MCBF – A Poetry Reading by Jackie Kay

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August 20, 2012 by The Ascending Staircase

I studied Jackie Kay’s autobiographical book, Red Dust Road, in my recently finished first year of university, so this was a real treat for me. Sadly, I forgot to take my book but Jackie kindly signed the back of my festival blogger’s badge; needless to say, I wore it with pride for the rest of the day!


Jackie Kay sits casually greeting friends on the front row in Lecture Theatre 7. It is one of the smaller, cosier theatres here in the Geoffrey Manton building, and the atmosphere reflects that of sitting in a favourite armchair with a good book. It is warming and relaxed; you can’t help but feel a world away from the noise and bustle of Manchester.

She is introduced by Kaye Tew, one of MCBF’s Festival Directors, who simply tells us that we are in for a treat. Her gushing introduction, coupled with her reluctance to leave, both excite the intimately-sized audience and serve to add a whole new dimension of anticipation. We sit expectantly as Jackie rises from her seat and slowly walks to stand in front of us. She looks, possibly, a little nervous. So her enthusiastic, Glaswegian accent is surprising as we are launched into the first poem, ‘Attention Seeking’, complete with audience participation. We have to clap every time Jackie cries ‘attention!’ It’s a rather amusing way to begin a poetry reading that I expected to be relaxed!

The next poem is much more serene, and reflects upon a childhood home, a house of dreams. The audience listens on tenterhooks, enchanted by how Jackie’s words can twist themselves into astounding mental images. As we fly through the hour of Jackie’s attention that we have, it is obvious that she loves performing for her readers, and, even better, she’s brilliant at it.

We sail through poems that bring Dracula, trips to London, balloons, and an imaginary friend named Brendan Gallagher to life. These simple subjects are given new, quirky meanings and become symbols that stand for childhood, innocence, family. Jackie weaves stories and jokes into the gaps between her poetry that have the kind of intimacy which puts the audience entirely at ease. She speaks of her childhood, her son; these are things that are obviously close to her. I feel I could have known Jackie my whole life. She talks of her shyness, which I find hard to conceive as she appears to be a born performer. Clearly, her days spent in acting school were not wasted.

The children are eager to speak to Jackie to answer her questions and share their own insights. Her poem, ‘Brendan Gallagher’, sparks a talk about imaginary friends. Jackie’s family didn’t realise Brendan wasn’t a real person until a couple of years after his creation; her son’s own imaginary friend lived in the plughole of their bathtub, and he could only speak to her as the water rushed down the drain. The children in the audience thrust their hands into the air to tell Jackie about their own imaginary best friends.

The poems chosen for this reading are a perfect blend of meaningful and playful. It works well for both the young children in attendance and also entertains their parents, as Jackie intended. But the thing that will make this session truly memorable for adults and children alike is Jackie herself; her charisma and her passion.


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