For the Love of Books: Poet Michele Leggott

Michele Leggott was the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007-09 and received the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Her collections include Heartland (2014) and Mirabile Dictu (2009), both from Auckland University Press. She co-ordinates the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland, and recently co-edited Alan Brunton's selected poems, Beyond the Ohlala Mountains (Titus Books 2013) with Martin Edmond.
Poet, writer and university lecturer Michele Leggott photographed at home. Picture / Babiche Martens
Poet, writer and university lecturer Michele Leggott photographed at home. Picture / Babiche Martens

"Don't get me wrong. I love books. The heft of them, the way they fall open and a world breathes on you. The intoxicating smell of newly printed paper, the tobacco smoke lodged in pages that have been turned many times. When we were kids my father would take us to the public library on Friday nights after tea. We would pick out the four books regulations allowed, two fiction, two non-fiction, and settle down with them while Dad got another stack of Westerns and thrillers, no upper limit. Then he would take us to the Centreway Cafe for milkshakes by way of the back entrance through McKenzies and its bins of pick and mix. I have strong memories of reading Huckleberry Finn in a circle of firelight enhanced by the flick of pages turning around me and chocolate wrappers going into the flames. Reading was a family affair. My mother saw to it that the offer of breakfast in bed on a Saturday morning became more appealing to us than playing basketball or rugby. And it was she who took us to Corrigal's or Avery's where we could choose a pile of books as long as we promised to forget about them until Christmas morning. I still have Leonard Cohen's The Spice-Box of Earth and the hairy James K. Baxter's Autumn Testament. But I had to fund my own copies of The Little Red Schoolbook and Tim Shadbolt's Bullshit & Jellybeans.

"It was these ancient pleasures of reading and choosing books that began to disappear along with my eyesight. Somehow I let that pleasure go out of my life, though there were a 1001 things to take its place. Big print. Cassettes and CDs. Computer voices and a faithful band of human readers. Then recently the old pleasures of losing myself in a book for hours at a time were restored in a new and beguiling form. The iPod nano that stores the recorded poetry I read aloud in public also houses a growing number of audiobooks. Good for blind readers, yes, but also for anyone who adores the long conversation a book conducts with its audience. Exchange the heft of The Luminaries for 29 hours of actor Mark Meadows voicing Ellie Catton's highly reticulated prose. Or listen to Juliet Stevenson work through Austen's novels. The poets have always done their own material, but try Richard Burton doing Under Milk Wood or Jorge Luis Borges lecturing in English at Harvard. Find Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland or Gertrude Stein elaborating Tender Buttons. Then try Alice Walker reading The Colour Purple, Toni Morrison reading Beloved and Patti Smith reading Just Kids. Virginia Woolf's Orlando made me laugh out loud. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng dazzled me with its shifting complexities. I listened to Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Maintains and could have sworn I was footstepping the author and reluctant hero through the streets of Lisbon in 1938. But I'm stretched out here on the couch under headphones and pinned down by a cat. The fire is on, someone is approaching with a square of dark Lindt chocolate and there is no upper limit."

- VIVA

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