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The SRB Interview: Liz Lochhead – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Liz Lochhead

November 12, 2011 | by SRB

During Liz Lochhead’s SRB interview, she showed Colin Waters, her interlocutor, her diary, evidence of how busy her schedule has grown since accepting the post of Makar, Scotland’s national poet. In this, she succeeded her friend and mentor, Edwin Morgan, the first Makar. The SRB met Lochhead at the Tron theatre in Glasgow, where she was rehearsing Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – and Other Nightmares, a new play that is premiering as part of the Glasgay festival. She found time to speak between rewrites of the play and rushing off to take part in a reading in Ayr with Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. With the publication of Lochhead’s new selected verse, A Choosing, it was a good time to sit down with the poet and playwright to discuss her writing.

Lochhead was born in 1947 in Newarthill, Lanarkshire. She studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and after graduating, lectured on fine art for the better part of a decade. The cover of A Choosing is adapted from a sketch, made as a student, of a woman undressing, and the poetry Lochhead was soon to become known for is similarly intimate and revealing. Lochhead’s first major work was, Memo for Spring, published in 1972, at a time when the Scottish poetry scene was largely male-dominated. She was part of a generation of writers that included Tom Leonard, James Kelman, and Alasdair Gray; all four were occasional members of Philip Hobsbaum’s writing group. Lochhead is also a successful playwright. Her plays include Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off (1987) and Scots-language adaptations of Moliere’s Tartuffe (1985) and The Misanthrope, re-titled Misery Guts (2002). The SRB joined Lochhead to talk about independence, the teaching of poetry in schools, and Bob Dylan.

Scottish Review of Books: Your new collection of selected works is called A Choosing, rather than ‘The Choosing’, which is the name of one of the poems included. What are you signalling by changing the definite article to an indefinite one?

Liz Lochhead: A Choosing means on another day, another year, I’d have come up with a different selection. It was a nice thing to happen, the Selected Poems, and it happened because of Makar-ness – Makardom – but there is nothing more painful than to go back over your life and your work. It was torture to do it, the choosing. There is a fear of going there. You often look back over your stuff and feel disgust. You can be horrified – like Frankenstein forced to contemplate his creature! But once I’d finally come up with my choice it was suddenly like a wee book written by another self altogether. It was quite a surprise. I’d read the poems and I’d think: ’wow, that’s a bit bold’ or ‘that doesn’t seem now to mean what I thought it did at the time’ or ’how naked’ or sometimes, ‘yes, I’d have liked to read that if I hadn’t written it myself’. Of course it’d have been daft of me not to put in the ones which, in the end, I liked best. That week… I hate it when it is assumed the ‘I’ in a poem is the poet who wrote it.

I have always been aware I was writing in different personae in different poems. That was the interesting thing for me about A Choosing. It meant owning up to how much of the ‘I’ in the poems was, after all, me. How incredibly personal some of them were – after spending much of my life telling people my poems weren’t. Of course you end up using pieces of autobiography. How could you not? To ruthlessly use what truly interests you, even pains you, is the inner nerve you have to have as an artist.

You have to be brave to be an artist?

But it’s not brave. It doesn’t occur to you not to do it. Choosing which ones were to go in was difficult, partly because the book was meant to be the popular ones, and accessible too. Polygon, who have been good to me, keeping my books in print, were helpful, and I had a great editor in a much younger woman called Sarah Ream – it was really useful seeing them through a younger, clever, stranger’s eyes. Robyn Marsack and Peggy Hughes at the Poetry Library made good suggestions which started me off. I wanted, in the end, A Choosing to be personal, though.

The poems are arranged informally in pairings that confirm or, more interestingly, contradict each other. ‘Neckties’ suggests marriage makes familiar what once was strange, but then following it we have ‘Epithalamium’ where we find “We think we know ourselves, but all we know/Is: love surprises us”

‘Neckties’ is really a take on Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Warming Her Pearls’. But it also coincided with a passionate wish to write a love poem when I first met Tom [Logan, Lochhead’s husband, who died last year], which was about 26 years ago, when I was charging about the country daft doing readings and missing him back home. I didn’t write many love poems to my husband. Our relationship wasn’t about poetry. His favourite poet was Tom Leonard. He was very interested in the theatre and drama. Oh, he liked my poems, don’t get me wrong. Liked getting that poem, just as he liked getting the charity shop ties in it. It’s just he didn’t go: ‘What a great love poem – and for me!’ He knew the truth, which is you write a poem because you’ve got an idea for the poem, not just because you love somebody.

You mentioned the new collection is inspired in part by you appointment to the post of Makar. In what ways has the post had an effect upon your life and work?

Personally, it’s nice to have a buzz about you and to get a good amount of offers of work again. My diary is full; life is very busy. That faded out a bit for a while. The on-the-road and poetry-readings thing. I remember there was a period when I was going about the country going to a lot of poetry festivals, more solo gigs in arts centres in Milton Keynes or Cardiff – it wasn’t all glamorous. Then many of the people who used to ask the likes of me to perform retired, and the new younger people running the arts centres asked different poets. I thought it was just me, but I was speaking to Carol Ann [Duffy] and she said the readings did die down even for her for a while. But for me it’s hit a peak again, since becoming Makar. I’ve done readings in Yorkshire twice the past month, for example. Last weekend, I bounced up and down on Ted Hughes’ bed. He lived till he was eight in this wee house in Mytholmroyd (in West Yorkshire). I was at a Poetry Slam held there at the end of a weekend run by the Elmet Trust. Apparently he used to stand on this bed with his trainee gamekeeper brother shooting crows on the chimney so they’d fall down into the fireplace and cover his mother – and her knitting – in soot.

What are your ambitions as the Makar?

The point of the Makar role is to fight the corner for poetry. I want to do that in a down-to-earth way, because to a lot of us Scots poetry is a right, something as natural as a song and a dance. In January I hope to sit down with the Poetry Library and Creative Scotland and plan a sensible wee tour properly. Some readings in schools, and libraries or arts centres in the evening. I’m quite good at standing up on my hind legs and talking to school kids. That’s one thing Edwin Morgan couldn’t do as Makar – he couldn’t get out and about any more by the time he was given the role. I’d like to work something out to do in schools. Not just read my own stuff – though that too. I want to do something about encouraging children not just to write, but to say poems out loud, themselves, learning them by heart. I’d want kids to learn a poem they’ve chosen, say it! I think that would be better for them – and for poetry – than squeezing poems into exam questions. Turning it into a hard code, a problem, not a joy.

What do you make of the teaching of poetry in schools?

I just read an exam question based on a poem of mine, and it was factually inaccurate. The question asked for examples of assonance in the first two lines, and there isn’t any. The only way you could have assonance was if you mispronounced the word ‘plaid’ as ‘plad’. The poem had to be pronounced in the English manner for that question to work. Interesting.… Besides, ‘assonance’ – it’s not the first question about a poem that should be asked of kids of 14. Poetry is, I think – or ought to be anyway – the form of literature most kids will first connect to because, if it’s not murdered in class, they can make the link between poetry and the best of the songs they listen to. They can –or should – enjoy it first or the game’s a bogey anyway.

It sounds as if being Makar involves a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, you have public responsibilities to fulfil as the national poet, but on the other, these responsibilities keep you from why you were given the job in the first place: writing poems.

Well, it could. People write to you as the Makar, asking about, say, a particular poems they’re teaching their class. I say ask the poem, not the poet! There are readings or appearances at good causes, and so on. I’m also on the Scottish Studies working party. That kind of thing. I’ve found about fifty emails in my inbox some days. Some invitations, some requests, some “you ought to write a poem abouts”. It takes a while to answer, I’m very behind with that. So, no I’ve had not enough time to work at the moment. Sometimes in the past I’ve almost let myself stop with the poems for a while. They’ve gone away. Somebody told me that ‘So-and-so was furious because you were awarded the Laureate and you’ve not even published a new collection since 2005’. I don’t think it is purely about being prolific It does me in, though, the way Morgan kept going, publishing a book on his 90th birthday. Selfishly I’m going to take some time soon to just do my own work, because in the end that’s my job, to write poems. I do get commissions and I just try to do my best. I wrote a poem for the opening of this session of the Scottish Parliament. It wasn’t my best by any means – won’t be in my next collection I don’t think – but at least it quoted from a great one, Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Open the Doors’ for the opening of the parliament building. I found it hard, it took a few false starts, but did my best. I feel if I didn’t do anything else this year, I’d have earned my honorarium. Most recently, in the poem-to-order arena, I wrote a poem commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy, for a book she’s editing. Carol Ann neatly subverts the official stuff. It’ll be ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ time in February next year since the Queen ascended the throne. So Duffy’s asked 59 poets, plus herself, to take a year each and to write a poem about it. The year was non-negotiable. I got 1966, and the poem I’ve written is a piece of social history. In a slightly bastardised form of Byron’s Don Juan form, Ottava Rima… [Lochhead allows the SRB to read the poem].

I notice the new poem ends with a quote from Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times, They Are A-Changin’’. Are you a Dylan fan?

I love Dylan. I think he’s writing great songs again now, like ‘Highlands’. I admire how he keeps going, how he keeps seeming to be played out then having these bursts of inspiration and be back on song again.

I’m guessing 1966 must have been around the time you first started writing. Who first turned you onto poetry?

Louis MacNeice. MacNeice completely turned me on. I mean to wanting to try to write it myself – I’d always been a big listener and a reader and knew my all-time favourite [poet] was Anon. I liked Auden, but it was MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I saw it on television in 1966, BBC2, late at night, the sign-off poem. Bought my first Faber book next day. Then there were the Liverpool poets, Patten, Henri and McGough. The sense that you must say this stuff out loud, that was what it was for. One of the things Carol Ann Duffy does now that I admire is to look at clichés and find a way to revitalise them, and MacNeice did that too. I tried it in my earliest poems. Back then, I couldn’t get started on a poem without a word or a phrase with a good double meaning, like ‘I wouldn’t want to see her in my shoes’ when it was literally, as well as figuratively, that… Something like that would pop up and start a poem. I don’t need this punning thing so much now. These days it might be the pure desire to write about a thing, although I still can’t pull it off until a wee bit of language itself enters my head that makes me want to find the rest of the words that go with it.

What about women poets? Did you seek out forerunners?

When I started to love poetry, I read everybody. I loved reading poetry from about the age of 16. Modern poetry. That led me back to older poems. I grew crazy about Keats. Women? I read my Goblin Market, I read my Plaths and my Sextons¸ but I didn’t feel I needed poets to be women for them to act as role models, and I still don’t. What I needed more – now I look back – were Scottish poets. I needed to read MacCaig and Morgan and Crichton Smith even more than Denise Levertov or Louise Gluck, though I loved them too. I wish there had been a few more women among Scotland’s poets. I did read Violet Jacob and Marion Angus, but not until later, and because I was more interested in Scots by then. There were no Scottish women poets writing in English when I got started really. Well, there must have been but they weren’t getting into print, weren’t quoted. But it was possible for me to get a start because of exactly that, as there was a hunger to hear a female voice.

How did you get on with the older generation of poets? The ‘poets’ pub’ era of writers?

They were very kind to me. I’ve never personally suffered from sexism. If they had known what was about to happen, the wave of feminism about to come along, they might not have been. It shocked a lot of men.

Memo for Spring, the collection that first brought you to readers’ attention, was published in 1972. What was the poetry scene like that you emerged into?

Memo for Spring appeared at a time when poetry readings were suddenly happening. The first poetry reading I ever did, ha ha, I had to get good quick. It was at the Glasgow School of Art, with Robbie McMillan (a.k.a. Robbie Coltrane) reading e. e. cummings with his great timing. Tom McGrath, Tom Buchan and Alan Spence did readings I went to in the very late sixties, early seventies, and around the same time I got to know Jim Kelman, Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray. It was great meeting them, though none of us writes like the other. We sometimes don’t see each other for ages, and we don’t often get together, not all four of us, but I’d go to them in trouble, trust them with anything. Scotland is fortunate to have them. There were a lot of terrific older poets in Scotland at the start of the 1970s who got good audiences. MacCaig was a genius reader as well as a genius poet. His timing was impeccable. I was lucky enough to often take part in readings with him or Edwin Morgan or Alex Scott, George Bruce. I got gigs because the organisers would think: I suppose we should have a woman on the bill, and then, there was only me. It was reading aloud that got me published for the first time. It was being the support act for Norman MacCaig in a lecture hall packed with about 300 people. Norman was very nice to me. I was given a 15 minute slot, but he told me to only talk for 12. ‘Leave them wanting more,’ he advised. He got 25 minutes to read.

He told me to time him, he said he’d be finished in 22. He really was a bit of an old showbiz trouper. Brilliant. I enjoyed last year’s celebration of his centenary, reading his work again. I remember when I was at art school, spending whole weekends obsessively reading MacCaig’s poetry, his pop-up visual images, when I was supposed to be painting.

And it was around the same time you also met your friend and influence, Edwin Morgan?

Oh, they were all influences. But yes, even earlier – I was still at art school when I met Eddie via a reading organised by Tom McGrath. Eddie was friendly too and kind but reserved, not like Norman, who flirted with everybody, men, women, the dog in the corner, everybody. When you got to know Eddie, you got to know his sly but merry sense of humour. Eddie had a very ordered life, on the surface. I find it incredibly touching that a poet as private as Edwin Morgan could write poems that meant so much to so many people. The thing about Eddie was he could write so many kinds of poetry. I may love his translations from European poets or his often painful love poems or his playful, experimental concrete poetry, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t also write lines that spoke to everyone.

Tell me about the new play you’ve written, Edwin Morgan’s Dreams – and Other Nightmares.

It’s about friendship, love and creativity and how to keep all three alive to the end of a long life. And beyond. A wee play about some big things. It’s a very simple story.

It was inspired by James McGonigal’s wonderful biography of Morgan, Beyond The Last Dragon. And also by Eddie’s last wee book of poems Dreams And Other Nightmares. The play gives some of this poetry – and earlier more famous ones – dramatic settings. There’re only a few of his poems in the play, but they’re more or less in their entirety. The way they’re juxtaposed, they undercut or contradict each other, are in dialogue with each other, and with the life of the biographer. So a quite disturbing but ultimately life-affirming (I hope) story starts to emerge.

What did you make of Morgan leaving a million pounds to the SNP?

I was surprised. I thought wow. He wasn’t a member of the SNP. He stated once that he never wanted to join any party. He always wanted an independent Scotland but he was critical of the party in the past, so I can only guess he felt a wee wave of optimism at the end there. I’m not a SNP member, myself – have never joined any political party, barring a brief spell in the 1970s as a member of the Labour Party (don’t laugh at me) – but if there was a referendum tomorrow, I’d vote yes. I don’t see why Scotland and England can’t remain friendly co-operative equals. Other countries in the world have dissolved uncomfortable unions.

Do you think writers have a duty to be politically engaged? To speak out on political matters?

Writers absolutely don’t have a duty to do anything but to write. On the other hand, if you are the sort of person who writes, you probably feel a desire to speak, not to stay dumb about injustices. You’re a rent-a-gob. The duty poetry has is to make language live. To reactivate the senses. It’s also a comfort, because it is a private space to which people can enter to think about their lives. It can pain you, but it lets you share in a common humanity. Saying these things, I know they can sound pompous, but it is great when you find a gang of kids that like a particular poem. I love reading aloud to a class Edwin Morgan’s ‘The First Men on Mercury’. You see as you read it 7- and 8-year-olds getting the joke, then it goes beyond the joke and becomes to me a very powerful poem about communication. Language is about communication. Art should be in part about communication, it’s not just about expression. You don’t have a duty to always tell the truth, you don’t always have to speak out, you can be strategic. But you have a duty not to tell lies. I have perfect respect for Jim Kelman who says he doesn’t want anything to do with a writer whose art isn’t committed. But that depends on what you mean by committed. Your commitment is to the truth, language itself. Not to having a career. Young people approach me and talk to me about ‘my career as a poet’. That makes me laugh. You don’t get a career as a poet. You have a life during which you might write some poems.

There’s a political edge to a poem included in A Choosing, ‘Kidspoem/ Bairnsang’, which suggests kids have the Scots language forcibly squeezed out of them at school. Most of the poems in A Choosing, I note, are in standard English.

It took me a long while to gain the courage to write in Scots, and the desire. Why’s that? You can start to psychoanalyse yourself trying to answer that. But you’d be better off interrogating the Education System. ‘Kidspoem’ was a commission; the idea was to encourage kids to write in their ‘home town’ language. So I thought back to my own childhood, and remembered the words I still used, built a translation into the structure. Had fun…

You’ve mentioned visiting England recently for readings. How has your work been received south of the border in the past?

My poems at readings in England go down very well. As a playwright… hmm. This doesn’t happen to the Irish, because they are perceived as coming from another nation with interesting voices worth listening to, but there are people involved in the theatre down South who think anything too strongly Scottish is provincial. I’ve had critics comment, and this was at the Traverse at the Edinburgh Festival, that a play I’d written had no reason to be set in Scotland, it could be set anywhere, so why do they speak in Scottish accents? The National Theatre in London said they thought Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off was a fantastic play, but ‘far too Scottish for us’. At the same time, I’ve had various eastern European countries do a few of my plays. So, who’s provincial?

You’ve been cited by other women writers as a role model and forerunner. Does that make you feel self-conscious? Do you welcome it? What does it feel like?

It’s thrilling, actually. Ali Smith told me when she was a teenager she was babysitting for a couple and she found a copy of a book of my poems, and how it was a thrill to her to learn you could be Scottish and a woman and a writer. I didn’t think you could be Scottish and a woman and a writer when I started either. On the other hand, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I just wanted to write one more thing, this thing I was writing now, then one more thing, then one more thing. Obviously I accept that I am ‘A Writer’ now. It’s been my way of being in the world – but after each poem you honestly don’t know if you’ll write anymore. You know you’ll try, but you don’t know if you’ll be able to bring it off again. You’ve got to start again, re-learn how to write a poem. I don’t feel as if I have any experience that guarantees success. When you get to the end, it’s never the poem you started out to write either. In 1966, you’d have a lot of ideas for poems, they’d just come up. As you get older, you have to work more consciously. My aim is to achieve the amount of joy I had at first and the same sense of discovery. But I suppose to accept the post of Makar I also have to accept something of the role of writer. I want to stick up for writers. I want to defend what they need to work, which might not necessarily always be money. Listen to the artists, I say. Let artists set the agenda for art.

What poetry is there out at the moment that you enjoy? What turns you off?

There’s quite a lot of poetry out at the moment where I don’t know what the poet is doing. I read them aloud to see if it makes it clearer, but no. I’d need a clue to start me off. I’ve never been interested in poems that don’t communicate. I loved something Raymond Carver said about his duty being to a fundamental clarity of expression. I try not to be ambiguous except when I mean to be ambiguous. Poetry asks you to think about language. It’s good training for when you hear the clichés, the advertisements, the lies of politicians. Poetry also asks us to enjoy the play of language, in exactly the same way that nursery rhymes ask of children. That doesn’t mean I think the poem has to be completely transparent. You do need to have a mystery, a sense of the poem as having a reality apart from you. You don’t ‘understand’ it but it is somehow essential.

The person that first did that for me is Robert Lowell. I loved reading Lowell and I still love reading Lowell. I didn’t – don’t – find him easy but I wanted to keep hearing him and the sounds he makes. What I like to know about a poet, is that for them language is a precision instrument – all theirs – and that they are willing to communicate that to you, the reader.

I like Tom Leonard’s poems very much for that reason. Astringent. Rigorous. There are many younger, very varied, Scottish poets I enjoy. What I like about Carol Ann’s poetry in her new collection [The Bees] is that the poems are simple.

I don’t mean they were simple to write, I mean they are simple to read. It’s a commitment she’s made to the lyric voice that works beautifully in her verse. A poem is something to share with other people. It’s a unique pleasure, footering about with words to try to make them make a new sense. Some of my poems are almost prose but not quite. And I don’t think they should necessarily make perfect sense on the first reading. They shouldn’t be glib statements. I don’t think of poetry as being an intellectual pleasure, solely. I like it to be enjoyable at the level of being a song people sing. You’re singing their emotions. But poets sing a song of themselves, they can’t avoid it.

What do you plan to write next?

I know I’ll try and write something, don’t know what. I have an idea for a series of poems on portraits of women. Different stanza forms for each. Photographs or drawings, real or imaginary. I’m going to try another stab at a play that I’ve got a great title for and ‘the idea’ – but can’t get the story going. Probably be fatal to talk about either… I always think I’d like to write short fiction and I never can. It always turns into a bit of a play. The closest thing I’ve got to writing fiction are dramatic monologues. But I always want to hear them spoken aloud, performed, I don’t want them just to exist in a book. Perhaps I could write a book that’s a collection of first person narratives, none of which is me. Poems and short stories already have a performative aspect that novels don’t have. My favourite writer is Alice Munro. I admire the deceptive simplicity of her writing, the way she leaves dazzling gaps that allow the reader’s imagination in. She does things in a short story many novelists can’t manage in an entire book. Lorrie Moore. I admire too, her stories, the deep pain of them. And my friend Helen Simpson. And Kelman. I love his novels and polemical writing, of course I do, but a short story of his like ‘In With the Doctor’ is world class, universal, the equal of Chekhov. And very, very funny. But I’m not worried about poetry. Poetry is not going to be crushed down, no one is going to stop it because it is a fundamental force.


Liz Lochhead
POLYGON, £9.99 PP112 ISBN 978-1846972072

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