the book

posted by Michele

Keely O’Shannessy’s cover design

A local launch for MIRABILE DICTU took place 24 June in the Devonport Library with around 140 people present. We kicked off with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Samoan Star-chant for Matariki’ in blackout with drum and drone backing. Then the lights came up on 23 children (ages 6 to 10) from Stanley Bay School who read their Matariki poems to the enthusiastic crowd.

Selina calls the stars

Some star poets from Stanley Bay

Then it was time to launch the book and Peter Simpson gave it a good shove out into the stream. His launch remarks are reproduced below (thanks Peter). The proceedings finished with a performance of ‘keep this book clean’ that included projections of the smoking-enhanced illustrations in our ancient family copy of The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an excerpt from home movies of Urenui days and a rousing singing by all of the first verse of Me He Manu Rere. It was a great night and thanks are due to the Michael King Centre, the Devonport Library Associates and the Devonport Community Coordinator Maire Vieth for their generous support and organisation.

AUP publisher Sam Elworthy introduces MIRABILE DICTU

Peter Simpson launches book #7

Peter Simpson’s launch speech, Devonport Public Library, 24 June 2009

It is a real pleasure to be invited to launch Mirabile Dictu, the seventh book by my friend and colleague Michele Leggott. Seven is an auspicious number, I believe; at least dwarves, samurai warriors and the seven brides for seven brothers seem to think so, and what poet isn’t into numerology. Writing poetry used to be described by (was it Keats?) as “lisping in numbers”, and I don’t imagine things have changed all that much. Poets like counting; always have, always will. Readers familiar with the previous six of Michele’s books, and I imagine that counts for many people here, might notice some subtle differences this time round. Her previous books, well five of them anyway—Journey to Portugal is a special case—all had a distinctive square format, and all are exactly the same size, obviously deliberate. What’s so good about square, then? Well for one thing, it allows poems to have long lines without curling over the edge, as for example in famous early poems like, “An Island” some of whose lines were all of 30 syllables long—three times as wide as a sonnet. And having gone square once, it was easy to stay square so that all the books lined up prettily in a row, like peas in a pod. But not this time. Mirabile Dictu is both taller and thinner than its brothers and sisters.The thing about poetry, as we all know, is that nothing happens by accident; every detail of word, phrase, line, page is a matter of choice; it’s there for a reason. And the new format of Mirabile Dictu is no exception. It’s there for a reason.

Now, I haven’t spent the amount of time with the poems you’d need to analyse this carefully, but it’s obvious just flicking through the pages that Michele is favouring a shorter line. Take a look at the opening poem, “work for the living”; nearly all the lines are shorter than a pentameter and most are six or seven syllables: same with the last, “more like wellington every day”, and most of those in between. This is not exactly a new voice, but it’s a sign that Leggott is on the move, the lines tumble on top of one another, and into long juicy paragraphs, and further into page after page. None is a as short as a page, many are two, three, four, five, six, even eight pages long, and the pages pile up too. None of your 48 pages, 56 pages, or 62 pages of her first three books. You’d have to add those three together to get a book as big as this one. 154 pages, no less, the size of a novella. Clearly this is a woman who’s got a lot to say, and she wants to get on with it, briskly stepping it out line after line page after page.

Of course now that she carries the big blue stick, Te Kikorangi, of the poet laureateship, she can seize the occasion, command respect, order us to lend her our ears. I think this laureateship has been a benefit to Michele. I think it has given her confidence, a strong sense that words do matter, if we choose the best ones and put them down in their best order as she does, line after line page after page. I sense this new assurance in the poems, they know we are going to be all ears, hanging on every word, even if it takes three, five or eight pages to get to where it’s going. And speaking of coming and going, I’m struck by what a mobile collection this is. It’s always on the move—now up North, now down to Taranaki, or Hawke’s Bay, now in New Brighton, now in Rome, then Florence, then Venice, then back to more familiar parts: Rangitoto, Whatipu, Day’s Bay, Ohakune. The very first poem in the book is a car journey north, with a bunch of poets for company, heading for a funeral (Hone Tuwhare’s as it happens). The last poem in the book is also a journey by car and train, this time for a wedding among the olive groves. Two journeys—one north one south, one to a poet’s funeral, the other to a family wedding. Hey, this is not coincidental, this is deliberate, she planned it that way. And these two poems slyly introduce us to one of the big themes of this book, which we might describe as the family of poetry, and the poetry of families. We meet dozens of poets in this book; one whole poem is devoted to the north shore tribe, from Robin Hyde to Mary Stanley to Jack Ross, and heaps of others show up, John Newton, Bernadette Hall, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Rilke by the Spanish Steps in Rome and Ezra Pound on a gravestone in the cemetery Island of Venice. Poetry itself is never far from the topic of conversation, due no doubt to the challenges and opportunities of the big blue stick. And as for the poetry of families, that is present in this book in spades, as Michele searches family archives to put her mother and father and aunts and great aunts onto the page, often in their very own words, in a wonderfully moving series of poems.

Perhaps I could end with reference to just two more poems; The title poem “mirabile dictu”, and the one whose title is a translation of that phrase, “wonderful to relate”. The counters among you will not fail to notice that “mirabile dictu” is the third poem, while “wonderful to relate” is the third to last. Perhaps we can think of these two as the “Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro” of John Milton’s pairing. “mirabile dictu” is a descent into darkness and blindness, loss and death, “looking into the eyes of my stone bird”; “wonderful to relate” by contrast, relays the miraculous discovery of what was lost, a daughter, and shows us a family ecstatically reunited in a wedding; a scene of comedy and fruitfulness like the end of a Shakespearean tragicomedy such as The Winter’s Tale. These two poems, the descent into a lonely world of darkness and despair; the entry into a scene of reunion and joy, establish the polarities between which this wonderful book moves, with its great richness of character and scene, and the tremendous verve of its language. It is a book worthy of a laureate: the big blue stick has spoken. Open your purses and buy!

MIRABILE DICTU cover courtsey of AUP
All photos by Maire Vieth

a few million more

posted by Michele

David Eggleton and Michele at the Michael King Writers’ Centre, Devonport

A Million Poems for Matariki is rolling along north of the harbour bridge as schools in the Devonport/Belmont area get busy with posters, sharpies and pavement chalk. David Eggleton was at Belmont Intermediate last week firing up the poetry motors. He has been in Auckland since April as one of the Michael King Writers in Residence, working on a new book and reading all over the city.

Children at Devonport Primary School talking about Matariki

Asking the tokotoko for good words

On Friday 19 June David looked out the front door of the Writers’ Centre on Mt Victoria/Takarunga and saw below him around 200 chalk poems going onto the playground at Devonport Primary School. The weather continues crisp and clear so the poems are still there under bright solstitial sun and the stars of Matariki, now visible in the northeastern sky before dawn.

Devonport Primary poetry stars at work

Poem posters

Michele chalks a Matariki poem.

Photo credits: Marie Vieth

a million poems for matariki

posted by Michele

Stanley Bay School poets with the laureate tokotoko.

How do you make a million poems for Matariki? Get the poets all around you onto the job, of course. We took blank posters to Stanley Bay Primary School yesterday and talked with every class about the Devonport Community project to get a sky-ful of poems around the neighbourhood June through July. The kids and their teachers were onto it. By 2.00 we had over 200 poster poems, and by 2.30 they were being chalked onto the playgrounds and walkways around the school. ‘Chalk your poem, then go and read it to ten other people,’ the teachers said. Parents and the local newspaper arrived to find the entire school buzzing with poems underfoot and in the air. Everyone was handed a piece of chalk and asked to join in. ‘Today our school is POEMY!’ said one of the poets with a huge grin.

Mary Margaret Slack dances with chalk poems

Michele listens to a Matariki poem.

Now it is raining and the gutters at Stanley Bay School will be streaming with bright colour. But the poets will be planning more poster poems and taking blanks home for family and friends. Next week blank posters go into other local schools and will be handed out to community groups. In early July the poems will appear in shop windows, galleries, the library and the community house as Matariki gets under way. Here is the mission we have set ourselves:

When the stars of Matariki come over the northeastern horizon just before dawn early in June the old year ends and a new year is beginning. Is the star cluster bright and jewel-like in a clear sky or a hazy shimmer in the east? Look up or look into your imagination and tell us what Matariki looks like from where you stand in the world of light. We'd like to have a sky-ful of poems to read and put up around our community, so write a poem on this poster and be part of A Million Poems for Matariki!

View more photos in the Stanley Bay School's Matariki gallery

Photo credits: Maire Vieth

poetry phantoms

posted by Michele

How do you make poems go places? Stick them up on billboards all over the country and (for good measure) in Nashville, Tennessee.

An initiative by poster company Phantom Billstickers puts poems by New Zealand and American poets on the streets as A1 posters. The first four posters were launched in Auckland 2 June by Tusiata Avia, James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia) and Michele Leggott, who pasted the first copies of Tusiata’s poem ‘Cheek’ and James' 'The Kinds of Feelings that Happen on Summer Beaches' on a Phantom Billstickers site opposite Britomart in the CBD. Readings of both poems were improvised and there were poems and songs from the pavement by Michele Leggott, David Eggleton, Lisa Samuels, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Kelly Malone, John Adams, Tricia Hall, Otis Mace and others. Appreciative students from Poetry off the Page and the Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland, and other audience members were then treated to kebabs on the pavement, courtesy of the Phanotms.

The posters will go up in 13 New Zealand cities and in Nashville, Tennessee, where the company is also active. The poems will change monthly and the project will run for six months. Phantoms Jamey Holloway and Jim Wilson are looking to promote emerging talent and say they will consider short poems emailed to

Check out the June 2009 posters on nzepc.

Watch Poem Posters to the World video.

Tusiata Avia’s poster poem ‘Cheek’ and James Milne’s ‘The Kinds of Feelings that Happen on Summer Beaches from nzepc