This Woman’s Work: Liz Lochhead, The First Lady of Scottish Literature…

There are many reasons that Liz Lochhead is the right choice as our new National Makar. She has a fantastic and influential body of work behind her which dates back to the early 70s, a time when, along with Agnes Owens, she was one of the few female voices that were in evidence in what was a significant renaissance in Scottish literature. You may think that her sex is irrelevant. It’s not. Her poems often look at personal relationships and beyond from an unapologetic female point of view, and that is still rare enough for it to be important. But there are three central reasons why Liz is perfect for this position; her belief that poetry is for everyone, her desire to put that belief into practice, and her wonderful poems.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a few chats with Liz over the years and what strikes you when listening to her is her passion for life. Poetry, and art for that matter, is not a job or a hobby to her. It is a central part of her being, and her belief that poetry improves peoples lives is one that I, and hopefully you, share. Part of the remit of the Makar is to promote  poetry to the people, to fire our enthusiasm, and Liz will revel in this. When she was the writer in residence for the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University her door was always open, and she helped many budding writers and poets, organised writing groups and also held one on one sessions. Always positive, even when being highly, and justifiably, critical; people always left with the feeling that their writing would improve as a result of her input. She would appear at reading groups, happily and generously giving her time to those who shared her passion, reading from her own work when asked, but more often giving encouragement to others. She is still a regular reader at schools and colleges. She knows that education is a life long undertaking, but that those formative years are vital.
What Liz’s poetry shares with that of her predecessor and close friend Edwin Morgan is an accessibility for all. You don’t need to have been taught about iambic pentameter or assonance to appreciate their work. I’m always wary of any art that comes with a set of instructions which are apparently required for you to enjoy it. The best poetry can be read on many different levels, but it should always be inclusive rather than exclusive.  We have been lucky that Morgan and Lochhead are the most welcoming of poets.

Here are a couple of my favourite Liz Lochhead poems, one which is obviously very personal to Liz, the other which was once very personal to me:

SORTING THROUGH
The moment she died, my mother’s dancedresses
turned from the colours they really were
to the colours I imagined them to be.
I can feel the weight of bumptoed silver shoes
swinging from their anklestraps as she swaggers
up the path towards her Dad, light-headed
from airman’s kisses. Here, at what I’ll have to learn
to call my father’s house , yes every duster prints her
even more vivid than an Ilford snapshot on some seafront
in a white cardigan and that exact frock.
Old lipsticks. Liquid Stockings.
Labels like Harella, Gor-ray, Berketex.
And, as I manhandle whole outfits into binbags for Oxfam,
every mote in my eye is a utility mark
and this is useful:
the sadness of dispossessed dresses,
the decency of good coats roundshouldered
in the darkness of wardrobes,
the gravitas of lapels,
the invisible danders of skin fizzing off from them
like all that life will not neatly end.
                        *

OPEN WITH THE CLOSING
(Song)
You should never try to make a Lover
Of someone who ought to be a Friend
So let’s open with the closing –
Begin with the end.

Don’t have to be a Guggenheim scholar
To realise when I’m beat –
Don’t get all hot under the collar
when I tell you I’ve got cold feet.

What right had I to think it might be easy?
Why was I so sure it would be fun?
You know we’d hate to complicate it –
So let’s end it before its begun.

First the phonecall, starter’s orders
For an over-eager heart –
I was off before the pistol.
False start.

No, no, never try and make a lover
Of someone who ought to be a friend.
So let’s open with the closing,
Begin with the end.
                       *

Perhaps the best place to start if you want to read some of our new Makar’s poetry is her 1984 collection Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems which collates her first three volumes of poetry. I would also suggest that everyone should own a copy of her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which is one of the most accessible and entertaining Scottish plays of the 20th century, and, if you want a fuller picture, you could do worse than get a copy of True Confessions & New Clichés which features songs, monologues, raps, prose and other oddities that don’t fit easily with her poetry. There is also a lovely anthology by Canongate Classics which features poems by Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Liz. It’s called Three Scottish Poets and it would make a great introduction to three of Scotland’s best for someone you care for.

There may be other poets who you prefer. I tend to read Don Patterson more than I do Liz Lochhead these days, but this appointment is not about who is someone’s favourite, it’s about who is best placed to represent Scotland in poetry and, through that poetry, to promote Scotland to others and to itself. It is this that makes Liz the perfect choice. I raise a glass to her and hope you’ll do the same.

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