by Lucy Burnett, Festival Director
Kathleen Jamie has described her poem ‘Lochan’ as simply being about feeling tired, but in the context of the past year-and-a-half of lockdowns it has had particular resonance:
When all this is over I mean
to travel north, by the high
drove roads and cart tracks
probably in June…
Makars and laureates might be thought of as occasional poets, writing poems to mark ‘occasions’. And with this in mind, Kathleen Jamie perhaps seems a strange choice for the makarship. Certainly (and literally) her poems can be occasional in that she isn’t afraid of not writing, of silence. But in my reading, Jamie’s poems are themselves occasions, in their direct simplicity of language and their rooted solidity; as realisations of those moments of intent listening and looking – attention – from which they issue. Substantive pauses… my descriptions aren’t adequate. You need to read the work itself.
‘Lochan’ was published in Jamie’s 1999 collection Jizzen, so many years before the pandemic. Yet its sense of poetic occasion enables it to resonate with ‘occasions’ far beyond its inception. I’m minded for some reason of the hand-polished stone from a stream in Galloway that I carry around with me in my pocket, and which my Mum carried around in her own pocket before me. Perhaps appropriately to this blog piece, ‘Lochan’ is dedicated to Jean Johnstone, the wife of the late Brian Johnstone, one of the three founders of StAnza. The poem has echoes of Basho’s A Narrow Road to the Deep North, and an equal sense of spirituality in direct, honest simplicity which one would associate with the haiku master.
These are some of the aspects of her work that make all of us at StAnza thrilled by the choice of Kathleen Jamie as Scotland’s new Makar. Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay…the poets who have come before are as varied as they are illustrious, and Jamie equally offers something new. Her poetry requires attention without drawing attention to itself. She writes on her website that, ‘I still don’t know what poetry is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not about my “voice”.’ This self-effacing approach finds realisation in her work, as in the following lines from ‘The Wishing Tree’, the poem she read at this morning’s announcement with the First Minister:
And though I’m poisoned
choking on the small change
of human hope,
daily beaten into me
look: I am still alive –
in fact in bud.
Here is a poet aware of all our human limitations and failings, including her own, most especially in the context of environmental crisis. I think the way in which Jamie de-centres her own voice and emphasises the importance of paying close attention to the more-than-human world makes her ideally suited to this role right now.
Jamie resists being labelled an environmental / nature poet, as she rightly resists many labels! But it’s certainly the case that the environment and a commitment to the more-than-human world are core concerns and preoccupations. In her introduction to the recent anthology of Scottish nature writing Antlers of Water, Jamie refers to its interest in the ‘intersection of modernity and nature in a rapidly changing Scotland,’ and such a description equally suits her own practice. In the context of Glasgow’s upcoming hosting of COP26, then, Jamie’s appointment is hugely apposite (can I go as far as to say inspired?!) Only the other week, the latest climate change report emanating from the IPCC described anthropogenic climate change as ‘unequivocal’, while setting out both a warning as to the consequences of continued inaction, and also a sense of hope that it’s not quite too late yet. But what can poetry do about that? I hear you ask. I quote Jamie from the introduction to Antlers of Water:
As we realise we must halt destruction, reduce emissions and renegotiate our relationship with the natural world, our noticing is a vital contribution. Out of our noticing comes our art and our writing. For me, this noticing and caring, this attention, this writing from within personal circumstances, whether about an insect or a mountain, amounts to a political act. In a time of ecological crisis, I would argue that simply insisting upon our right to pay heed to natural landscapes and other nonhuman lifeforms amounts to an act of resistance to the forces of destruction. It doesn’t actually take much to be an eco-writer or a nature poet. It begins when you pay attention to the world, and to language, and strive to bring the two together. This writing matters. And so, crucially, does our reading.
I first read Jamie’s work in 2005 when I was gifted a copy of Findings upon departing my role as Parliamentary Officer at Friends of the Earth Scotland to complete a Creative Writing MA. Subsequently her name and work proved hugely relevant to my doctoral and postdoctoral academic research into the relationship between literature and the environment (specifically climate change). Of all the writers I read in this regard (and there were many), perhaps she captures the problem of writing the scale of climate change most evocatively in the opening of Surfacing:
D’ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?
At your cave mouth, you wonder if the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’ve gone too far with our Anthropocene. But who can answer that? We just can’t grasp the scale of our species’ effects. But the single falling stone which could smash our brains out – we understand that.
In this context, and also elsewhere, she quotes Hugh MacDiarmid’s line, 'Scotland, small?' I both imagine, and am hopeful, that during Jamie’s Makarship we will experience an enlarging of our understanding of who and what Scotland is, through an encouragement to focus upon its smallest details and relationships. She certainly has the refreshing art of saying everything by saying nothing, and not letting us become complacent in our Scottishness. I quote from a poem whose jingoistic sounding title ‘Wings of Scotland’ sits in marvellously constructive tension with the poem itself:
Glenogil Estate: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran).
Millden Estate: poisoned buzzard (Alphachloralose).
Millden Estate: poisoned golden eagle ‘Alma’ (Carbofuran).
I needn’t continue…When Kathleen Jamie last read at StAnza in 2017 the event was so oversubscribed that we had to livestream (how 2021!) it into another venue so that everyone could attend. I very much look forward to welcoming her back over the coming years. I conclude here by inviting you to raise a glass / cup to Jamie (my own is a morning mug of coffee right now). I'd also like to turn to the Chair of StAnza, Robyn Marsack, who has a knack for finding the right line of poetry for every occasion. One of her favourites is from Edwin Morgan and feels appropriate here, at this moment of embarking:
It’s hard to go.
The Makar position, in the current context, will undoubtedly bring its challenges over the coming years; all of us at StAnza wish Kathleen Jamie well. We hugely look forward to working with her to the benefit of Scottish poetry, and Scotland itself, over the next three years.