Leanne Ellul | Stripped bare in the blue room

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Leanne Ellul about her latest poetry collection, ‘l-inventarju tal-kamra l-kaħla’, a playful but deeply introspective dive through the corners and corridors of the psyche

Leanne Ellul
Leanne Ellul

This is your debut collection of published poetry but of course, it hardly represents your first stab at the genre, or indeed writing itself. Which aspect of your work would you say the collected poems of this volume represent?

I have been writing since I was 13 years old. At first, of course, I wrote a couple of verses peppered with a lot of rhyme. I experimented with the genre. I can hardly call what I wrote when I was so young, poetry. I experimented with other genres too in fact. I wrote a novel and stories for children, and still do. These works may have poetic aspects to them as well. But they are not as brutally blunt as these poems.

Poetry (in the various forms it took/takes) is what remained constant in my life. Poetry is what I return to over and over again.

I have had poems presented during events and published in websites, magazines and anthologies. Those poems are not included in this collection.

Most of the poems in this collection have been written in the last three years. I reread them and rewrote them and saw a pattern that brought them together. I have always said I will publish my (first) poetry book when I’m thirty. I don’t know why 30 was so crucial to me (I guess I always thought that being 30 means being mature?) Despite all odds, I did publish my first poetry book at thirty one minus a couple of months.

This volume of poems represents my concerns and fears. The things I fall in love with and the things I despise. It presents objects that have a special meaning, objects that shape who I am. Dare I say, these poems are a little bit too much of myself. They are a sneak peek of what I think of and how I react and engage with the world around me. They are observations, the way I digest the world, the way I’d rather see it and sometimes escape from it all.

When I started to write these poems I also had just moved away to live on my own – a bold move that gave me time and space to think more, to define myself even more.

The image of the ‘blue room’, and the compartmentalising of the poems in alphabetical order, is a strong and defining motif of the collection. What led to this stylistic decision, and how do you think it bolsters and props up the poems themselves?

First of all, this book is not about the blue room at the White House. Neither is related to Hanne Ørstavik’s blue room (although that book has stayed with me). After I wrote the poems, I had lengthy discussions with [fellow writers] Glen Calleja and Clare Azzopardi. I remember us discussing in particular the images and the intertextuality in these poems; their texture. With Glen I discussed at length what is the adhering factor of these poems. What is the binding element? I kept asking myself. What makes them come together as one collection? How are they able to live together?

That is when we discussed the idea of a dictionary, of an alphabetical order that gives a structure and shape to these poems (also given that I am a bit obsessed with the letters and words). Truth be told, I wrote the collection with another title in mind and it was anything but easy to let go of it. But after a lot of to and fro with publisher Chris Gruppetta, we decided that it had to be the blue room.

The blue room is my observations, my commentary. It represents a space where all these objects (physical, but not just) live together to form the bigger picture. It is a depository, a collection, a catalogue. It is a point of reference. Every now and again, I create and recreate this room. It is ever changing.

This room is also what preserves things, a memory, an act to remember. Each time the poems are read out loud, new life is breathed into them, I feel.

Speaking of breathing, negative space on a page is as important as the space the words occupy on the page. Most of the time we try to cram everything, to overfill stuff, to pack as much as we can. This room is not about filling each and every space to the brim. I think there is a lot of value in space, in nothingness (which can also be something), in white blanks and gaps.

Who are some of the Maltese poets – both contemporary and otherwise – whom you look up to, and how do they inform your work? Are you also trying to fill certain ‘gaps’ that you see in the literary scene with your work?

Three poets that I look up to a lot are Glen Calleja, Caldon Mercieca and Adrian Grima. I love Glen Calleja and Caldon Mericeca’s work because it is always novel and fresh. They are the true definition of wordsmiths. They mould and shape their words in ways one would not even imagine.

The same can be said for Adrian Grima who has a way with the words, who flirts with the words and makes them his. Needless to say, I also read closely the work of my contemporary female poets (sometimes I also have the privilege to read the work before it is published). It is very tricky to pinpoint poets because I love different poets for the different techniques and styles they use. But the ones I mentioned, I feel, are the Maltese poets that influenced me in my writing the most.

With regards to filling the ‘gaps’, I write what I like to write, the way I know how to write it. I do not write to fill gaps or to please an audience. If my work is different or if it is filling a gap, that’s good. But that’s because I am always finding new ways of how to play with words. I see the world through language in all its potential.

It is always a question of how, rather than what. Sometimes, the most beautiful poems are those written with the simplest of words. It is a question of how you place each word after another. Or how you break the rhythms we are accustomed to.

A lot of the poems in the collection are deeply heartfelt and personal, even if the framing device may take on a playful tint. How challenging was it to delve deep and explore these more difficult and intimate subjects in your poetry?

Poetry strips you bare. Each time I publish a book for teens/adults I always say to myself ‘what have I done?’ Because if you are true to what you write, if your writing is raw and sincere, then there is always yourself in your writing. Be it something that you went through, something that you think about or something that you dislike. Poetry, then, I feel, is more and more intimate than other genres because it is concentrated, it is an essence. What one might say in a two-hundred page novel, can be said in a couple of verses.

So most of these poems… yes, they are very personal. I remember when I wrote them and why I wrote them. I remember what they used to be and what they transformed into later on. But then again, there are some poems whose origins I’ve forgotten. It was also the time for this publication to come out; now I can move on to write other works.

What do you make of the Maltese literary scene? What would you change about it?

We need literary editors. We need more bookshops. We need better libraries. We need good reviewers and reviews. We need more literary magazines. We need spoken word poets. We need more works that deal with contemporary politics. We need more 2-in-1 coffee and bookshops. We need more books everywhere. We need people to read. We need diversity and representation. We need more translation to Maltese and from Maltese. We need poetry to be desired and not frowned upon.

So yes, I would change a lot of things.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way. The open mics have taken over the islands, Inizjamed’s Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival remains an annual event audiences return to again and again, the work HELA (Hub for Excellence in the Literary Arts) is doing is priceless and a publishing house like Merlin Publishers keeps on publishing books that are a things of beauty.

A lot of youths are trying their hand at writing and succeeding at it too. A number of book clubs seem to be thriving too. And here I am taking the risk of mentioning just a few good initiatives and circumstances over these past few years.

But still, there are a lot of things left to be desired.

I always think of Iceland. And make a wish (or loads of them) upon a star.

What’s next for you?

Currently I am preparing for the next scholastic year, as I teach 6th form students. Having said this, I am finalising a study guide for post-secondary students about the short stories of Trevor Żahra. In the coming months, four new poems of mine will be published in an anthology entitled Tgħanniq Ieħor: Poeżiji mill-Iżolament. I am also writing another set of poems which will be part of an interdisciplinary project. My second novel is always on mind too, together with other stories for kids and translations which are in the pipeline. Never a dull moment!

l-inventarju tal-kamra l-kaħla is published by Merlin Publishers