Afro-Scottish poet Jackie Kay
by Andrew Graham-Yooll
for the Herald
One of the great moments of the annual Buenos Aires Book Fair is when it closed, last Monday. The fuss was over, the crowds gone, and the end offered the chance to look back on what can be retained. It happened that way with the Scottish poet, Jackie Kay, 51, whom the British Council brought to BA for the seventh International Festival of Poetry. The event gathered nearly forty poets from here and elsewhere.
“I grew up fighting against poverty in
tenements, looking into my own city but also looking out at the world. In that way of looking poetry is a way of seeing. It’s a powerful medium because it is one of mass communication. People find it difficult to think of poetry that way.” Her voice has a high pitch, rolled by her Glaswegian accent. Jackie Kay was born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, and was adopted at birth by a Scottish couple. She teaches literature at Edinburgh , is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published five books of poetry, five books for children and three novels. Newcastle University
She probably has something in that bit about mass coms, because at the Book Fair, after she had read the title poem of her latest selection, Darling (2007) a piece, “about a friend of mine who died.” It ends with a line that says, “The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones./ The dead are still here holding our hands.” And wherever she reads that poem people come up, some in tears, and say “thank you for that poem, and they tell me about a person that they have lost.” At the Progreso Market, in Primera Junta, the Spanish translation read by actress Malena Solda, Kay started reading and did a little skip and a jump and morning shoppers and stall keepers crowded around her to listen. Somebody at the back shouted, “Muy bueno”, amid the applause. She has something of an actress in her, very much in the style of the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns. “I could collect a whole book of stories. It may be that in a very short and intense way you can say something that is powerful and it reaches across to people.”
Robert Pinsky, the former
poet laureate, experimented with this a decade ago, when he called on people to express their feelings through poetry after the September 11 bombing. He was overwhelmed by the result which confirmed to him that poetry kept a clear role as a literary channel. “For me, poetry does so many different things at once,” Kay said. “It interacts with the world in so many ways. There is poetry in music, in maths, in science, in the land… Poetry helps us to understand the world we live in, to get to know ourselves. I write to get to know myself and to understand others better. Walt Whitman has an oft-quoted line that says:’ I’m large, I contain multitudes’.” US
Poetry contains multitudes and it is one of the ways to a clear mind. It is a powerful way of bearing witness to things that we are not happy with or feel strongly about. It is also about emotions, “recollected in tranquility”, as William Wordsworth said in his Lyrical Ballads (1800), where we marry experience, the intellect, with the abstract. “We shouldn’t be thinking which of my poems should work here, in this country… One’s poems should automatically work in
wherever they came from. I held a workshop with 160 senior students crammed into the one classroom with a capacity for fifty. Poetry is multilingual if it can communicate in images and pictures.” Buenos Aires
With the talk concentrated on her poetry and her Scottishness, it was time to ask Kay how African she felt?
“I feel a mixture. For a long time in my life I felt I had to choose, African or Scottish. Now that I have reached the ripe age of fifty I feel that I can comfortably and happily be both.” By now she hasn’t much family left in
. “My family is the country. You do not have to be accepted by your father or your mother to have a sense of belonging. I belong to Nigeria though my father disowned me. I realized I did not need him. I describe my arrival at his house in my poem, “Burying my African father”, in the collection, Fiere (2011). I did find my brother, he was wonderful to me. So I have a family connection through him and my friends. At one reading in Nigeria there were four hundred people on their feet and cheering, that kind of thing is quite moving. I am quite naïve, sometimes. I once had to pelt down the corridor to my hotel room, followed by two Nigerian men, one shouting at the other, ‘Get your hands off her, she’s mine.’ It was too much for the honest lesbian.” Nigeria
I told her I felt very Anglo-Argentine: it is a privilege to belong to two cultures.
“Writing poetry makes you ask, not answer questions, but ask. Poems open doors. My aim as a poet is to be good on the page and on stage. I like performing. Some experiences come into my poetry and become part of my performance. For example, during my reading at the Book Fair I told the story that when my son was a little boy he asked me, ‘Mum, why are you always going to Poetry’. He thought Poetry was a place and I got on a bus or a plane and went to a place called Poetry.
could be poetry. Hence it can belong in more than one culture. Poetry is an authentic place and should be seen as such. I don’t like the whiff of the workshop. There is something inherently democratic about poetry, and it should not be rarefied. Real poetry comes from real concerns.” Buenos Aires