Jackie Kay has been appointed the new Makar (Scotland’s national poet) to replace the previous incumbent Liz Lochhead.
The word Makar originally referred to the royal or court bard, and was at its height in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Among the poets who held the post at that time were William Dunbar, David Lyndsay and Alexander Scott. When James VI (James I in England) moved the royal court to London, the position of Makar gradually fell into disuse.
In 2002, Edinburgh began to appoint city poets for three year terms, and referred to them as Makars. The first Edinburgh Makar was Stewart Conn and the current one is Christine De Luca. Other cities such as Glasgow, Stirling, Aberdeen and Dundee soon followed.
In 2004, the Scottish Parliament voted to appoint a national poet to be given the title of Scottish Makar. The first poet to be given the post was Edwin Morgan, who career stretched from the 1950s to his death in 2010. He wrote in every conceivable poetical form from the traditional sonnet to experimental concrete and sound poetry, as well as translating foreign language classics into both English and Scots. Towards the end of his life he collaborated with Scottish rock band Idlewild. He was gay, and some of his poetry described crusing episodes at a time when male homosexuality was illegal, as well as some beautiful and at time erotic love poems. He came out in 1990.
On his death in 2010, Liz Lochhead – who had been greatly influenced by Edwin Morgan – was appointed Makar.
Jackie Kay is therefore the third Makar in modern times, and the second one to come from LGBT communities. Uniquely, both the Scottish Makar and the UK poet laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) are Scots and lesbians – and were at one time lovers (and still friends).
She was born in 1961 to a white Highland mother and a black Nigerian father. She was adopted by a left wing Glaswegian couple: John Kay who was a full time official of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Helen Kay who was Scottish secretary of CND. In her memoir “Red Dust Road” (2010) she describes having a wonderful childhood, but also talks about the racism she experienced outside the home. She has indicated racism can still be a problem, in 2013 telling the Scottish Poetry Library: “They won’t actually hear my voice because they are too busy seeing my face.”
Her first collection of poetry, “The Adoption Papers” (1991), was about an adopted child searching for her identity and is told in three voices: birth mother, adoptive mother and daughter. It won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award, the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Forward Prize for Poetry. Her memoir “Red Dust Road” and her 2011 poetry collection “Fiere” (a Scots word that means equal friend or companion) are also concerned with the search for identity.
Her one novel for adults, “Trumpet” (1998), was inspired by the life of American jazz musician Billy Tipton. It opens just after the death of acclaimed jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, who has lived most of his life as a man but who is biologically a woman. The only person who knew Joss’s secret was his wife: not even his (adopted) son knew. The narrative of Joss’s life, death and legacy is told through the eyes of various characters, all of whom bring their different perspectives on gender, sexuality and identity. It won the Guardian Book of the Year Award
As well as poetry, fiction and memoir, Jackie Kay writes plays, opera libretti and children’s books. She is also a broadcaster. She also has a fine sense of humour and is not afraid to satirise even the most famous famous of writers. Hugh MacDiarmid was one of Scotland’s most respected poets and wrote some of the finest poetry in Scots since Burns. His most famous poem “A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle” became, in Jackie Kay’s hands, “A Drunk Woman Looks at Her Nipple.”
In accepting the award at the Scottish Poetry Library, she said: “As Robert Burns demonstrated, poetry holds up a unique mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul. It is the pure language that tells us who we are. I hope to open up the conversations, the blethers, the arguments and celebrations that Scotland has with itself and with the rest of the world, using the voice of poetry in its fine Scottish delivery.”