Performance Tips

Bill Manhire

There are many tricks that I have used repeatedly throughout my career to date, and others that I have done only really as one-offs. I am happy in a show to perform effects from either category, in fact I like to mix them up a little. Generally I prefer to use the term ‘effects’ in preference to a word like ‘tricks’, but in the following I will use them interchangeably. A lot of what I say will also apply to most psychic routines and how we lead our lives in general.

•    Let me start with this which will seem odd advice, but it comes from many years on the road and I will offer it anyway: Never let sailors tie knots. Think about that statement and you will soon see that I am right.

•    It is good to make up a programme which has opening, closing, and intermediate effects. Variety is generally a good thing, and order and selection can always be varied for different occasions and conditions. Five well-executed tricks may be better than 25 ordinary ones and could well stay in the audience’s mind a lot longer.

•    Sometimes people will come up after a show or a single trick and say, ‘How did you do it?’ It is no help either to you or them to tell them – they will be disappointed while you will just lose their respect and perhaps an opportunity of future work. In such circumstances it is best to say something like, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ and if they say yes, reply, ‘So can I!’

•    If a trick fails. If a trick fails, just say, ‘The real magician will be here shortly.’ This usually produces a laugh, and a degree of goodwill which can actually be quite helpful to the rest of your performance.

•    Levitation without apparatus. You cannot go past the Balducci Levitation which if you hunt around you can just get off the net.

•    Misdirection is the only way forward. (This is a thought you can revisit many times.)

•    Of course a whole book could be written about misdirection. Another way of making this point is to say that sleight-of-hand is important but is not the be-all and end-all. Work on your patter.

•    You may sometimes find yourself performing in strange venues, such as bare, draughty halls. I once found myself performing at a Lotto outlet, another time at an RSA. You may also have to eat unusual meals with members of community fundraising committees.

•    A sense of vocation. Of course you will make very little money compared to dentists and others. But that is a choice you must make. You do this work because you love it.

•    Even so, I am still sometimes asked: Why do it? Well, if you are lucky, you are creating memories. These are precious. You will be remembered for the overall magic you have brought into people’s lives. Magic is the poetry of the stage. Be on your guard, however, as there can also be a lot of alcohol and drug addiction in this business.

•    After a while, some magicians start to ‘walk through’ their performances, so you must find ways of maintaining your enthusiasm for what you do. Remember, there may be a young boy out there in the audience who himself aspires to be a magician. That boy could have been you once or me.

•    Volunteers. If you get a volunteer up on stage, start by saying, ‘What’s your name, sir?’ If they answer, for example, ‘Bob,’ you then say, ‘Sorry?’ They will say, ‘Bob,’ again, at which point you say, ‘No I heard you, I’m just sorry.’

•    ‘Horses for courses’. What works well in a place like Christchurch will not necessarily go down in Masterton. That said, The Severed Head of Patrick D. Evans is a popular effect which needs little preparation and has made money for me in recent years.

•    Sometimes magicians divide along a line as to whether they belong to the apparatus school or the non-apparatus school. I myself am happy with both. I am not an innovator, I will take my tricks from anywhere. Nevertheless I have always put in the hard yards beforehand.

•    Once I was approached after a show by a beautiful woman who said she wanted to learn my secrets. We talked excitedly all through the night and spent many subsequent weeks and months together. In my heart I dedicate each new show to her. When I am developing new tricks, I often wonder, would she be fooled by this one.

•    Television. Magic on television is not magic. There is no substitute for a live performance of Satan’s Scissors or The Floating Arab. Mostly I prefer the conversational style of presentation, but a more dramatic routine is not without its advantages.

•    Magical ‘teams’. These are a contradiction in terms. A magician works alone, or with an assistant.

•    Likewise feminist magicians. I once sat through a whole show by Fat Girls Walking Slowly and, if I can deal with the subject by putting it this way, I have to admit I was distinctly unimpressed. My note on ‘magical teams’ above is also relevant here.

•    It is important to be neatly dressed, but it is not a good idea to overdo it, especially if you are working with children. For a few years I tried wearing raven’s wings but they were not a great success and I would not recommend them.

•    Of course you need a good name. Blitz the Magician was a good one, likewise Houdini and The Great Benyon. Dave the Wizard I would rule out, but something like Alakazam would be fine. That said, David Blaine could hardly be more famous, so it is hard to give the best advice in this area.

•    While I am on this subject here is a timely quote from David Blaine for all aspiring magicians. ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. When you are doing something you love, it’s easier to succeed at it than doing something you don’t.’

•    This will sound old-fashioned, but a wand is very useful and most audience members expect one.

•    Remember, a good magician is always more than a mere publicity hound. Constant practice and hard work and personal sacrifice are necessary. Sometimes, though, everything will just come together without you even thinking about it and then there is nothing like it. It is truly magical.

•    Finally remember there is always a next level. Getting to the next level inevitably involves more hard work but I think you can do it. In fact, I will be there, in my white cape, waiting for you.


This extract, written by Bill Manhire, is from from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.
Bill will be appearing next week, September 3rd, at Writers On Mondays in the event Songs of My Life. The publication of his career-view Selected Poems is the perfect opportunity to profile this major figure in our literature. In his retirement year from Victoria University, it might also be time to lay to rest rumours of warm slippers and the fireside chair. The five-time winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry will read and discuss his work with Damien Wilkins.  Full WOM programme details here.


The Syllabic Childhood of James Brown

This is the first exercise I give to my under-grad Poetry Writing class (CREW253). There’s plenty of imaginative scope, but the constraints place a big emphasis on control. Lack of control is a major problem in many of the poems submitted by course applicants. By ‘lack of control’ I mean poems that lurch tonally, are full of incoherent sentences, random rhymes and poor punctuation. Successful poems that seem out of control are usually, in fact, very carefully managed. We move on to exercises that encourage pushing language around more, but how will you ever learn to juggle if you can’t first throw and catch?

Write a poem called ‘My Childhood in ­________’. Choose a place you’ve never lived, but maybe know a little bit about. For example, ‘My Childhood in Laos’, ‘My Childhood on Bikini Atoll’, ‘My Childhood on Mars’, ‘My Childhood in 1848’.

You could talk about your family (you can use your real family or make up a new one). Do you live in the city or country, a house or apartment? What do you like doing? Do you go to school? Do you have a pet? Has something interesting ever happened to you or your family? Do you like where you’re living or would you like to move?  These possibilities assume your speaker is still a child, but you could write from the point of view of an adult recalling their childhood.

Try to write in your normal voice, as if you are talking to a friend. Do you talk in rhyme? No.

Your poem must be a syllabic poem! That means each line needs to have the same number of syllables. You can pick the number you want, but 7 or 9 often work well.

You must also incorporate one of the following lines into your poem (not as a first or last line):

‘She carved the meat and then she was crying.’ (Robert Hass)

‘Someone is dying of too much afternoon.’ (Geoff Cochrane)

‘The darkness surrounds us.’ (Robert Creeley)

‘The dog left me there, and I went on myself.’ (Robin Robertson)

‘A is for atlas, but I am not in it.’ (Edwin Morgan)

‘The droppings of last year’s horses.’ (James Wright)

‘The cowbells follow one another.’ (James Wright)

‘She didn’t know what she wanted.’ (Robert Hass)

‘Come here, Sweetie, out of the closet.’ (Sylvia Plath)

‘It is difficult even to choose the adjective.’ (Wallace Stevens)

‘And that has made all the difference.’ (Robert Frost)

‘I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.’ (Theodore Roethke)

‘Your new life passes in review.’ (John Hartley Williams and Matthew Sweeney)

‘We are kind to snails.’ (Fleur Adcock)

It’s OK to change the line’s tense and gender to fit with your poem.

Here is a syllabic poem by Thom Gunn about a snail. Every line has 7 syllables (except one has 8 – he cheated!).

Considering the Snail
The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

James Brown was born in Palmerston North, hence the title of next week’s Writers on Mondays event where he’ll discuss his work with Fergus Barrowman. His new book of poetry Warm Auditorium has just been released. You can also catch him reading tomorrow at 12.30 in Unity Books Wellington, with Bill Manhire, Geoff Cochrane, Harry Ricketts, Lynn Davidson and Helen Heath. Full WOM programme details here.

SWITCHEROO with Bernadette Hall

Bernadette Hall

Why not imagine you’re someone else, speak in another voice, from another time, from another side of the gender fence, perhaps – just do a switch.

I’d suggest locating the new you by voice, rather than by trying to construct a character entirely from the outside. First jot down some fascinating words. Maybe you’ve found them in an Elizabethan poem or in the translation of a Peruvian novel. Now imagine ‘you’ have  turned up from another story, it could be from history, art, literature, fairy tale, music, whatever excites. Now speak (write) ‘your’ version of a small moment imagined from that story, pulling in the vocabulary you’ve previously jotted down.

You can find an example in my poem ‘ Just a short note from the watchman, another minor character’ on-line in Trout 17. I’m writing a short sequence called Footnotes to the  Oresteia and the watchman emerged, speaking in a surprisingly elaborate fashion.  I have to say that I love him to bits.

Bernadette Hall taught at the IIML in 2011 while Chris Price was in Menton. She also edited the Best New Zealand Poems that year. As a curtain raiser for National Poetry Day on 27 July, Writers on Mondays will introduce a baker’s dozen of the 25 poets whose work was chosen by  Bernadette. We welcome Hera Bird, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Janis Freegard, Rob Hack, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson, Helen Lehndorf, Kate McKinstry, Bill Manhire, Harvey Molloy, Marty Smith, Ranui Taiapa and Tim Upperton. Full WOM programme details here.

Best of the best

We were pleased to see The Best of Best New Zealand Poems getting an enthusiastic review from Terry Locke in the new issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature.  When a review opens like this

 The title of this book is a double superlative whammy and does a good job of attracting attention. The big question, of course, is that having gained attention, does the book sustain and reward it.

you worry for a moment about what’s to come. Then you read on, and at the words

 My simple answer is yes, and I’ll explain why.

you heave a sigh of relief.

We were pleased with the review, which at seven pages in length is substantial. But we were particularly interested in Terry Locke’s comments on the poets’ own commentaries, which from the beginning have accompanied BNZP’s annual selections.

The commentaries function differently. One sort provides an insight into the composition process. An example is Andrew Johnston’s account of how he came to write ‘The Sunflower’, a poem which is one of my picks for the book as a whole. The account itself is manifestly intertextual, with references to Swinburne, Ashbery, the King James Bible and the painting of Anselm Kiefer. This sort of commentary cues the reader’s appreciation of craft. . .  Another sort of commentary is illustrated here, from Rhian Gallagher:

“My father was, as they say, a man of few words. He came out from Ireland in his twenties, worked on building the hydro dams down south and then in the freezing works, hard manual labour. The physical act of burying him was my brothers’ and my eulogy to him. The poem comes from these real events. There is a nod in the poem to something of the ritual involved in a Catholic ceremony while at the same time wanting to break through the potential veneer when ritual turns into an empty vehicle.”

This kind of commentary functions as an interpretative cue. Juxtaposed with the poem, it enters into dialogue with it and the ensuing relationship contributes to a reader’s meaning-making process. . . for me, the commentaries were irresistible, contributing enjoyment and enhancing engagement with each poem anthologised.

If you’d like to subscribe to the Journal of New Zealand Literature, you can do so through their website. The current issue is particularly lively, with reviews, learned articles, thoughtful polemic, and a piece of memoir from current NZ Poet Laureate Ian Wedde.

You can listen to most of the poets in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems reading their poems here and full information about the anthology is here.

On 23 July as a curtain raiser for National Poetry Day on 27 July, Chris Price will introduce a baker’s dozen of the 25 poets whose work was chosen by Bernadette Hall for the 2011 issue of Best New Zealand Poems. We welcome Hera Bird, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Janis Freegard, Rob Hack, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson, Helen Lehndorf, Kate McKinstry, Bill Manhire, Harvey Molloy, Marty Smith, Ranui Taiapa and Tim Upperton.

Check out the full Writers on Mondays programme here.

A Very Public Masterclass


Photo by MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post

During the recent Writers & Readers Festival in Wellington three novice poets had their work critiqued by Poet Laureate Bill Manhire during a poetry master class. Read the DomPost Story here.

‘Then he says the thing I both love and hate hearing in a workshop – I think you need to take a deep breath and start again.’ —Pip Adam reports for the Scoop Review of Books

‘lots of really good stuff,’ he said. ‘Lots of really dodgy stuff.’  —Philippa Werry on Beattie’s Book Blog

‘the people in the seats next to me spent the first ten minutes talking about how they weren’t quite sure about this whole Bill Manhire business, but they wanted to see for themselves’  —Hera Lindsay Bird for Booksellers NZ