EVEN though she chose them herself, Kathleen Jamie was taken aback when she first caught sight of the finished edition of her selected poems.

“It’s a thicker book than I anticipated so I was pleasantly surprised,” she told The National. “Somehow I’ve managed to sustain my writing and keep going, although I am never sure what the future holds.”

The thickness of the book belies the fact that it can take weeks for Jamie to shape one poem and there are often long gaps between books when, she says, her poetry “just goes away”.

“It disappears utterly and completely,” she said. “I miss it and I have no idea if it will come back again. I can try to bring it back but nothing works so I just have to hope it will return eventually.”

The gaps notwithstanding, Jamie has managed to publish a substantial body of work over 35 years.

Now most of it has been collected together in one beautiful volume which charts not only the evolution of her poetry but also her life and, in some ways, the politics of this country.


IT doesn’t seem so long since she was hailed as the bright, young thing of Scottish poetry but it was back in 1984 that she published her first book, Black Spiders. A philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh at the time, it was as if she had appeared out of nowhere on to the Scottish literary scene.

Her hometown of Currie in Midlothian may have its claims to fame but poetry was not one of them, at least while Jamie was at school. There was no poetry in the house either, other than Burns – a fitting choice for parents who came from Ayrshire.

Yet Jamie had an urge to write which found an outlet at university where she discovered like-minded people.

“It was a weird thing this poetry but something I felt I had to do – the thought of not being able to write was killing,” she said. “I was interested in the sound and play of words together and it just seemed to come out of nowhere.”

READ MORE: Profile: Michael Bruce – The best Scottish poet you've never heard of


HER first book was well received but although Jamie wanted to keep poetry in her life she says she got “a bit lost” for a while and didn’t start writing properly again until she produced the Queen of Sheba in 1994.

“That was when I started to engage with my own Scottishness and wonder what it was about. My life has kept pace with the political changes in Scotland and at that time a lot was going on – there was a lot of nation building and talk of devolution so I was thinking about being Scottish, about the language and the culture.

“We were still trying to get a parliament which is hard to imagine now. I don’t know if I preferred it then when it was still a dream and an open possibility. In my naivety I did not think we would have the same political parties that there are at Westminster. I thought it would be a much more interesting and fine place with many independent MSPs. I didn’t think we would just get Scottish Tories and Scottish Labour all over again.”


THE poems in Black Spiders are more personal while those in Queen of Sheba are more outward looking. Her third book returned to the personal after her two children were born.

This book was called Jizzen, the Scots word for childbirth, and it is hard to believe she produced such an accomplished work while also juggling child raising and a day job. Many of her poems are deceptively simple but Jamie says writing them is a bit like ice-skating.

“There’s a heck of a work and practise in it; a lot of graft to make it clear and I can easily spend six weeks on one poem. I’m not writing all the time but I will come back to it and fouter with it until I’m happy with it.”

Her next book, The Treehouse, marked a change.

“All my career up to that point I seemed to have been asked about being a woman and being Scottish and I got sick of it. I didn’t want to think about being a woman writer or a Scottish writer; what I wanted to do was write about the natural world which I have always loved.”

READ MORE: A love of Scotland inspired a poem to be proud of


THE Treehouse was followed by two prose books called Findings and Sightlines which introduced her to an even bigger audience.

The prose was an experiment to see if there was a way of producing books when the poetry left her and to her surprise she found writing short essays came naturally.

“They were a pure pleasure to write and it felt like a medium that had just been waiting for me,” said Jamie. “That short essay form was really out of fashion but they are more like extended poems than a novel – I’m not interested in writing novels.”

She returned to poetry in 2012 with The Overhaul, a title alluding to the fact that she had just turned 50 and it was time for fresh ideas. It was only after it was published that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but although it was a shock she says she was one of the lucky ones as she got through it.


HER most recent book was written during 2014, the year of the independence referendum when she was inspired by all the energy generated in Scotland.

“The country was so alive and I wanted to do something with this wonderful energy so I resolved to write a poem a week throughout the year.”

That was a challenge for a poet who can spend weeks on each poem but she managed an impressive 47 which she was very pleased with.

“It was fun – really liberating,” said Jamie. “I had to write quickly so I was not able to fouter about.”
Bonniest Companie came out in 2015 and won the Scottish Book of the Year award but she is slightly concerned as her poetry has gone away again and this has been the longest gap so far.

However as the last book was written relatively quickly it may be that her creativity just needs some time to recover.

In any case her fans and new readers can enjoy the Selected Poems which Jamie says includes all the poems that matter most to her.

“I don’t write copiously so it wasn’t a case of having to make choices and leaving a lot out, so almost everything I have written is there.”

Selected Poems by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador