Jackie Kay: Acclaimed writer becomes Scotland's new national poet

'Jackie Kay is loved throughout the UK for the warmth and generosity of her work and she will prove an inspired choice as Makar'

Chris Green
Scotland Editor
Tuesday 15 March 2016 18:43
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Jackie Kay, the new Makar
Jackie Kay, the new Makar

Adopted by a communist couple as a baby and brought up in 1960s Glasgow, she has documented her own struggles with selfhood in her writing. Now the acclaimed black writer Jackie Kay is to hold up a mirror to her own country’s identity, after been named as Scotland’s new national poet.

The 54-year-old, who was awarded an MBE for her services to literature in 2006, was announced as Scotland’s new Makar by Nicola Sturgeon and said her aim was “to open up the conversations, the blethers, the arguments and celebrations that Scotland has with itself”.

Although she lives in Manchester, where she and fellow poet Carol Ann Duffy raised two children together during a 15-year relationship, Kay spends half of her time in Glasgow where her adoptive parents still live. In her award-winning memoir Red Dust Road, she described her search for her birth parents, a Nigerian student and a young nurse from the Highlands.

“My mum said to me the other day, ‘Who’d have thought that wee baby we brought home in a basket would end up being the Makar?’ It is like a fairy tale,” Kay said as she accepted the role, which was created in 2004 and has previously been held by the Scottish writers Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead.

Speaking to The Independent later, Kay said she felt “lucky and blessed” to have such supportive parents and expressed a hope that her appointment would be inspirational for other adopted and fostered children. She added that she planned to use the role to read poetry in places where it is usually unheard.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon listens to the new Makar, Jackie Kay, reading a poem at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh

“For every place that you might expect poetry to go, I’d also like to take poetry somewhere unexpected, whether that’s in a prison, an old people’s home or a hospital. Every reading at a festival will be paired with something more intimate,” she said.

The final decision on who should take up the five-year position was made by Ms Sturgeon and three former First Ministers of Scotland: Alex Salmond, Lord McConnell and Henry McLeish. Kay said she would like to embrace the political nature of the Makar’s role by bringing poetry into Holyrood.

“The Scottish Government have appointed their national poet, so I’d like engage with that in a unique and different way,” she said. “I’d like to get different poets in to address Parliament in the form of poems about any issues that they feel are important to them.”

Kay is also planning to launch a national campaign, with the working title “My Scotland”, which will encourage poets and ordinary citizens alike to write a few verses about their vision of their country in their preferred language – from “Gaelic to Glaswegian to Urdu”.

The role will see Kay, who is currently chancellor of Salford University, create new work and promote poetry throughout Scotland and encourage young people to engage with the art form. She will receive a £10,000 annual stipend from the Scottish Government in return for her time.

Making the announcement at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said Kay was a perfect choice for the role as her writing was “poignant and honest” but she also had “a particular Scottish brand of gallus humour”. Her appointment was also welcomed by Duffy, her former partner and the current Poet Laureate.

“This is fabulous news for Scotland and for poetry,” she said. “Jackie Kay is loved throughout the UK for the warmth and generosity of her work and she will prove an inspired choice as Makar.”

Born in Edinburgh in 1961, Kay was adopted by Helen and John Kay, a white couple who brought her up in Bishopbriggs in Glasgow. Her adoptive father worked full time for the Communist Party of Great Britain, while her mother was the Scottish secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. As a teenager, she attended “poems and pints” nights at the Highland Institute on the city’s Sauchiehall Street.

Between the Dee and the Don
by Jackie Kay

I will stand not in the past or in the future
not in the foreground or the background; 
not as the first child or the last child.
I will stand alone in the  middle ground.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I am not a daughter to one father.
I am not a sister to one brother.
I am light and dark.
I am father and mother.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I am not forgiving and I am not cruel.
I will not go against one side.
I am not wise or a fool.
I was not born yesterday.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.
I can say tomorrow is another day tomorrow.
I come from the old world and the new.
I live between laughter and sorrow.
I live between the land and the sea.
I was conceived between the Dee and the Don.
I was born in the city of crag and stone.

Jackie Kay from ‘Fiere’ (London: Picador, 2011)

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