Poetry's PR chick

By Michele Hewitson

Michele Leggott is the new poet laureate and what a terrific choice she is. The job is, really, to be a PR chick for poetry and, as that is what she does so well anyway, she couldn't be better.

It also helps that she is nice, is a terrific poet, is as clever as the day is long, and looks lovely (I don't think it would be much fun to have an ugly poet laureate but that might just be me.)

Have I gone on too much about her attributes? Yes, all right, I probably have. But she did come as rather a relief - she happens to be married to a bloke who works up the hall.

I have known him for years but, for some unaccountable reason, until I thought it would be interesting to go to see the poet laureate, I had no idea he was married to her.

If I was married to the new poet laureate I'd have gone around boasting about it, but Leggott's husband "rudely fell about laughing" when he heard that his wife had been picked. What an awful man, I say. "Of course he's terrible," says Leggott, falling about laughing. Then, "No, no, no. You say, 'poet laureate' and everybody says, 'Ha, ha, ha'. Come on! Of course they do. And I said exactly the same thing."

Oh, I don't know. I think she'd look rather fetching in a laurel wreath, which is how the ancient Greeks used to crown their poets. She could, in the unlikely event that she should be so inclined, buy a couple for herself because it pays quite nicely.

Leggott will get $75,000 for her 18-month stint, which is, of course, wonderful.

She doesn't know what she will do with it yet. In the grand tradition of laureates, she will also get wine, from Te Mata (who have previously supported the laureateship alone; it is now administered by the National Library of New Zealand) although presumably not the traditional butt of sack.

Of course, I was keen to know how much wine she'll get but she says she "felt too embarrassed to ask that question". She also failed to ask when the wine arrives. For a horrible moment I wondered whether the poet laureate might not drink wine, but she does: "Oh, yeah!" She does too, on occasion, get drunk. "Of course. Doesn't everybody?"

I didn't really think she would be a wowser. I should think anyone married to him up the hall would feel the need to take a drink occasionally. Also, I happen to think that a laureate should like a drink, so I'm glad to hear that this one does.

She is - "what's not to love about it?" - over the moon about all of this but she was cautious too. "Oh, because it conjures up those terrible associations of having to write poems to order: On the occasion of; on the anniversary of. I mean we had it [on the recent diamond wedding anniversary] with the Queen and Prince Philip. The English laureate produced a poem which I understand was read aloud at a dinner, or whatever it was, and I'm sure it was a very fine poem. I've got nothing against community poetry. I think writing for your community is a great thing to do but I hate that awful stilted stuff that's produced and you have to compliment people, you know?"

So, she says, 'That's one of the first questions to ask: What kind of laureate are we talking about?"

Then she laughs and says that, really, the first question she asked was: "Are you sure?"

She loves the idea of doing PR for poetry. Does poetry need such a thing? "Of course it needs PR!" she shouts. She'd better give it some then. "Okay. Poetry is about soul. It's that damn simple. At weddings, funerals, births, deaths ... People reach for a poem at points in their emotional spectrum, when they need something else. By the time you have read it, by the time you've sifted through it, you're in another place. A poem transforms."

But when I say, "So you are the PR chick for poetry," she says, "Well, let me say that I'm one of them, okay?" This seems ridiculously modest (perhaps it runs in this family) but she is wriggly about being the laureate because, unlike the traditional ones, she doesn't hold the title for her lifetime.

"Lots of other people are going to get a shot at this thing." She is keen on hosting events with other poets, including former laureates. She is genuinely horrified when I say she must, though, be the best poet in the country. "Oh. No, no, no. You can't say that." Oh, go on. Surely she can, if only for the 18 months. "As long as I can have a team of other people to help me."

She says she is very good at asking for help when she needs it, and often she does. She is not at all diffident about taking on the role but she did have one more question of the laureate people: "Well, do you know what you're getting into here? I will be able to do a certain number of things, but if I overdo it, then we're all stuffed."

She can no longer overdo things.

In her youth, "I thought I was superwoman. I had the PhD under this arm and the kid under this." I'm pretty certain she still is superwoman, but she has been losing her sight over the past 14 years, which has slowed her down a little, although you'd be hard pushed to detect it. She has a condition of the retinas that causes progressive degeneration of the cells that detect light.

She is a poet who can no longer read her books but she can still write. "Of course I am very fortunate - 'ha,' she said - it would be a tragedy to be 16 and to be losing sight. I started to lose functional sight when I was 37. I had a repository of stuff. I had life experience and a repository of images and a huge interest in things like colour and light and shape and form. And colour is very much a part of the way I perceive language." She can remember colour.

At home, I would not be able to tell she is - her preferred reference - partially sighted. But she says you can always tell: "You just look at their shins and see the bloody great whacks and scars. I trip over things."

She seems amazingly stoical about this, although she says it depends on how hard the day has been and that she can throw a "complete hissy" all right.

I'm glad to hear this because it would be awful to make her sound like a saint. She is too much fun for that. It is, though, a bit saintly to find an advantage when "things are becoming much greyer and the gloom is becoming gloomier".

I have asked what she thinks about not being able to see her own face as it agesand she says, with alacrity, "Oh, that's really good. I can feel the wrinkles; Ican't see them. It would be a hell of a shock."

She worked out that "my job was to stay as calm as possible for as long as possible because I'm sure that being under stress ... I mean I could almost feel the little neuroreceptors go ping!"

But was she naturally a calm person? "That's a good question, isn't it? I like to think that having to deal with this has made me more patient."

She is also an associate professor of English at the University of Auckland and this is what she tells her students: "I'm a poet. I'm an academic and since 1994 I'm a person who's been losing my functional eyesight. Any of those three things is going to crop up at any moment, at any time when we're in the classroom together. It's like having multiple identities."

And a terrific choice for laureate they all are. (And by the way, only kidding about the husband. He's quite a decent geezer too, if only because he is possibly, right about now, reading this aloud to the poet laureate.)

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