Holyrood speaks to Liz Lochhead about her first year as Scotland’s Makar
Lochhead has always been a prominent and much-loved figure among Scotland’s vibrant cultural and literary communities, and taking on the role of Makar has made her a household name. However, despite her grand title and impressive literary pedigree, the poet and playwright is down to earth, funny and friendly.
With her first book of poetry celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Lochhead remains as passionate about her art as ever.
The position of Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – was created in 2004 and awarded to Edwin Morgan. Described as an “exceptional human being” by then First Minister Jack McConnell, the role was initially for three years but was extended as a lifetime appointment for Morgan. The Scots Makar was asked to “represent Scottish poetry in the public consciousness, to promote poetic creativity in Scotland, and to be an ambassador for Scottish poetry”. After Morgan’s death in August 2010, it was decided by the Scottish Government that the post should be continued. In January 2011, First Minister Alex Salmond announced the appointment of Lochhead as Scotland’s second modern Makar.
At the time, Salmond said: “In creating the post of national poet, the communities of Scotland demonstrated the importance it places on the many aspects of culture which lie at the heart of our identity. As an author, translator, playwright, stage performer, broadcaster and grande dame of Scottish theatre, Lochhead embodies everything a nation would want from its national poet. With a natural ability to reach all ages and touch both sexes through her writing, Lochhead has also been immensely successful at championing the Scots language.
She continues to reach out to school pupils through her work which is widely read in Scotland’s schools and she is also a much valued role model, advocate and inspiration for women who are given a strong voice in her writing.” Born in 1947, in Motherwell, Lochhead studied at Glasgow School of Art and taught art at schools in Glasgow and Bristol. She undertook stints as writer in residence at Edinburgh University and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her first collection of poems, Memo for Spring, was published in 1972 and won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Her poetry has been published in a number of collections.
A performer as well as a poet, her revue Sugar and Spite was staged in 1978 with Marcella Evaristi. Lochhead travelled to Canada in the same year, after being selected for a Scottish Writers Exchange Fellowship, and she became a full-time writer, performance poet and broadcaster. Her plays include Blood and Ice, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Dracula and Cuba and Perfect Days. She translated and adapted Molière’s Tartuffe into Scots and the script of her adaptation of Euripides’ Medea for Theatre Babel in 2000 won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award.
Speaking of her role as Makar, Lochhead said: “Like many things, it has been about finding my feet. During the first year I’ve been finding out a lot about what I should be doing. However, going into this autumn, I’ve got some very definite plans of my own which I’m initiating. The role has meant a higher profile for me and I was invited to do a lot more things which has been very nice. I’ve also been asked to write poems for specific events and I do that if I can. It is a challenge but it can sometimes lead you to write something you would never have written before. If you are a poet, you want your poems to come out of your own self but I have found, to my great surprise, that being asked to do something has led me to write a few things I’m proud of.
“I said no to writing a poem for the Queen’s Jubilee because I’m not a royalist. I have the most incredible, personal respect for the individual who is the Queen, how hard she works is something else but I think her whole life and the life of her son has been ruined by having this thing thrust upon them. The individual people, I have great respect for but politically, I’m a republican, so I would have been hypocritical to write a poem celebrating the Jubilee. There is one thing poetry shouldn’t have anything to do with and that is hypocrisy. If something wouldn’t be possible for me to write, I wouldn’t do it.
“Poetry is very important to people. My first book was published 40 years’ ago in 1972. I regard my work as a playwright as part of my work as a poet, as a poet in the theatre. I have been lucky enough to do versions and translations but I always feel my duty is to the original play and to making that accessible to audiences. As a Scottish school pupil, I was encouraged to speak poetry out loud. We knew that poetry was something for pleasure and performing. When I started writing in the late ‘60s’ there was a movement in Liverpool with the poets McGough, Henri and Patten which I took notice of. I also became very interested in the ‘30s poets, like MacNeice, the Irishman who is not as great a poet as Auden but I loved his work.
“It is reading other poetry and loving poetry which makes you want to do it yourself. I started writing like mad when I was at art school when I was meant to be drawing. Getting that book out was a very big deal for me, it was also a very big deal for the publisher who was a small Scottish publisher. He genuinely got on his bike and took it out to shops and sold it. It actually sold 5,000 copies which is a lot and I was only 24. I had always enjoyed writing at school but I just wrote what you were meant to write. However, I remember at secondary school once filling a full jotter; just taking off on a particular subject and instead of getting a row for it, I was encouraged by my English teacher.”
Lochhead has two main projects which she is working on right now. She has always worked with schools and young people during her career but she has plans for a new project to start in the autumn.
She said: “I am planning to do a performance piece as a teacher. I see it as a made-up teacher called Miss Humphries talking to the last year of primary schools and doing various poems, the poems I did when I was at school, the ones that made me love poetry. I want to do this project because I realise most teachers now are afraid of poetry, they are taught that poetry is a problem. Whereas poetry is a pleasure, it is as natural as singing and dancing.
“I learned things like The Highwayman, John Keats’ Old Meg She Was a Gypsy, Burns’ To A Mouse and La Belle Dame sans Merci also by Keats. All these poems have such stories and a bit of magic in them. I also loved some of the Border ballads like the Twa Corbies. I’m going to go back to the poems I loved then and I’m going to become this character called Miss Humphries, after Mr Humphries, my English teacher who gave me so much encouragement, and I’m going to do a lot of popular poems which are not mine. When I have the show written, I hope there is something I can do in schools. All the time I’ve been a working poet, I’ve gone into schools and done creative writing workshops with kids and also readings. A lot of people come up to me and say they’ve been changed by having a poet in to read at their school. I know that a poet visiting schools, if they attempt to communicate and open up the pupils and they are willing for it not to work with everyone, will always do good. People are always fascinated by the fact that these words are in a book but you’re an ordinary person.”
Lochhead has recently returned from a trip to Palestine, where she visited the House of Poetry, the Palestinian cultural centre, with fellow Scottish poet William Letford and others. She describes her trip as “very moving”.
She said: “The role of poetry and politics are not connected, that is why it is wonderful for me to go into the Parliament. As someone said in the House of Poetry recently, politics is the art of the possible whereas poetry exists in the land of the ideal. It was very moving to be in a country where poetry is a basic part of the culture. The Palestinian people are hideously oppressed, it shocks you. I’d read about it before I went but when you are there and you stay in the camps with a family for a few nights, you realise the daily privations they go through. Being at the House of Poetry, which Yasser Arafat set up not long before he died, with some of the most prominent Palestinian poets, you realise poetry there has a huge bearing on culture.
“Arabic poetry has to be translated before it comes here and not much of it is. I want to attempt a project involving getting as many prominent Scottish poets as I can, including Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay, and giving the poets a chance to translate just one Arabic poem, word for word. I’d like to give them the chance to talk to the translator about the shades of meaning in the poem as poetry needs poets to translate it. I’ll get the help of the young friend I was travelling with and we are determined to do that, to let these voices become better known. Some of the poets we met are hugely popular and necessary in Palestine but they’ve only been translated in academic journals and that is not good enough.”
To the delight of all involved, Lochhead recently appeared at the launch of the ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence, reading from her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. She has been open about her support for independence in the past, although she is keen to stress that she is not a member of any political party. At the launch she said she was “happy and proud” to support the ‘Yes’ campaign as a private voter.
The tenure of the post of Makar is specified as five years and with the first 12 months under her belt, Lochhead is keen to use her role to champion some of the projects and causes she feels strongly about. After all, as she reiterates, “poetry is important to people”.