Michele Leggott is an award winning poet, academic, essayist, and editor. She is also coordinator of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) at the University of Auckland, a leading online literary resource. Leggott has published several volumes of poetry, and has had poems, articles and essays published in journals and anthologies. She has also published several significant works of non-fiction, including Young Knowledge: the Poems of Robin Hyde, published in 2003. Michele Leggott is the 2008/2009 New Zealand Poet Laureate.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Leggott, Michele (1956– ), poet, critic and editor, was born in Stratford, Taranaki, and educated at New Plymouth GHS and University of Canterbury (MA in English 1979 for a thesis on the poetry of Ian Wedde).
She spent 1980–85 in Canada completing a PhD at University of British Columbia. Her dissertation on the American poet Louis Zukofsky was published in America as Reading Zukovsky’s ‘80 Flowers’ (1989). Her academic work on the experimental tradition in American and New Zealand poetry directly influenced her own poetic practice.
Her poems began appearing in periodicals from about 1980. A small selection, Sound Pitch Considered Forms (1984), was published (with two Canadian poets) in Vancouver. She returned in 1985 to a lectureship at the University of Auckland. Her first book of poems, Like This? (1988) was selected (as a cover note says) ‘almost chronologically, from ten years’ writing and the shifts made in that time from Christchurch to Auckland to Vancouver, Canada, and back to Auckland’.
It won the PEN First Book of Poetry award. The poems range from brief, short-lined lyrics such as ‘on white’, reflecting the influence of Zukofsky in their elaborate wordplay and musical effects, to expansive long-lined poems such as the richly evocative ‘An Island’, which despite its length (seven pages) has been twice anthologised.
Swimmers, Dancers (1991) is dominated by poems with a domestic focus sometimes directed towards childhood and memories of her parents, and sometimes towards her own children. The effect of a kind of verbal family photograph album is enhanced by the inclusion of actual snapshots.
Leggott’s third book DIA (1994) won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. It includes, together with several pieces which experiment radically with layout, the long poem ‘Blue Irises’, a set of thirty ‘sonnets’ (in the sense that each one is fourteen lines long). Among other things this sequence is a homage to the tradition of women poets, especially the New Zealand poets Robin Hyde, Ursula Bethell and Eileen Duggan, whom she believed to have suffered undeserved neglect. This theme is also explored in various critical essays, for example, ‘Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record’ in Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing (1995), which Leggott edited with Mark Williams, and in a series of radio talks, ‘"Don’t forget the girl is a genius": Re-reading New Zealand Women Poets’ (1993).
Leggott was poetry editor of Landfall 1991–93 (Nos. 177–85), and guest editor (with Jenny Penberthy) of West Coast Line (No. 11, 1993). She wrote the introduction to Robin Hyde, The Victory Hymn, 1935–1995 (1995).
Reading Zukofsky's Flowers was selected as an Outstanding Academic Book of 1990 by the US magazine, Choice. Her work, Dia, won the 1995 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.
She co-authored the critical work Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing (Auckland University Press, 1995).
Her poetry is also featured on Papertiger: New World Poetry #01, Australia's first poetry international on CD, and on New Zealand's inaugural poetry CD Seeing Voices (AUP, 1999). In addition, she appears in the poetry video Heaven's Cloudy Smile (Red Mole and GG Films, 1998), for which she co-wrote the script. The video was accepted for competition at the Montreal Festival of Films on Art in 1999.
Leggott has compiled, with Lisa Docherty, An Inventory of the Poetry Manuscripts of Robyn Hyde ca. 1925-1937 (Auckland University Library, 1996), and edited Robin Hyde's The Book of Nadath (Auckland University Press, 1999).
In her collection of poetry, As Far as I Can See (Auckland University Press, 1999), Leggott writes about her deep sorrow at losing her sight - she has been going slowly blind since 1985. Leggott was awarded a Blind Achievers Award by the Foundation for the Blind in 1999 for her work on The Book of Nadath.
She co-edited the groundbreaking anthology Big Smoke with poets Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2000). This revealing look at New Zealand poetry of the sixties and seventies has proved to be a seminal work.
In 2002, Leggott went on a Trans-Tasman Exchange to Queensland.
Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde, edited and introduced by Michele Leggott (2003), presents for the first time ever a chronological record of the poems of Robin Hyde. Leggott chose 300 poems that show Hyde’s growth as a poet, her response to the painful events of her life and to the political and social world around her. Young Knowledge is a multi-media production - those wishing to read the poems in conjunction with Michele's authoritative notes can find them online at the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre: www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz
Elizabeth Smither described Young Knowledge as a landmark for poetry, scholarship and publishing in this country in the New Zealand Listener, which later named it Book of the Year for 2003.
Milk and Honey (Auckland University Press, 2005) is Leggott's fifth poetry collection. In it, deft word play, allusion and quotation go along with liquid sounds, intense images and stirring rhythms. There are moving elegies and haunting love poems and many echoes of other poets, from Lorca to Robert Duncan to Alan Brunton. There are many signs too, of a poet moving into an international context; a sense of the wider world pervades the latter part of this text. The book is in three parts, with a gateway at either end. It can be read from the front or the back and there is a seriousness but also songs along the way.
Journey to Portugal (Holloway Press, 2007) is a collection of poems written during a 2004 trip to Portugal. Inspired by Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great Modernist poet, Leggot began a conversation with Pessoa and called it Journey to Portugal in homage to José Saramago’s book of the same name. Images by Gretchen Albrecht.
Michele Leggott was created a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (M.N.Z.M) in the 2009 New Year's Honours list.
Throughout 2008, Leggott became the first New Zealand Poet Laureate. Administered by the National Library of New Zealand and funded by the New Zealand Government, the Poet Laureate is selected biennially and receives an award of $50,000 per year. The result of her term as Poet Laureate was Mirabile Dictu, published by Auckland University Press in 2009. In this collection of lush poems, Leggott is a daily traveller, crafter of words and a maker of fire.
In 2013, Leggott received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Poetry.
Heartland was published in 2014 by Auckland University Press. It is a finalist in the Poetry category in the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Michele Leggott’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Michele Leggott on The Electronic Poetry Center Author Home Page (EPC)
- 5 poems by Michele Leggott in Jacket (Sydney), No. 3 (April, 1998)
- Selected titles by Michele Leggott can be found on the Auckland University Press
Updated January 2017.