- A chat with Michele Leembruggen
Publishing a book for the first time (at any age) is a nerve-wracking experience, and Michele Leembruggen has published her first book at the age of 74. Michele’s name is well known in English theatre. A singer, actress, and voice artiste, Michele has played major roles in some of Sri Lanka’s biggest productions of the 1970s and 1980s, like Evita and Cats, and was also the Creative Director at some of Sri Lanka’s leading advertising agencies.
Her book, The Fat Lady Sings, is a selection of 25 poems Michele has carefully curated to capture different moments from her life. Published by The Jam Fruit Tree Publications, the book features a broad range of moods and styles and comes beautifully bound in deep purple hardcover. Each poem in the book comes with its own graphic line drawing illustrated by the talented young artist Sasha Pinto-Jayawardena.
Brunch reached out to Michele over the holidays for a chat on her journey, The Fat Lady Sings, and more.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
You’ve been a mainstay in local radio and TV as well as advertising for many decades. What’s your favourite memory from those years, and why?
That’s really hard to answer because the sum of all those parts is beyond computation. I think a couple of recollections from plays and work on radio may suffice, for space and time are limited.
Before there was anything else, there was radio. For me, at any rate. I was fortunate enough to be asked, while still in school, to play a part in various radio plays, and when I left school, various producers would ask me to voice this part or that. I had, by then, voiced innumerable commercials and radio jingles, and those I got paid for. Then I was asked to think of some programmes I would like to do. I opted to do a 15-minute programme of music and a little poetry on a different theme each week. I loved doing that. SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) was wonderful. No one ever interfered or breathed down your neck; they just let you get on with it.
The other programme occupied a half-hour every Saturday. That went on for a couple of years and I enjoyed recording those so much. Every Wednesday, we recorded two programmes of playtime, so I would grab one of my daughters’ storybooks and head to the studios. For an hour and a half, or thereabouts, I would be very happily engaged, reading some fantastical tale involving several people, talking animals – all featured in what was called “a dramatised reading”. Once, in the middle of a story, I glanced up, and there was Livy Wijemanne, a formidable broadcaster and Director General of SLBC at that time. He had come to see what I was doing.
Another time, I sensed movement on the periphery of my vision and realised that the control cubicle was jammed tight with two saree-clad ladies and an impossible number of girls of assorted sizes in uniform, all of them just beaming at me. I managed to go back to my delivery after a swift look and when I came to the end of the tale and sat back, they all clapped, enthusiastically. I couldn’t hear the applause (the studio doors are extra thick), but I could see they meant it.
Where plays are concerned, I have to mention Evita, which I have singled out before because that role combined singing and acting, and the musical covered a short period of Eva Peron’s short life and it is action, action, action – until her relatively sudden demise. I would be lying there, in that big antique bed, feeling tired and peaceful, and mostly satisfied.
Another memory which I summon up often, although bittersweet, is that of An Evening with Chekhov, which Graham Hatch and I did with Richard De Zoysa. It featured three of (Anton) Chekhov’s short plays and one of Neil Simon’s which he wrote in the style of Chekhov. We opened with a monologue of Smoking Is Bad For You, followed by The Bear, Neil Simon’s Seduction, and then The Proposal to end it.
What got you into writing poetry? What makes writing poetry so powerful to you?
I must have been eight or nine when I began writing the odd story and poem. I had an old, unused exercise book and I would write my poems in that. I didn’t show them to anybody.
I found words fascinating. I found poetry exciting, moving, and transporting. As an only child, I spent a fair amount of time by myself. I read hungrily, very fast, and I remember the moment I could read fluently, I just didn’t want to be read to anymore.
Why choose ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ as the name for your book?
Well, I have been fat since I was 40 and am likely to remain so. I have heard myself described as “that fair, fat lady with light hair” often enough. I know that those who love me often see other, more attractive characteristics, but to the world at large, I will always be, I think, the “fat lady”.
And it is the fat lady who sings last, isn’t it? So, when publishing some of my poems at the ripe age of 74, doesn’t it follow that I should gleefully seize on that title?
Which poem in ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ is most personal to you, and why?
They are all personal; some are more intimate (“Percussion”, “Main Force”) and they all describe a moment or a memory, or make an observation about someone or something very personal to me.
You’ve published your first book at age 74. How does it feel to see your work out there? Does it feel different from your other creative work?
Does it make a difference to see my book in print? Of course. Holding The Fat Lady Sings in my hands, at last, experiencing my production choices made manifest – the silky purple cover, thick white pages, seeing the line drawings, the poems themselves set in 11 point Optima…oh yes, it is a big thrill. Unlike what I have done on stage or radio and advertising, all of which are soon forgotten, this is printed, so presumably it has more life.
As a copywriter and creative director who has worked on many different kinds of writing, what is your perspective on the difference between writing poetry versus other forms of creative writing? Do you find one easier than the other?
Writing for work and writing because one has to express something – those are two different things entirely. I wrote very little poetry while I was a copywriter, because I had to write and write and write every day and I was sort of tired of writing by the end of it, and I wanted to do something else!
When writing a copy, you are selling an idea; you have to write to requirements and very often to please the client because he/she isn’t going to accept some campaign or copy you like! The only test of good copy is time and how many people respond to what you have written. Poetry is very rarely a doddle; sometimes it is difficult, very difficult, and you have to pull it out of yourself. The good thing about poetry perhaps is that you have only yourself to please.
Michele Leembruggen’s The Fat Lady Sings is available for purchase through The Jam Fruit Tree Publications.