Poetry Shelf interview: Michele Leggott and Face to the Sky

Face to the Sky, Michele Leggott, Auckland University Press, 2023

Michele Leggott’s new collection, Face to the Sky (Auckland University Press, 2023) is rich in scope, reference and melody. Michele draws upon a lived world, an imagined world, a remembered world. The book is a deft weave of two women; the poet herself and artist poet Emily Harris. The two women are separated by 100 years, linked by an attachment to Taranaki and the creative process. Michele’s poetry navigates the space between, a space that is transformed through travel, detection work, admission, appearances and disappearances, dialogue. The poems draw upon grief, personal challenge, the past and present, art, literature, historical events, friends and family, love.

To celebrate the arrival of this sumptuous new book, Michele agreed to answer a few questions. You can read my review at Kete Books here. Michele is launching her book with AUP at Devonport Library, Wednesday 19th April. Doors open at 6:30pm and the session will begin at about 7pm.(masks highly recommended!).

The conversation

Face to the Sky is a glorious, multi-layered reading experience. What words epitomise the writing experience for you?

Fluency is everything. Sometimes it is hard to find or I go away from the folders, doing something else, and the fluency goes away too. I’ve learned over the years to monitor the tension between whatever I’m doing poetically and any critical or archival or editing projects I have in hand. Best of all is when I’m working in one mode and feeling an almost physical pull towards the other. Moving between the two produces a kind of highwire happiness for which there is no substitute.   

What drew you to the life, art and writings of Emily Cumming Harris, a woman who is so exquisitely threaded into the collection?

We share a Taranaki background. Emily Harris landed with her emigrant family on the beach at Ngāmotu in 1841 when she was four years old. My brother and sister and I played on the same black sand 120 years later. There are distances and separations of experience, and that is what makes the exploration interesting. But first there is the memory of what every Taranaki child knows, that you can’t run barefoot to the water over hot black sand without a towel to stand on. I started from there and followed Emily into her colonial life as a writer, a poet and later on as an artist.  

Your poetry offers the reader an aural treat because music and sound are such vital elements. How does sound work for you as you write? Is it intuitive, carefully crafted, a mix of both?  I loved the move from English to Latin to Te Reo and the playful treatment of individual words (for example “artemisia”).

Every word has a sound profile and in the same instant a visual profile. For me the trick is to engineer the progress of this double synapsis so that it makes a satisfying whole for ear and eye.  The whole can be as short as one word or a line with spaces in it to indicate moments of stasis and recovery. Or it can be the shape of a prose sentence that lifts and falls over its duration. Then there are paragraphs and beyond them cantos. They all have distinctive motion as sound forms and visual duration. And then there is the referential reach that accompanies the dynamic. Who wouldn’t want to keep all this  in the air?   

Sam Neill has published a memoir that explores the rewards of writing during treatment for a serious blood cancer. You reference the serious health issue that you have navigated over the last few years. Was writing an important aide for you?

I’m listening to Sam’s memoir right now. It’s very good at striking a balance between a dangerous illness and how to live with or outwit it. The lymphoma I contracted in 2020 as Covid arrived put me into the world of cancer treatment and all the side-effects it entails. Chemotherapy and radiation dropped me into an abyss of fatigue and anxiety that stripped away my confidence and the ability to write or think. Very slowly writing and research came back and once they were there I made sure they would stay. Sam wrote a memoir. I found the outlines of a collection of poems in my folders that made sense of my Emily Harris work and suddenly the dual drive, poetry and research, was back in place. Even a failed stem cell transplant was easier to bear because I could think and write. By the time I was offered CAR T-cell therapy on the Malaghan Institute trial at Wellington Hospital I knew there were two books in preparation, one poetry, the other archival. Each was feeding the other. It helps that immunotherapy is a lot kinder on the body than chemotherapy. I have been fortunate: the CAR-T has worked and I can say cautiously that the lymphoma has gone.

Name a few poets who have acted as beacons and anchors for you as both reader and writer.

The list is long. Can I point instead to some of my favourite audiobooks from recent months? George Saunders reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, his unpacking of seven classic Russian short stories. Melvin Bragg reading Back in the Day, his memoir of a Cumbrian childhood and adolescence. Michael Crummey galloping across generational crazy paving in his novel Galore. Amor Towles’ charming novel A Gentleman in Moscow. Margaret Atwood’s plunge into a dark family history in The Blind Assassin. Emily St John Mandel’s criss-crossing of space and time in Sea of Tranquility. And so on. What links these disparate reading experiences? Each book is a masterpiece of disclosure and disclosure is all about timing. What better material for a poet to be listening to. Every one of these books I finished and went back to the start to read again and pick up what I had missed.    

Is there a particular poem in the collection that especially resonates with you?

They all come into focus from time to time and then step back again, which I think is a good thing in a poetry collection. It should keep moving for its readers and listeners. Today’s favourite is a section from ‘Walks and days’ because Richard knocked on the door again this morning:

Richard on the doorstep     we seek out the northerly sun at each turn of the road
wind whips around the corner and batters the sad house
no longer home to the son who cared for his elderly mother
soft voice greeting neighbourhood walkers     and taro in the back yard gone
we agree that Doggerland     is a peak experience among the 900 hours of In Our Time
we note rosellas rattling in the plane trees along the Domain
unlikely to be the red-tailed tropic bird leading up to the pips this morning
I see the bull terrier     a huge piece of driftwood in its jaws
charging the narrow gateway again and again
how many stories can you trust
the reviewer went looking online for the paintings attributed to my mother
they weren’t there because I invented them both
and made my mother an artist of the floating world
would she have liked what I have done     impossible to say
but she would have recognised each detail
because I drew them all from our life together in that house on the hill at Urenui
its view of the river and the sea
the cloud of dust rising as the truck disappears from the frame

Face to the Sky is Michele Leggott’s eleventh poetry collection. Her selected poems, Mezzaluna, was co-published in 2020 by Wesleyan and Auckland University Presses. Earlier titles include Vanishing Points (2017) and Heartland (2014), both from Auckland University Press. She is working on a study of archival poetics, provisionally titled ‘Groundwork: The Art and Writing of Emily Cumming Harris’. Michele Leggott co-founded the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) with fellow poet and librarian Brian Flaherty in 2001. She was the New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007–2009 and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. In 2017 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Auckland University Press page

Conversation with Kim Hill RNZ National (8/4 On health issues)

Second conversation with Kim Hill at RNZ National (15/4 On Emily Harris and new book)

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