Clare Azzopardi interviews Leanne Ellul on her latest poetry collection, L-Inventarju tal-Kamra l-Kaħla.

A poet, a colleague, a friend. Leanne Ellul is all of this and much more. Together we have created a whole scheme of textbooks for the primary years, and now we are writing a whole new world of ghosts for the young. We have organised talks, literary events, festivals and managed numerous projects, some of which are still going steady. We discuss what we teach and how best to teach it, what we write and how to write it better. We dream continuously about new and upcoming projects, about poems and stories, plots and characters … and have endless conversations about anything from cooking to nonsense writing, to politics, to pain and white poems.

Here are a few thoughts from an inventory I’ve specifically created for her after reading L-Inventarju tal-Kamra l-Kaħla (The Blue Room Inventory). Please note that the entries here are not in alphabetical order but you can choose to read them either way. 

On writing slow or fast, little or too much …You write rapidly and you write a lot. Is this an unfair statement about you and your writing?

It is not. I tend to think really quickly, my mind leaps from one thought to another and therefore I write swiftly too. So, it is true, I write a lot. Yet, not everything makes it to the publisher. Sometimes I write because I am commissioned to do so and sometimes because there is an itch, there is a thought that has been occupying my mind for quite some time and I need to get it out. And I also try to write every day. I think I have a lot to say about everything, maybe because I tend to over analyse and overthink every little notion. I also believe that we, as writers, can write about everything. Every little aspect can be written about – a speck of dust, one millisecond, a grain of sand – the list goes on. Writing is an act of exploration. 

Above all, writing is surely not therapeutic for me. The sea is therapeutic (as much as it can be painful too), trees are therapeutic, long walks are therapeutic. But writing is not. So I keep on doing it because I think I know it best (oh, how I tried ballet and playing the piano and playing the guitar and failed over and over again). I must admit I am also afraid of a time when I might have to stop writing, or worse yet, not knowing when to stop writing because I have nothing more to say or a new way of saying it. Writing can be terrifying too.

On authenticity … “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” W.H. Auden. I know this theme intrigues you and we’ve discussed it many times. Can you share your thoughts on how to be authentic?

This is a very delicate topic, and I think about it a lot. I read about it, but by no means I am an expert on it. There is no straight answer on how to be authentic, if that is something one aims for to begin with. But when I read something I tend to feel if it is “authentic” or not, if it speaks to me, if it stirs something in me or not. For instance, bombastic words never impress me unless they are used with a purpose and leave an impact, unless I am awed by the way they are intertwined in the text to create newer meanings. 

So, I think to be authentic I have to write from within. I write myself. Through this, writing becomes an act of exposure. A liberating act as much as an act that can shackle the being. Writing continuously poses choices: how to write and what to write and whether to write or not. Each choice boils down to what we believe in (in that very moment and in life in general) and what we are willing to share or keep to ourselves. There are a lot of compromises at stake. 

In relation to Auden’s statement, I think originality in turn stems from authenticity. It can be a by-product but it should not necessarily be the aim. Authenticity (the means) will lead us to originality (an end), because only we can write about certain things the way we do, the way we’ve experienced them. This doesn’t mean that we cannot write about things we haven’t been through, things we don’t know – I have never been a ghost, a squirrel or a robot – but I’ve written about all of these. Because I’ve written them through my vision, through my understanding of what it means to be a squirrel and robot. Reading compensates for what we have not been through, thus also creating a sense of empathy. There are moments when I doubt whether I’ve lived the moment, dreamt it or read it somewhere … and sometimes this does not really matter as long as it comes from within.

Being true to ourselves and our writing is evident in what we write. I believe authenticity underlies our whole (writing) process. If we write from within, from what makes us who we are, from our pains and fears and joys and discomforts, from what it is to be human, we keep our writing fresh and true. We are always changing and growing, and so is our writing. Now even if we write from a place that we are familiar with, there will be edits, and a good editor will tell us what to change and how we might want to change it, but that will alter nothing of the intention, the purpose that is at the core of the work. And that is what keeps it authentic, poetical to a certain extent, even if it is not a poem.

We have to listen to what we are writing – to read it aloud, to read it as our readers would, to be the readers of our own work by distancing ourselves from it at a certain point and then going back to it. To be able to feel. And writing can make us feel a lot more than we bargain for. 

On sea and blue hues… In one of your poems you write “… one does not write sea and/sea is not what you are.” But you have written the sea all over again. This is not the sea that Dun Karm wrote. This is not the sea that Adrian Grima or Simone Inguanez wrote. 

This ties back to authenticity, I feel. We are all writing our own sea. It might be the same sea we are coming from, the one we experience every day. The Mediterranean Sea is very much part of our fabric as Maltese writers, whether we like it or not. But to all of us the sea means something different or a whole lot of different things altogether. For instance, it can be poetic and political. One does not exclude the other.

For me the sea is everything and ephemeral at once. It is the space that we want it to be. “One does not write about the sea” because it is so vast, so open, unfolding and changing all the time. It is a bit like we aim our own writing to be: full of ups and downs, highs and lows, raging this one second and mellowing the very next. It is the one of the things that scare me the most and the one thing I keep on returning to: both in real life and in writing (sometimes they are one and the same thing as well). If the sea doesn’t make me tremble and fall in love all at once any more at the mere sight of it, I’m afraid I won’t write it as vividly any longer. Writing the sea makes us create different shades of blue, makes us expand the seas to new immensities, makes us see ...

On silence… There is no such entry in your inventory. And yet there is a lot of silence in the objects and places you choose, between lines and stanzas and lips… 

At times, poetry is all about silences more than it is about words. Words extend their manifold meanings in the spaces that occupy the pages, in the untold, in the gaps and the blanks. 

I am known to speak a lot, but I do need long stretches of silence in order to be. And by silence I don’t mean not talking – silence is just looking at the sea, or sometimes reading and not processing what is being read, silence is waiting and watching and listening. Silence can be much more fertile than the words themselves. And we need to have silence in order to have words.

We spoke about who I write for. And I do write for myself. But whether implied or not, there is also someone else who can be the reader, for instance. These silences are those that make the readers complicit. The readers fill the silences with their own thoughts and pauses. At least this is what I do in the role of a reader. This is when the content and the form become one and start to speak for themselves and on their own.

The pandemic has created pockets of voids – emptiness that tends to be filled out with silences and stillness. Silence is something we learn and unlearn all over again. Poetry becomes a place of refuge, a space where silence stems from and a space we return to. When we start to appreciate the weight of each word and how words are strung together to create something new, that is when silence can happen too. 

On dying … “Death cannot harm me/more than you have harmed me,/my beloved life.” (Louise Gluck, Averno).You also write about your death. Not death in general but your own death. Is it because you see it coming? Is it because you know it cannot harm you like life does? 

I already mentioned that I believe we have to face our fears. And writing makes us not just “face the fears” – through writing fear engulfs us and unclothes us. Death is one of the things that I fear the most and so I face death through writing.

I am not afraid to die. But of how I will die. I am afraid to suffer and I might not be ready to do so. Death is an egoistic act. Or as Sylvia Plath put it: “Dying/Is an art, like everything else.” I wouldn’t mind dying but do not want to suffer. We cry for the ones who leave us not because we are crying for them – they have rested from their pain and this inferno we call life – but we cry for those who are missing them and cannot take their silence and absence. 

Through my poetic testament on my death I was also almost mocking it. It is a bit like, if you cannot beat them join them. I wrote about death because I can … and because why not. Like I said, I believe everything can be something to write about. And so death is not (only) about sadness; like other mysteries in life it simply is. 

It haunted me from a young age seeing relatives die, friends of mine die and others on the precipice of death. Knowing that someday we are next is a privilege – we can prepare for it and I did so by writing it.

Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” We might cling to the idea that there is a life after this one, but I believe this one life might be enough. Like you rightly said, death cannot harm me more than life itself. If there is another life after this one, I hope I can just read and write white. Death will be a welcomed refuge and a possibility we will never have the opportunity to avail. So be it.  

On white poems... You have recently embarked on this new project dealing with the colour white and I know that on your bedside table you have Joan Didion’s The White Album and Han Kang’s The White Book … and soon, I will have your white poems by my side. Why white and what is white to you? What can you say about these new poems?

As you very well stated, white has been written a lot. I was recently reading a book you gave me by Kenya Hara and recently I also discovered a book by Richard England about “white”. And in fact the idea to write about white stemmed from the fact that it has been written a lot, as much as painted and photographed a lot, and so on and so forth. Through these poems I wanted to create a dialogue with what has already been written, to acknowledge white as old as time and write it anew. These poems will be my take on the colour white. The colour white as a constant in my life, as the gift that keeps on giving so to say. It shows in shades of beige between the objects that were significant in my life, it becomes the centre of attention in rooms painted crisp white. I love white shirts and white linen and their appeal to all our senses. And so, through these poems I create a dialogue with past personal experiences and also poetry by other poets such as Doreen Micallef and Immanuel Mifsud. 

White becomes an act in itself but also something else. My white will be accompanied by Giola Cassar’s white through photography and Kenneth Sacco’s white through music and it is fascinating to be able to witness what white means to so many people through so many disciplines. White becomes one and continues to create itself once it reaches an audience.

This project is being funded by Aġenzija Żgħażagħ and a number of youths have already helped us to reveal different facets of the colour white. In this manner, white has already started to happen. We just have to wait and see how it will all come together!

Leanne Ellul will be participating in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed on August 27, 28 at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from showshappening.com. For more information visit www.inizjamed.org

L-Inventarju tal-Kamra l-Kaħla can be bought from www.merlinpublishers.com

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