Strength in Difference: Jackie Kay
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. 3.15, Tues. 21st August 2018
I have encountered a major problem with the Book Festival – I have run out of superlatives. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been to a bum event yet. This year I’ve seen the Poet Laureate AND the Makar, and poetry-wise it doesn’t get much better than that. So I’m at a loss as to how to make this review different. I could try to write it in Scots of course – I ken wir ain leid weel eneuch – or at least code-switch between Scots and review-ese the way Jackie does between Scots and a more standard English.*
This event took place in the main theatre and it was packed, as you would expect for such a consistently popular figure at the Festival. The format was simple: after a few opening remarks from journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart, Jackie read poems from her new book Bantam, after which Ruth conducted a brief interview, moderated some questions from the body o’ the kirk, and the event finished with a couple more poems. All standard fare. “There’s a public health warning involved here,” quipped Ruth, “listening to Jackie read her own poetry can seriously damage your tear ducts.” Aye, well, maybe, but mainly from tears of laughter, and gentle ones at that, but nothing more. Jackie may have “one of the most infectious giggles in the business” (another of Ruth’s quips), but what really marks her poetry is its accessibility. That, let’s face it, is what the job of Makar is all about. The poetry is never facile, it can rhyme and it can rhythm with the best of them, but it never becomes a jingle of doggerel or a cut-up grocery list of prose. And it can make us chuckle, chuckle with recognition as a childhood memory or the pen-portrait of a parent or grandparent chimes or parallels one of our own, and does so without losing the signature of Jackie herself. I mean – who else could make us smile by re-telling the story of an eleven-year-old experiencing her first period whilst on a family holiday in Avielochan?
Jackie’s poetry is so direct, so clear, so personal, that she has to remind us that it’s dangerous to assume that every poem is autobiographical. As most poets do, Jackie constructs a ‘voice’ for each poem; many may be a version of her own, but some are not. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, I know we’re savvy to this truth of poetry-making, but if Jackie feels it worth reinforcing, then I’m with her. Her speaking voice, her delivery, is another matter; a major part of her directness, her ability to connect with an audience, has to do with its liquid, modulated treble, its inflections, its rise and fall. Sometimes she teases, almost like a stand-up comic, but without a comic’s abrasiveness, and it’s not us but herself she’s teasing: “… a packed tent… on a weekday afternoon… did you not have anywhere better to go?” And sometimes it is us: “… there’s a lot of old Scots words in this poem that some people might not understand… but that’s life.” The Scots words, the holiday locations of Ardtornish, Avielochan, and Rannoch Moor – no, we had no trouble with any of that.
Some of Jackie’s material today was on politically safe ground. A poem with an anti-Brexit flavour to it, poking fun at Nigel Farage, works well in overwhelmingly pro-Remain Écosse – yes, this dichotomy with Brexitshire is still hanging around up here – after all, she does not have to pander to anyone else in Britain, her manor is north of the Tweed-Solway line, even though she now actually lives south of it. Part of the discussion between Ruth and Jackie touched on a statement by Ali Smith (who was in the audience) to the effect that all art is political. “I think if you say something’s not political,” said Jackie, “it then becomes political… the act of doing something non-political is political,” freely admitting that this was a conundrum. There is a difference between ‘political’ and ‘polemical’, and it’s safe to say that Jackie’s material is not the latter. This is, of course, despite the lifelong communist radicalism of her Glaswegian adoptive mother and father – Ruth queried whether, to a child, the role of a ‘Party Organiser’ must have sounded like a grand job, a matter of blowing up balloons and putting sausages on little sticks. Jackie’s parents are now quite elderly, and she treated us to an impersonation of her father asking how long her term in office was and, when being told it was five years, saying briskly, “Oh well, we’ll just have tae see oot yer term in office, then!”
There was only one awkward moment in during the event, which came when a questioner referred to the audience, and to poetry’s usual comsumer-base, as ‘middle-class’. Several people reacted to that, and Jackie herself reminded the questioner that it was her task as Makar to contact and connect with all kinds of people within Scotland, irrespective of class. The questioner was made to feel a wee bittie abashed, and that left me sitting there contemplating the fact that I too had often (but silently) made the same observation about my fellow Book-Festival-goers. I think we are, by and large, of that particular social bracket, but for some reason we don’t like to be reminded of the word ‘class’.
Anyway, as regards hearing from Jackie, chuckling with her, and listening to some of those familiarly friendly poems from Bantam, the hour passed by in a blink, and I could have done with another hour. Like I said, I’ve put in an order for a fresh supply of superlatives.
*Don’t get me started on the status of Scots, or we’ll be here for the next month.