Monday 20 March 2017

Bill Manhire interview

Bill Manhire (photo by Grant Maiden)

I imagine you’ve heard this a lot over your career – but I’m going to say it anyway. In many of your poems in Coffin I have no idea what’s going on, but I don’t mind – there’s something soothing about the sounds and word combinations, something hinted at that I can’t quite grasp with my own words… It’s not reader’s befuddlement, more a sense that what you’re creating on the page is the part of the world we can’t quite understand. Is this your intention?

Emily Dickinson says that she knows she’s dealing with poetry when she reads something and it makes her feel so cold no fire can ever warm her. I think there’s something you want a poem to do to you as reader, something almost physical, which is quite different from what we’re trained to look for in poetry at various points in the education system. That’s the sort of thing I’m after, I think. I’m not trying to be ‘difficult’ or obscure, I just want a poem, first of all, to exist in the world in its own unparaphrasable actuality, and then to have some resonance beyond itself. The Paul Valery definition/aphorism sums it up for me: a poem is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. I like poems that do that sort of hesitation, hovering between meaning and music.

Then there’s the section ‘Known unto God’ which I know from reading this piece in the NZ Listener is a poem made up of the voices of unknown dead soldiers… This knowledge, that you’re hearing the (imagined) voices of the dead makes my reading more poignant. So, my question is – how much do you think a reader should know before they read a poem? Is this contextual?

It’s interesting how after a poetry reading someone will say, ‘I wish I knew what you said about that poem when you were introducing it. Why can’t you give us that sort of information in your book?’ But explicatory notes in a book would be bad for all sorts of reasons, I think. That particular poem was written for a specific context, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, and I think there’s a note to that effect on the back of the book. Whether that helps a reader ‘get’ every moment in the poem (especially the ending in the contemporary Mediterranean) is hard to know. Probably not.

I’m pleased with one thing we’ve been able to do with ‘Known unto God’ in the larger book – it’s sort of sectioned off with its own double-black endpapers which I hope gives some sense that it’s an in memoriam piece, almost like one of those orders of service handed out at a funeral.

Sometimes reading your work is like reading a Calvino short story. I’m thinking of ‘What Will Last’ in which I imagine the speaker is an old woman with Alzheimers listing ‘what will last’ in the future. I mention Calvino, because throughout your work there’s a thread of surrealism, a surprising strange element which is always grounded by an earthy voice, a piece of humour. What do you think of this oddness in your work, do you have a name for it? I say surrealism, but that’s not quite right either…

Yes, I think that speaker is entering the world of dementia and memory-fail. She – or he! – is looking for what will last at a time when things in their own life are starting to dissolve. It’s a state that can be pretty unsettling, and the gaps and leaps do have a surreal flavour. I don’t have a name for it, but I’ve always thought poetry needs a bit of weirdness. I love Calvino, so am pleased that you make the comparison. And more generally I like the way comedy can be a means of voicing something that’s also desperately sad.

I think the strangeness in your work sometimes arises out of a mingling of physical body experience and sense of the world with how the mind processes what we see and feel, which can be very confusing! An obvious example would be ‘My World War I Poem’ – a simple, very affecting poem. ‘Inside each trench, the sound of prayer./ Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.’ So you’ve got the sound of the trenches, and the psychological dread of the trenches interwoven, impossible to pull apart. Is it this confusion of experience you’re getting at in your work?

I’ll need to think about that, but you might be on to something! I like readers to feel secure and insecure at the same time. I do think you write out of your confusions, not your occasional moments of clarity. Maybe I tend to leave more confusion in the text than other writers do.

You’ve used erasure in some of your poems. Erasure always slightly piques me as a reader – can you say a bit about why you use it?

I leave lots out, but I don’t think I use erasure all that much. Or not in the way it’s used by Mary Ruefle or Tom Phillips in A Humument, where in a way you’re dealing with work that may involve language but is really a minor branch of the visual arts. But I think maybe you mean the lines that I print but strike out at the same time? That’s just something I occasionally try, without quite knowing what I’m doing. I like the fact that you can see what’s been lost or removed, at the same time as it remains awkwardly present. I think that’s something I’ve done at the end of ‘The Beautiful World’.

Where our sister has opened the door.

Where our father stands beside our mother.

Where the trees have gathered to admire the water.

You can see what the speaker wishes were there for him – the family he has lost – even as you can see that it’s been deleted. His whole life has undergone revision: all he’s got now is some trees and a lake.

What is it with you and lakes, Bill? They occur so often in your poems.

A chunk of my childhood was spent in Mossburn, on the way through to Te Anau and Manapouri, so some of my earliest memories are involved with lakes. I like the fact that you can somehow see both the surface and the depth – or you think you can. And lakes have edges ­– they aren’t endless free verse. Is it Auden who says that the trouble with the sea is that it’s just too sloppy and formless? Another especially good thing about lakes is that a hand might rise up at any moment waving a big sword.

You’ve collaborated with different artists throughout your career. Ralph Hotere was an early collaborator, and an artist to whom the title poem is dedicated. You’ve also got a song lyric written for SJD and a new book of riddles, which is a collaboration with composer Norman Meehan, singer Hannah Griffin and photographer Peter Peryer. Can you say a bit about how those two collaborations came about?

Some people think collaboration is tight cooperative teamwork. I’m happy if it’s less intense, even long-distance. One person does one thing, and the other adds to it and transforms it, and then there might be a bit of to and fro. With Ralph, it was a friendship thing, a temperamental affinity – we both enjoyed sitting quietly in a room and occasionally grunting. Well, I did.

Norman had already worked with Hannah on poetry – mainly ee cummings, and he subsequently set a few poems of mine and asked me along to the performance. I went a bit uneasily because of course a good poem has already been set to music in some essential way. But I sort of liked what he did, so suggested I could try writing some lyrics for him to work with. We’re pretty much up to four albums now. Usually the text precedes the music. There are lyrics I’ve produced for Norman and Hannah that I wouldn’t otherwise have written, and are very satisfyingly weird, and I’m totally pleased they’re in the world. ‘Warehouse Curtains’, a sort of Elizabethan lyric gone wrong, would be one example.

Sean Donnelly got in touch with a few poets last year looking for texts he might work with. I like his stuff anyway, so was pleased to be in the mix, and I really like what he’s done with the words I sent him. I’m guessing there’ll be an album fairly soon. One of the lyrics I wrote, ‘Rescue’, I’ve put in the new book.

Some Things to Place in a Coffin (pb, $25) and Tell Me My Name (hb, $35, incl. CD) are both available for purchase at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore now.

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