Monday, 23 November 2015

Launch speech – The Stories of Bill Manhire

The Stories of Bill Manhire was launched at Unity Books recently. Damien Wilkins gave the launch speech below.

Bill Manhire signs at the Unity Books launch (photo courtesy of Matt Bialostocki)

Last year I was in Palmerston North for a reading and before it began I was approached by an older woman who said, Hello Damien, you won’t remember me but I’m Noeline Arnott. And I said, Well of course I do remember you, you won the Mobil Short Story Contest in 1989 when I was one of three finalists along with Barbara Anderson. And she said, Yes that’s right. And she smiled shyly and then she said, And in the 1986 American Express Short Story Award I beat Bill Manhire too!’ 

That anecdote doesn’t really have much to do with this wonderful book we’re celebrating except I re-read these stories in a kind of nostalgic delirium. 25 years ago the short story was obviously corporate clickbait – though we didn’t have that word then. Petroleum companies and credit card businesses believed – bless them – that acts of fiction were somehow sufficiently aligned with commerce to throw some fairly lavish parties and sizeable wads of cash at people who could write 3000 words about invented worlds. And Bill, like all of us, like our dear friend Barbara Anderson, was in like a robber’s dog. Sadly for Barbara and me and Bill, Noeline Arnott cleaned up. Still, heady days! I find it strangely powerful that Noeline’s winning entry when Bill came second was called ‘Relics from an ancient tomb.’ 

The problem, or better, the joy, was that Bill’s short stories never quite behaved like magazine fiction. They sailed close and sometimes pretended to be in the world where characters had epiphanies and life’s little ironies were revealed in slices as if falling from a sharp and sympathetic butcher’s knife. But really, no.  

I remember asking Bill about a line in one of his poems, why he’d done a certain thing or what he intended by it – this was in an MA class a few years ago, he was a guest writer – and he sort of looked surprised at the suggestion—almost as if he hadn’t written the poem and I had the wrong man—and then he just shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And later he said that if it were a toss-up between meaning and sound, he’d go with sound every time. He’d go with the music of a line.  

There’s an amazing moment in ‘Days of Sail’, one of the elusive and enchanting stories in this book when the narrator, who lives with his aunt—a woman who may or may not be involved in an assassination attempt on the Queen during her 1981 visit to Dunedinreflects on their relationship, or his life, or his mode of being in the world, the line sort of erupts and then sinks again . . . here’s the sentence:  ‘She says that I am her beautiful boy but I am one of those songs in which the melody gives advice to the words. I sing the song of circumstance, I do as the tune tells me.’ 

I do as the tune tells me . . .  

It’s not a bad way to approach this book – to listen for the tune as much anything. Because while it’s true that these beguiling, discomforting stories take many strange and sudden turns, I was struck all over again by how hummable they are, how they stick to the ear and the mind. You walk across these pages with the sense that a great swallowing crevasse can take you down at any moment but the trick is that you end up, like come daft mountaineer, wanting the sensation of falling. You look forward to being that cartoon character who continues running even though he’s in mid-air, about to plummet. You want to hear the mad mournful music of that descent. 

These stories, the bulk of which come from that period I was talking about, the late 80s, early 90s, can look like a weird interruption to the glorious march of Bill’s poetry. A holiday, a detour—as if the writer was mugged or drugged and woke up to find himself living with a different tribe of cannibals—would he ever get home again? But the continuities are everywhere—for one thing there are lots of poets in these stories—none of whom come out of it very well—Bill relishes the opportunity fiction gives him to castigate, satirise, and generally beat the living daylights out of anyone who has the temerity to announce the poetic calling. I think fiction allows him to be off-duty about a thing that he values the most. And there are lots of poems, or snatches of verse in these stories. The repeating bell of song seques very nicely into Bill’s current musical adventures. More than this, any reader of Bill’s poems will notice in his fiction the pull of his generative material: Antarctica, the moon, country music, masturbation, Southland—maybe those are actually all the same thing! You’ll also be struck again by Bill’s peerless ability at phrase-making, so much a part of his poems; great-sounding lines leap up all the time: ‘. . . we live in the broad Pacific, meeting and parting shake us, meeting and parting shake us, it is always touch and go.’ I think that sounds like a much better slogan than Absolutely Positively whatever. Because these are also highly civic stories somehow, intensely concerned with how we name things, how power is distributed, how the world is divided up and what gets lost in that process. They take aim at the fatuous, the bland, the banal and the bully.  

These stories were my education when they first appeared. They taught me about timing and verve and recklessness. They were like hand grenades lobbed into NZ Lit which when they went off covered you in confetti. Re-reading them, it turns out nostalgia doesn’t really do it. Because these stories, no matter if characters in them play magnetic Scrabble on long-distance flights—remember that!—remain fresh acts of rebellion.

Finally there's a bit of a masterstroke in this book and I think we can thank Fergus for this. The last ‘story’ here is in fact Bill’s great essay about his childhood. And coming to that after the short stories delivers a body blow. It’s like going behind the curtain and catching the magician changing into his civvies. 

Let me say just one thing about how this works. We’re so used to these scraps of song in the fiction, many in a comic register, for example: 
It was down by the old Clutha River 
That river so famous in song 
That Colin fell in love with Maria 
But he didn’t make love to her long. 

We’re so used to that mode that that to meet a song again but this time one which belongs to Maisie – Bill’s Scottish mother – is extraordinary. The essay begins with these four lines: 
I left my baby lying here, 
Lying here, lying here; 
I left my baby lying here 
To go and gather blaeberries. 

We’re so used to voices – one of the stories here is Ventriloquial – about throwing voices – it’s another level of delight and affect to learn that when Bill went to school he had his mother’s Scottish accent. I just find that so cool. For me these little connections made the whole book tremble a little – or I trembled a little.  

There's a dizzying, cosmic joke playing out here – to be born in this strange place New Zealand to a couple, one of whom was, well, under the influence most of the time and the other who spoke funny and had come 12,000 miles – and then to discover that somehow, among all the powerful forces of Southland, you’re attached to poetry, it’s not hard to imagine a fairly weighty inheritance of alienation.  

I think of these stories as ludic on the outside but ferocious in their hidden centres. They are full of jokes and japes about being a New Zealander, being in the South Pacific, being Hank Mushroom. But their engine is a furious melancholy. Or sometimes just fury. Here’s the narrator of ‘The Moon at the End of the Century’: ‘The thing is saving money. How to get enough. How to amass. And how to do this poetry job without yawning . . .’ and the narrator thinks of places to escape to . . . ‘Sydney would be a great place . . . But even Wellington would do. I’ve got to get off the South Island somehow. It’s full of missionaries. It slopes downwards. It’s so fucking cold at the bottom.’  

We're all so pleased Bill got off the South Island and settled among us. Here he is!

The Stories of Bill Manhire is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now. h/b, $40.

Monday, 16 November 2015

4 Questions for Brent Kininmont

Brent Kininmont's debut collection of poetry Thuds Underneath is released this month. Ahead of a trip back to New Zealand from his home in Japan we asked him some questions about his book.

Brent Kininmont (photo by Hana Kininmont)

Thuds Underneath travels all over the world, and one of its preoccupations is flight. The perspective is sometimes that of a nervous flier, sometimes that of someone curious about the act of flying and the world seen from 30 000 feet. Where does your interest in flight come from?

‘Flight’, in the sense of ‘running away’, seems to crop up throughout the collection, though it’s an interest shared by a lot of New Zealanders. Regarding a preoccupation with the other, more obvious sense: in my teens I went to sleep surrounded by pictures of aircraft Blu-Tacked to my wall, though daydreams of becoming an RNZAF pilot were eventually dispelled by my worsening eyesight and remarkably inept science results. That devotion to aircraft was quite superficial – I could name an awful lot of planes on sight, and I took out the same large library books over and over for the intricate cutaway diagrams inside, but I didn't feel compelled to learn the parts of planes or to study how they stayed in the air.

Much later the idea began to take hold that those hurtling metal objects sometimes fell out of the sky. It might have been when airline pilots started looking my age, and an image of them as guardians began to crumble. Although the book’s title can be interpreted several ways, it’s lifted from the opening poem in which the ‘thuds underneath’ are bags being loaded into an airliner’s hold, as heard from the passenger seats. Rather than those noises filling somebody with dread, they suggest order and reassurance. That my father was a baggage handler for three decades is not incidental to that poem and a handful of others in the collection.

The perspective of the speaker in many of these poems seems to be from in the skies – as if they’re hovering above physical places and events, rather than being located in any one place. Is this a consequence of you living away from NZ or is it part of the flight theme?

It’s probably linked to the theme of flight, though it may also have something to do with an outsider only skimming the surface of a culture and relationships. I wasn't conscious of how often poems in the collection look down from up high until I started thinking about how to order them. A god’s eye view from an airliner window seems to mesh with ideas in the book of how people relate to some kind of colossus ­– a dormant volcano, a typhoon, the Parthenon, a Hercules, and others. At one stage I considered calling the collection ‘The God Zones’ due to the recurring views from above, but also because the main settings in the book (the classical lands, the South Island, Japan) could be considered distinct god ‘zones’ where giants and temples appear now and then.

The frequency of that angle from above was also a reason for the Maurice Askew picture on the cover. It looks over a vibrant Colonial Williamsburg, but the straight roads, the cathedral, the hills at the back, and the windmill (read: airport) are strongly suggestive of Christchurch – the place from which I took ‘flight’, I suppose, quite a few years ago. The barren green spaces between buildings in the picture imply a town still being built. Or a post-quake landscape ­– after the broken structures have been swept away.

There is an occasional suggestion in the poems – and perhaps in the book’s title – of the Christchurch quake, though they are usually accidental because so many of the poems were written before the tragedy. Admittedly, those echoes became a lot less ‘accidental’ after I noticed them but chose not to silence them. The most obvious example is a line that compares a father’s glasshouse to a ‘chapel without a steeple’ – an allusion to the quake, except it was written before the spire and tower of the Anglican cathedral were toppled. I considered rewriting that line, out of a concern it might muddy the poem, but I caved to a sense it was meant to be there.

Some of the poems are about your mother’s death. Was it hard to find an angle from which to write about that?

Some poets are able to write very candidly about the serious illness of a parent – Sharon Olds in her book ‘The Father’ is an example of somebody who has done it well. The poems about a mother slipping away that appear in my collection weren’t composed in a straightforward manner; three of the four key poems weren’t even initially written with a mother or an illness in mind. (And the event in the fourth poem didn't actually happen – but poetry is very forgiving.) This includes the poem called ‘Morphine’, which was fully formed, and about a baby daughter drifting off, when I noticed something else in it. I changed the title and suddenly the words were about sitting at a very ill mother’s bedside. In another poem I’m cycling the long straights from Christchurch Airport to my girlfriend’s house in the middle of the city, but where that poem is positioned in the book, and because of the characters appearing in poems either side, the poem suggests a father racing home to his sick wife. Those three poems I mentioned are better, I believe, because of the new readings. Importantly, they are true to an experience of watching a parent fade away ­– something I didn't think I could achieve by walking through the front door into the subject. I also like that those poems retain a lot of their original meaning, even if I’m the only one who recognizes that.

You live in Japan – what’s the poetry scene like there? Do you follow publications in NZ or is your reading focused elsewhere? Does Japanese poetry influence your own writing?

I mostly pay attention to poetry written in English and coming out of New Zealand – the only place where I have submitted poems. I read a bit of what appears online, and I get back home once a year and visit the bookshops for the latest local poetry releases and for used editions. The shops in Tokyo, however, aren’t a total loss for New Zealand poetry. I once picked up a secondhand copy of Jenny Bornholdt’s terrific first collection, This Big Face, for 200 yen (about $2.40). It’s an out-of-print VUP title that I hadn’t been able to unearth at home. On my shelves I also have a hardback edition of James K. Baxter’s collected poems that I found at a used-book sale for 900 yen ($11)­. Probably I was the only person in that hall who would have recognized its worth, in both the literary and financial sense.

I don't know with any authority what the Japanese poetry scene is like. I get by in the local language, but poems written in even quite spare Japanese remain at arms length for me because the contextual differences are still profound. I can’t imagine writing poems in Japanese – it’s a struggle just to get the words right in English. There are expatriate writing groups in Tokyo that gather writers from all over, but I’m a little suspicious of feedback that isn’t grounded in a reliable sense of my home culture. I suspect quite a few of the poems in the collection would only resonate with New Zealanders, and a handful only with fellow readers of New Zealand poetry.

I used to be a newspaper sub-editor, and likely that has had more influence on my own somewhat spare poetic style. One of the biggest influences from Japan is how I go about rewriting. Thanks to a first-rate train system, I get a lot done using the Notes feature on my iPhone while zipping around. Probably every poem in the collection has been tweaked to some degree while riding on bullet trains or sitting elbow-to-elbow with commuters on the subway. 

Thuds Underneath is available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore.
$25, p/b.

You can read some of Brent's work online at Turbine, Best New Zealand Poems and Trout.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Six Questions for Bill Manhire

The Stories of Bill Manhire is published this week. The book collects previously published, uncollected and unpublished stories, as well as the choose-your-own-adventure novella The Brain of Katherine Mansfield and the memoir Under the Influence. Ahead of his launch on Thursday we asked Bill some questions.

Bill Manhire, photo by Ed Swindon

It’s hard to categorise the stories in the new collection – you seem to constantly play with a range of styles and forms. "Stories" seems useful as a description for a book title, but is there a way that you think of the work you write that isn’t poetry?

The stories point outwards a lot more than, say, my early poems did: they’re much less self-involved. So maybe the “work I write that isn’t poetry” could be called “work-that-points-at-the-world-around-me”. I agree, though, “stories” is a pretty loose term – especially as the book includes a choose-your-own-adventure tale illustrated by Greg O’Brien; plus the childhood memoir, Under the Influence, about growing up in pubs.

I don’t think of your stories as very New Zealandy stories, the sort that win the short story competitions in our country, where there’s the expected emotional arc – grief, the end of a relationship or innocence, that sort of thing. Is there a form or style you’re looking to write towards, or write away from?

There’s one fairly conventional one, I think: “Flights of Angels” – the one about the single mother with the precocious son. I worked hard to get the voice of the character right in that one – others will let me know whether or not I did that successfully. And part of me always wanted to write science fiction – hence “Siena”, a piece of future fiction in which tourist New Zealand has successfully theme-parked the whole country.

The first short story I ever published, in my early 20s when I was a postgrad student in London, was a sort of Ray Bradbury rip-off, “The Venus Bird”, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph colour magazine, attributed to someone called Bill Manshire. It produced a lot of weird correspondence – “I have written many times to Malcolm Muggeridge without response, and now turn to you in despair” – and a literary agent, a rather louche young man in an attic room in Bloomsbury, who used to place bets on horses over the phone while his beautiful young PA made coffee – after which he would turn to his latest author (i.e. me), with the advice that it was time to turn “that story” into a novel. Indeed, he was already working on the film rights. But I was too busy trying to be an Old Norse scholar.

But I agree, very few of the stories are interested in the business of narrative excitement or emotional arcs. They’re more like comic-strip frames. Slow-motion collage-work. Or maybe they’re stills from a very short movie, chosen rather randomly, and not always in perfect focus. 

One of the stories actually starts from a photograph of early Dunedin, which is reproduced as the book’s endpapers. That story – “The Days of Sail” – also describes the 1981 attempt to assassinate the Queen in Dunedin, which was very successfully hushed up at the time.

Maybe it helps if I say that my favourite short story writers are Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley. Plus Gogol and early Sargeson. Also Lydia Davis. Also Italo Calvino.

Humour is one thing that connects much of your work throughout the stories and in your poetry. Is this something that happens on purpose or by accident?

It’s not deliberate, but I’m pleased that it’s there – especially when it’s tinged with a bit of menace and melancholy. A big impulse in the “new land” stories is satirical. If you’re troubled by the way the tourist industry seems to define New Zealand, or the ridiculous self-importance that undermines the work of so many writers, or the way the government seems to have no real moral compass – everything is seen in terms of NZ Inc – then it probably makes more sense to mock what’s going on than to rant like King Lear out on the heath. The troubling thing is that the targets don’t date – they just grow fatter and more complacent.

Do you set out to write a story, as opposed to a poem, or does a poem sometimes turn into a story? 

I think I know the difference, most of the time. But I’m fond of the quasi prose poems that sit in between poetry and conventional short fiction. For instance, some of the prose things that are in Lifted – and perhaps, in a slightly different manner, the “My Early Life” piece that Steve Braunias ran in the new online mag The Spinoff. I wondered about including some of those in the book but decided they didn’t quite belong.

One story in the collection describes the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson. Are you a Stevenson fan? How did this story get its legs?

I’m a big Stevenson fan, but not a scholar. I think I was interested in exploring the impossibility for some authors of escaping celebrity, especially back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think RLS is a terrific writer, who got a bit lost once Joyce and Woolf and co came on the scene. It’s only recently that he’s found his way out of the fug of modernist snobbery.

The RLS story fits with a broader Pacific motif that drifts through the book. I have a big collection of children’s books set in the South Pacific – hence the story called “Cannibals”.  There’s another story in which a rather sad young man travels to London to try and market a board game called South Pacific. And there’s reference to a novel called Banks, in which each of the ten chapters is written from the point of view of one of Joseph Banks’s servants. It’s one of those novels where the concept is more interesting than the likely reading experience. Plus my Twitter handle is @pacificraft.

You have an international reputation as a brilliant writer and teacher of creative writing. Tell us the secret to your success? Or at least, what you eat for breakfast?

These are questions I am frequently asked, and I have answered them all in a story called “Some Questions I am Frequently Asked”. Everything you could possibly want to know is there in that one story.

The Stories of Bill Manhire goes on sale 12 Nov. Available at bookshops worth their salt and through our online bookstore.
hardback, $40

The book will be launched this week at Unity Books in Wellington, Thursday 12 Nov, 6pm, all welcome.