WE pass the Mitchell Library on our way to Lorna Goodison’s hotel. The Jamaican Poet Laureate’s train was four hours late.

The streets beyond our cab windows are dark, the weather drear. I’m sitting in front, beside the driver, silently composing a stinging letter of complaint. “Dear Mr Branson, while you enjoy barefoot, Caribbean luxury on Necker Island, OAPs on their way to Glasgow are dumped at Preston...”

The Mitchell is gloriously illuminated. The female statue of literature that crowns the library’s dome raises an open book against the night sky. Aye, Write! Book Festival banners hang from lampposts outside the building, defying the rain. Professor Goodison touches her husband’s arm and points, “Look Ted, the library!”

The excitement in her voice dissolves my anxiety. It speaks to the heart of what has brought us together despite difficult miles and grim histories – poetry, the power of words, books.

The responsibility of talent can be a burden. As a young woman, Lorna Goodison once piled all her poems in the backyard and set fire to them. “I had no idea what do with these poetic offerings ... but they still insisted on coming”, she wrote.

Goodison is now a seasoned poet and Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, whose Collected Poems (Carcanet Press) runs to more than 600 pages. She is the second person to hold the role of Jamaican Poet Laureate, and the first woman to do so. Goodison is in Glasgow at the invitation of Glasgow University for a free, public event the following evening, a celebration of her work, which I am hosting in my role as Professor of Creative Writing.

Lorna Goodison was born on August 1, 1947, in Kingston, Jamaica. Her birthday falls on Emancipation Day, when Jamaicans celebrate the liberation of enslaved peoples. She conflates the gift of poetry with her birthday. “I don’t think it is an accident that I was born on the first of August, and I don’t think it was an accident that I was given the gift of poetry ... I take that to mean that I am to write about those people and their condition.”

Goodison’s inaugural poem in the role of Laureate was In Celebration Of Emancipation. Written in the voices of enslaved peoples, the poem reminds readers that full emancipation did not come until four years after the 1834 declaration.

In it, an enslaved person addresses a weed with empathy: “... them order me, a human weed, / to dig you down, and root you up, and fling you / to one side, although your roots bind the ground / together. You’re as good as any other growing thing, / you are just planted where you’re less counted. / To me little weed you are sweet as any roses.”

The Mitchell is my local library. I’ve written a lot of words in its reading room, drank a lot of coffee in its cafe. I am proud of the way the Mitchell flings its doors wide. People come from across the globe and around the corner to research their family trees. It also houses the Stirling of Keir archive, one of Scotland’s major collections for the study of Caribbean slavery.

READ MORE: Glasgow City Archives: Scotland’s Slavery Past 

The library was founded by Stephen Mitchell of Linlithgow, a tobacco producer who died in 1874. The Union of 1707 had opened Scottish access to British colonies, laying the foundations that enabled the success of entrepreneurs like Mitchell.

The National: 'We discuss Robert Burns and his aborted decision to become a book-keeper in the West Indies. We both know the title ‘book-keeper’ was a euphemism for much worse and wonder how much Burns knew it too''We discuss Robert Burns and his aborted decision to become a book-keeper in the West Indies. We both know the title ‘book-keeper’ was a euphemism for much worse and wonder how much Burns knew it too'

It used to be a shameful secret, absent from history books and school curriculums, that Scotland’s rise to prosperity in the 18th century was underpinned by slave labour. In recent years, recognition of Scotland’s slavery past has grown.

The University of Glasgow has played a significant role in that journey. Last year, it published a ground-breaking, comprehensive report into the institution’s historical links with racial slavery, co-authored by two of its historians, Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen.

READ MORE: University of Glasgow publishes report into historical slavery

The study acknowledges that while the university played a leading role in the abolitionist movement, it also received significant financial support from people whose wealth at least in part derived from slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Among the report’s many recommendations are increased cultural connections between the university and the Caribbean. But this is not the only reason for Lorna Goodison’s invitation. The truth is, I have been desperate to interview her for years.

THERE is a clarity common to great thinkers in the way that Goodison reflects the world. She has created her own iconography which weaves the history of her nation, its people and landscape, with her family history, international politics and re-imagined memories. The memories must be re-imagined because, unlike most Scottish visitors to the Mitchell Library, Goodison and other Jamaicans cannot research their family tree via archives and genealogy sites.

READ MORE: Researching African-Caribbean Family History

Enslaved people were considered property. They were given the names of those who oppressed them. Even if their descendants manage to trace their antecedents via slave owner compensation records (slaves received no compensation, but owners were richly reimbursed) the trail dies at the point at which their ancestors were abducted from Africa.

In Redemption Ground, a collection of essays published in 2017, Goodison writes: “If I wanted to write about my people I had to learn to listen carefully to family stories then imagine, and constantly re-imagine those stories ... All writers do this, but Caribbean writers face formidable or particular challenges because of the ways in which slavery, and then colonialism, erased or distorted so much of our lives that we have to learn to write ourselves into the story.”

From Harvey River, A Memoir Of My Mother And Her People (2007) took Lorna Goodison 12 years to write. It opens with Goodison’s family tree which stretches back to her great-grandfather William Harvey and his brother John who, “giddy at the prospect of imitating men like Christopher Columbus, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake,” “settled” a clearing in the Jamaican jungle.

The path that led them there, “had been created by the feet of men and women fleeing from the beating and torture that was their only payment for making absentee landlords the richest in the world”.

At the event in Glasgow University’s Bute Hall, Lorna Goodison and I discuss Robert Burns and his aborted decision to become a book-keeper in the West Indies. The bard booked his passage three times but was saved by the success of the Kilmarnock Edition. We both know the title “book-keeper” was a euphemism for much worse and wonder how much Burns knew it too.

We agree the role would have broken him as a man and as a poet, though Lorna jokes that the women in Jamaica would have loved him. She learnt Sweet Afton at school and can recite it (and much more) by heart.

Like Burns, Goodison often writes with the rhythm and dialect of the people around her. Words are vital to all poets, but questions of language are critical to those whose countries and speech have been colonised. Writing lost histories in the language of the people is an act of reclamation and resurrection.

In a much-quoted passage from Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s Duncan Thaw muses, “if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively”. The same must be a hundredfold true of a country whose population were historically trafficked from another continent, then violently enslaved for the economic enhancement of another nation.

As a child growing up in what was then a British colony, Goodison was taught poems written by “European men”. The love of much of this poetry is still with her. She can recite swathes of John Keats whose work she adores. But the intention of this education, to focus West Indians’ attention and sense of worth away from home, towards the distant “motherland” of Britain (which later betrayed their loyalty, notably through the Windrush Scandal) is not lost on her.

The National: Street sport in Kingston, JamaicaStreet sport in Kingston, Jamaica

William Wordsworth’s The Daffodils made her ‘‘wonder why, as a Jamaican child of eight or nine, I was being made to memorise and recite a poem about a flower I had never seen, a flower that does not grow on the island.’’.

Her inner voice told her to ‘‘write a poem about the plants and flowers that grow in Jamaica”. She was helped in her quest when she encountered and fell in love with the work of Derek Walcott, whose poetry ‘‘alluded to people and landscapes with which I was familiar”. Through Walcott the young Goodison gained the realisation that ‘‘patois could be used for something other than humour’’.

The image of a weed as a flower by another name, which she explores in In Celebration Of Emancipation, reappears in Goodison’s life and work. Her poem To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, from the collection of the same title, weaves a celebration of Jamaican place names, including Carrickfergus and Dundee, through a history of the island. The poem acknowledges the human blood that has soaked into the earth and sea and marks the resilience of the country.

“Hope River in hot times goes under, / but pulses underground strong enough to rise / and swell again to new deep”

All Flowers Are Roses is also the name of a self-defence and poetry summer school Lorna Goodison founded in Jamaica in association with the National Library of Jamaica.

READ MORE: All Flowers Are Roses – self-defence programme champions girls 

Initially designed for 11 to 14-year-old girls from inner-city communities, the programme has expanded to include boys’ classes.

The day after our drive through the rain, Lorna Goodison’s event at the University of Glasgow is attended by more than 300 people, some of whom have never walked through the gates of the university before. They are there to hear her read and she holds them, with her unique combination of steel and warmth. She ends with And I Hear From Two Rabbies, a poem written especially for Asif Khan, director of the Scottish Poetry Library. And then, united by her words and her presence, the audience get to their feet and applaud.

Poem by Lorna Goodison

For Asif

Marley is on perpetual play in the Earthen Jar,
where you pass as vegan to pick up his messages.
Though the homeless of Ann Arbor are flown south
on greyhound, and you’ve sprung from storage
your mothballed wool wardrobe;

you have collected in your blood, some sixty odd
seasons of hot sun. Solar sufficient for core heat.
Keep your one heart warm, Red Rabbie messages.

Pay for a meatless meal. Return to the tower.
Find a postcard come in the mail from Scotland
Stamped with the fine profile of Rabbie Burns

Read then rest on a fluted red glass vase massed
with red red roses. Oh Rabbie when pressure dropped
you all but booked passage to leave auld Scotland.

Pressed hard you thought to take a book-keeper job
on a sugar estate; and no man’s a good man for that.
Your own book kept you in Scotland;

where you became darling Makar, people’s champion,
precious national treasure greatest son of Caledonia.
Still a man’s a man for a’ that.

Even if you passed on this chance to become rude-boy
poet Rabbie Burns, boaster and toaster of Jamdown.
And O the girls would have loved you; mad over you,

Burry boy Rabbie. Hard man with a sweet mouth.
flow gently sweet Afton as you savor the scorch-kiss
of red scotch-bonnet pepper on greens.

so let it be. Come all poets from murmering steams.
Blue multiple mountain ranges murmering steams
Banks braes rivers by the hundred murmering steams.

About the author: Louise Welsh

Louise Welsh, who lives in Glasgow, is a crime writer and has also published short stories and psychological thrillers. Her books include The Cutting Room, her debut novel published in 2002 and nominated for several literary awards, and the Plague trilogy – A Lovely Way to Burn (2014), Death Is A Welcome Guest (2015) and No Dominion (2017).