I don’t think Bill Manhire has ever written a book of poems for children, but he is one of my favourite New Zealand poets. Some poets who only ever really write for adults manage to write poems that readers love no matter how old they are.
Bill has a knack of writing poems that make music. I love music so when I read a poem that has that musical touch it fills me with a good feeling. Bill’s rhymes are magnificent. Sometimes they are easy (my cat/ fancy that) and sometimes they are tricky (scooter/ euchre or xylophone/knucklebones) and sometimes his rhymes slip and slide all over the lines. However he is not afraid to rhyme at the end of the line either (this can make a poem great, but it can make a poem bad in the wrong hands).
Bill also poured his dreams, hard work and generosity into starting a programme for writers at Victoria University. With the help of a wealthy patron from America his dream turned into The International Institute of Modern Letters where many of our most celebrated writers have studied creative writing. Bill retired at the end of last year so will have lots of time for writing now.
One of the many good things that have come out of this programme is the annual poetry competition and workshops for secondary school students (it has had various names over the years).
Last year Victoria University Press published Bill’s Selected Poems. It contains lots of my favourite poems.
Bill kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Box:
1. What did you like to write when you were young?
I wrote my first poem when I was 7, and I still know it by heart. I don’t think I’ll quote it, though! I didn’t write another poem till I was at high school.
At primary school I mostly used to write copies of the books that I really enjoyed reading. So when I was 10 and 11 I wrote copies of the Tarzan story, and of Biggles. I also wrote a science fiction serial, which involved robbers who travelled through time. The other day I found a home-made book called Tony and the Magic Wishing Glove, which I must have made when I was 5 or 6. Well, I found the cover – all the pages are missing.
2. What else did you like to do in your spare time?
I used to like building huts, but I realise now I would have been a terrible carpenter. But in some ways putting a poem together is a bit like building a hut. You have to make sure all the bits of timber fit together, and that the hut’s big enough to get into and maybe stay in overnight.
3. Do you have a children’s poetry book you can recommend? Or a favourite children’s poem?
I’m a big fan of the poems of Charles Causley. One of my favourites is “I Saw a Jolly Hunter“, which has a serious point but is full of fun – including fun with words. And I’ve always loved his “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience“, which like all the best children’s poems is also for grown-ups. In fact it’s about the fact that we all have to grow up. It’s written in ballad form. There’s a musical version of it by Natalie Merchant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=depk09Jqsaw
Charles Causley also put together some great poetry anthologies – one of my favourites is The Puffin Book of Magic Verse.
4. Do you have three top tips for young writers (5 to 12 year olds)?
Well, maybe instead of tips, three writing ideas. You could try them as prose if they don’t work out as poems.
1. Try imagining what it’s like to be something else, and write as if you are that something else. Maybe you could be an elephant that’s sick of being in the circus. Or an iceberg that’s melting. Or an asteroid that’s about to hit the earth. Or maybe you could write a conversation (or a love poem!) between a stalagmite and a stalactite.
2. Write a brand new nursery rhyme, and put your best friend in it.
3. Write a poem where every line begins with the words “I remember”, but every memory is made-up.
5. You are really good at list poems. I love your 1950s poem and love reading it aloud. ‘Hotel Emergencies’ is one of my favourite poems of all time (particularly when I hear you read it). What do you like about writing poems like this?
I think what I especially like about list poems is that you can mix up serious things and silly things, loud things and quiet things, sadness and happiness. You can change tone and direction, but keep coming back to a strong structure which holds everything together. The “I remember” idea I’ve suggested might be good for producing a wild mixture of things.
Here is the first verse of Bill’s terrific list poem ‘1950s’:
My cricket bat. My football boots.
My fishing rod. My hula hoop.
My cowby chaps. My scooter.
Draughts. Happy families. Euchre.
Ludo. Snap. My Davy Crockett hat.
My bicycle. My bow and arrow.
My puncture kit. My cat.
The straight and narow. Fancy that.
© Bill Manhire from ‘1950s’ in The Victims of Lightning Victoria University Press 2010