Liz Lochhead

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Scots have a natural desire for poetry, says their newly appointed makar. Here, she talks about about the poems and poets she most admires, engaging young people and what she hopes to achieve during her tenure.

How do you feel about your appointment as makar?

Apprehensive in case I can't do it well enough, and excited at the chance. I didn't expect it, but I love poetry and I know it can help people at the worst and best times of their lives.

You have said poetry is "at the core of our culture". Is Scotland a poetic nation in a way that differentiates it from others?

There is a natural acceptance and desire for poetry in Scotland. It's as basic to us as song and dance. Another element is Burns - a popular, mythic figure as well as a poet. Growing up saying Burns out loud has helped us.

What do you think of the current debate around whether Scots should be regarded as a language or a regional dialect?

I'm against putting a wall up between Scots and English; I'd like it to remain a continuum. Both ends of the spectrum should be explored in schools - I want children to have access to all kinds of vernacular language.

What is your favourite poem?

I have lots but a poem that really had an effect on me when I was young was Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

What should be done to enthuse young people in Scottish schools about poetry?

I would like to encourage kids to read poetry out loud. My 15-year-old nephew said his class learnt the Shakespeare sonnet Let Me Not to the Marriage of Two Minds. Then they brought in poems they liked and read them out. I think that is brilliant. His teacher was not making it about learning the right answers for exams. It's about developing confidence to read and trusting your own response to the poem. The trouble is if a poem is taught as a hard code, a complicated way of saying something simple. It's not about that. I'm making plans now for how I will work with schools as makar. I want to put the fun back into poetry.

What is it about poetry that can engage young people?

A poem is the best mystery. What interests me is that poetry can sometimes cut through to supposedly less able pupils. I don't think of it as a hard intellectual exercise - it's got to start from pleasure.

Did you enjoy school?

Yes. I went to an excellent secondary school and my English teachers were passionate about what they taught. All you need is a teacher or two to light a fire in your thinking.

What experience at school had the most impact on you?

My English teacher reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It was during the Cuban missile crisis, this strange poem at a time of a fear of death, and it really mattered.

What do you think of the plans for Curriculum for Excellence?

Who could object to putting creativity and the interrelatedness of subjects at the core of learning? No one, except if it becomes another set of boxes that teachers have to tick. Lack of trust in teachers can be frightening.

You were an art teacher for eight years. What was that like?

Hellish. I was a terrible teacher. Doing the register and taking in money for school trips used to drive me mad.

Do you think free university education can be maintained in Scotland?

We must maintain it. Tuition fees are not an answer because it is money people have to borrow, so it is just adding to the mortgage.

Which contemporary writers do you most admire?

My husband's favourite poet was Tom Leonard and I think he is great. I would not say his poetry influences mine, but his life, his dedication to poetry and the attention he pays to language does.

Which of your own work are you most proud of?

Probably Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. The first production of that play was just a wonderful collaborative experience.

At a time of cuts to education budgets, should we be worried about young people's access to the arts?

It is very worrying. The cutting of libraries scares Carol Ann Duffy and me almost more than anything. Neither of us would be writers were it not for the library that we went to freely at school.

Is "writing" something that you can teach?

No, but you can encourage people to write with their five senses. There is a lovely poem of Edwin Morgan's called Seven Decades where he talks about a teacher at school who mocked him for using "verdant" in a poem. That teacher was wrong, Eddie said, because it might have been high-flown language but a young writer reaching for that language is OK. We shouldn't prescribe. You don't need to swallow a dictionary but you don't laugh at someone for swallowing a dictionary either.

What advice would you give to a school pupil who's aspiring to be a poet?

Read and read and read and read.

Carol Ann Duffy described you as having "tirelessly brought poetry to the drama and drama into poetry". Do you have a preference between the two?

I see them as just being writing. But writing a poem is magic and it is fun. As long as I can do that I'll never have to take up Sudoko.


Born: Newarthill, Lanarkshire, 1947

Education: Dalziel High; Glasgow School of Art (1965-1970)

Career: Art teacher, Glasgow and Bristol; playwright, poet and translator. Plays: Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), Misery Guts (2002). Poetry: Memo for Spring (1972), Bagpipe Muzak (1991).

Made: Poet Laureate of Glasgow in 2005; Scots makar January 2011.

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