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Poet Jackie Kay: ‘I could have been brought up by Tories!’

Poet Jackie Kay: ‘I could have been brought up by Tories!’

The Scottish poet and writer Jackie Kay is listening to Jazz Record Requests on the radio when I arrive at her home in Manchester, where she has lived for many years. She was startled recently to hear her own name on the show, when a listener asked for a song by Bessie Smith after reading Kay’s biography of the blues legend. “I grew up in a house filled with jazz,” she says, reaching for her mother’s best teacups – there are macaroons and biscuits on the table. Her parents loved to riff off each other in song: “What a day it has been,” would lead to “What a difference a day makes.”

“Writers often write to grapple with the presence that absence makes,” Kay once said, and two huge absences are at the heart of her latest collection, May Day, her first since the end of her stint as Makar (the poet laureate of Scotland) three years ago. Her parents, Helen and John Kay, Glaswegian communists who adopted Kay as a baby, died within a year and two months of each other: her father at the end of 2019; her mother at the start of 2021. “I had a real awareness that they were kindred souls to me,” she says. Talking about them in the past tense is still painful. “Everybody hesitates around it, like a swimming pool before you dive into the water and you know it’s freezing cold. Sometimes you just forget it, or you muddle the tenses. We should invent a tense that hovers midway.”

Grief runs through the collection like a mayday call: “Is that you, Mum? I miss thee. I miss thee.” She has barely recovered from recording the poems for the audiobook a couple of days ago. “When you go through difficult things in your life, poetry, for me, is the thing that I can continue to do, whereas other forms might be silent,” says Kay, who is also a novelist (her debut Trumpet won the 1998 Guardian fiction award) and playwright. “Just as people read poems at funerals or weddings or at times of huge importance, then poets often write poems at times of difficulty.”

Jackie in 1975 on a neighbour’s motorbike.View image in fullscreen

In Kay’s warm and often heartbreaking memoir Red Dust Road she writes that adopted children come with stories in their Moses baskets: Kay is bursting with stories. She is a brilliant mimic (she “does” various well-known writers so well that listening to my recording later they might have been in her kitchen with us). As a child she wanted to be an actor, until a drama teacher informed her after an audition: “You are really good dear. You are just the wrong colour!” Kay says, ramping up her Glaswegian. She considers writing a form of acting: “If I can get the voice right then I can write whatever it is. Each of these poems has got a voice.”

Although she lives alone (her partner of 20 years, Denise Else, a BBC sound engineer, lives nearby), the walls of her terrace house are crowded with people and memories: a lifesize black-and-white portrait of her son Matt, now 35 and an acclaimed documentary maker, when he was about seven; Kay with her older brother Maxie (who is seriously ill with cancer) as teenagers; with Matt after she was awarded an MBE in 2006; and a print of a photograph of her taken by Mary McCartney, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery – next to a portrait of her one-time partner and former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, she tells me. There are photos of Matt with Duffy’s daughter Ella; they grew up as brother and sister for many years, though have different fathers (Matt’s father is the writer Fred D’Aguiar). They all still often spend Christmas or New Year together. It is no wonder she never feels lonely.

A succession of people, activists and artists of one kind or another – Angela Davis, Peggy Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone – appear throughout the new collection of poems. The title poem recalls Paul Robeson coming to lead the May Day parade in Glasgow in 1960, the year before Kay was born. In the absence of religious belief, she explains, this litany of names reminds her who her parents “were in the world, what their beliefs were and who they loved”. May Day is dedicated to Helen and John Kay.

John Kay (with loud-hailer) in the mid 70s.View image in fullscreen

Kay’s father was Glasgow secretary for the Communist party, her mother was a primary school teacher and the Scottish secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and their house, in Bishopbriggs outside Glasgow, regularly held visitors from around the world. The poem A Life in Protest (the working title of the collection, rejected as “too screechy”) charts 60 years of activism, from the time Kay was a babe in arms – “My brand-new mum carrying wee me” – at the demonstrations against Polaris missiles in Holy Loch in 1961 to the Black Lives Matter marches just a few years ago. She talks proudly of the “Remain” badge her mother wore on her red dressing gown, even when she was housebound. Her dad was such a devoted Guardian reader that Kay put a copy of the paper and a thesaurus in his coffin. “I hadn’t read it yet!” her mum scolded her a few days after the funeral.

Back in 1960, Kay’s birth father was a student from Nigeria and her birth mother, a nurse from the Highlands; their meeting at a dance in Aberdeen is recorded in the poem Union Song (tellingly Kay has put the poem on its own, before the contents page). Red Dust Road is an account of her journey to track them down when she became a mother herself. Their first meetings did not go well: her birth father, by then a born-again Christian, ranted for hours (and asked how lesbians have sex); her birth mother was so nervous she spent the whole time talking about a neighbour’s heart condition. Both died recently, too. “I feel like my whole family has been wiped out in a few years,” Kay says.

She discovered she was adopted when she was seven, after watching a western and realising that she was a different colour from her mum. “My mum always told me not to be grateful. She’d say: ‘We’re the ones who are grateful,’” she says. “But I had a real sense that anything else could have happened to me. I could have been brought up by Tories! I could have been in an orphanage. And so I felt my life has been a great escape from other possible lives.”

At the Edinburgh festival one year, the poet Lemn Sissay, who has written about the abuse he suffered as a child in care, confessed on stage to Kay that he had resented her for years because of her happy upbringing. “He just wanted to tell me that in front of people, so it was out there,” she says. “It was a lovely thing to say because there was something kind of healing for us both.”

But no matter how much her parents loved her, she writes in Red Dust Road, “there is still a windy place right at the core of my heart”. Is that place still there? “There is something ghostly about being adopted,” she says. “It is like another presence, because you are brought up with a lack of substance and a set of tiny details and not much to make into a whole person.”

Growing up in Glasgow was far from easy. “I thought I was the only black lesbian in the world,” she writes in her memoir. She was called “darkie” not just by children, including her best friend, but also by teachers. She would come home from school, make a “wee den” and write revenge poems about kids who had been mean to her. When she was teased as “a lezzie” in art class, the teacher responded by asking her: “Well, are you Jacqueline? Are you a lez-bee-ann?” She trills now, giving it the full Miss Brodie.

Years later, when her mum was in her 80s, she apologised to Jackie for not being supportive enough when she told them she was a lesbian. “She said: ‘I didn’t know how to behave.’” Kay asked her dad if he felt guilty too. “Nooo! Christ, what else were we supposed to do?” he exclaimed.

“So you’re black, you’re working class, you are gay – do you have a disability?”, she recalls a lecturer asking her when she was at the University of Stirling in the early 80s. He and his wife, both eminent sociologists, tried to convert her from English literature. “‘Sociology needs you!’ they said. I ran away as fast as I could,” she hoots. But it was at Stirling that she was subjected to the worst racism. Members of the British Movement, a neo-Nazi group, stuck up posters of her round the campus, attaching razor blades to the back to injure anyone who tried to rip them down.

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Jackie (far right) on an anti-racist demo around 1987.View image in fullscreen

“I think I would be long gone by now if I didn’t write,” Kay told her friend and fellow Scottish writer Ali Smith in a conversation in 2016. This seems so at odds with the poet whom Maya Angelou once told: “You bring great joy into the world.” (Kay does a great Angelou, who was delighted to learn that Kay’s birth name is Joy.) “I think I’m like a lot of writers: we have different sides to us,” she says. “If I didn’t have writing I don’t know where I would have processed things. When you are attacked or have posters with your name on them, or when you suffer with all that in-your-face racism, you have to have somewhere to take it, because you can’t take it to your bed. You have to transform it into something else. Writing stops that from getting in.”

She wrote the sonnet A Banquet for the Boys, which is in the new collection, after her son was injured by the police during a Black Lives Matter march in London. “When your foot was stood on and you couldn’t stand / And you couldn’t cook for Phazey or B-man, / I ordered you a feast to lend a helping hand” the poem begins, going on to itemise the dishes she had sent from a local restaurant for Matt and his flatmates. “He was most impressed by the fact that I knew his friends’ nicknames,” she laughs.

The march remains a beacon of hope for Kay – there’s still a faded Black Lives Matter poster in the window. After a period of what she calls “generation apathy”, she is thrilled to see young people politically engaged again. But she doesn’t recognise today’s culture wars in the identity politics of her own youthful engagement in the late 70s and 80s. “This is the age of polarisation. This is the age of division and splits. This is the age of judgment. This is the age of shame,” she says, with the rhetorical flourish of one brought up at the barricades. “I really long for the times when we had genuine debates and people could really disagree, but still be friends.” She sees our current anxiety about language and definitions of race and gender as a reflection of a deeper cultural unease: “When you can’t choose the words comfortably, that shows what else is going on,” she says. “I’d like to get back to umbrella terms, because there’s more space for people not to get wet.”

Five years as Makar taught her to be wary of becoming a public spokesperson, especially on the issue of Scottish independence. “Scotland is in a bit of chaos at the moment,” she says now. But from reading to Scottish parliament to opening a bridge with the late queen, being Makar took Kay to places she could never have imagined. A film of her Hogmanay poem, Farewell 2020, included in the new collection, was watched worldwide by 8 million people . “For a single poem!” she exclaims, in a broad Scots that is all her own.

“I was very embraced as a Makar,” she says. It was the first time in her life that she felt she properly belonged to her country. “One of the loveliest things poetry can do is make you feel you belong,” she says. “To make you feel you have a proper place at the table.”

She and Denise were planning on moving to Glasgow to live, but that no longer feels possible since her mother’s death. “I feel like the city itself is different,” Kay says. She can barely make it through Glasgow Central station without crying. But they have been back to Scotland, to research her new book. They hired a campervan and set off to places Kay hasn’t visited since she was a teenager. With the working title High Road, Low Road, this “travel memoir” will explore the question of whether you can still belong to a place once your parents are no longer there. “I don’t know the answer, so I’m writing a book to try and find out.”

This leads to the story of a road trip in the late 80s. She and her mum had gone to Kilkenny literary festival, where she gave her first poetry reading as the support act to Benjamin Zephaniah, who died of a brain tumour at the end of last year. On the way back, they found themselves in a hire car with Zephaniah and his then girlfriend, with her mum doing a rendition of his poem I Luv Me Mudder in a Jamaican-cum-Glaswegian accent all the way to Dublin: “I luv me mudder an me mudder luvs me,” Kay recites joyfully now. “I felt like we could have gone all round the world together and kept each other laughing for ever.”

Source: theguardian.com