Jamie was born on 13 May 1962 in Renfrewshire, and describes herself as Scottish ‘by latitude’. Her family moved to Currie, just outside Edinburgh, when she was young, her father working as an accountant and her mother in a solicitor’s office, and she began writing poetry when she was a teenager. Jamie’s school career was marked by a feeling of entrapment, a lack of opportunity. She describes her decision to become a writer as ‘a negative decision’, a reaction against the prospect of a life working in an office job.
While she was at the University of Edinburgh reading for a degree in philosophy, her poetry attracted the attention of Douglas Dunn, who noticed what he has called Jamie’s ‘innocent eye’. Her ability to engage with the natural world, her wit and her inventiveness quickly marked her out as a prodigious talent. She received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 1981. This recognition was followed by the release of her first collection, Black Spiders, in 1982, when she was just twenty. In an interview in 2004, Jamie said
To an extent, I can’t recognise the writer I was 20 years ago. I sometimes fret that I can’t detect a governing intelligence running through the work. But you’ve got to keep listening, to keep true to it… if I had my time again I’d like to arrive with a splash at the age of 30. (Daily Telegraph, 21 November).
Black Spiders explores various worlds, from female communities (nuns, women in Jerusalem) to groups of performers rehearsing in a Paris graveyard. There is already a sense of unwavering attention to people and things, and of her passion for faraway places.
Jamie’s next project was a poetic travelogue, The Golden Peak (this was updated and reissued as Among Muslims in 2002). Then came The Autonomous Region, in collaboration with photographer Sean Mayne Smith, documenting Jamie’s time in China. She combines her own wanderings and experiences with tales of two historical characters she ‘discovered’ on her journey: Princess Wen Cheng, a sixth-century Buddhist pioneer, and Fa-hsein, a fourth-century Chinese monk. Curious and empathetic, these travelogues reflect Jamie’s desire to assimilate to a culture, brushing aside what she refers to as ‘Western baggage’, and choosing instead to focus on ‘loads of different people, different women, cultures and classes, different language-groups, different ethnic groups’, as she says in an interview in The Scottish Book Collector in 1992. Despite her enthusiasm for other cultures and her skill in portraying them, Jamie’s travelling days may be behind her: she has commented that she is now ‘seriously, seriously concerned about flying for environmental reasons’(Guardian profile, 18 June 2005).
It is possible to chart Jamie’s development as a poet through her engagement with various themes. In her collections The Way We Live (1987) and The Queen of Sheba (1994) the reader is alerted to Jamie’s status as a ‘woman poet’ and a ‘Scottish poet’. Jamie often expresses her discomfort with such ‘tribal’ labels, and the feeling of writing in a voice which operates on behalf of a group of people. It is unsurprising then, that these themes are addressed and then sloughed.
I started writing at the time of the first Devolution Bill – which failed – and in the following decade or 15 years Scottish nationhood and cultural identity, and women’s identity, were the issues. So I grew up in that atmosphere and it determined what I wrote. I’ve done all that, now. I’m very glad to have got it off my desk. (Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2004)
Themes of female power and entrapment are found in poems such as ‘School Reunion’, where women with whom Jamie went to school are celebrating, without irony, the stagnant state of their lives:
who work in banks are dancing, handbags
piled like ashes at their feet.
For Jamie, the handbags are remains, symbols of girlhood aspirations perhaps, or of female status. There is certainly a sense of pagan sacrifice in this image of women dancing in ashes. Indeed, as Raymond Friel noted in his review in Southfields, one of Jamie’s primary themes in The Queen of Sheba can be summed up with a line from ‘School Reunion’: ‘women beware gravity’. Throughout the collection, women must resist this inevitable downward pull that questions ‘whae dae ye think ye ur?’. There is an answer sometimes – the maenadic chorus of a ‘thousand laughing girls’ who shout out that iconic retort ‘The Queen of Sheba!’
In ‘Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead’, a dump on the outskirts of a town is home to relics from a life lived quietly. A lower-middle class couple’s detritus (a ‘shaving brush’ a ‘button tin’) form a testament to Scottish identity. The poem asks whether or not to conserve these items: ‘Do we take them? Before the bulldozer comes /to make more room, to shove aside ?’ Christopher Whyte, in Modern Scottish Poetry, proposes that the answer is a ‘kind of sedimenting’, an accretion of casual remains that the reader too will contribute towards eventually. It is, he says, a surprisingly stable vision of stability within change.
Jamie has continued to use Scots in her poetry, and does not limit it to poems that are ‘Scottish’ in theme. She remarked in an interview with Lilias Fraser ‘it seems to come with a little political baggage attached. A Tartan suitcase!… you use it… because it can do a job that standard English can’t do, reach parts that language cannot reach’ (Scottish Studies Review, Spring 2001).
In ‘Xhiae’, for example, the rural community is wild and remote, suited to the timbre of Scots she uses to describe it. The title of Jizzen (1999) is the Scots word for ‘childbed’, and here Jamie uses Scots tenderly in domestic settings. By then she was married to the cabinet-maker Phil Butler, had two children, and was settled in Fife.
Jizzen marked Jamie’s change of publisher from Bloodaxe to Picador. Throughout her career, Jamie has held several writer-in-residence posts, including one at the University of Dundee, and from 1999 taught creative writing in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. Other poets of the ‘New Generation’ were also teaching at St Andrews: Burnside, Crawford and Paterson.
Writing was necessary to me, and I published young, but for years I felt almost ashamed to be making a spectacle of myself. Ashamed that I had a talent or speciality which others didn’t. A very Scottish cringe! I was well into my thirties, had already published two or three books when a new friend (the poet Don Paterson, now my editor) took me by the shoulders and shook me. He said ‘talent is a responsibility, not an unearned privilege.’ He meant I had a duty to develop it, push it. Before that I’d felt a bit like a charity case, humiliated by the special pleading required. (British Council, Crossing Borders website)
Jamie’s thematic focus shifted: ‘it takes… much more courage than it takes to talk about being a woman poet or a Scottish poet to say, I’d like to work my way back into some idea of what is true and sanctified, or sanctifiable’(Scottish Studies interview). Her keen interest in the natural world moved to the fore in The Tree House (2004), which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and her book of essays, Findings (2005). She also worked closely with the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Minimising the human ‘voices’ and focusing instead on the landscape and its inhabitants, Jamie produces a poetry of acute observation and spare language, as in ‘Gloaming’: ‘We are flying, this summer’s night, toward a brink, a wire-thin / rim of light.’
With regard to the common counsel that poets are offered, ‘that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice’, Jamie commented in the Guardian profile that as she gets older, she thinks ‘it’s not about voice, it’s about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention. I don’t just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world. The writers I like best are those who attend’. She herself has become one of those writers. This attention is not religious, but Jamie has noted with amused approval the critic who commented on the elements of Presbyterianism and Tao in her work. As Lavinia Greenlaw said, when announcing the Forward Prize, The Tree House ‘stood out as a book which enlarges not only Kathleen Jamie’s own oeuvre but the scope and capacity of poetry being written today.’
Image © Eamonn McCabe