...if poetry is a method of approaching truths, and each of us with a human soul and 'a tongue in oor heids' can make an approach toward a truth, poetry is inherently democratic. - Kathleen Jamie
About Kathleen Jamie
Kathleen Jamie spent much of her early poetic career answering the question posed by the disapproving elders in her famous poem ‘The Queen of Sheba’: “whae do you think y’ur?” Across a rich and varied body of writing, Jamie has been described as a feminist poet, a travel writer, a nature writer and Scottish writer. However, in a profile for The Guardian in 2005, Jamie declared a desire to move away from “the assumptions and baggage” of being defined as a ‘Scottish writer’ or ‘woman writer’: “It seems to be part of the job to keep redefining and refreshing what these categories mean. There is nothing more irritating to a writer than to be told you are not doing it properly. You know, my job is to keep pushing it and pushing it.”
Sharp readers will catch one consistent thread of imagery in her writing: she is a poet of air. The wind blows through all her work, most commonly that of the salt grey skies of Scotland’s coasts, though through her travels one can read something of the air of the Himalayas and Pakistan.
Born in Renfrewshire, Scotland she studied philosophy at Edinburgh University. Awarded an Eric Gregory at nineteen, Jamie used the money to travel, notably to the Himalayas. From these experiences Jamie wrote The Golden Peak: Travels in Northern Pakistan (Virago, 1992), which won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and was later revised and republished as Among Muslims: Meetings at the frontiers of Pakistan (Sort of Books, 2002). The book serves as a travel guide accompanying her 1993 poetry collection, The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe), which flits between the Himalayas and Scotland.
The outcomes of those travels emerge in poems expressing a desire to leave Scotland in The Way we Live (Bloodaxe, 1987) or through the delivery of a Tibetan landscape in Scots dialect, as in several poems in The Autonomous Region. In ‘The Queen of Sheba,’ the title poem from Jamie’s fourth full solo collection, one poem relates ‘A dream of the Dalai Lama on Skye’, constructing an imaginary space for shared human experiences across cultural differences and vast geographical distances.
In The Tree House (Picador, 2004), Jamie moved toward what she originally set out to be: a nature poet asking how human beings can live in a right relationship with the natural world. Her work has always pursued this investigation through precise deployment of present tense lyrics that – to paraphrase a line from Jamie’s essay, ‘The Woman in the Field’ – place us “in landscape” and “in time” to find our own meaning and space to manoeuvre.
Returning recently to the geography of Scotland, Jamie describes having “what Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘a strong Scots accent of the mind’.” Her latest collection, The Bonniest Companie (2015), is an abundant and generous gathering of observations from the natural world. It won the 2016 Saltire Society Scottish Poetry Book of the Year and went on to win the over all Saltire Book of the Year Award, against stiff competition. Composed against a backdrop of 2014’s Scottish Referendum, the Saltire Society described The Bonniest Companie as “a visionary response” to the local and global forces affecting Scotland and Jamie’s place within it.
Against the regularity of poetic forms in her earlier Picador collections the poems here are often staggered, the lines oscillating down the page to create spacious lyrical landscapes. The effect, reminiscent of Jorie Graham’s cantilevered lines, draws the reader’s eye horizontally back and forth across – as the collection’s dialect spelling indicates – scenes from Scotland’s wilds. Often a single poem will switch from English to Scots although, regardless the language, her poetry is informed by the rhythms of Scots.
From the first set of readings Jamie made for the Poetry Archive in 2003, audiences can encounter that earlier, politicised, satirical poet. The second recording, made in 2016, more closely represents those natural themes which have come to characterise her work since 2004. Regardless of the poem, when she reads you can hear her voice and accent emphasise the rigorous musicality of Scots.
Between the two recordings for the Poetry Archive, Jamie has won a string of awards and nominations, (in addition to her many prior accolades), including two short listings for the TS Eliot Award, the 2005 Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award for The Tree House, and the 2012 Costa Poetry Prize for The Overhaul.
In addition to these accolades for her poetry she has also published two striking collections of prose essays on the natural world, Findings (2006) and Sightlines (2012). The latter won the John Burroughs Medal and the Orion Book Award. Writing of Sightlines in The Scotsman, Stuart Kelly notes how, in the first essay, ‘Aurora’, Jamie “unpicks the very human desire to give ‘meaning’ to nature” through a great “precision, of both thinking and seeing”.
All these elements to her writing are carried with great honesty into her recent collaboration with artist Brigid Collins. Frissure (Polygon, 2013), explores Jamie’s experience of breast cancer at the age of 49. Examining her mastectomy scar in the mirror afterwards, she saw “the low shores of an island … a river, seen from above … a line, drawn on my body” and she realised how the “line, in poetry, opens up possibilities” as much as her scar did: “To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change.” (‘Healings 2’)
Kathleen Jamie’s first reading for the Poetry Archive come from a special recording made for The Poetry Archive on 17 January 2003 at The Audio Workshop, London. The producer was Richard Carrington.
Her second reading was recorded at The Tun, Edinburgh, on April 25th 2016 with Paul Sumerling as producer
Poems by Kathleen Jamie
Books by Kathleen Jamie
The Autonomous Region: Poems and Photographs from Tibet
The Queen of Sheba
Bloodaxe , 1994
Sort of Books, 2002
The Tree House
Sort of Books, 2005
Picador , 2012
Sort of Books, 2012
Frissure with Brigit Collins
The Bonniest Companie
Eric Gregory Award
Scottish Arts Council Book Award, Black SpidersPrize website
Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The Way We LivePrize website
Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (shortlist), The Queen of Sheba
Somerset Maugham Award, The Queen of Sheba
T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Queen of Sheba
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem), 'The Graduates'Prize website
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The Queen of Sheba
T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), Jizzen
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection - shortlist), Jizzen
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Jizzen
Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland AwardPrize website
Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada - shortlist) Mr. and Mrs. Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-1994Prize website
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection - winner), The Tree House
T. S. Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Tree House
Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, The Tree HousePrize website
Ondaatje Prize (shortlist), FindingsPrize website
Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award (shortlist), FindingsPrize website
TS Eliot Prize (shortlist), The Overhaul Prize website
Costa Poetry Award, The OverhaulPrize website
John Burroughs Medal, SightlinesPrize website
Orion Book Award, SightlinesPrize website
Saltire Society Poetry Book of the Year and over all Book of the Year, The Bonniest CompaniePrize website