Mitchell Library, 17th March
Laughter bounces among the audience in the Mitchell Library’s main auditorium, from Jackie Kay’s beautiful presence on the stage towards us, and from our “shiny, clever, clean faces” (Jackie’s words, not mine) back to her and to each other. This laughter is enticed by Jackie’s stories, friendly audience interaction, and most importantly her poetry, such as the fantastic ‘Caravan, Avielochan’ which unexpectedly tells about periods, pubic hair and kissing a girl at 11.
Perhaps I should call our Scots Makar by her surname, but she is so personal when reading poetry from her new collection ‘Bantam’ that I think saying Jackie fits better. ‘Bantam’ is the first collection since Jackie Kay became the Scottish national poet in 2016. The poems in this collection are about a fighting spirit, which we need now more than ever, according to Jackie, because of the perplexing times we live in. Since poetry expresses things in different voices, people come to it in times of crisis or need. Similarly, poetry can be a tool to connect people, because it has relations with many different areas of life. As Scots Makar, for example, Jackie has had to write poems related to ballet, football, science and the new Queensferry Crossing. While there is still reason for hope, she acknowledges that big political events such as Trump’s election (which actually happened on Jackie’s birthday – that was “a bit of a bummer, as you can imagine”) can make us lose our fighting spirit. Fortunately, there is her poetry to bring it back.
However, most of the poems Jackie reads this Saturday afternoon tell personal rather than political stories. She chooses one about her mother in hospital, and the memories of her father held by the landscape of the Rannoch moor even years after he is gone. A theme that keeps popping up is the importance of stories, of bodies with a story inside them, and of passing stories down. “If you’re adopted, you’re already a story,” she says, before she tells of making up the story of her birthfather, of what he was like and what he looked like. It’s quite painful if the story you have made up turns out to be better than reality.
While the story of meeting her birthfather in Nigeria, which you can read about in Jackie’s memoir Red Dust Road, is sad, it also gives rise to the appearance of an unexpected side of her. As it turns out, Jackie always wanted to be an actress when growing up, but never got any roles because she was “the wrong colour”. Yet she is still very interested in voice, the way people speak and the phrases they like to repeat. And she has a great comic talent for duplicating them, as she does with the speech of her birthfather. Speaking in a Nigerian accent, with his specific intonations, she is like a different person.
In short, Jackie Kay’s poems in Bantam are as personal as they are universal, celebrating Scotland and Scots phrases, enriched by a beautiful sing-song quality. Her poetry is just as impressive as Jackie as a person – honest, optimistic, open and full of life.