11 Apr 2021

Leading poet Bill Manhire talks to John Campbell at Word Christchurch 2020

From Smart Talk, 4:05 pm on 11 April 2021
Poet Bill Manhire

Poet Bill Manhire Photo: supplied

Bill Manhire is not only one of New Zealand's leading poets, he's mentored hundreds of writers through the International Institute of Modern Letters, where he established the MA in Creative Writing. For a long time, it was known simply as ‘Bill Manhire’s writing course’.

In this highlight from the 2020 Word Christchurch Writers Spring Festival, Manhire speaks to one of his former students, the broadcaster John Campbell, about his life and career.

A number of poems are read during this session, all featuring the verbal precision and delicate balance between regret and comic banality which mark out Manhire’s writing.

Manhire marks the extinction of the New Zealand native bird huia in this poem about loss from his latest collection Wow (2020).

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Photo: Bill Manhire / Victoria University Press


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

Manhire offers a fresh interpretation of the biblical story of Noah in this poem, which imagines its title character as a musician less interested in the survival of the ark’s cargo than the state of the instruments he has brought with him.


I abandoned the bad band
and joined the good band: I thought
that we would flood the world with music.
The first rains came and soon the trees
were somehow growing out of water –
we travelled through the forests
by canoe.
Eventually we built our boat,
the famous one with windows and the deck
of many roofs. Things that once were mountains
sailed on by, and then the whole of the world
had gone, and everything was sky. And yes
I brought instruments aboard – too late for some,
it’s true. As for the animals, I never really knew.
Someone else did that. In the end we ate a few.

During the conversation, John Campbell discusses the way in which Manhire creates and evokes a lost - or at least fading - New Zealand tradition of strong, mostly silent, men. When they speak, these men are taciturn and often unintentionally amusing, like the speaker in the following poem.

A Really Nice Trip

“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.”

Although Manhire doesn’t like writing public poetry to mark particular events, in the days after the 2019 Christchurch terror attack he was moved to write this poem.

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

About the speakers

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire was born in 1946 and grew up in small hotels in Otago and Southland. He was the founding director of the IIML, which is home to Victoria University’s well-known creative writing programme. His first book, The Elaboration, with illustrations by Ralph Hotere, was published in 1972. His latest volume of poetry, Wow, has just appeared from Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK. He has received a number of literary awards, including the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship to Menton, in 1994.

John Campbell

Award-winning journalist and presenter John Campbell began his career at Radio New Zealand in 1989. He went on to work in TV3’s press gallery before stints on the current affairs show 20/20, presenting 3 News and, in 2005, starting Campbell Live.

Between 2000 and 2002 he was also the host of RNZ’s Saturday Morning programme. Campbell rejoined RNZ in September 2015 to host a revamped Checkpoint. He has won a Qantas Media Award for best investigative current affairs and two awards for best presenter. He is currently a host on TVNZ’s Breakfast.

This session was recorded in partnership with WORD Christchurch

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