Interview by Theresa Muñoz
Image of Liz Lochhead by Iain Clark
Scots Makar Liz Lochhead, is recovering from knee surgery. Despite the painkillers that make her ‘groggy’, she is chatty and hospitable, offering a tray of biscuits and a pot of Darjeeling tea. In her bright Hyndland apartment we sit on comfortable chairs adorned with heart pillows.
Describing herself as a ‘social poet’ and a writer of ‘black comedies’, Lochhead has enjoyed a career as both poet and playwright. She has acted as writer-in-residence in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Cheshire.
Her first publication was in Glasgow University magazine in the 1960’s, then edited by Tom McGrath. Through Tom McGrath she also met Alan Spence, Stephen Mulrine, Tom Leonard and Jean Milton. She fondly recalls attending a reading of these writers and wanting to be on stage with them. ‘I remember thinking, I should be reading, I’m just as good’, she laughs. The fact that she hadn’t shown her poems to anyone at that point, she adds, had not crossed her mind.
Having trained as a painter at the Glasgow School of Art, she spent the late sixties and early seventies teaching art in schools. Her first collection of poems, Memo For Spring, was published in 1972. Her first dramatic work, Sugar and Spite was staged at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1978. In that same year, a trip to North America as a Scottish-Canadian fellow changed the course of her career. ‘It was a great thing to happen to me at that particular point in my life,’ she says. ‘I thought I would get a year away from teaching but in fact I never went back’. Instead, Lochhead forged ahead as a full-time writer.
Her work includes collections Dreaming Frankenstein, True Confessions and acclaimed plays Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Chopped Off and Educating Agnes, which was recently featured at the Lyceum. Next up is a book of selected poems, due out in early autumn by Polygon. ‘It’s called ‘A Choosing’, Lochhead reveals. ‘ ‘The Choosing’ wouldn’t do but I thought ‘A Choosing’ because on a different day, I’d pick a different ‘choosing’.’
Despite her established career, Lochhead admits it was a ‘huge surprise’ to be appointed Makar earlier this year. There had been talk in the papers of her succeeding Edwin Morgan, she says, but she ignored such speculation. However, when she was told last January that the First Minister would be phoning in twenty minutes, her first thought was ‘Oh Christ’, having realised what the conversation would entail.
Had Salmond’s call come a few months earlier, she might have said no. ‘Well’, she explains with difficulty, ‘since Tom’s death [her husband] a year ago, everything’s been different for me and of variable importance. Had it been two or three months earlier I would have said no, I don’t have the energy… but it was six months exactly.’ In the end, Lochhead felt fatalistic about the appointment, telling herself ‘so this is what I’ve got to do now’.
So far, her experience has been positive. Lochhead has, at the invitation of Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, written a set of vows for the recent Royal Wedding and a poem set in ottava rima about one year of the Queen’s reign, entitled ‘1968’. Her next assignment is a poem for the opening of the Scottish Parliament on the first of July. It’s a task she’s been struggling with at the time of our interview, but she says determinedly ‘I will get something done and get on that stage with sticks.’
Since writing poems to order is part of the job, it’s interesting to hear how Lochhead views such tasks. Unsurprisingly, she is optimistic. ‘You can always try… you can only try. My solution when writing to order is to do something formal and try to be honest within it. Edwin Morgan did it so well, it’s a bit daunting’.
In addition to her composition duties, Lochhead would also like to make changes to how poetry is viewed in schools by student and teachers. Having recently seen an example of a school exam, she is ‘shocked’ at the lack of modern poetry being read by students and the impersonal manner in which literature is tested. ‘I’m very much against the kind of teaching which makes poetry look like a horrible, hard code that they’ve got to crack.’ She also wants to institute a prize in schools for the best recitation of a poem, because ‘it’s a great thing to learn a poem by rote. I want to do some kind of ‘speak out loud education’ in schools.’
Unlike Edwin Morgan who was confined to his house during his tenure as Makar, Lochhead also promises to be more out and about after her knee heals. ‘I’ve got a mobility that Eddie didn’t have, so I’ll probably do more public things and less good public poems’, she laughs. Upon hearing that Morgan left a million pounds to the SNP, Lochhead is properly shocked. ‘Gosh…Eddie left a million quid!’ she says to the window.
Lochhead is less shocked, however, about Morgan’s additional legacy of a prize for young poets. She is in agreement with his decision , saying: ‘I definitely would like to encourage the writing of poetry by young people but I would also like to encourage Scottish poetry, American poetry, and the poetry of anon and modern. I’d like it not to be all be about the writing, but the enjoying and passing on of it, and the saying out loud’. This Friday, Lochhead will be ‘saying it out loud’ to what will definitely be an appreciative audience.