Image: Scotland’s new Makar by First Minister of Scotland, under a Creative Commons licence
We had the pleasure of sitting with Jackie Kay last week while she decided on the poem she would read after the announcement of her appointment as Makar. She’d narrowed it down to three: ‘Yell Sound’, from Red, Cherry Red, ‘Between the Don and the Dee’ from Fiere and ‘A Lang Promise’ from her latest poetry collection, The Empathetic Store (a Mariscat pamphlet). The first is in the voice of an older woman looking back to the young girl she once was; the second stakes out a middle ground of rich experience; the third is a love poem in Scots. The three of us listening agreed that ‘Between the Don and the Dee’ seemed just right for someone who was going to be the National Poet for Scotland.
Here is a woman of Scottish-Nigerian parentage (‘I am light and dark’), born in Edinburgh, raised in Glasgow by her much-loved and often evoked Communist adoptive parents, who turned to writing poetry in her slow convalescence from an accident. Here is a gay woman who understands fluid identities (‘I am father and mother’); her novel Trumpet, about the fictional transgender jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, has just been reissued as a Vintage Classic. Here is a human being who understands that living is mostly ‘between laughter and sorrow’.
I have sat beside Jackie at signings at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where the queue is very long and each person seems to feel a personal relationship to what they have heard her read and talk about: adoption, mixed parentage, being gay, being a mother, having ageing parents… Those readings have 500 people rocking with laughter (have you heard one of the Maw Broon monologues?), and sometimes in tears. The Adoption Papers, her first collection published in 1991, won a Forward Prize and showed strengths that have remained constant: a keen sense of socio-political realities combined with a deep faith in the transformative powers of human love.
Her predecessor, Liz Lochhead, writes:
All over the UK and much further afield, both nationally and internationally, Jackie is such a well-loved and widely celebrated writer – of fiction and memoir and theatre as well as of pure and direct poetry which touches the heart – that she is bound to be a very, very popular choice indeed. I only hope she enjoys the next five years, and gets as much out of them, as I did.
Here at the Scottish Poetry Library, where the announcement of her appointment was made by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on 15 March, we are delighted to be offering a virtual home and real support for the new Makar as she begins her five-year tenure. As the UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, says: ‘This is fabulous news for Scotland and for poetry. Jackie Kay is loved throughout the UK for the warmth and generosity of her work and she will prove an inspired choice as Makar.’