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 and Heartland, both from Auckland University Press. 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. Michele talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Face to the Sky.
I had the title in mind three years ago when I discovered that the old name for Stratford in Taranaki is Whakaahurangi, literally ‘faced turned towards the sky.’ I was born in Stratford which lies on the shoulder of the mountain. Its eastern horizon provides spectacular stargazing on a frosty night and views of the central mountains on a clear day. There are things you go back to, or they never quite leave you. It is interesting to explore a powerful memory and see where it leads.
What inspired you to write this collection of poetry?
I had several poems about the nineteenth-century artist and writer Emily Harris, co-valent with archival research I was doing at the time. The creative responses to Emily’s life and art helped shift research problems when I was stuck. Emily and I share a Taranaki background. She arrived with her emigrant family on the beach at Ngāmotu in 1841, a world away from my own growing up in New Plymouth in the 1960s and 1970s. But she knew the same places, saw the terrain I remember and wrote in the place where I started writing. I followed the parallels and pondered the differences. The poems became Face to the Sky, the research is still shaping itself towards book form. They are different projects but they share common ground in female experience, creativity and memory.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Every book is different in its conception and the work that goes into it. This one was manifesting about half its eventual contents when I found it in my folders about a year ago. The work of developing a structure and composing the rest of the poems to support it was a pleasure because I could see where I was going. A phrase from the weather forecast heads up each of the six sections, and each section comprises three poems. The book delivers itself in these trios with time to pause between them. You can look out the window and see what the weather is doing.
If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
There is a ready-made soundtrack in the book. From the last poem ‘Whakaahurangi’:
we were coming round the mountain
dog in the footwell playlist old favourites
we were driving six white horses
through Tataraimaka Ōkato Warea Rahotu
Carmelita Spanish Stroll Tipitina
through Pungarehu Ōpunake Pihama
Dallas Talk to Me of Mendocino Who Do You Love
a summer morning to ourselves coming round the mountain
which has its cloud cap on and changes shape with each twist of the dial
A Case of You Black Coffee Prince and KD Lang
Hickory Wind and Our Town Gram Parsons and Iris DeMent
we turn inland across the plain to Eltham mountain still on our left
the cheese factory isn’t open it’s Saturday
Erma Franklin Piece of My Heart Aaron Neville Tell It Like It Is
we turn north for Ngaere and come to Stratford
Grace Jones La Vie en Rose Bettye Swann Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye
follow Pembroke Rd to the Mountain House and the Plateau
Etta James At Last Amy Winehouse Love is a Losing Game
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I was undergoing CAR T-cell therapy for an aggressive lymphoma for most of last year as the poetry book and the Emily Harris research continued their dual drive. Each took my mind off the medical procedures. The CAR-T has been successful. Being around for the publication and launch of Face to the Sky is the best celebration of the book I can imagine.
What is the most interesting book you have read so far this year and why?
I have just finished listening to Sam Neill read his memoir Did I Ever Tell You This? (Text Publishing, 2023). I laughed out loud at some of Sam’s stories, teared up in a few places over others. What truly struck me was the same but different response to the experience of lymphoma. My words and phrases echoed his, same but different, right down to the breathtaking moment when a doctor utters just three words: ‘Complete metabolic remission.’
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Another draft of the Emily Harris book and perhaps in the second half of the year a new guide dog. We’ll see.
Auckland University Press