Portrait of the artist
'The Birmingham Post said they'd rather go to the dentist than sit through my first play again. I actually agreed with them'
Wednesday 21 August 2013 07.00 BST
When did you start writing poetry?
At art school in the late 1960s. When I was at school, and was supposed to be studying for my highers, I was always drawing. And then when I got to art school, and was supposed to be drawing, I started writing.
What was your big breakthrough?
A poetry event at Edinburgh University in 1972, called Poem 72: I was on as a support act to Norman MacCaig (1) and, as everybody was there to listen to him, they all heard me, too. One of them was Gordon Wright, who became my first publisher: a few months later, he got a small grant to put out my first collection, which sold 5,000 copies.
Did you always set out to perform your poems?
Yes – for me, writing poetry has always been about putting sounds down in black and white. I refuse to make a distinction between "page poetry" and "spoken-word poetry". If it's good spoken-word poetry, I want to read it on the page as well. And if it's a proper poem, it should be performable.
What does being the Scots Makar actually involve?
All kinds of things: writing poems for official occasions; doing a lot of readings. "Makar" just means "maker", and I like the title: it reflects the fact that just as you can make a good pot of soup, you can make a poem.
Do you see yourself as heir to a particularly Scottish oral tradition?
Not really. I grew up being taught Burns and the border ballads – but then John Keats grew up on those ballads as well (2). My sensibilities are fairly Scottish, but I'm also very keen on American poetry, and on the Liverpool poets Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough.
What drew you to playwriting?
Going along to the Citizens theatre (3)as a student in Glasgow. It was a very international, unparochial, European theatre – with very cheap tickets. I went a lot with my late husband (4).
Would independence be a good thing for the arts in Scotland?
We'll find out. A lot of artists I know are going to vote yes. I'm not so sure the union has benefited Scotland culturally: Irish playwriting, for instance, is taken more seriously than Scottish playwriting, because Ireland is an independent country. When my play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off was a hit in London (5), my agent sent it to the National Theatre. They said: "We love this piece, but it's far too Scottish for us."
What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?
The Birmingham Post wrote of my first play, Blood and Ice, that they would rather go to the dentist than sit through it again (6). I actually agreed, but it made me think: "Do better next time."
Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?
Gosh, nothing: I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of attention I probably don't deserve.
Born: Motherwell, 1947.
Career: Began performing poetry in the 1970s; was appointed the Scots Makar, or poet laureate, in 2011. Plays include Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, and Scots adaptations of Molière's Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. She performs her show Apple Says Aaah at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, until 25 August (edfringe.com).
High point: "The opening nights of Mary Queen of Scots, Perfect Days and Medea. They were all stormers."
Low point: "Working on the play Jock Tamson's Bairns. I found I didn't like improvised theatre."
(1) The late, Edinburgh-based poet and former primary school teacher.
(2) The ballads of Thomas Rhymer and Tam Lin are said to have been sources for Keats's poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
(3) Based in the Gorbals, the theatre has been a vital part of the UK theatre scenesince the 19th century, and once hosted a riot after an elephant panicked on stage.
(5) Ran at the Donmar for a week in 1987.
(6) The play was directed by a young Michael Boyd, who has also recalled this review as a career low.