – it’s hard to get that immediacy into what you actually write. Look how hard Hopkins tried! But maybe melancholy and nostalgia can sometimes present as the wow factor in memory mode.

I note by the way that the word ‘wow’ is defined in my dictionary as ‘natural exclamation: first recorded in Scots in the early sixteenth century’. Which seems important, both for the phrase ‘natural exclamation’ and for the Scots bit, given your family background and upbringing in what might be called the Scotch settlements of Invercargill and Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island… I know your initial research as a graduate student was in Old Norse, and I wondered if you could say something about etymology and the history of words, and how important that is for you?

I’m delighted to learn it’s originally a Scots word! I’d just assumed it was twentieth-century American. Yes, I did study Old Norse, and I ended up admiring the old-fashioned world of textual scholarship, while learning that I wasn’t much good at it. I’m more impressed by Philology than I am by, say, Sociolinguistics. I do still get a strange pleasure from simple things, like knowing that the word gang comes from the Old Norse verb, ganga: to go. And it’s true that I’ve used unlikely words like ‘varmint’ or ‘jalopy’ as triggers for poems. I have a thin vocabulary, and have never wanted to load every rift with ore, but I get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from language that’s a little out of place – in Wow, for instance, using a word like ‘whatnot’ in a poem about Covid; or getting a robot to say ‘Mercy me’. And in my last book, Some Things to Place in a Coffin, there’s a small sequence where I’ve invented a bunch of botanical names – ribslip, chaingrass, thornwing, arawai – with the aim of gently teasing poets who use herb and wildflower names as an easy gateway into ‘nature poetry’. (‘Seed-packet poetry’, a distinguished critic of my acquaintance called it.) Of course, the sequence, Falseweed, eventually turned into a poem about writer’s block and ageing. I’ve become more interested in place names – there are several poems in Wow which get into that territory. We’re in an interesting and important time in New Zealand, in Aotearoa, as the old colonising names – Wellington, Auckland, Hamilton – begin to be challenged and unsettled by the Māori names that often preceded them. It’s good to lift words and names up to the light, and inspect what’s underneath.

Place names often seem to function as a kind of dislocation, especially in Wow’s first section, with its town of K— and its Pleasant Valley, one town named for Jingle Bells, and another called ‘the world’s last city’… There’s something global or maybe open to the global in this aspect of the poems, something of the famous Mandelstam line about ‘the nostalgia for world culture’, which he further glossed: ‘And bright nostalgia does not let me leave the still young Voronezh hills for those of all mankind so bright in Italy.’

Place names can be real nostalgia machines – hence my feeble jokes about outings to Pleasant Point (a real place) and so on. But also, yes, dislocation. The little Jingle Bells poem was one of the last to find its way into Wow. but it’s grown in a scarier way than the other name poems. I thought I’d written a piece about cultural complacency, about how nostalgia can be foolish and thoughtless: the waterfall in the poem has had an earlier, indigenous name, recalling something that once happened there, whereas the speaker in the poem says that it’s now called Jingle Bells ‘because, well, you know, / our parents always liked that song’. Then I read somewhere recently that alt-right groups like the Proud Boys chant ‘Jingle Bells’ when they confront anti-racist demonstrators. So, whether or not the song has a racist history – and there’s debate about that – once you know these things, they’re there in the poem forever. Almost by accident those words that looked so lightly pointed on the page have a grim and heavy weight to them. I’m not sure that’s what you meant by ‘global’ though.

I do have a thing about – against – global tourism. Pretty ironic, given that my generation of New Zealanders is one of the most travelled groups of human beings ever. I’ve even been, ahem, to the South Pole. There’s a poem in my last book called ‘Global Track’ that explicitly touches on international tourism, but it’s a territory I’ve explored far more in short stories.

A differently disorienting effect is generated by your striking use of obscenity, which jolts the poems: it happens in this book when ‘Conference Dinner’ does something unlikely very close to the sacred space of Xanadu; or to go back to the title poem, whose old fellow suddenly explodes in an unlikely rage…

That must have something to do again with dislocation. Most of the time I think I’m a ridiculously polite poet, but then these sudden disruptions occur. I suspect it’s a visible, dramatic version of what I think happens a lot in my poems, the thing that Pound called logopoeia, and which I think of as a kind of tonal code-switching. I think it’s been quite a thing more generally in New Zealand poetry, perhaps because our society has been so socially fluid. The Māori poet Hone Tuwhare sometimes talked about growing up in a home where the only printed books were the King James Bible and various horse-racing/betting magazines. And you can see this informing his poems. He can sound in one line as if he’s in church, and then the next as if he’s shouting a round in the pub. The voice shuttles to and fro. With me it’s not exactly Pound’s ‘dance of intellect among words’, but the tone of voice shifts quite a bit inside individual poems, and maybe even more between poems.

Those shifts in voice also define your sequences, and how sequences can allow for, or even require, continuity and deviation, in voice and in subject, in ‘Warm Ocean’ and Discontinued Product, in ‘Wow’, two very different sequences, but which do share that openness to interrupting voices. What appeals to you about writing in this form? (By the way I notice that the asterisks which I am used to seeing scattered across the pages of your books, as a marker for sequence sections, is replaced by a cross in the new book.)

I don’t think there’s a single answer. I love the space between sections of a sequence, where there’s room for swerves and interruptions and circlings-back. At heart I’m still a typewriter poet – I don’t have a working machine any longer, but my truly happy moment would be taking a single sheet of A4 paper out of a typewriter to see a complete poem there, slightly ragged yet perfectly framed, with maybe still a couple of xxxxxx-ed out patches. I love my old worksheets from the typewriter days (more for the look and feel of them than for the content). Maybe there are sequences because I’m a one-page poet who tries to write beyond a single page. And probably in some of the sequences each section would love to have its own page.

Sometimes it’s all pretty straightforward. The asterisks simply signal a break between chapters in a somewhat shifty narrative. But other times they impose a break mid-sentence, and the reader has to reach hopefully while the syntax stutters and hesitates. This is maybe especially the case with an early poem like ‘Breakfast’, which describes an air journey home from London that’s full of take-offs and landings and, because of time-zones, breakfasts; and with the Antarctic poems, which sometimes look like field notes – and sometimes are actual field notes. Observation and note-taking are going on but there’s a context of uncertainty, mild disorientation, even a touch of hypothermia. Nothing’s quite as tidy and managed as you might expect – especially when punctuation and spelling are conventional. But I’ve always been pleased to knock the reader a bit off balance – I hope enjoyably – and the sequence certainly provides opportunities for that.

One shouldn’t either deny the simple pleasure of placing like and unlike things alongside each other. I’ve always enjoyed the organisational craft involved in making anthologies. And then the serendipity! You can aim for certain effects, without being able to fully anticipate what will spring from particular juxtapositions. There must be something of that for musicians assembling an album or a playlist; or in editing a journal like PN Review. You can make decisions about what-follows-what for all sorts of thoughtful reasons, but you can’t fully foresee the buzz that’s suddenly there when the thing itself is present in the world.

I’m not sure why I moved from * to + in Wow. But I did think quite hard about it!

And, a related question about one of the new book’s sequences, ‘Warm Ocean’, which I first read as a beautiful pamphlet: has your interest in pamphlet publication been a more recent development; do you use them as a trial run, always with the book in mind? Sometimes they are in collaboration with artists; does their work enter your process?

My first publication outside a magazine was called MALADY, brought into being in 1972 by the artist Ralph Hotere. I had made a typewriter/pattern poem, seven or eight sheets of paper stapled together, which played with four words arranged in columns or sometimes a bit more gymnastically: MALADY, MELODY, and – at the foot of the final page – ‘my lady’. Ralph made an impressive series of large paintings out of all this, much more interesting than my piece of romantic wordplay. Early on, I watched him working on some of them. Plus he arranged for my original text to be published – in a way to keep the exhibition company; also an act of acknowledgement and friendship. I was living in London when MALADY came out. It was pretty exciting to have those four words turn up in the post – they didn’t feel at all English, but they didn’t feel like they’d come from New Zealand either. Since then, I’ve managed to produce about a dozen pamphlets of one sort or another, often as a Christmas present for friends, and quite often they’re first outings for work that eventually finds its way into a larger collection. A good deal of my pleasure has involved devising a different publisher’s name for each new title. A poem about a big Billy Graham crusade to New Zealand is credited to the Just As I Am Press; an Antarctic sequence, Hoosh, to the Anxious Husky Press. If you know what hoosh is, you’ll know why the huskies should be anxious.

One other parallel life for your books’ poems has been musical: In one of the early poems, there’s a reference to ‘the song without words, sung / under nothing’, and song is a recurring fascination. Sometimes it reflects on the origins of poetry (‘all songs being made / as we know from things that hurt’), but songs often seems to hang around in the poems, waiting for their speakers to try them out: ‘I woke up in another lover’s song’, says one, or ‘The girl sings the songs that she is given’. There’s a sense that songs are a proxy for talking about poems?

Yes, that feels true; and then I guess they’re also a proxy, at one remove, for talking about the imagination. Maybe, too, just me reminding myself that poetry is a musical activity, and not decorated thoughtfulness. My favourite definition of a poem at the moment comes courtesy of Valéry: ‘A prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.’ I think poetry will always hesitate between music and meaning, and individual poems will settle at various points on the continuum. Sometimes, too, the hesitation will be part of the poem’s primary affect.

The idea of song also reinforces that sense of poetry as something that once existed only as musical utterance – chant and charm and incantation. A 1974 anthology of Māori poetry translated into English is called The Singing Word, and that seems fair enough. Joy Harjo likes to call poetry ‘singing on paper’. I remember how astonished I was when I first heard recordings of Yeats and Pound, and then of Tennyson in full bardic, shamanistic mode – that ‘deep-voiced chant’ which Henry James, a well-known novelist I believe, failed to succumb to. Maybe it was just a late Romantic thing, but you feel it goes back much further.

Or maybe song is simply the opposite of what happens when an actor reads a poem aloud?

You have been working with composers over the last decade (at least?), and I wondered how that has affected your writing? Maybe in terms of how you draw in rhyme and regular meter to a shorter line (or that haunting Auden-like way of crossing ‘artificial’ formal effects with eavesdropped voices and phrases the poems often like us to stumble upon – ‘May the children be home by dinnertime’).

I like the story Anthony Rudolf tells about Mallarmé’s fulsome compliments to Debussy after hearing his musical account of ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, but then Mallarmé saying to a friend a few days later: ‘I thought I had set it to music already.’ Most poems if they’re any good are set to music already, and performing perfectly well on their own terms. Hence it’s odd that so many composers want to set poetry to music, though no surprise that they often end up damaging the texts they believe they’re honouring. As the writer and musician Damien Wilkins says, a poem put to music is a dangerous thing because it’s music on top of music.

I’ve written a lot of song lyrics for Norman Meehan – who’s a jazz musician with gospel tendencies – and the singer Hannah Griffin, and it’s been a hugely enjoyable thing. We’ve done some shows together, too, so I almost get to be in a band! I’ve learned that the best lyrics make plenty of space for repetition and should be a little underdone – they can’t be too pleased with themselves. This means they’re often disappointing on the page, as even large chunks of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen can be, but then once a musician gets hold of the words... well, a song comes alive when the words are a musical opportunity rather than a tight command system. Very occasionally a lyric will work both as a poem and as a song text. I think that’s the case with the first poem in Wow, ‘Huia’, where this beautiful extinct bird sings of its own demise. I do agree that song-writing has opened up my poetry in various ways. ‘Mean Neptune’ ­– the last poem I wrote for the book – is voiced by a lockdown patriarch who isn’t coping very well, and has got himself trapped inside some very strident rhymes. It has a touch of the Stevie Smiths, I think. Now she wrote a lot of wonderfully wonky songs!

This isn’t hugely relevant, but I was recently asked to write some poems for a classroom anthology, and the forms and topics were all quite specific. The request in this case was to use strike-out lines to make a piece about a school band:

My First Big Hit

let it go
let it go
let it go
I’m here in slo-mo
baby doncha know
let it go let it go let it go

take my heart take my heart take my heart
you’re tearing me apart

I don’t know what to do or where to start
oh baby my heart

you cut me like a knife
you’re not even my wife

shut up mum
I’m down on my knees
begging you please

please shut up mum


That’s very good! And reminds me of how these strike-through lines recur and work so well for you, and maybe leads into another idea it might be interesting to hear you say more about. It’s to do with your mention of song in relation to the ‘Huia’ poem in particular: this book returns to birds and (often, missing) birdsong, and even the dream of birdlike flight in a poem like ‘Angels’: there’s a complicated dance between how the poems point to what is missing but then offer their own version of, or creative response, to that missing subject. But then a poem like ‘Polly’, with its inadequate parrot, and poems such as ‘Like’ and ‘The Smile’ seem to critique the simile, the substitute: so, could you say something about how the poems seem to both feel responsible to a world they want to get across and represent, but also seem to be sceptical about their representative power?

I’ve always liked the Yeats pronouncement about how we make rhetoric out of our quarrel with others, whereas out of our quarrel with ourselves we make poetry – though I hope the quarrel with the world might inform the inner quarrel, too. And poets know from experience how tricky language can be – even trickier than the virus – so that it seems right that language-doubt should inhabit poems that hope to have something to say. Disenchantment likes enchantment’s company. I don’t think scepticism about the whole poetry enterprise is unusual among New Zealand writers. It’s almost standard subject matter. It’s hard to fully subscribe to enchantment when one of our great national heroes, Hillary, climbs Everest and then says, ‘Well, we knocked the bastard off.’

There’s a wonderful Mr Palomar story by Italo Calvino called ‘Serpents and Skulls’ where tourist groups and school parties are visiting the ruins of the ancient capital of the Toltecs. Mr Palomar has a friend who confidently explains and interprets everything, while occasionally they cross paths with a schoolteacher who points to each column or statue or piece of carved stone and says to the children, ‘We do not know what it means.’ Poets are in the business of explaining and interpreting, but every good poem should have a schoolteacher in it, saying, ‘We do not know what it means.’

Not long after MALADY came out, I started sending Ralph Hotere back in New Zealand a weekly line of poetry on a postcard. It was partly a way of dealing with homesickness. Each card said ‘Pine’, and then was followed by a short phrase: ‘discovered in throats’; ‘bucket of stars’; ‘acre of wounds’ and so on. There were well over a dozen of them, and they had some afterlife in Ralph’s work, and some years later there was a small illustrated book. I mention this because when I looked at your question, my favourite of the Pine phrases – ‘empty of shadows & making a shadow’ – swam into my head and felt highly relevant. Alas, I look at it now and can’t begin to see what I thought the relevance was.

The poem in the voice of the huia, an extinct New Zealand bird, starts off the book, and the book’s final section includes a pair of poems equally grounded in New Zealand, or referring closely to Dunedin, ‘Exhibition’ and ‘The Sailor’. Could you say something about how your poems negotiate New Zealand’s literary traditions and contexts? But how they also engage other (transnational?) contexts for Anglophone poetry now, at a time when we have never been more aware of new work in other countries because of online reviews and when international travel (before the pandemic) brought us into contact with so many more poets and poetries than would have been the case even last century?

Well I grew up in the New Zealand of country pubs and sheep and macrocarpas; and beyond it, we were told, was a planet structured around the British Empire turning into the Commonwealth turning into... something else. You could find the poetry equivalent of that world in an RAK Mason poem called ‘Song of Allegiance’, where the poet lists off his illustrious English ancestors in dogged couplets (‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’), then turns to his own situation: ‘They are gone and I am here / boldly bringing up the rear // Where they went with limber ease / toil I on with bloody knees // Though my voice is cracked and harsh / stoutly in the rear I march // Though my voice have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’. It was a pretty discouraging metaphor, to say the least, and an aspiring poet either had to step out of line or fall by the wayside. Like a lot of my generation I stepped out of line by reading contemporary American and Irish poetry, and lots of twentieth-century poetry in translation.

That world I grew up in has mostly gone now. There’s been significant migration over the last two decades, especially into Auckland and other North Island cities. The most common last name in the South Island is Smith. But in Auckland it’s Singh; in Wellington, where I live, it’s Patel. Māori is making itself at home inside the way we talk, too. Soon what will seem like everyday sentences to locals – for instance, ‘We need to do the mahi right across the motu’ – will be largely opaque to other Anglophone speakers. And certainly if you look at an online magazine like Starling, which only accepts work from writers aged under twenty-five, the everyday ethnic and cultural mix is striking. The gender mix, too. The Young New Zealand Poets, an anthology I was included in in 1973, contained nineteen writers, and only one was female. A much larger range of voices is at home in New Zealand now. That includes younger Māori and Pasifika writers, who have pressing things to say, whose work is full of risk and resilience. It’s a very energising time to be writing poetry.

The poems occasionally refer to specific moments and events. I’m thinking of ‘Across Brooklyn’ and ‘Erebus Voices’ in Lifted and ‘Known Unto God’ in Some Things to Place in a Coffin, and the poem, ‘Little Prayers’ in Wow, whose date, 15 March 2019 (also an unusual kind of reference in your poems, and possibly the first time you’ve used such a marker), attaches the poem to a specific event. Could you say something about that poem, and also about how you thought through writing a poem which deals with terror, and with the strong worldly presence and maelstrom of emotions of the event?

I think there’s just one other poem, ‘Zoetropes’, which adds date and place as a postscript: London 29.4.81. In a way this explains why words beginning with Z should ‘alarm the heart’. The Springbok tour of New Zealand was about to happen, and it was obvious that the country was heading for huge civil disorder. So anxiety, 12,000 miles from home, about the safety of friends and the wider health of the country lies behind that poem.

I’m not sure what gave me the courage to write ‘Little Prayers’, which is a more or less immediate response to the Christchurch terrorist shootings. A couple of the poems you mention, ‘Erebus Voices’ and ‘Known Unto God’, had given me some confidence about public utterance. They are both about shocking, tragic events, but they were commissioned pieces which recall and memorialise tragedy at a safe distance. The mosque killings were of a different order. I wrote the poem very quickly, without much thought, the day after the shootings. It felt like I was breathing out after having held my breath for a very long time. Then the next day I posted it on Twitter, and it had a very active life on social media in the following weeks. I remember saying to a schoolteacher who asked to use it in the classroom that it was important to tell the students that they were only entitled to any hope or comfort that might be present in the third verse if they had first given proper attention to the preceding two stanzas. ‘Let us inspect what makes us ache / Let there be tasks we undertake’. I put ‘Little Prayers’ right at the end of Wow, two or three pages after what looks like the last poem. I wanted it to be like a hidden track on a CD – something that surprises you, perhaps after a minute’s silence, and so maybe you process it in a different way.

This interview is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

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