Edited by Karen Anderson and Bill Manhire: Spectacular Babies

By David Hill



Reviewed by David Hill*

If every other New Zealand writer stopped writing today, Bill Manhire's graduates could probably keep our publishers and readers ticking over.

Inside its rather silly, yet effective, cover this selection from the class of 2000 shows again the talent on Manhire's Victoria University of Wellington courses, and how adroit and unsettling his guidance is.

Unsettling, because Manhire aims to "persuade writers to extend and surprise themselves." In his intro, he writes instructively and generously about the exercises he offers: "five disparate items ... a poem in letter form ... a pet you never had, including its politics and religious beliefs."

You see the effect of such starters in Karen Anderson's graphic Bone Yard series of poems with their observations of wildlife - humans included - and in Michael Laws' exuberantly overwritten prose, which bounces across all sorts of obstacles while managing to stay curiously private.

Several contributors also pick up on the title, describing seven types of infant from a list including "the composite baby ... the rusty baby ... the on-line baby."

Manhire stresses the writer's search for a voice, and you can watch contributors such as Tim Croft doing just this, trying tricks and techniques that are sometimes visual as well as verbal, generating excitement and energy.

There's also the emphasis on reading. Kate Duignan has an intriguing analysis of a writer reading like a pathologist, finding "the scaffolding beneath the surface." She also has an honest, earnest extract from a novel-in-progress.

Louise White conveys a similar sense of discovery from others' work, and links it lucidly to the genesis and growth of her own work. An opening line drops away; a degree of ambiguity takes precedence over seeming too obvious.

Some voices are instantly authentic, particularly Tim Corballis with his meticulous attention to the strangeness of mundane things and Gerry Evans' strong, striding story of the Welsh coast and a Chilean jail.

It would be good to hear more from these two chronologically and stylistically different people.

There's also plenty of poetry: Anderson, White, Vivienne Plumb's sliding, gliding reality shifts and James McNaughton's compassionate, jolting, little prose-poems (Shopping will radically change your approach to meat dishes).

One of the most interesting contributions is Stephanie de Montalk's journal of her work on the journals of the idiosyncratic Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, and the disturbing ambience of his papers.

Inevitably, the writing class has written about writing classes, most effectively in Vivienne Plumb's skewering. Also inevitably, it seems, there are pieces where cleverness overcomes content.

But I look forward to the class of 01, and a publication possibly called Dramatic Descendants?

*David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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