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Kathleen Jamie
You’ve been writing from a very early age. How did you start?
Nothing special happened. I just started. With a pen and paper. That’s all. I was in my mid-teens; it was my special thing that I did.
Do you think being born and raised in Scotland has defined your writing in subject, style or tone?
Of course. Every writer – poets especially – are alert to, are conditioned by the cultural and linguistic and religious and political milieu in which they develop. Scots accents and words were what I heard, growing up. A rather Calvinist joylessness prevailed when I was younger, which was worth reacting against. An intellectual rigour existed too, which feeds into my work. Also: the fact that you ask this question answers it! People from England and beyond Scotland ask it all the time! I never see my name in the English papers without being called ‘Scottish writer KJ.’. So partly it’s a definition that’s laid on me. (Thankfully the other one, ‘woman writer’ seems to have gone away. It’s no longer noteworthy).
Solitude and remote places attract you. Are they essential to your work?
I don’t know if there are essential. If I lived in London or Manhattan maybe my work would be different. But as a working mother, I don’t get *that much solitude! And I’m a bit of a wuss – I don’t go off on my own with a tent. I’m happy in my own company for quite long spells, put it that way.
You do like to get down to the nitty gritty: for example in SIGHTLINES in the essay Hvalsalen you get inside the skeleton of a whale, while in Pathologies you handle and inspect tumours and organs. Does that sort of proximity give you exceptional insight into the subject?
Well, I’m not sure if ‘exceptional’ is the word. We are mortal, biological creatures; that is the nature of our being in the world, and worth acknowledging. I didn’t seek these subjects out, it just happened that my path crossed with these possibilities, and they caught my interest.
In a highly competitive and commercial publishing world the poem and the essay are brave forms to choose – or did they choose you?
They chose me and the joy of working with these forms, aside from their own inner beauty, and the other poets and writers I’ve been privileged to meet, is that they are not part of the competitive and commercial publishing machine. Not part of the capitalist machine. That said, I don’t think literature is at all. We can avoid the worst of it, and work with what’s best in human nature. When my students start fretting about ‘pitching’ and agents and sales and all that, I say forget it. Any ounce of energy mis-spent in competition and commerce is an ounce not spent on your work. Devote yourself to your work, and the rest of it will look after itself.
You talk in FINDINGS about “the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing” as a kind of prayer, although you say you have nothing or no one to pray to. Do you see all your writing, your careful observation of the world, as a kind of devotion?
‘Devotion’ is starting to slide into religiosity which makes me queasy. It’s as you said in the question above about the pathology lab. You either attend, and pay heed, or you live in a fantasy land of inattention. My writing is where I pay most heed and take most care.
Book shops must find it hard to decide in which area to put your books – nature writing; travel; philosophy; Scottish literature. What books would you like to see beside them on the shelf?
That’s their problem!
There is a lot of debate at the moment about the value of creative writing courses. As Professor of Creative Writing at Stirling University, what do you feel the course can do for would-be writers?
This ‘debate’ is a bit silly. it’s 9 months in a person’s life – usually a young person -and what’s the harm? They’re not designing weapons systems. For a short spell, the students are bringing to the forefront of their lives something which intrigues, attracts and frustrates them.
They can learn and practise. Some may carry on to learn and practise and maybe publish. For the others, their writing may become part of the fabric of their lives, part of their citizenship . All we give tutors give them is time, attention and – crucially – each other.
Kathleen Jamie

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