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‘Words are tools of discovery’


Poet to speak in Carterton


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An expedition to Antarctica where explorers fight through the white wilderness not knowing what they are going to find.

Getting poetry down on a piece of paper can be described the same way, according to one of New Zealand’s top poets, Bill Manhire, who will speak in Carterton on Sunday.

He knows the fight towards the unknown all too well.

As a retired university professor and former poet laureate, he is currently chipping away at a new creation — a story with 80 per cent of the story missing.

This being a ploy to see how many gaps he can leave without completely frustrating the reader, but Manhire knows what he is doing.

After launching into a somewhat quiet New Zealand poetry scene in the early 1970s, Manhire created an identity for himself.

He published his first book, Malady, in 1970, and since then has won an abundance of literary awards.

He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature at the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

He also received the 2007 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry for his contribution to New Zealand literature, and he has won the NZ Book Awards many times.

As a significant figure in promoting New Zealand poetry and literature, he founded the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.

The evolution of poetry in New Zealand had given those who were committed to becoming a poet the chance to do so, Manhire said.

Back when he was establishing his career, he would learn by reading work from other poets.

“But now you can sit in a room with other poets who are roughly at the same stage of development as you and trade poems and talk about poems,” he said.

“It’s an institutional blessing.”

There was a “dangerous idea” out there about poets, he said.

“Probably [studying] is good to get some of the mystery out of it, you know, the notion that a poet somehow leaps out of the womb and is somehow a genius from the very beginning.”

Instead, Manhire believes people can be taught to become poets.

“But maybe teaching just speeds up the process of learning that anyone committed to being a poet would go through anyway.”

He said there were many crazy definitions of poetry floating around causing uncertainty for those who battled to understand it.

One of Manhire’s favourites is attributed to an anonymous 12-year-old schoolgirl.

“‘Poetry is that stuff in books that doesn’t quite reach to the margins’ – it’s quite a good way of saying no one can really define it,” he said.

There is no single channel that Manhire’s mind goes down when creating his next work.

In his case, he usually catches onto a phrase or line which has “musical power” to it and is something he cannot shake, but in turn keeps adding to.

“You write to find out what you think, not to record it — so words are the tools for making a discovery rather than just a recording machine.”

Last year Bill Manhire released a book of riddles called Tell Me My Name, which he will read at a Wairarapa Word event at the Carterton Courthouse on April 8 at 3pm.

Everyone is welcome and entry is by koha.

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