About our Founding Director

Image of Bill Manhire (photographer Grant Maiden)Image of Bill Manhire (photographer Grant Maiden)

A legendary teacher of creative writing, Bill Manhire began his academic career as an Old Norse scholar, before teaching a range of subjects in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington, including Romantic and Victorian Poetry and New Zealand Literature. His famous Original Composition class attracted new writers who would go on to become leading voices in New Zealand literature. These included Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Knox, James Brown, Barbara Anderson, Anthony McCarten, Ken Duncum and Emily Perkins. With the establishment of the MA in Creative programme in 1997, and of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) in 2000, he created larger opportunities for writers to explore their imaginations and work towards a writing career. (Read about the establishment and history of the IIML.) Bill retired in 2012, and became an Emeritus Professor.

Bill was born in Invercargill in 1946 to a publican father and a Scottish war-bride mother. He grew up in pubs 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, with drawings by his friend Ralph Hotere. He has published many collections of poems, winning the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry five times, most recently for the collection Lifted. His Collected Stories was published in 2015. Bill was the inaugural Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate, and a Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, France. His other awards include an Arts Foundation Laureate Award, the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Otago. He is a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The range of his imaginative activities is astonishing. In 2006 Bill was joint project leader with Paul Callaghan of Are Angels Okay? a science-art collaboration between New Zealand writers and physicists. He edited an anthology of writing about Antarctica. For many years he presented a poetry segment on the Kim Hill Show on Radio New Zealand and he established the online series Best New Zealand Poems. More recently Bill has been involved in music projects with composer Norman Meehan and singer Hannah Griffin. His lyrics appear on a number of recordings including Buddhist Rain, Making Baby Float and Tell Me My Name.

In 2016 he was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write a poem in response to the Battle of the Somme. The resulting sequence, 'Known Unto God' formed the heart of his 2017 collection Some Things to Place in a Coffin (VUP).

Bill is one of the country’s most influential literary figures and one of the few New Zealand poets with an international reputation. He makes frequent appearances at literary festivals both here and overseas, and his poetry readings are compelling examples of the spoken word. Bill continues to inspire the IIML both through the lasting ideas he put into practice about how best to encourage new writers and through his own adventurous creative work.

He received the title of 'Icon' from the New Zealand Arts Foundation in 2018, in recognition of his profound impact on the nation.

In 2016, the IIML's home at 16 Waiteata Road on the Kelburn campus was renamed Bill Manhire House in recognition of his contribution and achievement as a teacher and a writer.

Read more:
Te Herenga Waka University Press

New Zealand Book Council writer profile

Arts Foundation Laureate profile

Poetry Foundation profile

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre: a selection of poems online

Follow Bill Manhire on Twitter