Michele Leggott, New Zealand's first poet-laureate, talks to David Herkt about poetry in time of Covid-19, the onset of her blindness, guide dogs and school teachers – and her just-published Mezzaluna: Selected Poems
"I'm not sure I can answer your questions but here goes," New Zealand's most acclaimed poet, Michele Leggott, began.
We had conducted a face-to-face interview six weeks before. The word "coronavirus" had occurred just once in the 90-minute recording – and only as a distant but troubling possibility. Now in countrywide lockdown, from our differing isolation bubbles, I've just emailed her to ask what role poetry plays in a time of universal global crisis.
"Connection to place," she wrote in reply, "words to cover distance, the same kind of shiver down the spine when you hear voices lifting into the chorus E hine e. Something you find you cannot do without."
When we'd met for our original interview, words like lockdown, essential services, self-isolation and physical distancing were not a feature of daily life. She had answered my knock swiftly on a late summer morning in Devonport, casually dressed and leaning against the door-jamb like a rangy teenager. Michele is now functionally blind, although it is easy to forget it.
"Twenty-two steps to the door," she had written in her 2017 book, Vanishing Points, describing orientating herself while visiting a friend's beach house in Matapouri in Northland, "six between / door and throughway nine from bed / to the back door count them and be sure / to use your hands and your feet."
If there had ever been a poet of New Zealand light, then Leggott qualified for that honour. Her work is filled with summers ("fishscale light"), views ("six cherry-trees frothing in the driveway"), moons on Auckland Harbour water ("a glissade of light') and vivid greens, reds and peacock-blues.
But now it is different. She has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, which has resulted in a complete loss of sight. The symptoms first manifested in 1985 but it wasn't until 1994 that they became problematic.
"I had a terrifying moment when I was driving with my children in the car back to Taranaki, where I'm from," she told the Herald seven years ago. "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."
A golden retriever, Olive, watched us protectively from the passageway, somehow reminiscent of Nana, the newfoundland dog and canine nanny for the sprawling Victorian family in Peter Pan. Olive is a seeing-eye dog who has been with Leggott since 2010, although now technically retired.
"But she still walks in straight lines," the poet exclaims with mock exasperation.
Olive was scheduled to be delivered fully trained into Leggott's life in November 2010, on the same day as the West Coast Pike River Mine disaster, in which 29 men died in the darkness underground. A poem in Leggott 's 2014 book, Heartland, poignantly describes the time: "The day of the explosion they postpone / her arrival two men walk out and agony / begins its clinch." Then, a few lines later, "angels / look out of the eyes of the dog who is here / because I am blind and the world is huge / with possibility."
The poem expertly weaves a tragic New Zealand event with an intimate private incident, mixing lost light with continuing bitter-sweet life. It is included in Leggott's just-released Mezzaluna: Selected Poems. The book's global publication – by Auckland University Press in New Zealand and Wesleyan University Press in the United States – is a significant achievement.
Since the poet-laureateship in 2008 and her MNZM in 2009, she has been a public poet. She still teaches at the University of Auckland and frequently reads her work to audiences. "I have stopped telling people how I do it," she says with a laugh, "but if you can see the iPod, you can work it out."
She collaborates closely with Tim Page, a University tech. "He said, in about 2011 or 2012, 'Right, now you have to go audio,' I said, 'How do we do that?' He said, 'This is how musicians do it – it's called fold-back. We record whatever it is you want to read in public. We make a recording, an mp3 file. You stick the earpiece in and press play. It will take a bit of practice but musicians do this all the time.'
"I also worked out it is better if it isn't my own voice in my ear. Everyone hates the sound of their own voice … Now I call Tim my 'Times New Roman', because he is the voice in my ear."
Leggott's experience with her sight is also intimately bound up with her work with the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre – NZEPC – the free internet gateway to poetry resources in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is its co-founder (with Brian Flaherty) and its co-ordinator. NZEPC streams many historical and contemporary recordings of poets including James K. Baxter, Janet Frame, Paula Green and current poet laureate David Eggleton – along with links to poetry texts and webpages.
"Literally my language disappeared off books in front of me and we had to find a way of dealing with that. There is grief in that," she said. "For a long time, it was very difficult to walk into the library, because everything was shut, everything was locked – all the books.
"It has always been my goal to get a huge amount of poetry digital. Now, not being able to see means digital is great, so that is my point about all disabilities – I hate that word 'disabilities' – but if it is good for someone with special needs, it is going to be good for someone else."
Her involvement with words and poetry began early. She remembers when she was 7, writing with Black Beauty pencils in a school exercise book with room for a picture at the top.
"I always wanted to get to that moment when I could rush off to get the crayons and start on the picture. I was writing a story about a big black and white cat that used to live a couple of doors away from us. His name was Rocket and my story went something like this: 'Rocket had come to visit us and then he had to go home and he jumped over the fence and he ran home.' There were four lines there and I had only filled three of them. I remember this moment intently and I wrote, 'He jumped over the fence and he ran home very very very very very very fast.'
"And then I went and did my picture and I was very pleased with myself. But then my teacher came back and said, 'Well, Michele, this is a very good story but you do know we only need to use that word very once or, at the most, twice.' And I remember being absolutely crestfallen for a moment and then thinking 'No.' That every time I wrote that word 'very' I was thinking of that black cat going across the yard … Chisch! Chisch! Chisch! Chisch! Very fast."
Later, at New Plymouth Girls' High School, Leggott was taught English by the well-known Ida Gaskin, who would also teach future politicians - Maryan Street and, at New Plymouth Boys' High School, Andrew Little.
"She just piled in the poetry … She was a big fan of T.S. Eliot, so in the 5th form we got Prufrock and in the 6th form we got The Wasteland. By the time I left school I knew more about Four Quartets than I know now … I was so entranced. She was deeply disappointed that I did not go on to Oxford or Cambridge.
"We had James K. Baxter visit at school but we didn't really get to see him, because he was identified as a hazard to 'young gels'. We were fifth formers trooping into assembly and there he was talking to the headmistress with his stick and his bare feet in the middle of winter … But Hone Tuwhare came the year after and I did get to see him and that was a moment."
Leggott went to the University of British Columbia in Canada and completed her PhD before returning to New Zealand. Her first solo book, Like This, was published by Christchurch's Caxton Press. It has since been followed by eight other collections and DIA won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1995.
"If I am working on something and I have researched it or prepared it and there is a deadline coming," she says about her composition process, "I will not write it until I have that first phrase or sentence or title - until it appears in my head and I can walk to the computer and get it down and everything will follow. The mind is always talking. There is always talking in here …"
She touches her temple, the move silhouetted by the summer light.
After the laureateship came Mirabile Dictu, a sometimes diaristic and intimate record of daily life with the beginnings of an intense involvement with family history.
Leggott is married to Mark Fryer, a Herald business journalist. "It's been … what, 45 years. A long time. I'm still very happy." They have two sons, James who is 35 and lives in London, and Robin who is 31. Both work in hospitality.
"At the moment when the eyesight started to disappear it was a huge question. How am I going to carry on? How am I going to carry on teaching? How am I going to carry on walking around?
"The answer," she says, "was always that I would find the answer. I would find the consolation. I would find the answer to those very difficult questions. Bang! They're right in front of you. And I would find them in poetry.
"Either I'd find my own words or somebody else's words and they would calm me and I would think of course I could do it. And if I could recognise something wonderful in that particular bit of poetry or in that voice I have just heard, then I can get through whatever difficulties are facing me here and right now."
Poets are the voices of our times and, when I spoke to her next, in a world that had changed forever, I asked her how the lockdown experience had affected her.
"It sends me back to something I wrote at this same time of year, full of other kinds of uncertainty and pain – but also hanging on to the view from here, which is the same view but now with different footsteps."
…and a long way off
the sound of someone
breathing as if every breath
is a memento
Easter moon frangipani
lifting out of the ocean…
[from: hello and goodbye]
Mezzaluna: Selected Poems, by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, $35).