Jackie Kay opens her reading for the Inspire Poetry Festival at Southwell Library with a poem of friendship. ‘Fiere, the Scots for friend, companion or comrade, and heard in Burns’ Auld Lang Syne (‘And there's a hand, my trusty fiere, And gie's a hand o' thine’), is a poem which remembers the warmth and fierceness of female companionship; the tone of the evening is set. Kay is a generous reader. She shares a selection of poems from collections published since 1991 to the present, including her recently edited pamphlet, Ten Poems of Friendship (Candlestick Press, £4.95), an extract from her memoir, Red Dust Road (Picador, £8.99) and many personal anecdotes about her family and close relationships.
Two relationships are particularly prevalent in her reading: that with her white Scottish adoptive parents (‘lifelong and committed socialists’) and her Nigerian birth father (tree expert and born-again Christian). In the opening chapter of her lyrical memoir, Red Dust Road, Kay gives a humorous but barbed portrait of her biological father. Meeting in her hotel room, at his request, Jonathan proceeds to perform an elaborate prayer and feverish dance. Kay’s rendition of the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony is written and delivered with comic skill and yet the horror of the moment is palpable below the surface: Kay tells us how her father wants her to be ‘cleansed, cleansed of his past sin’ and that ‘she is the sinner, the living embodiment of his sin’. But this is also a moment when the complexities of identity come to the fore: Kay watches his ‘bare feet dance round the room’ and sees her own.
she places her hand on her heart as she reads and then offers it in friendship
Kay’s poems about her ‘real’ parents are prefaced with engaging family stories, like the car game played with her Dad, who on long journeys would sing songs on demand to fit his children’s choice of words. The evening is an intimate insight into Kay’s family and yet the poems also reveal her deep political belief in the power of love, kindness and democracy. ‘April Sunshine’ praises her ‘real’ parents by accumulating descriptions of their passionate social activism in contrast to how they are seen during a period spent in hospital as ‘just an old woman’, ‘just an old man’. The poem asks us to look closely at her parents whose politics are not any ‘dimmer’ now and to remember their guiding principle of democracy, after all ‘it’s a blessing’. Surely, a most timely reminder.
As the third Makar, Scotland’s Poet Laureate (she was preceded by Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead), Kay takes her role to heart. Living up to the roots of the Scots’ word ‘makar’, Kay makes, fashions and creates, and importantly performs. Her reading connects with the packed audience; she places her hand on her heart as she reads and then offers it in friendship. In the interval Kay sits and chats with the audience, and at the book signing takes time to talk to everyone, not minding the selfie requests. This is a poet whose words ring true: ‘tak my hand, my fiere!’
You can follow Jackie Kay on Twitter @JackieKayPoet