Jim Carruth’s introduction to Liz Lochhead highlights just how impressive the achievements of the former Scottish Makar are, noting various prizes and titles the poet has been awarded with. Tonight, though, her focus is on the works of others, as she takes part in Aye Write‘s The Books That Made Me series of talks.
The first choice Lochhead lifts from a table covered in books is a collection of Robert Burns poetry – a barely-held-together tome from her childhood home. Lochhead leafs through the pages, discussing the idea of “books as artefacts” and referring to Burns as not just a poet but “a part of the family”. She settles on her favourite poem ‘To a Mouse’ – informing us that this was a piece memorised as a child for school – and performs a charming rendition for the Mitchell Library Theatre audience.
The notion of performance is a theme throughout the hour as the writer speaks several times about both the importance of hearing poets read their own works, and her own passion for this aspect of her role. She moves onto a brief discussion of anthologies – holding up a Scottish collection featuring work from icons MacCaig and Morgan – and expresses her love of finding new voices on every page of such collections. She also references the influence of songwriters from Lennon and McCartney to Joni Mitchell.
The next book selection is the first novel mentioned – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Again, Lochhead enthusiastically reads an extract and reflects on the effect the novel had on her as a child as well as the influence of its gothic undertones on her own writing. Carruth, at this point, probes Lochhead on the idea of the re-reading of favourite literature and the changing interpretations we may have.
From poetry and novels, the next selection takes us to the short story form – in particular, two collections from North American writers: Grace Paley‘s The Little Disturbances of Man and Alice Munro‘s Lives of Girls and Women. After reading extracts from each, Lochhead professes her admiration for short story writers, commenting on how the skill of brevity is akin to the writing of poetry and how she finds pleasure in work that examines the lives of the real.
Lochhead’s final choice of the night seems at first an odd one: Mikhail Bulgakov‘s biography of French playwright Moliere. Although vastly removed from the previous books of the evening, Lochhead soon explains that in addition to her fascination with the life of Moliere, Bulgakov’s work was also a useful tool in the writing of Educating Agnes, Lochhead’s translation of a Moliere play: The School For Wives. It is here that we are reminded again of the writer’s success not only as a poet, but as a playwright, and her interest in history, myth and legend is touched on.
As the hour closes, the audience is rapturous, many of them queuing for book signings and the opportunity for a one-on-one chat with Lochhead. And it’s unsurprising. She speaks with warmth and humour, and her open nature makes us feel we know her just a little more closely.