Jackie Kay appointed new Scots Makar

EDINBURGH-BORN poet Jackie Kay was today appointed the new Scots Makar - 25 years after her first collection was published.

Tuesday, 15th March 2016, 9:25 am
Updated Tuesday, 15th March 2016, 11:28 am
Scots author and poet Jackie Kay. Picture: Jane Barlow

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the 54-year-old as the successor to Liz Lochhead, who has held the post for the past five years, as the new national poet.

Although she has been appointed by the Scottish Government, her “unanimous” selection for the role was made by Ms Sturgeon and former First Ministers Alex Salmond, Henry McLeish and Lord McConnell.

Kay - who was born in the capital in 1961 to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father - currently splits her time between Glasgow, where she was brought up, and her Manchester, where she has a home and is also chancellor of Salford University. She is also a professor of creative writing at Newcastle University.

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The new Makar, who pledged to address issues of national identity in the role, said she already spent “at least half” of her time in Scotland and said she felt living over the border would give her an advantage in the role.

She said: “If you are a poet, you need to look inward, but you also need to look outward. I think being Scottish does not stop at the border. There are Scottish people living all over the world. That doesn’t make them any less Scottish.

“I think it’s important to actually think ‘what does being Scottish mean?’ Does it mean having your postal address in Scotland all the time or does it mean something else and deeper?”

Kay’s first collection, The Adoption Papers, was inspired by her experience of being adopted by and growing up with a white family in Glasgow, where her parents live.

Published in 1991, it was named Scotland’s best first book, while Kay would go on to be awarded the MBE 10 years ago for services to literature.

Red Dust Road, Kay’s memoir about the search for her natural parents, was named Scottish book of the year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival five years ago.

Kay described the appointment in her home city as “a little like a fairytale” and said she was honoured to be following in the footsteps of Lochhead and the first Makar, the late Edwin Morgan, who passed away in 2010.

She said: “I only hope I can do my country proud and do them proud.

“It’s a really wonderful day for me and my family. My mum said to me the other day: ‘Who would have thought that that wee baby that we brought home in a basket would go on to be the Makar.

“You always have to weigh things up when you are asked to do massive jobs and have to think: ‘can I do this and am I the right person?’

“But I decided it was almost like destiny and that I couldn’t turn my back on such a great honour. It felt like the right time.

“Having a national role like this is not really about me, it’s about what you can actually do. To me, that is very exciting.

“Every Makar must shape the role for themselves. There’s not a list of things that must do. You’re expected to engage with young and old people across Scotland, and outside of Scotland, and be an ambassador for poetry.

“It is a live, wonderful art form, but sometimes it can be sidelined. My role as Makar will be to find all the different ways in which poetry can occupy the centre stage and be a real player.

Lochhead’s tenure had become embroiled in controversy in the wake of the independence referendum, when she was unveiled by the SNP as a new member.

Kay, who praised the Scottish Government as “amazing” after her unveiling by Ms Sturgeon, insisted the post of Makar was not a political role and was free from any “manipulation.”

However the writer insisted she would not steer clear of creating work that tackled modern-day politics and raised the prospect of poets coming into the Scottish Parliament to deliver their own verdicts in verse.

She added: “I’m a poet, not a pundit or a politician, but at the same time we live in a very political world. People that say ‘I am not political’ are naive, because they are still making a political statement of some sort.

“Poetry has an extraordinary role to make a difference in the world. In these troubled times that we live in poetry can lend a hand, it can be a player.

“I’m looking forward to looking at all of the different ways that we can use poetry to develop Scotland’s conversation, not just with itself, but also with the rest of the world.

“It seems to me that it is a very exciting time to be in Scotland at the moment under this particular government, which is kind of amazing.

“Scotland has shown that it can be a player on the world stage and has shown the world that it can do different things. I’m really looking forward to engaging politically and socially in all sorts of different ways to make poetry have an active and exciting role in our national conversation.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “Poetry is part of Scotland’s culture and history, it celebrates our language and can evoke strong emotions and memories in all of us.

“The role of the Makar is to celebrate our poetic past, promote the poetry of today and produce new pieces of work that relate to significant events in our nation.

“Jackie Kay’s poems sometimes deal with challenging subjects, taken from her own life experiences, and she has a particular Scottish brand of gallus humour.

“She is hugely respected, is known for her poignant and honest words, and is a role model for many, and I am delighted to name her as the new national poet for Scotland.”

The post of Scots Makar was created in 2004 - when Morgan was appointed to the role - by the then Scottish Executive to “recognise the significant contribution of poetry to the culture of Scotland.”

The Makar is asked to “represent Scottish poetry in the public consciousness, to promote poetic creativity in Scotland and to be an ambassador for Scottish poetry.”

The post, which comes with an annual stipend of £10,000, is funded by national arts agency Creative Scotland and based at the Scottish Poetry Library, where today’s announcement was made.

A confidential five-strong shortlist for the post was compiled by an expert panel - chaired by poetry library director Robyn Marsack - drawn from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Creative Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, Literature Alliance Scotland, the Saltire Society, Scottish PEN and Stanza, the national poetry festival.

Britain’s current poet laureate, Glasgow-born Carol Ann Duffy, said: “This is fabulous news for Scotland and for poetry.

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