Liz Lochhead’s appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival had been eagerly anticipated since she was appointed Scottish Makar in January 2011, and she wasn’t about to disappoint.
Promoting her latest collection, A Choosing, but reading from a selection of other books she brought along, Lochhead showed just why the nation holds her so close to its heart.
Modest and unassuming, she is a woman with a huge heart and a massive amount of talent, and she thrilled the full house by revealing that although her new collection wasn’t published until next month, it was being made exclusively available to this book festival audience as a one-off from publisher Polygon.
A Choosing is largely a biographical collection, “that if it had been written on another day in another time would be entirely different,” she said. “Poets have a bad habit of singing the songs of themselves and I wanted to avoid that.”
Lochhead read some poems about the first things she ever wrote, which reminded her of her earliest memory when she was four years old. She had got her head trapped in her gran’s railings and had to listen terribly gloomy music being played on the radio while the adults tried to figure out how to free her. The music was only broken by the announcement: “The King is dead; Long live the Queen.”
Lochhead seemed unsure at times of her position in Scottish literature despite her accolades. “I’m more active since I became Makar,” she said. “But I don’t deserve the job. There are far better poets out there than me. The job is only for five years so at least the younger ones will get a chance to do this later.”
Her new set of commitments will see her travelling more and she indicated she wants to get a lot more involved in schools, but the only impact seems to be on her actual collection publication. “It’ll be the end of my Makarship before my next collection comes out.” And her playwriting? “Oh, that’s not affected in any way,” she assured us.
Lochhead told the audience how she had tried her hand at short story writing but was never any good. “They were all in first person so contained dramatic monologue anyway. I always get pulled towards how I can make something into a play or a poem.”
She hates the “poetry voice”, that drawl that poets often put in when they change the way they talk to deliver a poem. “I always think they sound like a vicar talking, trying to make something sound poetic that isn’t.”
Joyce McWilliam who chaired the event, summed up the nation’s thoughts to end the show with perhaps the loveliest tribute I’ve heard of Lochhead: “Language shapes our world and Liz Lochhead is a true shaper of words.”