Autonomies and Regions: An Interview with Kathleen Jamie
by Caroline Blyth
Kathleen Jamie was born in Renfrewshire in 1962. She won an Eric Gregory Award at the age of nineteen, and a Scottish Council Book Award for her first collection of poetry, Black Spiders (The Salamander Press, 1982). Bloodaxe published A Flame in Your Heart, written with Andrew Greig, in 1986 and The Way We Live in 1987. In 1989 Jamie travelled to Tibet and China at the time of the Beijing massacre and wrote The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe, 1993) out of this experience. The Golden Peak, a travel novel set in Northern Pakistan, was published by Virago earlier this year. Kathleen Jamie is one of the youngest contemporary poets represented in The New Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1993). She has been Writer in Residence at Dundee University for the past two years. When she's not travelling, she lives in Fife.
You read philosophy at Edinburgh. What bearing does this have on your poetry?
Kathleen Jamie: A lot of Scots poets come out of philosophy departments, and I think that's a difference between Scots and the English that a lot of English writers come out of English departments, and fewer Scottish writers do. And how does this effect your work? I think it encourages us in rig our. It's probably bad for the imagination.
Then why did you do Philosophy?
I was interested, and it was a deliberate manoeuvre not to become a teacher, I'm afraid. I knew very early on that I didn't want a proper job, and I thought if I can make myself unemployable I'll have no option but to be a writer ... which I may regret (as it's bloody hard sometimes). But I knew that if I studied, say, English, I might just get shunted into being either a secretary or an English teacher. And I thought, I really don't want to do that.
You hadn't thought of writing full time as a poet?
I don't know if! thought it was possible. I still don't know if it's possible. I often think of packing it in, just because there's no money in it.
Since you won the Eric Gregory Award, have you found that it's been easier to get grants?
The Scottish Arts Council are very good - there's a lot of residencies and they give grants direct to writers, so I've had a lot of help from them. I'm just finishing a stint at Dundee University, as Writer in Residence, things like that have helped - it made it possible really without that it would have been impossible. But in Scotland it's a lot better subsidized. It's harder down here - there's just very few grants. I think every Scottish university's got a Writer in Residence and a lot of the district councils have, operating through the libraries in Scotland. I think there's twenty-seven posts, some huge number.
In your experience as Writer in Residence, is there any evidence from the students' writing that you've seen that they've read any poetry?
No. They've got a sense that there's something else in the world other than what they've been told there is, and they're blindly trying to figure out what it is. And I'm not bothered if they write or sing or jump up and down, just so long as they realise there's more to life than what the academics are telling them or what school has told them - just getting in touch with their own creativity and spirituality. Many end up not writing, but at least they know there is an aspect of themselves that's there - it may come out in later life, it may not: no matter.
You were very unusual - outstanding - being early twenties yourself and being published. How were people encouraging you when you were at Edinburgh, were they saying, look, don't wait to see what she's producing in ten to fifteen years, look what she's producing now?
Yes, I think it's to do with the whole system of having Writers in Residence, that's into a third - second - generation now: you can see the effect it's had. It was Peter Porter when I was there, and he was good to me; and it just saved me ten years of farting around thinking, am I a writer? will I bother to write? I just got on with it. It's now that I'm in a position to do that for other people. So it's a good thing: it has an effect. Often I'm the first real writer people come in contact with. Part of my job's to give out books: I give out all my library and poetry books in constant circulation. Even big Scottish writers like Kelman, you know, they've never heard of him. Angry Young Men, I say, read Kelman; and they go, Who? And I think that's a really important part of my job, showing people that this world exists. It make's me bloody angry with what universities are doing and schools are doing.
It's partly that there's no space for creativity or poetry on the curriculum ...
Yes, it's very anti-creative. It's a big problem with our culture as a whole in Britain, especially in Scotland.
Would you consider coming South? You have indicated elsewhere that you have something of a love/hate relationship with Scottish culture.
I'd consider coming South. Although I don't think I can be bothered with the nomadism it involves any longer, having got a home at last; I feel like staying there, just for a year or two anyway. I'll probably get a residency abroad. But the idea of packing those books into those boxes again ... I am going to India next month. But most of the work I've done in the last two years has been home-based - it just hasn't been published yet. It's 1990 since I've been abroad.
Is there a reason for going to India?
I've got a commission for a travel book so I'll do another one of those. I think I'd rather write poems but it's this awful thing about having no money ever - you have to find ways of making some. And writing - writing travel books - seems to be a lot better than working in a sausage factory. I really wish I was just writing poetry, but needs must.
How do you feel about your prose?
I write prose when I'm not writing poetry, but as soon as I get back into poetry I forget it - it doesn't interest me. I'm not good at plots and narratives and not terribly interested in psychology.
Maybe you'd be using the novel to explore other areas, not structured in terms of plot and narrative.
I've got this one that I keep fiddling around with and then dumping, and then re-writing: it's a children's book, but I don't think that's something I'll always play with; no I really think it's a way of filling time between poems.
How do you structure your time for writing?
When I'm being very good I try and do - at least, write - a few notes down every day, but the problem is not so much time as space: I'm desperate for some place to work in - usually it's a comer of the kitchen table, or ten minutes snatched here and there. But my partner's a cabinet maker, and he's building me a garret, so I should get it sorted. Once I've got somewhere to g.Q I think it will make all the difference
When you were abroad were you able to write poems that weren't haunted by what you had left behind?
I sort of snapped like a carrot, and the stuff in The Autonomous Region was such a radical departure from what I was doing before. I wrote that book in about three weeks ... it was so big I couldn't contain it on pieces of paper without scrawling over the walls, so I pinned two sheets of newsprint to the walls and I just scrawled all over them; it was so liberating. I recommend it.
Where did you find the space to do this?
I was in somebody's house, renting a room in a flat in Edinburgh. I was interested in story books - not story books, comic books - it's just exuberance. And I really envy visual artists who can get physically involved in what they're doing, who use different colours, who get their hands dirty.
Given the photographs in The Autonomous Region, do you now have projects in mind that would combine poetry with another visual art form?
A friend who I know at home is a sculptor, and she and I are always cooking up ideas to do shows together; whether we will or not I don't know.
Would you consider doing something for radio?
That would be fun, wouldn't it? I think radio is a wonderful medium. It's great: for drama, for poetry, and everything it doesn't do enough of. I was in the studio last night, for Nighnvaves - late at night - thinking, this is the way to live. If I had a proper job, I would like it to be in radio.
The shape of your poems would work as music, as sound, rhythmically it's exciting; could a composer translate it for performance? KJ.: I'm musically literate; if somebody else wanted to do that it would be wonderful.
Do you see yourself in a particular language or tradition?
I don't see myself in a tradition out of just sheer ignorance what the traditions are.
Anywhere; not having studied literature at all. 1 feel really intimidated when people start talking about literary traditions, because that's not my vocabulary, it's not my field of interest. And I think that's the critic's job; if they tell me 1 am or am not part of the tradition I'll believe them - with a pinch of salt.
Would you write an 'Autonomous Region' poem about Britain?
I'd love to. but I don't seem to be able to sec it at a distance at the moment. I don't think I'm a political poet -1 mean, 'personal political', but not in the grand sense - and when I feel I should, and try to, write political poems, they come out really badly.
Can you say anything about the religious aspects of your poems?
I know they're there; and they were stronger a few years ago. I studied a lot of religion did courses in Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Religion, and any time I've been abroad it's been a big part of what interests me in any new culture. And it's there, a sense of...I don't know, I'm going to use really old fashioned words, like transcendence ... yes, it's still there.
When you think of other contemporary poets, who or what do you have in mind?
Well all the people in that Bloodaxe Book' ... there's a lot of poetry being written. It's better to say who I've been reading recently, as I admire a lot of different people for different things. Pauline Stainer I've been reading and decided I want to use less words. But my poems are getting longer and longer.
Is that just for the time being?
Yes, then they'll probably start shrinking again. I think I'm lumbered with being a poet.