Distinguished Writers Coming to Edgbaston in February and March

Posted on Thursday 6th February 2014

Poetry-lovers are invited to come to the on-going series of talks from renowned visiting writers hosted by the School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies.  

The series, ‘Creative Minds at Birmingham’, began in the Autumn with talks and question and answer sessions from the award-winning poet Jamie McKendrick and the writer Bernard MacLaverty. The next speaker, on 26 February, is the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. Future speakers include Michael Longley, Alice Oswald and playwright Simon Stephen.

Each event in the series gives literature and theatre enthusiasts the opportunity to hear from a modern-day great, put questions to them, and meet them afterwards during book signing sessions. Professor Michael Toolan, who is hosting the series, explains that this is a new venture and reflects the School’s commitment to literary creativity in its teaching and research, and its wish to share this with the wider community in a variety of activities.

Nature and Nation

Among the interests that link the very different writers in the programme, Professor Toolan suggests, are nature and nationhood.  With the referendum on Scottish independence rapidly approaching, we are all living in interesting times, he notes, and all the writers in the Creative Minds series have had subtle and thought-provoking things to say about nationhood and national identity, in their poems, plays, and fiction.  Each of them knows a good deal about nationhood and the crossing of national boundaries.  Michael Longley, for instance, has written poems probing echoes and parallels between the epic slaughter of the Homeric Trojan War and certain phases of The Troubles in his Northern Ireland homeland. Longley himself is in a sense as Irish as you can get (for three years he was Professor of Poetry for Ireland), but his roots are entirely London British—his father was an under-age recruit in the First World War, receiving the Military Cross, and lucky to survive where many of his mates did not. But Longley is even more a poet of nature than of nationhood.

So too is Kathleen Jamie, despite the wonderful and memorably-titled poetry collection she wrote around the time of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament: Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead.  Her earlier poetry was much concerned with Scottish identity, the Scots language, and gender, on all of which she is always sharp, inventive, and funny.  But Jamie is also a celebrated practitioner of creative non-fiction: in Among Muslims, she explored similarities between her own small-town Scottish childhood and the purdah-observing Shia Muslims she encountered when travelling alone in the Himalayas, where India and Afghanistan meet.  Her more recent prose has included the books Findings and Sightlines, mesmerising essays about the natural power and beauty of Scotland and the fragility of our hold on it (her husband had a life-threatening illness when she was writing these).  Like Jamie McKendrick, the first visiting writer, she is a naturalist as well as a poet, capturing in words the landscape and ecology of her native Scotland in ways fit for the 21stcentury.  This preoccupation with nature and landscape forges a link, too, with two of the later visitors, Michael Longley and Alice Oswald, whose poems celebrate their own sacred places in Ireland and the West Country respectively. 

Kathleen Jamie talks on Wednesday 26 February, 5:45pm to 6:45pm, Muirhead Tower, University of Birmingham. Michael Longley talks on Thursday 20 March, 5:45pm to 6:45pm, Bramall Building, University of Birmingham.