Interview - LGBTQI literature royalty, Jackie Kay MBE
It’s fair to say that Jackie Kay MBE is as close to royalty as they come within the LGBTQI literature world.
She has served as Scots Makar, the National Poet for Scotland, since 2016 and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, imparting her wisdom on lucky poets of the future.
Her work draws on her unconventional upbringing, sexuality and living as a queer person of colour in Scotland.
Jackie Kay is the author of books including The Adoption Papers, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, Red Dust Road, winner of the Scottish Book of the Year Award, and the Costa-shortlisted Fiere. Later this year, she will be releasing a new book based on the life of Blues singer, Bessie Smith.
We chatted to Jackie all about her writing roots, performing spoken word poetry and the role of writing within the LGBTQI community.
DIVA: What was the catalyst that made you begin writing?
JACKIE KAY: I think I was an imaginative child. I liked making things up. I liked making up imaginary friends and writing about them. I was bullied as a kid, so I liked going off and writing revenge poems.
How did you get by as a young writer?
I was quite lucky because my first book, The Adoption Papers, was out before I was 30. I think it got quite a good response because it was a different style of poetry book, so that made quite an impact in the poetry world which meant I got asked to do quite a few readings which were able to supplement my income. I had other jobs too. Then in 1991 I decided to not have an extra job and to just try and make my living from writing.
Were you out publicly during this time?
There wasn’t really a period where I wasn’t out. I went to university when I was 17 and joined the gay society at Stirling University and I would speak at public meetings. A fascist group would put up posters, some that even named me, and I was offered police protection at the time. It was really scary because they would put razor blades behind the posters so if anyone tried to rip them down they would get their hands shredded. I wasn’t going to let myself be scared by that, so I continued speaking publicly.
What role do you think poetry plays in the LGBTQI community?
I think that lots of people write, whether they publish it or not. Writing is a sanctuary, it’s a place to go. Often if you feel misunderstood by family or society, writing is a very good weapon to have up your sleeve. Poetry itself is a community. It’s the language of being human, it’s the music of the soul. I think that when writers write they are able to share a profound sense of themselves. That’s really important, because you can get isolated in different communities unless you’re in big cities. Poetry makes people feel like they are understood.
What tips would you give to young queer writers today?
I would tell them to be themselves and dare to dream. I would tell them to write about whatever they want to write about, not to feel like anybody else dictates their agenda. They should get rid of that person sitting on their shoulder criticising them. You have to have self-belief in this profession and self-doubt in equal measure.
How do you find performing your work live?
I like it, because I think part of me is a frustrated actress. I wanted to be an actress and I went to drama classes as a kid. When I went to auditions I would never get a part. One day this woman said to me, “You’re really good, dear, but you’re the wrong colour.” It made me think, “Well if I can’t act, I’ll write.” I started to write plays initially for people like me. So often we write the books that we wanted to find. We write the books that we wanted to read and the characters that we wanted to be.
Do you write with the performance element of your work in mind now?
I tend not to do that. If I find myself doing that, I try not to. It feels like a bad habit, because you’re already writing to an audience before you’re in front of them.
Does performance add more layers and meaning to a poem?
I think the poem and the page, or the poem and the stage, have different lives and people have different ways of relating to them. I think that poems have different lives and they keep changing depending on what’s happening in the reader’s life, because things reverberate with you depending on what’s happening. Reading and listening are very active things. For me, I find there’s a lot of music in poetry when I perform. It’s the next best thing to singing. In some ways, I feel more me than ever when I’m on stage performing.
Why do you think the poetry scene thrives so much on spoken word?
There’s a real buzz and an energy. It’s wonderful to see all of the different ways that poetry can be taken in and digested. I think the job of the poets of my generation is to get excited and enthused to help the generations behind you. If we hadn’t been given support and encouragement by the people before us, we would never exist.
Do you learn a lot about yourself during the writing process?
I think I do. Because in a way, writing something or trying to find the right tone or the right voice for something, actually means that you have to be distant a little bit from the actual experience. So the experience itself that you’ve had, whatever the experience is, starts to morph and shift and change. In that way, you actually deal with a lot of the things that have been difficult in your life, just by having to find the form. You have to get rid of lots of things and create some space between the words. That’s quite a challenge.
How does sharing so much of your personal life in your work feel?
I like to think of it as no different than Frida Kahlo doing a self portrait. I can repeat myself as a character, and run with her, but she’s not exactly me. I think it’s interesting that people find that more problematic if you’re a writer than they would do if you’re an artist. Sometimes you can feel exposed. Sometimes you can feel vulnerable. I think the reason that I’ve written about myself maybe more than some people is because my life seemed like a story that was happening to me and it would have been strange not to write about it.