The second ever Scots Makar (national poet) Liz Lochhead has teamed up with saxophonist Steve Kettley for this nostalgic selection of her favourite poems from a 50-year career.
Her no-holds-barred bravery that makes her such a successful poet. Her best verse is deeply courageous, based on a profound observation of the human condition.
From poems about her school days in Glasgow and the colourful characters of her youth through to her passion for art, feminism and music, Lochhead is an inimitable talent and apt storyteller. She earns her title through work which is deeply rooted in her identity and draws on many cultural references, familiar most poignantly to those of her own nationality and generation.
However her witty, richly layered poetry has far broader appeal than just to her fellow Scots and contemporaries. She introduces us to the Glaswegian women who have inspired and influenced her including an old teacher, Mrs Fleming, who embarrasses her teenage self profoundly by asking her to find repressed sexuality in the Brontes’ work. All the while the shadowing figure of Mr Fleming lurks in the background, Lochhead’s own teenage fantasy Heathcliffe.
Meeting Norma Nimmy describes a posh gossipy lady who is a storyteller of the first order: ‘A week later she was dead, choked on a truffle’... ‘ended up semi-anorexic’. Lochhead explains how the closing line of the poem is one of the most threatening she has have ever written ‘She’ll be fascinated I met you’, she says, implying that even the listener of the poem will not be safe from Norma’s scrutiny. The poem is a great example of Lochhead’s ability to create larger-than-life characters through a winning combination of pinpoint-detailed description and gentle characterisation in her performances.
I couldn’t wait for the life of Mrs Riley is peppered with everyday Scottish references inspired by Lochhead’s teenage years in the 60s. She reminisces about wearing ‘pan stick’ and ‘Angora’ and ‘drinking Snakebite we didn’t know how to make right’ but the poem is deeper than these superficial details as it explores the thirst for life so keenly felt by young people that is both exhilarating and dangerous.
Steve Kettley’s jazz accompaniment is a soothing backdrop to the poems, adding an extra soulful element which enhances the simple repetitious rhythms of Lochhead’s verse. Her poems about art are less successful, especially the clichéd character of a Parisian life model who sleeps her way through most of the major impressionists. Unlike her Scottish characters this figure was weak because she wasn’t based on any personal experience of Lochhead’s.
Men Talk is a shining example of a feminist poem which pokes sardonic fun at everyday sexism, rather than resorting to anger and aggression. Listing the many different words to describe the way women talk ‘yak yak, natter nag, niggle, niggle, niggle’ it uses these common phrases to point out their own inherent hypocrisy ‘women gossip, women giggle, Men talk’. Similarly simply by stating a sexist comment, ‘men like a woman who listens,’ she points out the ridiculousness of the statement.
In Praise of Old Vinyl allows Lochhead to reminisce about her favourite singers, all of them iconic, but this is one poem which those of her own ‘LP’ generation will enjoy most for the chance to be indulgently nostalgic. Song for a Dirty Diva has much wider appeal because of its fascinating descriptions of sexual liberation in the swinging 60s, ‘underage, oversexed, in the back of your Daddy’s Cadillac' – by comparison the 00s appear very tame indeed, ‘when a Selfie was certainly not a photograph’.
Lochhead can be filthy – ‘spatter my sheets with a map of Australia’ – but it is exactly this no-holds-barred bravery that makes her such a successful poet. Her best verse is deeply courageous, based on a profound observation of the human condition.