• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024
Jackie Kay smiling, her hand beneath her chin

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Jackie Kay – acclaimed Scottish free verse poet, political activist, and former Makar (national poet for Scotland) – returned to Edinburgh this weekend for an appearance at the International Book Festival (EIBF). As one of the festival’s opening speakers, she had the privilege of a bright-eyed audience: a privilege she used to premiere her upcoming collection, A Life In Protest.

Kay is no stranger to Edinburgh. Though raised by adoptive parents in Bishopbriggs, she was born in the city in 1961 and premiered a stage adaptation of her 2010 memoir, Red Dust Road, at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2019. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood appointed her Makar in 2016, succeeding Liz Lochhead in the role.

When she stood up to read from her new collection, all shyness faded away. She was very witty and casual, as though her reading to the audience of several hundred were just a conversation held on the bus.

Reading from a stack of papers, she began with the titular long poem from her collection, A Life in Protest. There was no dramatic pause nor shift in tone between her preceding monologue and the recital: as though poetry is just part of Kay’s everyday speech, another form of anecdote.

Fittingly, A Life in Protest was a technically straightforward narrative poem recounting protests and political unrest throughout Kay’s life. In reading free verse, Kay had a constant see-saw rhythm which could at times become repetitive or stilted but allowed for the audience to capture every word. She later stated she avoids dramatic or emotive performances for that reason; important, as Kay’s bold messages are everlasting.

A Life in Protest read as a diary, each stanza corresponding to a different event in Kay’s life in chronological order: from CND protests when she was a baby, to Pride marches, anti-Apartheid rallies, and Black Lives Matter. 

One stanza struck me in particular: one on anti-violence against women events Kay attended in the 1980s, in response to the Yorkshire Ripper and police inaction. 40 years later, many of the struggles Kay recalls in her poetry continue: racism, misogyny, classism and homophobia.

Kay’s parents passed away in 2019 and 2020 at the ages of 94 and 90 respectively. Though not explicit in any of the poems she read, her loss informs the whole collection. Her connection to her adoptive mother, Helen, appeared strongest as she told anecdotes between poems, seamlessly impersonating her by putting on a thicker Glaswegian accent. Helen’s dry, black sense of humour is something Kay’s inherited, perhaps leading her to A Life of Protest’s solution: “one of the things that gets you through grief is humour.”

Despite the grave subject matters of her poetry, each interlude was punctuated by heavy laughter from the audience, and the smile never left her face. Moreover, each poem on protest and grief, exemplified by one recounting of a Nina Simone concert, has an almost comical juxtaposition throughout: contrasting words of violence, anger, and heartbreak, with mundane scenes from everyday life.  Kay described her personal journey, from first becoming involved in black feminist activism in London after graduating, as herself “learning to laugh again.”

The finishing Q&A section opened the floor to questions about Kay’s relationship with Scotland. The poet said she found it alienating having “no black friends” growing up. Her older brother, also mixed-race, refused to call himself “black” because he saw it at odds with being ‘Scottish’. Jackie found her identity difficult too, until an eye-opening meeting in her youth with Audre Lorde, US mother of intersectional literature. Lorde told her, “You know Jackie, you can be black and Scottish—you don’t have to choose.”

Asked how she’s felt as a pioneer for Scottish people of colour in the arts, Kay answered, “Scotland, has changed a lot [in my lifetime], particularly if you’re black and Scottish.” She signalled her appointment as the first black Makar, vis-à-vis “England” (the UK)’s poet laureate which has only had one woman and no people of colour in the post in its 350-year history, as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, and fitting with the cyclical struggles in her collection, Kay said she still gets profiled as African-American by white Scots as the Scottish norm remains white. While commending efforts to critically analyse Scotland’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, she argued much more needed to be done, pointing out the uneasy truth that many University of Edinburgh buildings were raised on slave trader money.

I got the chance to ask Kay if her method of writing poems has changed. She responded that unlike many, she still writes poems by hand, drafting them about 12 times before digitalising the final copy. She made the interesting point that autocorrect, Word spellcheckers and Grammarly might work for prose, but tend to hamper the natural sounds of poetry. While she doesn’t write every day, she’s always thinking and observing, saying that as a writer, “you’re kind of a spy”.

The one-hour event ended with Kay making one final joke, reading one final poem, and bowing herself off stage to cheers and applause. The lights came back on, and despite the gravity of all that had been said, the veterans of life that came to hear her speak filed out with smiles on their faces.

Image “Paisley Book Festival – Jackie Kay 03” by byronv2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.