I love a session chaired by a peer or colleague – in a broad sense – of the panelists. So ‘Old Guard, New Guard’, which featured Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird and was chaired by Andrew Johnston, was always going to be an exceptional line-up for this poetry-loving, Unity-old-girl, wistfully-dreaming-of-IIML reviewer. Bill the old guard, Hera the new – leaving Andrew to ponder ‘I don’t know where that leaves me, but I think I’ll be the lifeguard’.
Both Bill and Hera had sweeping introductions from Andrew. There was a certain sense of both of them needing no introduction, but on the topic of Bill, at least, Andrew pointed out ‘there are quite a few things that Bill does – most people know some of them, but few people know all of them. His wider contribution to New Zealand culture is huge’. Poet laureate, CNZM. Honorary DLitt from Otago. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, Hera’s introduction contained the phrase – not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment in reference to her work – ‘it’s rare to hear the words “poetry” and “viral” together in the same sentence’. And yet, there’s really no other way to put it. Andrew let Hera explain the genesis of her ascendance to the stratospheric heights of household name poet.
For those who haven’t actively followed Hera’s goings on – or perhaps if you’ve only just plugged back into the literary landscape after a year in the desert – things blew up when two of the poems from her eponymous debut collection were published on The Spinoff. Then the wider internet came knocking.
‘I woke up one day and someone told me I was in The Guardian. There were 300-long furious comment threads. The one that people were angriest about was “Keats Is Dead So F*ck Me From Behind”. I kind of flippantly name-checked the deaths of a whole lot of American and British poets.’
Hera meant no disrespect, though, she assured us. ‘I was careful to only write about poets that I liked.’
At this point, Bill pointed out the similarities between ‘Keats Is Dead…’ and R.A.K Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. Mason’s poem begins:
‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’…
‘Though my song have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’.
It’s a glorious comparison – and yet, Hera claims that it’s purely coincidental. At least, as far as she can remember. Whether intentional or not, it still makes for a beautiful bookending of New Zealand poetry to date.
Further elaborating on the ‘furious comments’, Hera pointed out that she often prefers a negative review to a positive one ‘from someone liking you for the wrong reasons.
‘I had lots of considered and thoughtful and intelligent reviews, but there were also a lot of people who it felt like they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.’
Hera noted that she doesn’t mind when people (incorrectly) assume that everything in the first person in her book is actually coming from her own perspective. ‘There’s always a performative aspect.’
That line of questioning let into a conversation with Bill about the dichotomy of being a relatively private person who has had some very public poems – whether through major commissions or through winning major plaudits that pull the spotlight in his direction. Bill agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that his poetry acts ‘as a kind of defense as well as projection.’
They also discussed the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) – which Bill set up and Hera attended. While he fell into the role of workshop convener somewhat by chance, his work in that space means that every reader of New Zealand literature owes him a debt of gratitude. So many writers at all ages and stages have gone through the halls of that building on Waiteata Road – and part of the success of so many of them could in part be chalked up to the drive, right from the start, to get people out of their comfort zone. And importantly, to get them towards being the best writer that they can be within their selves, rather than trying to match to some kind of official framework.
‘One of the things I’ve always done in the writing workshop world is give people the equivalent of a commission – make them jump the tracks and go sideways from their own sensible selves.’
At Andrew’s request, Bill went into a potted history of the Victoria creative writing programme – both pre- and post-IIML name being added. It was a fascinating wander through time – from implementing a Cambridge-esque optional original manuscript component for English majors through to the IIML of today – in the building now officially called the Bill Manhire Centre (above).
Hera gave a little insight into her experience at the IIML – and her perception of Bill while an MA student there. ‘Bill was the big boss – I think that the only time I saw him in the classroom was at the beginning of year part. He came up to me with a plate of samosas and silently offered me one.’
She went into some detail regarding her own feelings about creative writing programmes – deemed crucial by some, derivative by others. ‘I don’t think it’s essential to do creative writing courses – but they do speed up the process.’ At what other point in one’s young adult life, she pointed out, do we get the luxury of taking a year out from the world just to write?
Bill talked about students coming in intending to focus on one style – and leaving converted to something else. Hinemoana Baker was an example given as someone who came in wanting to be a short story writer, and came out with her first collection of poetry. That particularly close quarters creative environment seems to have a transformative effect on those who study there.
Both poets read examples of their work – Bill lightheartedly requesting to leave before Hera launched into ‘Keats Is Dead…’, but later drawing an incredible stillness from the crowd as we listened to him read ‘Known Unto God’, a poem commissioned as a response to the Battle of the Somme .
There was much more, so much more. Both poets agreed that they do not exist at nearly such extreme poles as the name of the event would suggest. ‘I’ve always thought of Bill’s poetry being quite modern and mine as being much more old-fashioned than people realise,’ Hera said.
‘I think your work is quite traditional,’ Bill replied, describing it as a familiar house with different furnishing.
Old guard or new – or life guard, an essential role for a panel chair to play, after all – when Bill and Hera and Andrew are three of the face of New Zealand poetry today (and yesterday, and tomorrow), it does make you bloody excited to be a reader in this country, doesn’t it?
Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ
Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
Tell Me My Name
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
Some Things to Place in a Coffin
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP