“Aha – data reduction!” James Brown

James Brown interviews Bill Manhire

James Brown (JB): Accessible but elusive. A lot of people seem to like your poetry, but find it difficult. How conscious are you, when you write, of an audience? In other words, do you ever scrub out a line because you feel it’s too obscure or too obvious?

Bill Manhire (BM): Well, yes, either reason would do: you have to ditch what’s disastrous. But usually I delete stuff because it “sounds” wrong. The “obscure/obvious” thing – most of the time – is entirely secondary. It’s not that I reject either possibility; more that I’d like my poems to be both at once, and very much at the exact moment they hit the right notes and find the right cadences. As for “accessible but elusive” … well, I don’t know, those two adjectives sound fine one by one, but put them together and I would guess you have someone enormously aware, over-aware, of the act of writing for an audience – certainly for some sort of reader. Maybe I should admit that I had a phase, in my early teens, when I was a Boy Wonder Magician.  I even had my own collapsible conjuring table. I sometimes put on shows in the Crown Hotel, Dunedin, for hotel guests who fortunately had had rather too much to drink. “Verne: Boy Wonder Magician!” I could turn ink into water and take things out of hats: that whole business of change and transformation – things appearing out of nowhere, then vanishing or swapping places … I’m aware that plenty of my poems work like that. I was also a bit of a card-sharp: I could deal myself a perfect hand off the bottom of the pack, I could make people think they were psychic. But – coming back to the accessible/elusive thing – when you do a magic show (and I had a subsequent phase where I did conjuring tricks for my own kids’ birthday parties), the thing that has happened depends entirely on how you work – and even misdirect – the audience; and the illusion, the effect, is for the spectators necessarily obvious, but also totally mysterious – and maybe that’s there in the behaviour of my poems, too.

JB: You once said you thought it was probably easier to write poems like Ezra Pound than poems like Philip Larkin.  If Larkin’s at the “it’s all quite clear what it means” end and Pound’s at the other, where do you see (or where would you like to see) your poems?

BM: Running to and fro. I’d probably like to end up alongside Larkin, but with a bit less gloom. Not that I really object to gloom.

JB: In your new book, “A Final Secret” is clearly an important poem. It seems to be saying all sorts of things: phrases like “Will you enter creation? / I will enter creation” could certainly be read in a number of ways.  Care to comment on the various possibilities?

BM: I really like this poem. I’m genuinely proud of it. It’s thoroughly frivolous in its behaviour – “then we have breakfast” – yet the whole thing is meant very seriously. I’m trying to find a way – a roundabout way, granted – of saying that the world is good and that I like being alive in it. Since I can’t say it straight, I do it with a bit of a loop. It’s a sort of anti-mid-life crisis number, my version of Tennyson’s “Merlin and the Gleam” – everything lies “somewhere ahead”, so you have to keep on heading there, sort of unsuccessfully, yet the whole process can add up to a weird kind of contentment. Actually, “A Final Secret” is an enormously banal poem, but then the deep truths about life can be pretty banal, and it’s amazing how much banality poems can cope with.

JB: Do you typically start with a set idea about what you want to achieve or where you want to get to, or do you have a line or feeling in your head around which the poem composes itself?

BM: Always the second, and whenever I start with the first, I still have to wait for the second. The one obvious recent exception would be the Antarctic sequence in the new book. Several of those poems were written down on the ice, and even published there in the little collection, Homelight, that I did with Chris Orsman and Nigel Brown. But far more were worked up later from field notes. I remember talking to a glaciologist whose party we were attached to at Lake Bonney, this extraordinary, otherworldly ice lake in the Taylor Valley – one of the great, beautiful places of my life. And I said to Bryn, who was from Aberystwyth, what would he do once he was back in the real world. “Oh, you know,” he said, “a couple of weeks of data reduction, and then I’ll have a bloody good holiday.” And I thought: “Aha – data reduction!” Though in my case this meant scraps of information which needed expansion and connection – articulation. So I came back with my notebooks and my scruffy phrases, and I coaxed the poems out of them – a lot of this while I was sitting high in a tower block in Washington DC, staring out over the Potomac.

JB: I’m interested in your longer poems. Did you consciously set out to go over the page and was the process of composition different from your earlier poems?

BM: I’m not sure about this. The obvious answer is that I’d started writing short stories – so that narrative inevitably started working its way into the poems. But I also wonder now if those poems coincided with the shift from typewriter to word processor. When you roll a sheet of A4 paper into a typewriter, you roll in a frame with a very specific set of dimensions. But when you get your scribblings onto the screen of a word processor, in a way the poem can just scroll on forever. There’s no cut-off point there insisting on itself.

JB: Perhaps we could digress into prose. Are you still writing short stories?

BM: Well, I have a couple underway, but the truth is I’ve been fiddling with them for several years. They still feel alive: one is about the death of Robert Louis Stevenson; the other about the Unknown Soldier. But telling you this may put the hex on things and mean I never finish them. So this is good, James: you get the blame . . .

JB: Ahh, returning to poetry … for years you were known for short lyric poems, and at the Hotere Exhibition you expressed a desire to get back to those earlier poems again. What’s going on?

BM: Probably the nostalgias of middle age. Actually, what to call your child has a few poems of that early sort, especially – and curiously – the versions of Pushkin. I think the book is quite strongly shaped, and it coheres imaginatively because of the issues that surface in the Antarctic sequence and ghost through the work as a whole. But it also feels like a very tight compendium of all the various ways in which I’ve written poems. I’m pleased that quite different poems confront one another and survive the experience, indeed get along reasonably well. So that “Luck: A Villanelle”, which is very accessible and seems to have found an audience well beyond the usual poetry audience, sits opposite “Millennial”, which is charged and puzzling and spooky.

JB: Are you ever afraid of becoming a parody of yourself? How important is it for you to try new things?

BM: Well, I want to surprise myself, but I also want to be continuous with myself. The new has to know about the old. You can’t change course, but from time to time you can shift direction. I don’t think I believe very strongly in the idea of “development”.

JB: Have you ever felt blocked or burnt out?

BM: Yes, I lapse and drift constantly. My big temperamental advantage is that though I’m lazy as a writer, I’m also dogged: if I really decide to, I can push on from one page to the next. But the world is full of responsibilities and distractions: you can often feel that everything else you do or should be doing is far more important than your own writing. I speak here as a lapsed Presbyterian.

JB: I was talking to someone who’d recently finished an English doctorate who expressed dismay that creative publications by academics counted as academic publications. I also remember one lecturer recalling how he was deeply moved when he first read “The Order of Discourse”. What should English departments be teaching?

BM: Scholarship and clear thinking. Other than that, I don’t know. But then that makes me just the same as English departments: they’re full of mildly intelligent people like me who don’t know what their subject is. My chief worry is that English departments have begun to abandon the aesthetic dimensions of the literary texts they teach. The idea that novels and poems and plays are works of art, and that some are better than others, and that the very best ones have capacity and grace in great measure – this is all a bit embarrassing, apparently. On the question of theory, I like Charles Simic’s notebook comment: “The ambition of much of today’s literary theory seems to be to find ways to read literature without imagination.” You know, you can get so densely nuanced, you just end up dense.

JB: Speaking to creative writers, on the other hand, I detect a deep distress at Barthes’ “Death of the Author”. It seems as if deep down they want to maintain “the reward of priority” as sources of meaning on their own works. Whose opinion counts for most – the reader’s or writer’s?

BM: A poem’s not there until someone engages with it; so all power to the reader. The big problem is to make readers feel less intimidated by poems. That might indicate one problem with some academics: they have a vested interest in perpetuating the intimidation process.

JB: Every few years there’s talk of poetry undergoing a resurgence of popularity – but that’s bollocks, isn’t it?

BM: That’s always the case – both the resurgence and the bollocks. But let me make the obvious point that New Zealand poetry is amazingly rich and able at the moment – clear-sighted, good-hearted … really fizzing. The best ten books of poetry published in the last year are miles better than the ten best works of fiction – if you add them up and average them out, I mean. The poets are alive and kicking.

JB: You deliberately took on a public role with the laureate thing. Why?

BM: Probably I was just flattered. In personal terms it was a good experience, though, and I quite like what the public dimension of the position did to me as a writer. I produced poems as prizes for charity auctions, and this generally made me a bit braver about saying things out loud. My poem in the Sunday Star-Times millennial supplement, “The Next Thousand” – I don’t think I could possibly have had the confidence to try that if I hadn’t done the laureate thing.

JB: The literary scene can be an ugly place. Even though it seems your successes have come from a variety of sources quite independent of yourself, detractors would mutter about empire-building, vote-rigging, cliques etc. Care to comment?

BM: This must be the question about Victoria’s creative writing workshop and the evil “Wellington School”! Well, here’s a list of names, all fiction writers: Barbara Anderson, William Brandt, Catherine Chidgey, Barbara Else, Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth Knox, Anthony McCarten, Sarah Quigley, Emily Perkins. The one thing they have in common, aside from the fact that they once participated at some moment or other in some version of a Victoria workshop, is that their books get published in London and New York as well as in New Zealand. If I’m rigging the votes across those sorts of distances, then I’m a most amazing person. So the various snipings you refer to are all a bit silly. Of course, the world is full of sadnesses, and envy is one of the saddest. “‘All must have prizes,’ said the Dodo.”

JB: A lot of people have asked me this question of late, so … do you think there’s too much poetry and fiction being published in NZ at the moment?

BM: I would say we get exactly what we deserve.

James Brown’s second collection of poems, Lemon, is reviewed on p14.

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