Appointed Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – in 2011, Liz Lochhead is both transgressive and popular; as Anne Varty wrote, ‘her work is that of one woman speaking to many, and one person speaking for many’.
Elizabeth Anne Lochhead was born in Motherwell, Lanarkshire on 26 December 1947; her parents , John Lochhead and Margaret Forrest, had both served in the army during the war and married in 1944. Her father was a local government clerk. In 1952 the family moved into a new council house in the mining village of Newarthill, where her sister was born in 1957. The primary school there is vividly conjured in Lochhead’s poem ‘A Protestant Girlhood’. She moved on to Dalziel High School in Motherwell, and by the time she was 15 had decided to go to art school, although teachers were encouraging her to study English at university.
She wrote her first poem, ‘The Visit’, after she entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1965, and attended an informal creative writing group there run by Stephen Mulrine. After graduating from GSA in 1970, she went a few times to the extra-mural writers’ workshop run by Philip Hobsbaum, who had a gift for identifying and encouraging talent. In 1971 she won a Radio Scotland poetry competition, in 1972 she read with Norman MacCaig at a poetry festival in Edinburgh, and her first collection, Memo for Spring, was published in 1972 by Gordon Wright. She met Alasdair Gray, Jim Kelman and Tom Leonard in this period, and later in the decade Tom McGrath and Alan Spence; in this group of talented young Scottish writers, she stands out as a rare female presence and this has been enabling and inspiring for the generation that followed.
Lochhead earned her living at this time by teaching art in secondary schools in Bristol, Glasgow and Cumbernauld. In 1978 her second collection, Islands, was published and she wrote and performed inSugar and Spite at the Traverse, Edinburgh. She was awarded the first Scottish/Canadian Writers’ Exchange Fellowship the same year, and went to Toronto, then lived in the USA after the fellowship ended, and over the next couple of years returned to New York for lengthy periods.
The 1980s was an immensely productive decade in both work for the theatre and poetry; Lochhead also married the architect Tom Logan in 1986, and they made their home in Glasgow. Notable successes included her adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe for the Lyceum (1986) and Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, performed by Communicado (1987). These two plays derive much of their energy from the way Lochhead uses Scots, admiringly characterised by Robert Crawford inIdentifying Poets (1993) as ‘a diction of kaleidoscopic pace and liveliness, a Scots which manages to bring Tartuffe in touch with Holy Willie while preserving an alertness to the polyphonies of [her] contemporary Scottish homeland’ .
The elements of voice and performance are vital to both genres, but Lochhead considers them to be quite different, and marked this visually by publishing Dreaming Frankenstein & Collected Poems(1984) with a white cover, while her monologues and performance pieces True Confessions and New Clichés (1985) had a black cover. While she allowed, in a 1992 interview for Verse, that ‘certain speeches in, say, Mary Queen of Scots..., felt like writing poems to me while I was doing them’, there was nevertheless a basic distinction to be made:
A play is something that doesn’t exist when you have written it. It only exists when it begins to be performed. Whereas a poem is something that even before you’ve tightened it up properly, once you’ve got it finished, even if it’s lying under the bed, there it is: it’s a thing. So I think that’s what satisfies me the most about poetry, that it is not for anything whatsoever and that you don’t really do it to order.
This was before her laureateships, which inevitably involve poems commissioned for something, but the distinction probably stands as her such poems often involve performance.
Lochhead’s sixth collection, The Colour of Black and White – poems 1984-2003, includes ‘Kidspoem/Bairnsang’, which has become one of her signature poems and a touchstone for the decade. It is cleverly but also appealingly bilingual, perfect for showing those who don’t know Scots how the language marches beside English; and for those who do know Scots, it serves as a reminder of its riches and legitimacy in the public sphere. Many generations had Scots bred out of them at school, and that this is changing is in no small part due to the work of Scotland’s writers. Moreover, Lochhead here articulates more than her generation’s worth of weary anger over the literature accepted into the canon: ‘the way it had to be said / was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.’
While the blurb for this collection quotes The Scotsman as saying ‘Her pulse [is] the racing, faltering pulse of a nation obsessed with identity and self-analysis. For 25 years, Lochhead has been the distinctive female voice of Scotland. Gallus, inquisitive, accusing and playful. Angry and tender by turns’ – this description is a limited truth. Her voice is not always that of a woman, or always that of a Scot. Following her friend Edwin Morgan, first as Poet Laureate of Glasgow (2005) and then as Scots Makar, she does not want to be confined by either her gender or her nationality.
Nevertheless, the female voices that Lochhead has deployed in her monologues and many of her poems undoubtedly draw on a Scottish oral tradition that goes right back to the ballads, is subverted by the music-hall, and takes pleasure in a distinctive West of Scotland tradition of storytelling and humour. If the latter has been – on stage at least – a predominantly male preserve, she has been instrumental in making space for women. Lochhead has spoken of the difficulty for female poets in particular of the long shadow cast by Hugh MacDiarmid, and of the liberation provided by American examples – again typical of many West of Scotland writers’ experience. In Lochhead’s case, this was not only the lure of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, but also of the sophisticated lyrics of Broadway, to which she pays affectionate homage in ‘Ira and George’. The poem is dedicated to her friend and co-performer Michael Marra, and reminds us that Lochhead’s love of music and the visual arts is an essential part of her work.
The radio as much as the theatre has been an impetus to creation for Lochhead, and it is her ability to speak with conversational intimacy within a public space that is one of the hallmarks of her work. The sound of her own voice is immediately engaging. Her relish of a whole variety of language registers and rhythms, her sensuality and humour, her loving descriptions – ‘the decency of good coats roundshouldered’ – and her outspokenness have made Lochhead an enormously popular poet.