Jackie Kay: Scotland's new Makar - standing up for poetry

Jackie Kay spoke at the Aye Write Festival on the day she was named Makar, writes Anni Donaldson

JACKIE KAY'S appearance at Aye Write on the day she was named as Scotland's new Makar was a double treat for those in the packed main hall of Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre - "a big audience for a Tuesday night!"

"Spun oot and rattling", her long day began at 8.30am in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh where she received her appointment of Scotland's National Poet from Scotland's first minister. A beaming Kay was clearly enjoying herself hugely in the presence of her beloved family and friends as she savoured her moment of triumph and reflected on her early life growing up in Bishopbriggs as "a little black girl in a very white country".

Treating us to her first reading as the new Scottish Makar, Kay rose to her feet, delighted at the "lovely wee audience and their lovely wee hush of expectation not that different from sex" and honoured her beloved art form with the cry: "Stand up when you read poetry!"

Treating us to her first reading as the new Scottish Makar, Kay rose to her feet, delighted at the "lovely wee audience and their lovely wee hush of expectation not that different from sex".

Reading Lochaline Stores, her homage to the rural general store, she was delighted to note that on a recent return visit she saw the store had a laminated copy of the poem pinned to the door.

"Not so much poet laureate Jackie," her father had wryly remarked, "more poet laminate!"

Kay's parents, her mum with the covetable 'poppy-red zimmer' and her Dad with the red scarf down in the front row, have much to be proud of in their daughter who in turn paid loving tribute to them in her poem April Spring - reminding us of the debt we owe this principled leftwing wartime generation, politically active pacifists all who shaped post-war society, supported the arts and dreamed so much for their children.

In performance, Kay flips easily between banter and poetry, anecdote and ideology, effortlessly criss-crossing life and art, her bilingual fluency floating in and out of Scots and English - this poet easily worked the crowd.

Our Makar in full cheery flow treated her audience to selections from her considerable body of work and revisited the moving and at times darkly comic turns in the newly republished Trumpet - her first novel - and its still all too contemporary themes of gender, identity and loss.

"There's no such thing as 'not political'. Being non-political doesn't exist. Even if you say that you are being political. Most writers are political beings."

Kay was unequivocal when asked by Rosemary Goring, chairing the event, whether poets should be non-political: "There's no such thing as 'not political'. Being non-political doesn't exist. Even if you say that you are being political. Most writers are political beings."

Kay dreams of a regular Poets' Day in the Scottish Parliament when politicians are quiet and Scotland's poets, its "unacknowledged legislators" have the floor. The "wee job description" for the Makar requires six readings a year and she will not be attempting to match the previous incumbent Liz Lochhead's staggering tally of 300.

Her vision is to move beyond events; to represent Scotland through poetry in unexpected and surprising places - prisons, hospitals, refugee centres; to reach out to children and young people and those facing difficult times; to bring poetry in from the margins into the centre of Scotland's national conversation - to make it once more "part of the blethers".

Kay dreams of a regular Poets' Day in the Scottish Parliament when politicians are quiet and Scotland's poets, its "unacknowledged legislators" have the floor.

Kay seems never to tire of returning to the enduring themes of love, family, identity and loss. Like a spring garden dug over each coming year, she will see new flowers bloom around these hardy annuals.

Scotland should be thrilled that this extraordinary artist, this gallus, warm and genuinely funny woman will be our poetry champion and we can look forward to her gifts of poetry brightening our lives.

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Picture courtesy of Anni Donaldson