Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire is a prize-winning poet and fiction writer. He has won several New Zealand Book Awards, a number of significant fellowships, and he was the 1997/1998 New Zealand Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate.

Manhire was also honored with the 2007 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement. He is the director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, Centre for Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington.

Manhire has coordinated several bestselling anthologies, and his poetry and fiction is published in New Zealand, the UK, and the USA.

Late last year I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Leafing the other day through the anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets (edited by Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack), I was reminded just how remarkable is the poetry of Jenny Bornholdt. Her own most recent book is The Rocky Shore, made up of six long poems that are both ambitious and modest in their reach. Like Frank O'Hara she is an "I do this, I do that" poet - but the place where she registers the details of daily life is not Manhattan but a conventional suburban household subject to familiar extremes. On the one hand, we witness the death of a parent and a damaging illness; on the other, there are a range of small, redemptive domestic pleasures centred on family, garden, books. Bornholdt is one of the world's best kept poetry secrets, and her work makes you pleased to be on the planet.

I've also been enjoying English poet Alice Oswald's Weeds and Wild Flowers. There are complementary etchings of plants by Jessica Greenman, but Oswald's poems are at the heart of this book. Her poems take their titles from the objects of her gaze: Stinking Goose-foot, Hairy Bittercress, Fragile Glasswort, Bastard Toadflax, Bargeman's Cabbage, Bristly Oxtongue, Daisy. Such charged yet everyday names suggest the sort of poetic mileage that Oswald gets from her wonderful mix of literal and metaphorical observation.

Dora Malech's first poetry collection, Shore Ordered Ocean, is also giving me great pleasure. Her poems are astonishing pieces of music. They can be slow or hectic, and sometimes richly baffling in surreal or hybrid ways; but they have the temper of the times in them, too - as if Malech's deepest aim is to use language as a pulse-taking device to record the arrhythmias of early 21st-century experience.

And I'm dipping in and out of a short, illustrated book by Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia, a bunch of contemporary fables that offer the same kinds of negotiation between the familiar and the strange that are there in his great book The Arrival. Both these books are picture books for adults. Shan Tan's suburbia seems at first to be an everyday sort of place but it always has (largely because of Tan's compelling illustrations) the feel of folktale and fairytale.
Poems by Bill Manhire available online include "Love Poem," "Wulf," "The Polar Explorer's Love Song," "Death of a Poet," and "Hotel Emergencies."

--Marshal Zeringue