Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lightning conductor

A musical collaboration has taken Bill Manhire into new poetic territory.

By Mark Broatch.

BILL MANHIRE, former poet laureate, Victoria University professor and patron saint of its publisher, VUP, has a new string to his literary bow: jazz lyricist.
Manhire has collaborated with Wellington composer Norman Meehan on the album Buddhist Rain, using poems from his latest collection, The Victims of Lightning.

Meehan, who teaches at the NZ School of Music in Wellington, has used poetry before in his compositions, having set 20th-century US poet EE Cummings' work to music in ``Sun Moon Stars Rain''.
He had already set some of the work in Manhire's Collected Poems -- ``I really warmed to the earthiness of Bill's poems'' -- and after the poet had heard some of Meehan's previous work sung by Hannah Griffin, the pair got together and Manhire suggested they collaborate. Meehan says he was ``delighted and slightly awed''. A dozen poems were written for the project, four of which are on the album, due out in August -- ''Pacific Raft'', ``Across the Water'', ''Garden Gate'' and the title track. Griffin sings, Meehan is on piano and Colin Hemmingsen is on sax and clarinet.

New Zealand has some form in this: Bill Direen, Sam Hunt and Alan Brunton are among those who have worked their poetry to music. For Manhire, it was a pleasant challenge writing lyrics to be set to music and sung. ``I didn't feel the literary inspectorate was looking over my shoulder.''
It was also a creative freedom writing words that were ''more available'', where he didn't feel ``that every syllable counted and every line break had to be a pause -- all that kind of stuff that poets get obsessed with or precious about'', he says. ''If you're a poet, the poem's got its own strong music already in your head or on the page.''

Music and poetry often share form and function. The standard song lyric is keen on repetition, most obviously in refrains, says Manhire, so it was liberating to a poet to build the refrain in very deliberately, or repeat three lines in the middle of each stanza. ''I've always liked repetitions in poems, and rhyme is a kind of repetition. I like the strange energy that repetition and chiming gives.''

The Victims of Lightning
takes its title from poet Randall Jarrell's line that good poets get struck by lightning five or six times in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms; a dozen or more and the poet is great.
Manhire says every poet is capable of writing work beyond themselves. ``I suppose what I'm saying to [students] is that you can construct the atmospheric conditions for lightning to strike.''
Hs creative writing students are taught classical forms -- he throws in sestino, pantoum and villanelle as ones that seem to be popular. ''It is very good for people to imitate. That's how we learn to do anything. The notion that any poet or artist or composer springs fully formed into the world because some kind of flame of genius was burning in them at birth is not one I subscribe to. You learn to speak by copying the parent voices around you, and I think you learn to write by reading hard all those great parent-elder voices that came before you. Which would of course include Keats or Wordsworth or James K Baxter or whoever one thinks of.'' His students also have to read a lot, and discover their own writing voice. ''The real task is to find ways of identifying that [voice] and strengthening it and enriching it.''
''Pacific Raft'', the first poem he wrote for the jazz project, gave Meehan ''a kind of energy that just having the printed words didn't'', says Manhire.

Meehan says he's happy to take musical ideas from anywhere, but all inspirations need polish. ''To be really interesting, craft is needed to turn the ideas from raw stones into polished gems.'' With the poems it's a matter of living with them for a while, he says, ''to get a feel for them, and then playing around with musical ideas until finding something that fits to mood or vibe of the poem. That's generally been pretty easy with Bill's poems, which I find evocative. Sometimes it's been challenging though the song ''Buddhist Rain' -- which I like -- took about three iterations and maybe a month of playing around before I had something I was happy with. Others, like 'Across the Water' -- which is a beautiful thing -- seem to write themselves.''
Manhire too is fond of ``Across the Water''. It's a kind of love song, about Otago, part of his ``childhood territory''. He reiterates that it's written to be set and sung and ``I have no idea how [it] looks on the page''. Like this:

Oh la la la la la la
It's fine what you discover

Oh la la la la la la
My sweet Otago lover

Says Manhire: ''I even wrote in all the Oh la la la la las. They're all mine. And Norman went wild and added in an extra la.''

This article by author/editor/wordsmith Mark Broatch was first published in the Sunday Star Times on 21 March, 2010. Mark Broatch is the author of IN A WORD - the essential tool for finding the perfect  word published by New Holland in 2009.

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