Closing the first day of Grrrl Con was writer and poet, and most recently Scotland’s new Makar, Jackie Kay. She begins by reading a poem on friendship, Fiere, adding, “There might be some words in that poem that you didn’t understand, but that’s life!”
A few quick take aways:
- ’The fear’ never leaves you
- You need inspiration to write
- If you ever get the chance to see Jackie speak, do it!
”Poetry is my first love.”
Jackie reads Longitude, talking about how she was adopted, and the idea of living more than one life simultaneously, and then from Red Dust Road, her memoir on finding her birth parents. “I would never have thought of writing a memoir unless my life was becoming a story,” she notes, talking through the journey of finding and meeting her birth father, and stories of her growing up and holidaying around Scotland.
“Poetry and song was a really important part of my life growing up,” she adds, “which I’m really grateful for.” On the road, they’d give her father random words and he’d always find a song containing them. That would soundtrack their journeys.
To audience questions: of all the formats in which she writes, does Jackie have a favourite? “I see my work as all my work, or if I was being posh I’d call it my oeuvre,” she laughs. “They speak to each other.” Some can only be written in one format, like a poem, and she follows that. “Books don’t exist on their own. Books aren’t islands.”
Though, she admits “poetry is my first love.” She doesn’t get blocked writing poems, but she does operate on a literary crop rotation – she likes the ability to jump between forms if she is hitting a wall. Novels are the trickiest for her to write.
”Writing is a game of psychology.”
‘The fear’ is brought up – as someone so bubbly and confident in front of an audience, how does she overcome it? “The fear doesn’t go,” Jackie admits. You constantly have a deep, deep worry on characters and your creativity. All of these questions and anxieties go with the writer’s life. “Writing is a game of psychology as much as anything else,” she continues. You can care so much that you hamper yourself, and we’re anxious about being as good as we are in our own imagination, and that our work won’t live up to what you believe.
It’s a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy of being a writer: self belief and self doubt. Too far one way and you’re obnoxious, too far the other, you can barely walk about the place. “It’s interesting what we show and what we don’t.”
What inspires Jackie? In short, everything. “Being a writer is a bit like being a spy.” You overhear how people talk, you’re always watching. She tries to read every day – a poem or chapter; she listens to music. Without inspiration, there’s little to do. “If you can’t get inspired by things you might as well pack up.”
“Words are a kind of alchemy, aren’t they?” she adds, on how even they can inspire her – how her mother cannot just be “hungry, but hungry hungry” and that means something different.
Given the conference’s support of women writers, does she have any strong female voices of support? Ali Smith is her best friend, for whom Fiere was written. Ali is not only a brilliant writer, but their conversations inspire and support one another. She has a lot of support, but there’s too many people to potentially share your work with – too much feedback and you could get confused over your work. Trust who you show your work to, but you always know best at the end.
Jackie returns to reading: Muse, requested from the audience, and Breadbin, then back to the Q&A, not only answering with jokes and thoughtfulness, but asking the audience how they approach the same things, involving everyone in the conversation.
On her new role as Makar, Jackie says, “I won’t let anything change my writing. I won’t be censored, silenced or changed.” She hopes to write more about new things, poetry in unexpected places that she hopes to travel to as “stanzas are islands themselves.” She wants to do not only what she wants to write, but what could be useful to write – to hold up an interesting mirror to our nation, to engage with that rather than from it.
Jackie squeezes in another few readings: Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk? and a goodnight poem for a mid-afternoon farewell, and day one of Grrrl Con has been brought to a close with an excellent hour or so from a truly magnificent and charming woman.