Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is one of the most prolific and insightful poets currently writing in the UK today. At a time when too many people frequently describe the form as being “in decline” and thought of as an “exclusive club”, Kay writes poems that are accessible, yet deeply involved and involving.

Kay’s poetry embraces the reader, and at the same time it challenges them to think about what she is saying. Her work covers weighty themes such as gender, ethnicity, racism and cultural difference, and presents them in ways that leave you marvelling at her command of language, and at the same time feeling as though you have gained valuable insight into subjects fraught with social and emotional complexities. As far as Kay is concerned: “All you need is a way of reading poetry so while you’re listening, you are also reading; and that you listen to poetry like you might listen to a piece of music. You actually don’t need to understand it in the first instance; you’re listening to enjoy and experience language, not to worry about it. Once you’re past worrying you can actually return again and again to the same poem, and that’s what I think is wonderful about poetry.”

Kay’s latest work, Darling, published in October 2007, brings together into a vibrant new book many favourite poems from her four Bloodaxe collections, The Adoption Papers, Other Lovers, Off Colour and Life Mask, as well as featuring new work, some previously uncollected poems, and some lively poetry for younger readers. Those familiar with her poetry will find old friends amongst the pages brushing up against a number of recent additions. When asked how she selected the pieces to be included in the anthology, her response was surprising: “I’ve put in most of the poems that are in the earlier books, some I’ve taken out because I loathe them. A few poems, I’ve just gotten rid of all together.” She tempers this admission by adding: “I don’t want to be too revisionist, because you have to live with your past, your mistakes, and you can’t really create a new self. On the whole, I only removed poems from whole volumes if I felt they were absolutely unnecessary there. That’s not to say that every one of these new and collected poems is a wonderful poem, you probably think that only six out of a hundred are any good, because that’s how it is. I think that’s true of a lot of poets, at the end of the day there’s only a handful of poems that they could really stand by.”

The new work included in Darling (named for Julia Darling, a close and well-missed friend of Kay’s) presents a varied canvas, which effortlessly mixes weighty topics such as identity, love and grief with Kay’s light-handed but revealing humour. Gap Year comes towards the end of the collection and addresses the feelings endured by all parents when their children fly the coop. Kay explains, “it seemed a relevant circle, between The Adoption Papers and then having my own baby, and then having my baby growing up and go back out into the wide world.”

The anthology concludes with a poem inspired by the paintings of Howard Hodgkin, recently exhibited at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Kay describes the experience of producing this latest work as an “exciting process.” She continues, “I felt as though the paintings were an event. I was excited to be going to meet them. I even found myself getting dressed up for them at one stage, thinking I’ve got to be colourful for these paintings.”

Such passion for her craft is evident throughout Jackie Kay’s writing, old and new. Darling is the perfect package for both those well acquainted with her poetry and for those who are not. The collection provides a unique and exhilarating journey. Darling is published by Bloodaxe.

Rachel Hazelwood