The Stuff Ma Writes

I agree with Hanif Kureishi – creative writing courses are a waste of time

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The people on my course were there because they wanted to write. The best things I learned, I learned outside of university: I was doing all of this before I set foot in university. This kind of information can be readily found online, or by reading interviews and profiles in journals and newspapers, or just by asking writers themselves. When all of that exists, joining a creative writing course seems redundant. The other thing that impacts massively on the success of a course any course is the tutor and peer group. Chris Price, former editor of Landfall, teaches an MA poetry stream, but she is off in Menton this year, replaced by poet Bernadette Hall.

Ken Duncum, an original composition alumni, teaches a scriptwriting stream that's seen Jo Randerson and Marian Evans through its doors. Since , the institute's PhD course has gathered 14 students. As well as producing a work of poetry, script or prose, students have to complete a piece of critical analysis. Manhire's had a few cases to argue to get the PhD the way he wants it.

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Firstly, there was the ,word limit the university imposes on theses - a novel and a critical analysis were clearly going to be longer than that. And then there was the problem of publishing theses online; Manhire had to argue that this wasn't going to work for books and scripts.

He's had to advocate for the institute and says that whoever replaces him as director will have to pick up that mantle. We're not just a pretty face.

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Manhire has filled his classes with writers of repute. Poet Dinah Hawken took the original composition course in It gave her the confidence, she says, to call herself a writer. Nearly 20 years later, she started teaching one of the seven undergraduate courses at the institute, Writing the Landscape.

It's the only course in New Zealand with this emphasis, and the idea was Manhire's. Hawken had no experience as a teacher when he asked her to teach it, but lots of experience in working with small groups as a counsellor. It's that ability to see that potential or growing edge that I think makes him such a great teacher and I feel very grateful for that. Speaking of Manhire's contribution, Hawken says that "in a sense, for me, it's almost been Bill's life purpose.

I've never spoken to him directly about that. When he retires, she says, she fears a little for the institute. Personally, I think it's quite a loss.

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He's quite hands-off in terms of the undergraduate courses, probably all the courses. He has faith in people. But on the other hand, he's there if there's a problem. I really do think he's very careful about choosing staff. A new manager may not be. Manhire says that any of the staff at the institute could replace him as director.

Pro-vice chancellor and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences Deborah Willis says the job will be advertised internationally and they'll be looking for a strong academic record backed up with a literary publishing record.

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One of those who could fit the bill is Wilkins. When asked if he could be the one to succeed Manhire as director, he laughs: We haven't really had those conversations yet. There are options you could imagine - a big name overseas coming and being the director. But the directorship as Bill set it up is quite different from the American model.

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High Status But Undersells: Firstly, there was the ,word limit the university imposes on theses - a novel and a critical analysis were clearly going to be longer than that. But what does critical evaluation actually look like? Essentially it was based on authors that were on the top of the bestseller list, authors that were on top of the greatest authors of all time list and authors that just kind of represented a range of different genres and times and readers. I must have supplied a tone of voice or something.

Any interaction that he's had with famous overseas poets, they're always completely blown away by Bill. You can imagine, if he'd been in the States, he would now have the sort of profile of Robert Hass or Paul Muldoon, some of these guys who are pulling down huge salaries and being celebrity powers on the reading circuit. He's of that stature, easily. He's a once-in-a-lifetime figure, really.

It's hard to think of just shoe-horning in somebody. Wilkins says the culture that Manhire has created at the institute has been one of "gentle intervention".

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It's a mixture of warmth and community and support with the feeling that there's a deadline to hit, and you've got to hand in the work. They walk into class, and say, 'I'd like to write a novel'. And I say, 'It's due on November 5'. It's an impossible task you're giving them, but you're saying in the same breath we'll give you all our attention to help you do it.

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