When Kathleen Jamie was appointed Scotland’s Makar by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at a special ceremony at the Scottish Poetry Library in August, Jamie read from her poem The Wishing Tree, which begins:
I stand neither in the wilderness
but in the fold
of a green hill
the tilt from one parish
The Makar’s appointment process involved a shortlisting of leading poets made by a panel of representatives of literary organisations, writers and academics. In a minor change to previous appointments, the final recommendation was made by the panel to the First Minister, which was accepted. Due to the election cycle of the Scottish Parliament, the appointment was delayed from the typical start date of March. The appointment is for three-years, having been reduced from the five years served by Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay. The selection panel felt that a shorter commitment would lessen the load on the incumbent, and it would also provide further opportunities for more poets to take on the makarship in future.
The Scottish Poetry Library supports the Makar through the administration of requests for engagement, and in the marketing and communications for any initiatives and projects deserving of a wider public profile. Our Head Librarian meets regularly with Kathleen to discuss which requests with which to progress. We also host on our website the poems that the Makar produces for the role, for example The Morrow-bird, which Kathleen read at the Royal opening of the new Session of the Scottish Parliament in October 2021.
On reflection, with her reading of The Wishing Tree when she was announced as the national poet, Kathleen gave an early indication that nature and the environment would be key focus of her energy. The COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference was at the forefront of Jamie’s mind in the first planning meeting at the library soon after her appointment. Scotland’s Makar is committed to at least five official engagements or new writing commissions in the role. There are numerous requests for the Makar’s support from organisations and individuals from all walks of life and all corners of Scotland, and indeed the world.
How can I ignore it?
In an interview in The Courier in September, Kathleen said: “I was only appointed Makar a month ago, and was already thinking I’d like to do something about this massive and hugely important conference that’s happening in Scotland – how can I ignore it? But I also wanted it to be a communal or collective thing, because so many people are so anxious now, and so desperate to see something done. I thought, ‘well, since not everyone can physically go there, how can we make a poetry presence that marks the occasion and allows people to express something?’”
So, towards this ambition, Kathleen put out a request via the poetry library’s website and social media, for submissions of lines of poems on the theme of nature by anyone living in Scotland and writing in English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic. Over time, more than a thousand contributions were received and, in addition, whole classes in some secondary schools joined in.
Reflecting on poetry being a collective force, Kathleen toldThe Courier: “But another important thing is that poetry is for everyone. Don’t for one minute think poetry was ever a highfalutin thing. It never was – particularly In Scotland. Think about the ballads, think about Burns – these are ordinary everyday folk.”
From the start of the project, renowned filmmaker Alastair Cook was commissioned to produce a film of the poem that Kathleen would curate. The timescale was very tight to make the deadline of the start of November to tie-in with COP 26. The poetry library explored the potential of projecting the film on to buildings in Glasgow and across Scotland. However, there was not enough time and financial resources to make this happen – although it is an idea we hope to revisit over the course of Kathleen’s tenure.
A hymn of love
Given the very high number of submissions from the public, Kathleen decided that she had enough material for at least half a dozen poems. There was also the potential of an AI project whereby the lines would be automatically re-sequenced to create new poems and meaning. Writing for a blog on the poetry library’s website, Kathleen described her curating process as follows:
“I took all the 100s of lines. Groups or categories seemed naturally to emerge, so I arranged the lines under headings; The Sea, Trees and Forests etcetera. Then I began to nip and tuck, meld and arrange. Almost all of the original lines have been shortened, some reduced to a phrase, sometimes to a single word. Very few have been omitted altogether. Then I made them into little stanzas of two or three lines. Just by ear, what felt right. Then I printed it all off and pasted it onto cardboard. Then I cut out every little stanza. Then I set about re-arranging them, soon realising that I didn’t need to arrange them over much, as a random selection could make a perfectly good ‘poem’. Indeed, you could make an almost infinite number of ‘poems’ of any length by taking a handful of stanzas and arranging them to please. Choose a title, repeat it in the text and Bob’s your uncle.”
The first three poems produced were ‘The Life-Breath Song’, ‘The Shivering River’, and ‘Are We Listening?’. All three poems can be found on the poetry library’s website, along with the beautiful films created by Alastair Cook with accompanying music composed by Luca Nascuiti. Midway through the production process we agreed that it would be good to have a narration included in the films – the voice of a young person who would be able to say the lines in Scots and Scottish Gaelic with authenticity. This role was eventually given to Eilidh Cormack, an award-winning Gaelic singer, who originates from isle of Skye.
By the banks of the River Tay, near her home in Newburgh, Kathleen filmed an introduction to the premiere of the three film poems, which can be viewed on the poetry library’s YouTube channel. The Makar revealed the Tupperware box with which she kept the lines of submissions in. Describing the poems as a “hymn of love to the natural world that surrounds us,” she added that she felt that it was important to have English, Gaelic, and Scots “working together.”
After caring comes action
The reception that the poems received was overwhelmingly positive, with some schools announcing on social media that they have been using the films in English and geography lessons. In an interview in The Herald (17 September 2019), Kathleen Jamie reflected on the evolution of nature writing: “These days it is less pastoral, more political. I think if you are proper ‘nature’ writer, you can’t not be political,” Jamie says. “It would be derelict, which is not to say you can’t enjoy half an hour watching butterflies and bring that to other people. But you have to have an awareness, or you are kidding yourself. We are living through a time of grotesque inattention…The very act of taking heed is political.” Is that how she sees her own work, as an act of resistance? “It’s not why I do it, but I would be delighted if others thought so.”
The Makar took on the theme of nature again with her own poem for the climate change conference, What the Clyde said, after COP 26. This official commission was presented in November at a reception hosted in Glasgow City Chambers with Jenny Gilruth, Scotland’s Culture Minister, and Susan Aitken, Leader of Glasgow City Council. Introducing the new poem, Jamie said: ““Out of noticing comes caring. After caring comes action”.
The Twitter post promoting the poem was retweeted by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and went viral with the support of luminaries including George Monbiot. To date, the poem has been read over 13,000 times on the poetry library’s website, making it the most popular new work in recent years. Eilidh Cormack was once again commissioned to provide a narration to the poem.
The poem is reproduced below with thanks to the Makar:
What the Clyde said, after COP 26
by Kathleen Jamie
I keep the heid. I’m cool.
If asked – but you never ask –
I’d answer in tongues
hinting of linns, of Leven,
Nethan, Kelvin, Cart –
but neutral, balancing
both banks equally as I flow…
Do I judge? I mind the hammer-swing,
the welders’ flash, the heavy
steel-built hulls I bore downstream
from my city, and maybe
I was a blether-skite then,
a wee bit full of myself,
when we seemed gey near unstoppable…
But how can I stomach any more
of these storm rains? How can I
slip quietly away to meet my lover,
the wide-armed Ocean, knowing
I’m a poisoned chalice
she must drain, drinking
everything you chuck away…
So these days, I’m a listener, aye.
Think of me as a long level
liquid ear gliding slowly by.
I heard the world’s words,
the pleas of peoples born
where my ships once sailed,
I heard the beautiful promises…
and, sure, I’m a river,
but I can take a side.
From this day, I’d rather keep afloat,
like wee folded paper boats,
the hopes of the young folk
chanting at my bank,
fear in their spring-bright eyes
so hear this:
fail them, and I will rise.
Gordon Munro says
Enjoyed reading this and shows the potential libraries have to produce new work and introduce new readers to poetry. Both necessary.