Flash Frontier

Interview: Bill Manhire

Interviews and Features

Flash Frontier: When did you first encounter Antarctica, in actuality and /or in the realm of the imagination? And what keeps drawing you to it?

Bill Manhire: Well, I was born in Invercargill, called by Rudyard Kipling “the last lamp post in the world”, and so I grew up knowing that if you sail directly south from Invercargill the first place you’ll come to is Antarctica. But my first real encounter must have been through the film Scott of the Antarctic, which was one of those post World War II movies about British heroism – it keeps company with The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky. So it was heroic-age Antarctica – including of course Oates’s famous exit line, “I am just going outside, and may be some time” – that first got inside my head.

My parents ran small country pubs in Otago and Southland. In 1959 we moved to Dunedin, to the Crown Hotel, where I met another kind of Antarctica. The US Antarctic program, Operation Deepfreeze, was mostly at that time a ship-borne operation, and Dunedin was the gateway port for the navy ships headed down to the ice. So every so often the grey streets of Presbyterian Dunedin would be filled with these incredibly zappy American sailors. Quite a few of them did what sailors on shore-leave do: they drank after-hours, i.e. after 6.00 pm, and quite a number of them drank at the Crown. They had futuristic stuff like Polaroid cameras, which was pretty exciting to me aged 12 or 13 – but even more exciting somehow was the fact they were sailing down to the Antarctic, or could even talk about having recently been there.

So for me Antarctica has always been a paradoxical place – a home to both ancient ghosts and state-of-the-art technology.

FF: The Wide White Page, which you compiled and edited in 2004, is a look at Antarctica through the eyes of people as diverse as Dante, Ursula LeGuin and Monty Python. How did the project originate? Can you tell us about the work involved in searching for these depictions of the great white continent?

BM: I don’t recall a particular eureka moment, but at some stage it certainly occurred to me that alongside all the scientific and exploration texts there was also a fairly substantial imaginative literature about Antarctica – novels, plays, films, poetry – and yet, I quickly realised, most of it had been written by people who had never actually been there. After that I started making lists, and then I had a mild scholarly flare-up and thought I would make a learned bibliography of all the published material that might sit loosely under the heading of “imaginative writing”. So I started slowly but actively accumulating texts and titles… It helped that I was working as an academic at Victoria University of Wellington, as Vic has always had a very big Antarctic connection – research scientists go down to the ice every summer season. At one point in the early 90s I wrote a poem called “Hoosh” which interweaves three strands: scientific Antarctica, heroic-age Antarctica, and tourist Antarctica. The poem begins and ends with a graduate student who was travelling south as a member of one of the research teams. I actually knew her slightly because she was the daughter of the novelist Maurice Gee. Her name was Emily, and she had flaming red hair, and I liked the thought of someone with that fierce colouring and that romantic name being down in the world of ice, unsettling all those male ghosts from the past.

But I loved the range of reading involved – from Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” to pretty wild science fiction. Some of the most interesting and sometimes wonderfully silly stuff was from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and took advantage of the fact that Antarctica was still pretty much an unknown place. You could put almost anything and anyone there. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Elizabethan buccaneers who have been blown off course, Lovecraftian monsters…

FF: What did you learn about Antarctica from the reading you did for The Wide White Page?

BM: Maybe the thing I loved most was discovering that Antarctica had been imagined before it was actually found, and that it had been imagined for aesthetic as much as scientific reasons. People knew about the Arctic, and had been there, and they also knew – or the Greeks did – that the world was a globe, and so they hypothesised there had to some sort of opposite to the Arctic to keep things in balance: an Ant-arctic. Hence Antarctica appeared on maps of the world before anyone had actually visited the place.

FF: Can you tell us more about the title, and the novel after which it is named?

BM: I stole my title from an earlier Antarctic novel. For me, The Wide White Page as a title speaks to a few things that seem relevant to a lot of writing and thinking about Antarctica. There’s that very basic idea of the tabula rasa, the unmarked page or screen that is awaiting inscription. Antarctica seems like a place of fresh beginnings, and with every fall of snow it erases itself so that you can start again. People have also often seen it as the only pure and uncorrupted place left on the planet – “the last clean place on earth,” says the novelist and environmentalist Peter Mathiessen.

Ideas of purity can be dangerous, though, often at odds with the mess and muddle of how we lead our lives. The novel where I found my title, by Beall Cunningham, was published just before the Second World War, and feels like a pretty Fascist enterprise in its assumptions and impulses. It’s about a charismatic leader who plans to found a new colony in Antarctica, and at first is determined to keep women out of the colony altogether on the grounds that they represent the opposite of supposedly masculine virtues like order and discipline and purity. Oddly enough, though not as I recall in Beall Cunningham’s novel, Antarctica is often gendered as female in polar literature – a body that brave men must penetrate and tame. One good example is Admiral Richard Byrd: “At the bottom of this planet is an enchanted continent in the sky, pale like a sleeping princess. Sinister and beautiful, she lies in frozen slumber.”

FF: What of your own recent explorations? Have you been back to Antarctica in recent years?

BM: I went down to the Antarctic in January 1998, along with the poet Chris Orsman and the painter Nigel Brown. We were the first members of an artists’ programme inaugurated by Antarctica New Zealand, and in some ways modelled on the National Science Foundation’s artists and writers program. I found the whole experience, which was only a couple of weeks but in my case included a very brief visit to the South Pole, incredibly intense. I did in fact have the opportunity to go back several times. Canterbury University offers a Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies , and part of the course is a field trip to Antarctica. They used to take an arts tutor with them each year, mainly to help the students imaginatively process the extraordinary experiences they were having. But each time I was contacted about the tutorship, I chose not to go. I guess I didn’t want that first experience to turn from a time of wonder to just another everyday thing: “Oh, it’s January – off we go to the ice again.”

FF: What of other poets who’ve explored Antarctica? Whose work do you admire?

BM: I love Alison Glenny’s book The Farewell Tourist, which has a lot of Antarctic ice and snow in it. She actually went south on one of those Canterbury Certificate field trips. Bernadette Hall and Chris Orsman have also written terrific poetry that has the advantage of firsthand experience. And there’s fine work by people who haven’t been south that touches on some of the well-known historical encounters. Derek Mahon has a great villanelle, just called “Antarctica”, whose repeating rhyme-lines are “He is just going outside and may be some time” and “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.” There’s also a lovely poem by Anne Michaels, “Ice House”, written in the voice of Scott’s widow, Kathleen.

Bill Manhire, Nigel Brown, Chris Orsman, image by ADAM, Antarctica NZ
Bill Manhire at Geographic South Pole image by ADAM, Antarctica NZ
FF: Let’s talk about New Zealand’s special relationship to the southern continent. Do you think it’s merely geographical – the close proximity – that keeps the relationship growing? Or is there something more about our connection to nature, to space, to the wide unknown that draws us so to this place?

BM: Well I think that for many New Zealanders, and possibly for all southern New Zealanders, Antarctica is a sort of psychic territory – akin to the desert interior for Australians. You don’t need to go there, but it is in your mind, part of your inner geography and mental furniture. It’s entirely possible that most New Zealanders know or have met someone who has been to the Antarctic – this wouldn’t be true in any other country, even Australia or Argentina or Chile. And the Erebus disaster ties us to that place in strong, distressing ways. More New Zealanders have died in Antarctica than people of other nationalities.

And now we watch the place with a new kind of anxiety, even terror. If the ice sheets melt – and it looks more and more like when – the human race is in total trouble.

FF: Could you share some of your own work – a poem or two – about Antarctica?

BM: I tended to write little rhyming poems when I was out in the field – mainly for memory reasons, but also because rhyme gave me a way of standing up straight inside the words when I was having such overpowering, unframed experiences. But I also kept a journal, like a good Antarctic explorer, and made poems afterwards. The journal became a home for little notes like this:

A pity Scott missed
the safety video

says the safety video.

But there were also bigger notes that grew into poems. Maybe I can offer a found poem, written out of comments in the Visitors’ Book in Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, and a little poem about a stone…

Visiting Mr Shackleton

Cool! Wow! Beautiful! Awesome!
Like going back in time.
Amazing! Historic! Finally
I am truly blessed.

Wow! History! Fantastic!
Wonderfully kept.
Shackleton’s the man!
Like going back in time.

Wow! Cool! Historic! Yo!
Awesome! Privileged. Unreal!
And Thank you, God. And Happy
Birthday, Dad. And Thailand.

Antarctic Stone

in my hand
and the spine of a hill
inside the stone

dark ridge of earth & bone
then inclines and heights
and sudden drops

where whatever pours
is wind, is ice, forgetting itself
at last in light

in quiet line, horizon

FF: Besides your prosperous career as a poet, you’ve also collaborated with musicians and other artists in recent years. What inspires you these days? And what are you working on this month?

BM: I wish it was a literally prosperous career! But I’ve certainly enjoyed the music collaborations, mostly with the composer and jazz pianist Norman Meehan. One of our projects, along with the photographer Anne Noble, was an Antarctic show called These Rough Notes – which now exists as an amazingly beautiful book plus CD. Most recently Norman and I have been working on a hugely exciting project – exciting to us, anyway! – called Bifröst. That’s the name of the bridge from Norse mythology whose destruction signals the end of the world. There are other bridges, too – so in a way it’s a musical piece about the importance of bridges and what the consequences are if you decide to build walls instead.

FF: Thank you, Bill!
Bill Manhire was born in Invercargill in 1946, and grew up in small hotels in Otago and Southland, an experience beautifully evoked in his short memoir, Under the Influence.

His first book of poems, The Elaboration, was published in 1972, and contained drawings (including a portrait of the poet) by artist Ralph Hotere. Over the years, Bill has worked often with Ralph Hotere, especially in the MALADY poems and paintings, and in the dance-performance work Song Cycle. He has published many collections of poems, winning the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry five times. He is also the author of a prize-winning collection of short stories. He was the inaugural Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate, and a Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, France.

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