Scotland’s national poet writes for those who’ve been asked ‘where are you from?’

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EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 17:  Scottish poet and writer Jackie Kay attends a photocall at Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 17, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a Scottish literary talent whose work on identity and belonging, among other themes, has helped propel her to a unique role and a popular writer there.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

JACKIE KAY, Scottish Poet & Novelist: “And this is my country, says the fisherwoman from Jura. Mine, too, says the child from Canna and Iona. Mine, too, says the Brain family. And mine, says the man from the Polish deli.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Jackie Kay wrote her poem “Threshold” for the Scottish Parliament and a special guest, Queen Elizabeth.

JACKIE KAY: Let’s blether some more about doors, revolving doors and sliding doors.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the wake to of the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union, it was a plea to keep doors and the country open to the outside world. As Scotland’s new national poet, Kay made it personal.

JACKIE KAY: Scotland’s changing faces — look at me!

I like the idea of trying to change the face of Scotland. But, traditionally, when somebody thinks of somebody Scottish, they see a white man with red hair in a kilt and a — and they don’t see me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jackie is the adopted daughter of John and Helen Kay. Her birth mother Scottish. Her father was then a Nigerian student studying in Scotland.

JACKIE KAY: I was an illegitimate child. And being picked to be a national poet is probably a pretty legitimate thing.


JEFFREY BROWN: I will say.

She grew up in Glasgow in a loving home, but very unaware of her difference in the outside society. She told her story in a bestselling memoir, “Red Dust Road.”

JACKIE KAY: There weren’t many positive stories about adoption. And when I was growing up, we just saw negative stories about adoption. Every story that you heard was horrendous. And I wanted to try and tell a positive story about adoption.

So, I felt a bit like one of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison. She said she wrote the story she wanted to read. And I did that, too. I wrote the poems I wanted to read and I wrote about the experiences I wanted to find.

JEFFREY BROWN: She began to write as a student at the University of Stirling and, over the years, has authored volumes of poetry, novels, children’s books and more.

Often, the work speaks directly to her own experience, as in the poem “In My Country.”

JACKIE KAY: “A woman passed by me in a full watchful circle, as if I were a superstition or the worst dregs of her imagination. So, when she finally spoke, her words spliced into bars of an old wheel, a segment of air. Where do you come from? Here, I said. Here, these parts.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Kay now has a major public role in this poetry-loving country and she intends to use it to expand the voices of Scotland.

JACKIE KAY: You could have a real long, long, long poem with all of the different things that you come from, couldn’t you?

JEFFREY BROWN: We joined her recently on a return to Stirling, where she was working with local high school students, part of a project called Out of Bounds, giving a greater voice to black and Asian British poets.

JACKIE KAY: Want to have a mixture of images and metaphors as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kay encouraged the students to play with language in her poems, something she herself loves to do.

JACKIE KAY: I found the coin, and I found the (INAUDIBLE) in the sparking granite June, just as the (INAUDIBLE) was coming (INAUDIBLE) just as the coyotes (INAUDIBLE) at the moon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her official title is one she clearly loves. She is Scotland’s Makar, rhymes with lacquer, she told me.

JACKIE KAY: It’s an old Scottish word. And it means maker, maker of words.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it’s a great word because of this idea to make, right? And people — I don’t know if people think about poetry, as something that’s made.

JACKIE KAY: Well, a poem — we make a poem in the way other people might make a table. A poem is a physical thing that you make. And, for me, Makar fits perfectly.

And it seems to have kind of captured people’s imagination, because people keep stopping me and say, Makar, congratulations, even in other — so, for some reason, it just sort of excited people. I think it’s maybe — it’s because there’s not been a black national poet in this country before maybe. Or I don’t know.

But, for some reason, here you are. What are you doing here talking to me?


JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t know. I mean, I do know. Because I wanted to talk to you.


JACKIE KAY: Just as granite comes (INAUDIBLE) then there will be grown folks search in vain, tracking during the past in the rain, for as long as you would call a stain a stain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jackie Kay will take her infectious love of poetry and country to every corner of Scotland.

JACKIE KAY: Come bend the living room. Come join our brilliant gathering.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Scotland, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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