Bill Manhire Wows the Crowds at WORD Christchurch

Bill Manhire wowed a large audience at Tūranga with readings from his new book of poems, Wow! 


The master spoke with John Campbell, who, it turns out, was a student in his class of American Letters at Auckland University. What a hoot. There are a lot of laughs and banter between the two, and more than a little swearing.

John Campbell begins by saying "What a great festival." And it has been.

He introduces the show as a kind of greatest hits; 'Bill’s Bangers'. 

Prize-winning poet, novelist, short-story writer and editor, Bill was New Zealand's poet laureate for 1987 and is the founder of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Bill is a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and a Katherine Mansfield fellow (2007).

After that introduction, Bill quips,

"I think we’ll stop now John, it’s a good note to end on."

Wow is Bill's fifteenth book. John is struck by the poem, Huia. Bill notes how, as a student, Campbell was often visibly overjoyed when a poem hit him. This is the wow moment Bill is looking for. He suggests,

"This is what you’ve gone on to do."

About extinction and loss, Huia's message is perhaps, muses Cambell, that 'we are not as lost as we think we are; or we are all lost together'


I was the first of birds to sing
I sang to signal rain
the one I loved was singing
and singing once again

My wings were made of sunlight
my tail was made of frost
my song was now a warning
and now a song of love

I sang upon a postage stamp
I sang upon your coins
but money courted beauty
you could not see the joins

Where are you when you vanish?
Where are you when you’re found?
I’m made of greed and anguish
a feather on the ground

I lived among you once
and now I can’t be found
I’m made of things that vanish
a feather on the ground


Commissioned as a song, Manhire compares it to "a really tough Bob Dylan number." But it lives as a poem on its own, he suggests, in the same way that Mallarmé, upon hearing Debussy's version of his poem, L'Apres midi d'une Faune, thought he had 'already' set his work to music.

So what is Wow about? To illustrate, Bill reads Baby. This poem nails it: a cradle-to-the-grave poem, at life's beginning, says Manhire, the baby says wow. There is a sense of the infinite, the possible; everything is a surprise.

As we get older, life gets busy, full of also, later, now, and we don't hear wow much any more.  

Bill refers to Philip Larkin's This be the verse - "about parents who fuck you up..." 

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.


Here the two sound like a naughty pair of schoolboys, swearing on National Radio (the show is being recorded). They've forgotten they're in the Library too. They've had complaints before, says Campbell.

I've heard it said that Kiwis write with a peculiar mix of poetry and vernacular (that usually means taking the piss). Bill's writing is witty, entertaining and often full of silliness. He's a joy to read. Does he write with rules? Bill says he writes with no rules as if we can all understand his words: "words are not schoolboys." 

Bill asserts it is the responsibility of great art, music, literature to give you back that wow:

John asks, "Do you get that wow feeling with writing?"

Bill: "I feel I've achieved music, really."

Bill muses on French poet, Valéry. "The poem is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. Sometimes there is meaning, sometimes music. But I love the hesitation."

John Campbell brings up another poem he loved in this book, He loved her lemonade scones. Inspired by the late Colin Meads saying how he met his wife, it's a very 'local' poem with a delightful brevity that captures the gruffness of the Kiwi bloke.

" Now listen here," he said. And that was it, really.

Campbell says its tender.

Bill: "Not too brutal."

When Bill was a young lad, his father was a publican in several deep south establishments. In those days you lived in the pub. I had a friend who lived at the 'Chelty' - The Cheltenham Pub, in the Manawatu.

To the young Manhire, Christchurch loomed as 'a large wicked city in the north'.

Bill remembers the of 'old fellas' 'who loved holding forth' to anyone who would listen, many of them coming out of the bush to drink and seek company.

He recants a story all librarians can relate to.

10.30am in the Crown Bar (Dunedin). Bill is fifteen, clearing out the spill trays under the old square perch tables (complete with swill and cigarette buts). The old guy who lives in a shed in St Kilda comes in. He lifts his arms, compliant as a child, while the barman sprayed him down with deodorant.

"It was surreal," says Manhire.

Under the Influence

Campbell: "Do people understand that poetry isn’t autobiographical?"

Manhire: "You have to label it strongly."

"In 'the love song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (T.S. Eliot) the voice is not really the author."

Vincent O'Sullivan also spoke about this in his session: how first person seems fine to audiences of fiction but not poetry.

On Wordsworth: "With Wordsworth you have 'reflections collected in tranquility' (which is when you start to make it up) versus 'a spontaneous outpouring of human emotion'. You can't have it both ways."

Bill reads Noah, just published in Shenandoah Magazine.

The last stanza is a shock:

I brought the instruments aboard—too late for some,
it’s true. As for the animals, I never really knew.
Someone else did that. I think we ate a few.

Autobiographical? I leave that to you.

Bill recalls early influences who lit the spark of his humour and aptitude for mimicry; The Goons, Peter Sellers, Peter Ustinov.

The International Institute of Modern Letters?

Another wow moment in Bill Manhire's life. A casino tycoon spotted the creative writing programme at Victoria University and wanted to add it into his institute. There wasn't much love lost between the Department of English and the creative writing programme, says Manhire. In his self-effacing way (the Kiwi way) Bill explains that really, the Institute 'runs itself'. There is 'no power or wisdom', just moderation of groups of talented people. Many go on meeting after completing the course.

"They say you brought out the best in them," says Campbell,

"I steered them to where they knew they wanted to go," says Manhire, "they were all there to help each other create the best version of their work."

The Exercise Book

Bill reads us a sad poem, Woodwork. Its about a group of Danish children who build a coffin for their dying teacher.  The often funny Manhire says "I like writing sad poems."

Campbell turns the conversation to Some things to place in a Coffin, a collection from which the title refers to Bill's eulogy to Ralph Hotere, who passed away in 2013.

Some Things to Place in A Coffin

John Campbell: "Are you scared of dying?"

Bill: "I used to be. I would fear my body would die but I would be conscious. Later I got something and had to have abdominal surgery. Under anaesthetic I couldn’t count hours. I thought, ‘death can’t be too bad, I’ll just be gone’"


At this point Manhire lightens the atmosphere with his link to someone called Mord Fustang "not Ford Mustang."  It's the actual incarnation of Fergus Barrowman's bogus claim (on the back of Wow) that Bill Manhire is 'the best DJ in Estonia'. Lol.

Bill reads A Really Nice Trip for us. Sometimes poems are unpoetic, banal. A Really Nice Trip reads like a postcard:

“We went up Pleasant Valley. // After which we came back down to Pleasant Flat. // Then we went all the way out to Pleasant Point. // It was a really nice trip.” 

Get the joke? Pleasant, pleasant, really nice. Its like a 1950s car drive, the narrative of a couple.

On the brevity of the Kiwi bloke: "With Ralph (Hotere) we used to have a glass of wine and grunt. There was no speaking." Their collaborations existed of Ralph grabbing Bill's poems whenever he wanted. Ralph always acknowledged other people's work, says Bill, right down to dancers and musicians.

Bill's last poem is secret track hidden at the back. Its not often he makes a public statement about things, but the terrorist shootings of March 15 shook him as much as the rest of us.

John Campbell: "Bill, you're a head poet and then you apply heart, to help us see things again."

Little prayers

Let the closing line be the opening line

Let us open ourselves to grief and shame

Let pain be felt and be felt again

May our eyes see when they cease crying

Let the closing line be the opening line

Let the seas storm, let the hills quake

Let us inspect what makes us ache

Let there be tasks we undertake

Let us make what we can make

When the seas storm and the hills shake

May the rivers and lakes and mountains shine

May every kiss be a coastline

May we sing once again for the first time

May the children be home by dinnertime

May the closing line be an opening line

The sound of people blowing their noses was audible among the applause.

Listen: Audio recording of this session

Bill Manhire

WORD Christchurch