Twelve Questions: Michele Leggott

Michele Leggott sees poetry as a language. You learn it, you get better at it. Photo / Richard Robinson
Michele Leggott sees poetry as a language. You learn it, you get better at it. Photo / Richard Robinson

1. Do poets just get better as they get older?
Poetry is a language. You learn it, you keep going, you get better. I have a very broad definition of poetry. Every time someone turns on the radio and listens to a song, in my view that's poetry. We all begin with nursery rhymes, then there is music with words and rhythm. You have to keep that fluency going. If people stay fluent in these things then that's the opening and you can bring the more difficult stuff in.

2. You were the inaugural NZ Poet Laureate in 2008: did people notice?
I was in the role for 18 months and we did a lot of great stuff all over the place and always I was talking, talking, reading, reading, telling people, going wherever asked to. I mean I live and breathe this stuff and I love it but people often think poetry is stuffy and awful. It's hard and they hated it at school. When I go into a classroom we don't dissect poems. That's not the way to think about it. I would like to be in a culture where everyone was aware that they could write too, as they loved to as a child, and read carefully the writing of others. Not analyse it.

I'm not the only one who thinks these stereotypes need to be broken down.

3. Is poetry best read, or heard?
You start by listening, always. Then you can pick up the text and listen again. It will be different, and that is the point. Keep shuttling between what you hear and what you see. That's the poem.

4. How difficult has it been to lose your sight?
I have retinitis pigmentosa, which is often known as night blindness. It was discovered in 1985 when my son James was born. At first they said it was a mild form and I could go for 30 years or so with sight that was compromised but OK. It didn't really affect my life too much until 1994. I had a terrifying moment when I was driving with my children in the car back to Taranaki, where I'm from. I stopped at the lights and looked up to check if they had changed, and the red light wasn't there. When I looked again it was back. Everyone has a blind spot in their vision but it's really tiny and the brain knows how to patch that across. But that was the moment when my brain could not patch something that was getting bigger. Now I can't see any colour; perhaps occasionally a tiny bit of red, which is the last to go. But I can still see a little bit of light, which I'm now extremely grateful for. It means I can navigate with the help of the dog. I wonder, what am I going to do when the light goes? The answer is that there are people - totals - who have no sight and have great lives and move around and have dogs and jobs and do stuff.

5. Is going blind especially difficult as a writer?
You have days. The good days are when I don't think about it or it doesn't get in the way or I teach a class and I forget completely that I can't see them. You have to get over that fear in walking down the road. The gut is clenched. It's that thing in your brain, amygdala, the fight-or-flight response. That part of my brain is over-active even when I'm just walking around because I might fall over or hurt myself. I have to smooth that fear away.

6. How has your family coped?
It's supposed to be a genetic condition but we can't find any evidence of it in my family. As my kids are fond of saying, "Mum, you're a mutant." That was when they were little, they'd say, "Don't use the blind thing on me, Mum." Because they grew up as my sight was dis-appearing, they became extremely good around anyone who had a disability or was an old person. It taught them to be careful around people. They both work in hospitality now and it's about knowing how to treat anyone who walks in the door.

7. Did your parents believe you could make a life out of words?
Their message was consistent: you can do anything. The word poet is from the Greek, poiesis, which simply means making. A poet is a maker. My dad was a builder and he made things. My brother is a glass blower and he makes things, the same way I make things out of words. My parents died when they were very young, 54 and 55, but they would have been so proud of the PM's award. I'm glad, though, that they didn't know I was losing my sight.

8. Who, in your opinion, is New Zealand's greatest poet?
Because I'm working on a book of his collected poems with (fellow Prime Minister's prize winner Martin Edmond), I would have to say Alan Brunton. He is of the same age as Bill Manhire, Sam Hunt and Ian Wedde but is the least known because he went away. He was an actor with an experimental theatre troupe and he died in Amsterdam in 2002 while touring a poetry theatre show. His poetry is amazing - you read it and can be completely baffled by it but because of the music of it, the words, you'll never be at a loss.

9. What drew you to the work of Robin Hyde?
There was no book of collected poems and she is a crash-hot figure in the literature of this country - novelist, poet, journalist, liberated woman long before that was socially acceptable. There had to be a story. There's a line in Houses By The Sea which goes: "What makes the sweethearts quarrel? Third mouth, pink as coral." My mother would read that and think, oh there was a third woman! But of course that's not what she meant. It's a vagina. And she wrote that in 1937. Amazing.

10. Does tragedy or suffering affect a writer differently, do you believe?
Hyde saw herself as a social witness, believing that codes of silence must be broken to make better futures for those oppressed by them. There is a heartbreaking moment in her 1937 memoir A Home in This World where she says: "It seems to me now that I am caught in the hinge of a slowly opening door, between one age and another. Between the tradition of respectability, which was very strong in my household and had cut me off from all real family love the moment I infringed it, and the new age, foretold by Nietzsche and some others."

11. What state is NZ writing in?
Seems fine as far as I can see. The trick is to make readers as well as writers.

12. What will you do with the $60,000?
The PM's award for poetry is the second one that has come to my street - Kevin Ireland lived just up the road when he got it. He was the second recipient and when asked, he said he was going to use the money to put a wine cellar into number 8. I loved that. A poet's wine cellar. I have no idea what I'll do but it's income. As Martin Edmond said when he found out, it's income!

- NZ Herald

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