Image of a white woman with short auburn hair, wearing a burgundy cardigan.

What Maks a Makar with Kathleen Jamie, Robyn Marsack and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Image of a white mand and woman smiling, the woman has long curly ginger hair and the man is tall with short ginger hair and a beard.

The First Minister, wearing a blue and yellow top, commences proceedings with a statement of solidarity towards the people of the Ukraine. Kathleen Jamie, Scotland’s fourth Makar reads a translation of a Ukrainian poem called ‘Home is Still Possible There’.

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wastes no time in getting to the central question of todays event, ‘What Maks a Maker?’, she asks Robyn Marsack. The former Director of the Scottish Poetry Library talks about the history of the post of national poet, from its medieval roots to its resurrection in 2004 in recognition of Edwin Morgan. Stressing the idea that the postholder makes something with words, Robyn lists the achievements and attributes of Morgan as well as Liz Lochhead and Kathleen’s predecessor, Jackie Kay.

Kathleen was appointed Makar in 2021, chosen from a shortlist of candidates and has been in post for six months.  Asked what the appointment meant to her, Kathleen said that it was a validation of the last 40 years, ‘plodding away’ at her craft. She talked about starting out as a poet in her teenage years, and how she ‘felt ashamed’ to be writing poetry alone in her ‘garret’.

The First Minister pressed her on this. Kathleen partly attributed the feelings of shame to her Presbyterian background, its mistrust of the arts and the fact that such ‘fanciful’ pursuits were largely frowned upon. Asked if poetry was regarded in her home as elitist, Kathleen said no, and attributed this to the legacy of Robert Burns.

One thing we learn about Kathleen Jamie is the strength of her commitment to environmentalism and the importance with which she regards the current climate crisis. For COP26, she asked the public to submit a line for a national poem and received over 1000 entries.  You can read this work in progress and watch the filmpoems here: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poet/the-people-of-scotland/

Kathleen then reads ‘What the Clyde said after COP26’. You can read this here: https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/what-the-clyde-said-after-cop26/

As the conversation continues, we learn that the Makar writes prose as well as poetry, but claims she cannot write fiction. She surprises everyone by stating that she has no moral compass for this work, and that unlike fiction writers, when her characters leave the room, she has no idea where they are going or what they are doing.

Another insight is that Kathleen never thinks about the reader when she writes, she has no ‘idealised’ reader to whom she is trying to appeal – ‘it is just me and the words’, she says.

On the subject of the purpose of poetry the Makar groans slightly. There is a responsibility to the truth she says, but writing a good poem should always take precedence over writing a relevant one.

Kathleen’s insights continue to flow and she talks about the elusiveness of poetry and how difficult it can be to just sit and produce a poem. Occasionally she takes a notebook into nature, she tells us, but mostly she jots down fragments and ideas, lines and phrases. As an illustration she reads her poem ‘Lone Tree’, which you can read here:  https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2021/02/ns-poem-lone-tree

The First Minister seeks advice on how to get teenagers writing in their ‘garret’ – a question Kathleen is reluctant to address. ‘I don’t know’, she pauses to think… ‘get out their way?’ ‘We just need to have faith in them’, she says. Robyn Marsack mentions the Scotland’s Young Makars project as part of StAnza poetry festival, which is held in St Andrews and designed to encourage young poets to write and present their work.

When the session moves to questions from the audience, the recurring theme revolves around barriers to poetry. There are separate questions about the various difficulties teachers and educators have in getting young people to engage with poetry, and serious questions are asked about the impoverishment of our culture as a result. The Makar again talks of the elusive nature of poetry and suggests we trick our minds into writing poetry without deliberately sitting down to engage in the difficult task of actually writing poetry.

An audience member, in noting that the Makar’s role as national poet is to write about Scotland, asks if she agrees that it is also to criticise the state? Kathleen frowns – ‘if you are asking if the Makar’s role is to hold the government of the day to account, then I would have to say no. That’s not the role of the Makar. It is not journalism’. Nicola Sturgeon interjects, saying that she believes that the role of the Makar is to chronicle our lives. The First Minister continues by saying that in challenging times, she often reads Edwin Morgan’s poem, written for the founding of the Scottish Parliament, finding this inspirational.

Moving onto her own experiences and her struggles with poetry at school, Nicola Sturgeon asks how we overcome this difficulty of having to work out the very specific meanings inscribed in the poems themselves. The Makar gives another groan. She shakes her head and suggests that we banish the word ‘meaning’ from poetry all together.

Kathleen Jamie is reluctant to be drawn into areas that she does not believe are of relevance to the role of Maker. She clearly doesn’t do ‘pandering’. Kathleen closes the session by reading her Bannockburn poem ‘Here Lies Our Land’ https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/here-lies-our-land/

The event began with Robyn listing the different attributes and contributions of the three previous Makars. Even after only six months, there is no doubt that the fourth Makar is making her own mark. I am sure I’m not the only one in the audience who is excited about the next two and a half years of her tenure.

Written by volunteer blogger Joe Smith