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Jackie Kay: On The Outside

Jackie Kay is one of the UK’s best loved poets and novelists, and is the guest curator of this month’s Off The Shelf Festival of Words. She’s in good company – Simon Armitage and Benjamin Zephaniah were the last two curators.

We caught up with Jackie after performing at Off The Shelf’s press launch last month. This year her curated event explores the theme of ‘outside’, echoing some of her personal experiences. Her adoptive father worked for the Communist Party full-time and her adoptive mother was the Scottish secretary for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

We spoke to her about what got her excited about poetry to begin with and what the concept of outside means to her.

When did you first take an interest in poetry?

I used to get taken to these Burns suppers as a kid. I used to find them really fantastic experiences, because they brought together a really disparate bunch of people, and gave everybody a chance to perform bits of Burns. It introduced me to poetry as a kind of performance – as something that should be heard out loud, and as a celebration of this great Scottish poet Robert Burns. It used to be very moving, because Burns was a political poet, but also a love poet and a satirical poet, and so you’d get the whole range of his work in these Burns suppers.

I love the drama of the Burns supper, especially in the address to the haggis. I love the idea that haggis could have its own poem. It’s difficult to think of other pieces of food that have been given their own poem in quite such a famous way. We should do it – Yorkshire pud should have its own poem.

Were you surrounded by poetry growing up?

I grew up in a house where my mum and dad were big readers of poetry. They read poetry out loud to me and then they took me to these events, like poetry and pint nights at the Highland Institute in Glasgow. More pints than poetry I must add. So I grew up listening to Tom Leonard, Liz Lockhead, Sorley MacLean, Douglas Dunn and Iain Crichton Smith.

The theme for your curated event for this year’s Off The Shelf is ‘outside’.

Yeah, it seemed like ‘outside’ was a broad enough theme, but that it would resonate with a lot of people. Most people feel, one way or another, outside of things – whether it’s existentially, psychologically, geographically, sexually. I just thought it was a broad enough theme that would appeal to people and it could be both positive and negative. There’s positive ways of feeling outside. Toni Morrison once said that all of her favourite writing exists on the margins of things, on the borders. The borders can be quite a powerful place to be.

Tell us more about the programme for the event.

I’m excited about the three refugees that are coming down from Glasgow, meeting the refugees in Sheffield and there being a dialogue. I think you’re astonished by how similar your experience can be to other people’s, but also how different. We tend to put people into big categories, when actually the experience varies massively. So I’m quite interested in looking at specific experiences so that it doesn’t become this homogenous term.

The other event I’m excited about is my son is coming to Sheffield to show his film Here and Now, which takes place in a barber shop. He was first picked out at Sheffield Doc/Fest, so Sheffield was one of the first cities that gave him recognition, and he’s now won runner-up in the Guardian documentary competition this year.

I’m very excited about Zaffar Kunial. He’s one of my favourite writers. I think he’s really brilliant. He’s not yet got a published book. He’s brand new off the shelf! I like the idea of combining well known people with people who are not well known, and finding where there audience lies.

So it’s just going to be a whole day of – hopefully – things that will be thought-provoking, entertaining and leave people feeling like they’ve been nourished in some way.

Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m working on a novel at the moment with the working title Bystander. It’s about these different people who witness this same event, and whether or not they are active or passive. It’s really about, I suppose, how we would define ourselves as bystanders, and how our society encourages us to be bystanders now, because we’re all looking out for ourselves.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I think the writer needs self-doubt and self-confidence in equal measures. It’s a funny thing to do. It’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde job, being a writer, because you go through all these different extremes – from thinking, “I’m really no good at this and I’m kidding myself on,” to thinking, “Wow! Yeah!” When you’ve finished something you can feel that fist-punching euphoria, and a couple of hours later you can look at the same thing again and think, “Oh no, that’s actually quite dire.”

You need to be able to show your work to other people, so one piece of advice is get the advice of friends that you actually trust. Read as much as you can, so you’re putting your own work into context, and see that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Keep your ears and eyes open, because being a writer is a bit like being a spy. Keep your ears open and listen to how people use language. Listen to the rhythm of natural speech.

Keep a notebook with you at all times and don’t be frightened of failure. That has to be the biggest piece of advice, because I think that people get so frightened of making fools of themselves that it becomes a psychological state. So I think embrace it, know that you’re going to fail on some level, because you’re going to fail yourself, because what you put onto the page is never going to be as rich as what you had in your head – the dreams you had for your own piece of writing.

Being a writer is like being the weather – rainy one minute, sunny the next, but mostly foggy. Mostly dense fog.

Jackie Kay’s Outside event will take place at the Showroom on Saturday 19th October, 2pm-6.30pm.

For the full Off The Shelf Festival programme, visit offtheshelf.org.uk )

Next article in issue 67

Cemetery: Voices of the Dead

Sheffield takes pride in its history. With roots deep in its hidden castle and the steel scarred narrative of the industrial past emblazoned…

Sheffield takes pride in its history. With roots deep in its hidden castle and the steel scarred narrative of the industrial past emblazoned

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