Interview with Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is one of Scotland's most popular writers – playwright, poet, novelist and children's writer – and her new poetry book Life Mask was recently published by Bloodaxe. Many of the poems in the book fit into three sections, one about the end of a long relationship, one about the idea of masks, and one about a trip to Africa to meet her birth father. I asked Jackie a few questions about how the new collection came together:

Instead of an author photo on this book, you have a picture of your herm. Can you explain what this is and how it came about?

The Herm came about because Edinburgh Business Park decided it would like to have twelve heads of Scottish poets with poems in the park for workers to enjoy during lunch breaks. Michael Snowden did the one of me. He talked to me a lot about the process of making a life mask and a bronze head and I found the whole thing fascinating. He said things like plaster is very unforgiving; clay equals freedom. Also having to lie down with my face on top of my face was a strange experience - having to be completely quiet for half an hour!

Herons keep appearing in the poems of Life Mask. A favourite bird, or a totemic symbol?

I love how mysterious herons are. They always look real and unreal. You are never quite sure if what you are seeing is what you are seeing with a heron. They are like statues for ages and then suddenly they come to life, their big wings sweeping the sky.

After the poems about illness in your last poetry collection, Off Colour, there is a hard-won feeling of renewal in these new pieces.

That's nice. I do think the poems are about going through the darkness and emerging into the light, that they take you on a journey of some sort. When you write you come across every so often that feeling of a completely new beginning as if life itself was starting all over again and you had to relearn everything.

"I've always been a wee misery." "Enough of the smiling." You seem to be reacting here against your reputation as one of the cheerier souls in the often dour poetry world.

Well I don't think of that poem as my voice, but more the voice of a made up martyr! But I like the idea of being a cheerier soul! There is a lot about smiling in Life Mask because we all smile through troubles often and hide what it is we are really feeling.

The front cover image is of a fabulous, dangerously-bosomed sculpture by Sokari Douglas Camp. Where did you come across it?

I came across her work in New York and loved it. I spoke to her and asked if I could use an image for a cover and she said yes. I love the strength of her work, how complex it is and how rooted in African mythology it is.

Maw Broon makes another appearance in Life Mask, dealing with a reconstructed (perhaps not for the best reasons) Paw. Is she an alter ego figure for you?

Yes, she's becoming one! Hope I don't resort to the pinny though or the pulled back bun. But I do hope to put a Maw Broon poem in every book I write. She's a great character; it's a lot of fun thinking up things that would surprise her.

Lastly, what writing projects are you working on now?

I've just finished a new book of short stories called Wish I Was Here that will come out with Picador in June next year. At the moment I'm writing the screenplay of my novel Trumpet for Gurinder Chadha.

Monday 5th December 2005

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