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.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Interview with James McNaughton

James McNaughton (Grant Maiden Photography)
Your new novel, Star Sailors, is set in a version of Wellington in the near future where climate change has severely changed people’s lives. Your first novel, New Hokkaido, was also set in a reimagined Wellington in the 1980s, one in which imagines the Japanese occupied New Zealand in WWII – can you talk about the attraction of turning Wellington on a fantastical slant like you’ve done in two books now? What is it about speculative fiction that motivates you as a writer?
With New Hokkaido I wanted to try something I hadn’t done before: a page-turner. My previous attempts at long fiction were reflexive, digressive and plotless, so this was a big departure for me. It was fun to go forth and tell a love/detective story, but I felt the genre conventions a little restricting. What I like about speculative fiction is that it offers dramatic possibilities and ways into issues that straight literary fiction isn’t allowed.
One of the problems with climate change as a future global catastrophe is that it’s all rather dry and abstract. For a lot of people in first-world countries climate change and inequality have become bothersome background noise that only sharpen into a sense of guilt and hopelessness when attention is paid to them. To travel into the near future transforms vague forecasts of catastrophe into something concrete. Risk becomes reality. Star Sailors shows the disastrous possible effects of climate change and inequality on a day-to-day basis. But the prerequisite for any novel to effectively tackle issues is that it be entertaining. Star Sailors is character-driven. It’s humorous. It’s cinematic. It has momentum. It was written in the golden era of the TV mini-series.
Star Sailors is not a dystopia. I’ve attempted to create a plausible geo-political 2045 in which emission reductions have not occurred. Given the current political climate in the US, for example, this is plausible. To imagine NZ as a haven for international elites doesn’t feel like speculation but highly likely. (Since I started writing the novel, which imagines an elite gated community in the Wairarapa, rich Americans have bought land there.) The future I’ve depicted in which ‘business as usual’ prevails is distressing, but power is never given up willingly and the science is clear that if we keep doing what we’re doing now in terms of emissions and deforestation we are bound for global disaster within decades.
There is a perception that climate change is just about drought and waves beating at the doorstep. My view is that rising sea levels, worsening weather shocks and the spread of pests and of disease will greatly exacerbate existing problems around fresh water, food security, migration and inequality, resulting in unprecedented social unrest. A wheat crop failure in North America due to climate change, for example, can affect the price of bread in Eastern Europe. Everything is linked.
There are a couple of fantastical elements in the novel. One is the arrival of a brain-damaged alien humanoid to New Hokitika (Hokitika has been moved to higher ground and become a rain holiday destination for Australians). The helpless humanoid becomes the property of the news arm of a transnational and a puppet for their commercial interests.
Another element is the idea of the super-elderly class. Out-of-control-unsustainable technology has been described as the Frankenstein child of science, with technology’s grand prize the end of illness and death altogether. But is vastly increased life-span really the boon it’s made out to be? With the elite class of super-elderly in Star Sailors I’ve showed what extended age might mean to society in terms of entrenched ideology and power. And how creepy ancient baby-boomers might be.

You’ve described Star Sailors as cli-fi (climate change fiction). In writing it did you research predictions of climate change disaster or was it fairly easy to come up with your own?
I’ve volunteered for the Red Cross Cred Crescent as an editor at various times, including 2004–06 when my wife-to-be was a Red Cross delegate in South Asia and we were based in Delhi. Weather-based disasters were on the increase in the region and her job was to advocate for those at risk. When I accompanied her on a mission to the Maldives, I saw the vulnerabilities of low-lying communities to climate change. The Red Cross reports I edited clearly described climate change as the major ongoing risk in the Maldives and in the other areas in South Asia prone to flooding and storms. Climate Change wasn’t a bourgeoisie playground or opportunity for trolls, it was real and happening. In 2008, I volunteered for the Red Cross in Bogota, Columbia and edited Spanish to English translations for the South American centre for climate change, which collated and published reports from across the continent. I’ve followed developments ever since.
I took my predictions for 2045 to a few experts and asked them a lot of questions. Those talks were very helpful.

 Is there something in writing about the disasters of climate change that helps you mitigate your fears about climate change?
No, not at all. The more I learned about climate change while researching the novel, the worse the situation looked. Discussing the subject with experts was especially grim. When I started writing in 2014, climate change denial was not uncommon in government. I thought the Paris Accord would make denial untenable for those in power, if nothing else, but depressingly that hasn’t happened. The process of writing hasn’t made me feel any less fearful, but a little less impotent. I’ve tried. 

There have been a few stories in the wake of the recent US elections calling for artists to write about our current troubles. Do you feel you have a responsibility as an artist to write about environmental and political concerns?
Narrative is how we make sense of time and the world. Stories have power, and symbol, analogy and metaphor are powerful communicators. I felt that the best contribution I could make to raising awareness of climate change was to take the content out of unread reports and knowledge-sharing documents into a wider discourse through fiction about people facing the effects of climate change. The decision to write about these issues wasn’t born out of a sense responsibility exactly, more out of anger and exasperation if anything.
I can understand readers avoiding social problem fiction. One of the most attractive things about art is its exemption from having to be practically useful. You’ve got a few free hours and don’t want to be lectured—particularly on a good cause. But at the same time, writing which ignores the pressing concerns of the day runs the risk of being irrelevant. It’s a balancing act for a writer. Great social problem novels don’t preach abstract issues, they’re about people facing those issues, like Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and the work of Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Social science fiction classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are less character-based, but work on an important level as entertainment. There’s no point preaching to the choir or preaching to the sleeping.
VS Naipaul said novels should be an investigation onto society, which for me describes what the great nineteenth-century writers did best. It’s probably fair to say that the novel has since moved to more individual concerns. It could well be time for some writers to change focus.  

Climate change can be hard to talk about and get your head around. Is it hard to write about?
Climate change is difficult to talk about, partly because it’s hard to visualise and then depressing if you persist. The inertia, denial and politicisation around it is wearying. To research and write a novel in which things have only changed for the worse thirty years from now was sometimes hard. But this horrible possibility inspired me to find a story.
We need to be worried. Emissions could quite likely continue to increase in response to population growth and growing energy demands. War or social unrest will move climate change to the background. Tipping points may come sooner than predicted. The earth is a balanced system, and feedbacks (such as the effect of disappearing ice reducing solar reflection and increasing warming) are difficult to predict accurately.
Problems are the beating heart of fiction, so from a writer’s point of view there’s plenty to work with around our slide into catastrophe. Star Sailors is a Comedy plot, in the way that War and Peace is a Comedy plot. It’s about people finding each other in a time of trouble—it’s about love. Climate change and inequality are Star Sailor’s Napoleon—its one hundred Napoleons tearing up the fabric of civilisation.

Star Sailors is available for purchase now at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore. p/b, $35.