Mutes & Earthquakes: Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing Course at Victoria University
ed Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0 86473 318 6
In his 1965 book on Picasso, John Berger said: “Events in our century occur on a global scale. And the area of our knowledge has widened in order to encompass these events. Every day we can be aware of life-and-death issues affecting millions of people. Most of us close our minds to such thoughts except in crisis or war. Artists, whose imaginations are less controllable than most, have been obsessed with the problem: How can I justify what I am doing at such a time? This has led some to renounce the world, others to become over-ambitious or pretentious, yet others to stifle their imaginations. But since 1914 there cannot have been a serious artist who has not asked himself the question.”
However one might wish to qualify the socialist conscience of this in the light of events since it was written, the recognition of the volatile nature of artistic imagination and the problem of control is always essential to the teaching of anything creative. Students — writers — who come to creative writing classes take it for granted before they begin. Berger is also drawing attention to the problem of the subject in the modern world. The question is not only, “How can I justify what I do?” but also, “Why should an artist paint this subject or a writer write about this one, rather than any other?” At the end of the century what priorities are left to help us choose in this way? And how might such a subject be treated if I am to be responsible to the world I live in and also fair to myself? In his introduction to Mutes & Earthquakes Bill Manhire, always shy of making grand gestures boldly, diffidently quotes the American poet Richard Hugo: “A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.”
This is hyperbole but there is, literally, truth in it. The sanctuary of the class is extreme. The opportunity to devote strict attention to the writing of those present, to develop critical forms of understanding, to promote alternative and experimental genres for articulation, to mediate between the creative imagination and control, is to privilege your experience and that of your classmates and confer real value upon it. Your life “still matters”. The extent to which John Berger was expressing a general truth about creative work in the twentieth century is a gauge of the possible value of any creative writing course.
But the dangers should be equally clear. Exclusive attention to the writing might mean a retreat from the more brutal and demanding forms of engagement. An elegant villanelle or pretty pantoum is a long way from a viciously earnest flyting and one of the most conspicuous lacks in contemporary New Zealand is intelligent overtone (David Lange was the last major public figure to display it prominently). On the other hand, if the writing is too carefully strained it might become enervated, nuance may be over-indulged, the slight thing seen delicately may turn writing arch and pretentious, missing real substance and weight. (Henry James’s marvellous circumlocutions — not the razor but “the matutinal steel” — never lacked substance and weight.)
Then again, the strangeness of the event of the creative writing class might itself counterbalance these tendencies. Any group of potential writers might bring together people from a variety of occupations, different social strata and shared or singular problems of a personal or public kind. Emotional facts (like bereavement) will be recognised as quickly and usually as sympathetically, as economic facts (like unemployment). The company itself can be a method to stimulate creativity as well as control, to help balancing. The sense of community it makes possible is social and multicultural and this corrects the extreme individualism of any competitive context. When a creative writing class is operating in the most critically incisive way it still might be creating wonderfully supportive mechanisms.
These remarks are borne out by my own limited but varied experience of teaching creative writing, for workers and community education asociations in Drumchapel, Glasgow, and in the continuing education department of the University of Waikato. In Scotland the classes convinced me of the value of such work: at least one writer found himself brought back to self-respect from the despair of redundancy. Good writing is never wholly the property of university people; there are always untold stories and declarations of experience and desire can never be completely monopolised. What Ed Dorn calls “The Sanders Quote” remains true despite all appearances to the contrary: people will write where they can — “With / your bloody finger on a prison wall / if necessary.”
Victoria University’s classes began with extension workshops in the 1960s and Manhire started in 1975 with what he describes as “a sort of undergraduate thesis paper” — an optional submission towards the English degree. Manhire developed the course in its own right, prompted by insightful and supportive department chairs and the genuine interest and desires of students: “Everyone actually wanted to be there, which was never something you could safely say of tutorials on Richard III…” He developed exercises for the students, “cranky constraints, strange systems of chance” and they began “to enter the gaming halls of the imagination”.
By the 1980s Manhire’s course was open to anyone, not just students taking an English major, and the exercises had become more formal. By the 1990s the course had become very well known and a number of writers who had taken it had gone into print with respected publishers both here and internationally. The class was attracting more students than it could accommodate and the publishing infrastructure was actively interested in promoting the results.
Again, the dangers of such success are evident. The population is relatively small and extremely vulnerable to fashion, whether political or literary. There are many bad fashions and there is less in-built resistence given to open articulation in a credible forum. Unexamined tastes can be fostered and the commercial decisions made by publishers and distributors can easily result in effective forms of censorship. There are dangers of emulation and consequently a narrowing of choices, a lessening of true variety.
But Mutes & Earthquakes is a celebration of Manhire’s class, a compendious anthology of work by about 70 writers, mainly short fiction or poems, though there are also essays on creative writing classes, techniques and exercises. You might say it’s like a bumper issue of Sport with do-it-yourself instructions. But that would be a bit like taking Ezra Pound’s How to Read as a kulchur-by-numbers kit and thinking you could write like him and get away with it. There’s more to it.
First, there’s the affection in which Manhire is evidently held by those who have taken the class and benefited from his work. There is a generosity of spirit and a quality of self-effacement in his willingness to encourage others and in a world so given to self-promotion and venality these are welcome aspects of any magus.
But the affectionate respect for Manhire also holds the book together in a strange way. Manhire is nowhere named as the editor and there is a diversity of voices but there is also a distinct pattern of preference, a range of recurring themes or kinds of gravitation towards certain areas and away from others. This is perhaps a cost that must be paid and Manhire is aware of it. In the text of his introduction he affirms the pleasure he takes in the variety of writing styles but in a footnote he confesses to certain emphases often apparent in writers who have attended the workshop, particularly an element of play and a preference for hybrid writing, halfway between prose and poetry, or mixing the genres.
Dinah Hawken draws attention to the former quality: “If I had to choose a central insight I gained from Bill Manhire’s course it is that play is central to writing well and that an ability to play (and work) with language is just as important as saying what you mean.” But the rider she adds is an important qualification: “Because I’m a serious creature, maybe it is a lesson I particularly needed to learn.” Maybe. But there’s play and there’s frivolity and, while play is a true value, it becomes less so the further it is removed from seriousness. You don’t need to over-indulge in earnestness or solemnity to be wary of the tiresomeness that trivia and whimsy might lead to. Delight is never pure.
The second emphasis is also evident in some of the writers in the anthology. If the first suggests something of the character of the class, the second demonstrates perhaps the formal requirements of the writing exercises. Short, self-contained pieces might well take shape as especially intense hybrids, where meaning reflects and refracts through writing that is half-poetry, half-prose and strangely oblique, always at an angle to direct utterance.
So much for generalisations, the dangers and liabilities. What of the achievements? What of the yield?
The first yield of course is the series of exercises and the accounts of other workshop activities. Once you’re tuned into the imaginative ventures there’s pleasure to be had from the items by Hawken, Damien Wilkins, David Geary, Joy Cowley, Fiona Kidman and Manhire himself. Manhire’s exercises are often cross-referenced to individual pieces. For example, the writers were required to produce a work which includes five unrelated objects, including “someone claiming to be a close friend of Margaret Mahy”. Chris Orsman was prompted to produce a comic poem set in a Dubrovnik cafe, where a self-assured “writer of distinction” makes the acquaintance of the poet and proceeds to assert his knowledge of his peers:
Try me, he says, name a writer!
A great German!
Ah, the Russians were our friends once!
Yes, yes, I know her well!
A fine writer. A Black American!
The waiter comes with coffee.
Or, just as memorably, the writers were required to make up a poem of found items. Wanda Barker’s “On tracks to be with angels” is a chilling example, the words taken from the Dominion, but the effect — the account is of the suicide of a 6-year-old girl — can be adequately expressed only in the more forceful medium of poetry. Instead of journalism — one story among many, the experience diminished to mere reportage — the poem makes this an event, restoring its awful singularity, the line-breaks and emphases, spaces and pauses insisting that you register a human tragedy:
the train approached in the crisp morning light
“to be with the angels”
And so, “with her back to the train she waited.” Transcription exercises like this can be astonishingly fruitful in various ways. Jane Garden credits the influence of Frank Kuppner in a poem. Kuppner’s Scot who wished to be English becomes Garden’s New Zealander with the same forlorn desire. This sort of thing says too much about cultural affinity and political power-structures to be merely dismissed as plagiarism. Transcribing “non-poetic” texts (say, from scientific material or non-”creative” prose from different disciplines) into poetic forms has a long history of eminent precedents. And such writing is capable of sinister and subtle comic nuance (what Norman MacCaig called the homicidal hilarity of a laugh in a ballad), like this example by Brian McCabe, the fifth of his series “Five Murders (Found in the Edinburgh Evening News)”:
On the evening of the killing
he had gone into the garden
to look at his Dahlias.
He saw the hammer
and picked it up.
There are innumerable ways to make reality give up its words and create different forms of sense. David Geary talks of compiling “a list of every word seen on a bus trip between Palmerston North and Wellington”. (It sounds useless but until you’ve done it you don’t know what it might mean. Even place-names mean more than their references. I remember driving to Coromandel with a friend of mine who was affronted by the yoking in “The ‘Firth’ of ‘Thames’” a Scots term for an arm of water with a very English river; he had to be persuaded the combination was not just a mistake.)
Other exercises include one based on Wallace Stevens’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (yielding Emily McHalick’s Twelve Views of Matron’s Bosoms). Take a multiple range of perspectives on the same thing and the ordinary becomes mysterious. There’s one based on syllabics — poems composed with the same number of syllables in each line. Alexandra Gillespie provides a good example in “A Syllabic Letter / I address it to you Pa”:
I was three you died
where the blinds made a
dark room in the day
My father at the
table crying I
can’t remember you
The writer is alerted to the component parts of the poem, sentences, phrases, words, parts of words, and grammar itself becomes defamiliarised. Here the emotional pull of the subject is saved from sentimentalism by the limpid, ordinary language, suspended and sustained by the syllabic form. Another exercise is simply called “My Pet” (resulting in Adam Shelton’s tragi-comic exercise in pathos and bathos about Russell, his pet ape); another involves translation from unknown languages (and unknown alphabets — Cyrillic or Urdu, for example, which gives Shelton’s “The Old Man and the Ghazal” — pronounced “guzzle”). There are a number of others, including lists (Ingrid Horrocks itemises “Wonderful Things” — like “A bath that is so hot you want to put cold in but you resist”); direct descriptions and atmospherics (such as Nikhat Shameem’s impressionistic “The Lake”) and a writing “between-the-lines” exercise involving intimate, line-by-line responses to the work of other poets which evolve into independent texts once the originals are discarded. Manhire also provides a list of further reading.
Such exercises will suggest the limitations of the anthology as much as its pleasures. Sometimes the cross-references deliver you to a text which reads like a complex crossword clue, to which the answer is the exercise that inspired it. But the pleasures, whether considered as deeply embedded in the circumstances of Manhire’s class or as arising from the volatile but controlled imaginations of the individual writers, are real.
In “How I Ate Them” Rachel Bush gives us the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” from the wolf’s perspective — predictable enough till the ending: “I am trying to digest … but I am fearful, waiting for the strong woodsman to force his way into the house… He will chop open my gizzards and expose Granny and the sweet maid churning gently in my gut, being transmogrified and made into wolf.” Barbara Anderson offers a carefully poised exercise in reported speech and understated irony as a group of characters take a pleasure-boat ride on the Wanganui; Alison Glenny gives a magic realist account of origins and settlers, mixing Maori legend and myth with unreliable pakeha genealogy, questioning the nature of fiction and the past; Paola Bilbrough, Kirsty Gunn, Hinemoana Baker and Gabrielle Shaw all have stories about families and domestic relationships, balancing realistic detail and dream-like clarity of vision. Family also infuses the poetry of Andrew Loughran, Caren Winton and Miro Bilbrough (“your sons’ eyes are dreaming in American”). Pat Quinn, Catherine Chidgey, Vivienne Plumb, Stephanie Miller, Sarah Quigley, Barbara Else, Jenny Patrick and Fiona McLean all write about sexual mores from a predominantly feminist disposition, with different degrees of generosity, comic insight, devotion to bourgeois or rural lifestyles and to varying satiric or gently celebratory effect. Johanna Mary allows the surrealist aspect of the exercises to enhance her playful writing for children in “Noise Biscuits”. In Samara McDowell’s more extended story, “Holloway Road”, a young Wellington woman seems to bring about an accidental death, confessing at the end, “I never wanted to be a witch”, and concluding with sinister foresight, “But it’s already later than you think.”
Something about the narrative of “Holloway Road” is related to the deliberately pitched and carefully angled writing of Emily Perkins. The premise to her style is its tense: this is what’s happening, her story seems to be saying as you read it, this is what’s just happened but what is about to happen you don’t yet know. It’s a crafty move, carefully learned and skilfully deployed. As she puts it in her poem “July”, “…this is the way it is for a while, / with interruptions”.
Other things that stay in the memory include the quirky humour of James Brown’s “Cashpoint” pantoum and Jenny Bornholdt’s “Make Sure” and “Then Murray came”, Michael Minstrom’s horrific account of a baby given gin instead of water, Elizabeth Knox imagining the letters home and brutal death of a young soldier in World War I and Ken Duncum bringing James K Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson together for an apotheosis of rhapsodic identification with small-town New Zealand.
The lasting impression is of how strengthening the class must have been for all the writers involved and in this it should be seen as exemplary. The principle is right. Creativity should be more highly prized in our society and Manhire’s work has helped to make that happen. The artist William Johnstone once remarked that it would be idle to blame teachers in any criticism of educational methods — such criticism must be aimed at “the prevalent attitude to experience”. Any creative writing class worth running will counter, in however small a degree, the prevalent attitude towards experience which diminishes its value and subtracts its best energies.
Given the determination to value experience which Manhire’s creative writing class takes as its basic premise, one can nevertheless discern certain prevalent inclinations. Play (sometimes bordering on whimsy) is certainly privileged; so are poignancy and disingenuousness — matters of style and mannerism as much as subject. In subject, particularly, the contemporary domestic world is frequently focused and a bland literalism is sometimes dangerously close to the more fantastic aspects of vision. What seems more generally missing is historical evocation, dramatic tension, satire or direct engagement with public issues of a political nature, economic realities and, surprisingly perhaps, the workings of society: people in various different positions of work, class and power. The colloquial idiom is evident but there’s little use of dialect or other language forms than standard English.
Mutes & Earthquakes is a celebration of good things but to its credit it leaves you with the certain knowledge that for any single writer there may be any number of books worth reading but very few that are worth writing.
Alan Riach is a poet who teaches English at Waikato University.