Kathleen Jamie is a leading figure in a generation of distinguished Scottish poets that also includes Don Paterson, Robert Crawford, John Burnside, Roddy Lumsden and Jackie Kay. She was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1962, and grew up in Edinburgh, where she studied philosophy at Edinburgh University. Her poetry career got off to an early start when she received an Eric Gregory Award (for poets under 30) in 1981. Her first poetry collection, Black Spiders, followed a year later, when she was 20.
Jizzen, her third collection, was named after an Old Scots word for childbed. The collection implicitly links the births of her own children with the re-birth of the Scottish nation, and includes poems written in Scots, poems about gender and identity and politics.
Jamie’s non-fiction includes Findings (2005), an account of the fauna and landscapes around her home and elsewhere in Scotland. Her preoccupation with Scottish language and culture, people and politics is complemented by a long-standing internationalism, which is expressed in The Autonomous Region (1993), about China and Tibet. Her 1987 poetry collection The Way We Live includes a sequence of poems about northern Pakistan, ‘Karakoram Highway’, and her travel book about Northern Pakistan, The Golden Peak (1993), was recently updated and reissued as Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002).
As Jamie has said: “Poetry is the place where we consider or calibrate our relationships – with ourselves, our culture, history.” This includes our relationships with nature, and with other places. A concern with ‘issues’, which she has said was part of a youthful idea of what writing is for, has given way to a greater attention to nature – going back to her earliest ambition for her poetry.
Jamie told the Guardian, “When we were young, we were told that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice, but the older I get I think it’s not about voice, it’s about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention. I don’t just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world. The writers I like best are those who attend.”
The poems in her award-winning collection The Tree House “give tentative, feminine voices to natural objects” (Polly Clark), with titles like ‘The Wishing Tree’, ‘Alder’, ‘Water Day’, ‘Before the Wind’, ‘The Swallows’ Nest’, ‘The Whale-watcher’, ‘The Buddleia’, ‘Daisies’, ‘Reliquary’, ‘The Brooch’, ‘The Puddle’. The violence in the book comes not from nature but from people.
The sonnet, ‘Swallows’, describes
. . . swallows
in every room – so at ease
they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera
and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
Kathleen Jamie has received several prestigious awards for her poetry, including a Somerset Maugham Award, a Forward Poetry Prize for Best Single Poem, a Paul Hamlyn Award and a Creative Scotland Award. She has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize twice. Her selected poems, Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead (2002), which contains much of her work written before 1994, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. The Tree House was awarded the 2004 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Poetry Collection of the Year as well as the 2005 Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award.
As well as poetry, Kathleen Jamie writes for radio, especially travel scripts, and specially commissioned long poems. She lives in Fife, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2010 was appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Stirling University.
Black Spiders, Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1982
A Flame in Your Heart (with Andrew Greig), Newcastle, Bloodaxe, 1986
The Way We Live, Newcastle, Bloodaxe, 1987
The Golden Peak: Travels in North Pakistan, London, Virago, 1992
The Autonomous Region: Poems and Photographs from Tibet (with Sean Mayne Smith), Newcastle, Bloodaxe, 1993
The Queen of Sheba, Newcastle, Bloodaxe 1994
Full Strength Angels: New Writing Scotland, Vol 14, Aberdeen, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1996
Some Sort of Embrace: New Writing Scotland, Vol 15, Aberdeen, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1997
The Glory Signs: New Writing Scotland, Vol 16, Aberdeen, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1998
Jizzen, London, Picador, 1999
Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead (Poems 1980-94), Tarset, Bloodaxe, 2002
The Tree House, London, Picador, 2004
Findings, London, Sort Of Books, 2005
Waterlight: selected poems, Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2007
Sightlines, London, Sort of Books, 2012
An interview with Kathleen Jamie from Books from Scotland
Recordings of Kathleen Jamie reading on Poetry Archive
Kathleen Jamie comments on her own writing
Polly Clark’s review of The Tree House