Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kathleen Jamie

I went along to the Anthony Burgess Foundation last night to see Kathleen Jamie read from her new book of "essays" (her word) "Sightlines." In conversation with Adam O'Riordan (whose quiet approach, more psychiatrist's prompt than interviewers interrogation was entirely appropriate), she read from the book and revealed quite a lot more about her artistic process than is usually the case as such events.

"Sightlines" is a book of essays - some, though not all, about the natural world - but as Jamie pointed out, she doesn't consider herself a nature writer. Indeed, like myself, she finds the tendency of some nature writing to block out the human as annoying. And what do we mean by nature? From the calm iciness of Greenland where she had deliberately gone because she felt she would never get to see an iceberg otherwise to the dual-microscope in the pathology lab peering at cells of removed tissue - this also is nature, darker, less pretty. If there is something missing in her narrative, as O'Riordan teased out, it is people, it is character. She is clearly not travelling alone but they are neither her subject or interest. Perhaps the person seen out of the corner of the eye is another way of adding perspective. If one of the worries of travel writing is that it can be seen as "tourism" perhaps one distinction is that you don't photograph yourself or others in the foreground of the Taj Mahal.  And as she added, she would hate to be written about herself, so those who travel are fleetingly referred to if at all. One point that was made is that for all the "isolation" of remote landscapes, for a writer the time being on their own is often the writing; not the being there.

And for Jamie the companions in these journeys have another function. "I am lucky to have fallen in with a great group of ornithologists and naturalists" she says. Each ornithologist seems to refer in awed terms to someone who is better than them, like there is some God of seeing at the top of the tree they all aspire to. But this wasn't merely a throwaway line, but a way of emphasising that seeing (or hearing) is something we can do all do; that we can all learn to do. The naturalists have encouraged her to look, and to look carefully so that your eyes become accustomed to the normal - which means that when you see something different, in behaviour, in feather colours or whatever - you notice is because of that difference. Not so different to what a certain type of poet does, of course. This "looking" had its reward in the final piece she read, about seeing the gannet's in the sky on an abandoned Scottish island, and realising that they were flying low; that there were other signifiers of a new presence in the landscape. That presence was killer whales, and Jamie and her companion, in a piece read with real drama, rushed to the cliff's edge to see what unfolded.

These ideas of a landscape that is shaped by us, rather than outside of us, reminded me of Simon Schama's classic "Landscape and Memory"; and memory seems to feature strongly in this work as well - so that a piece, a deliberately written piece, about watching a lunar eclipse, is then followed up by something that could have been prosaic. For the next time she "encounters" the moon is from the window of an airplane - and she reminds us that she would never get used to this "wonder" of flight (which the woman across from her, with an eye mask on before the plane has even taken off, is clearly immune to.)

Why write essays at all? She wanted to take that word back from the academy, where such things may well be unreadable - but also, because as a writer who admits to being "useless at plot and character", it is the form of prose that she does feel able to do. Though it is not, of course, any easier than writing poetry - though she'd hoped it might be. Some of these pieces took years. She gives a wonderful analogy of the car maintenance book, the Haynes manual, where you have "exploded diagrams" showing how all the bits of the engine or the exhaust system fit together. These essays are "exploded diagrams" of topics that a poem is maybe the more compacted work - where you can't see the workings. Also, when asked whether she researches the essays, she said (a little disingenously I felt, for someone who has deliberately sat in a pathologist's lab and is naming the techniques and processes methodically), that though she takes a notebook with her, it remains unfillled; she relies on memory and fills in the gaps later - or, more accurately, the essays "soak up" twenty years of reading or experience from the recesses of the brain.

Certainly there were extracts last night that with a different emphasis would have been inseparable from poems, but though the essays use her "poet's tricks" they do seem to be much more than that. If in the early extracts that she read from, there seemed a little too much of that "I am here, I am experiencing" beloved of TV documentaries, her choice of subjects and the emphasis she puts on them seems far more deliberate - responding to deeper subjects (of mortality; of silence; of man's role in the natural world.) I very much look forward to reading the book.

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