In her own very modest assessment, it is a fortuitous, to some extent even “abnormal” trip that Hannah Lavery has taken over the past decade, from an English teacher at Woodmill High School in Dunfermline to a writer. professional and acclaimed poetry and plays. . Much more than that – and it’s not by his own very modest assessment – his is a voice that speaks to and for Scotland’s conflicting conscience around issues of identity, race, justice and belonging with unparalleled power and authenticity.
Lavery first performed her poems live at an open mic party in Edinburgh in 2017, a nervous mother of three in her 30s. “It was impossible when I was in a pub reading my poems, to be honest,” she recalls. Still, that night would put her on a path – via more performances at spoken word parties such as Neu! Reekie !, Sonnet Youth and Flint and Pitch, poems published in creative writing titles such as Gutter, and a period of full-time work in public engagement at the Scottish Poetry Library – until being named Edinburgh Makar. Lavery’s three-year tenure as the Capital’s Poet Laureate began in October. In February, her first collection of poetry Blood Salt Spring will be published by Polygon.
Lavery began scribbling words in notebooks for his own private fulfillment at the age of 12, long before he even knew what poetry was. But growing up in a mixed family where both his parents were nurses left him no idea that a career in writing could one day beckon him. (His father was estranged for most of his life and died in 2017; the family baggage he left behind later became the subject of Lavery’s deeply personal and moving play, The Drift.)
“I was definitely not brought up in a family of writers,” she says. “It was never a kind of career I would even really imagine. Even though I became an English teacher, I still didn’t know how to become a writer.
“I think maybe it’s because I was raised by nurses,” she reflects. “I still had to figure out how I was going to be of service to the world. Writing poems didn’t seem like a very noble way to live your life. Like, how is that useful to someone? How is that of service to anyone? “
The lack of any sense of entitlement to his career as a poet, let alone the ear of the nation, is one of the many things that make Lavery’s writing such a revelation – whether for the stage or the page (“poetry is always at the heart of everything I do”). That and maybe a ingrained instinct to look for “the useful” in everything she does.
The final years of Lavery’s career were heavily shaped by Lament for Sheku Bayoh – a play based on the real-life story of the 31-year-old black gas engineer, husband and father of two who died in street custody. . from her hometown of Kirkcaldy, Fife in 2015. Originally commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theater Edinburgh in 2019 as a work in progress as part of the You Are Here series, and written and performed entirely by a company of black Scottish women, it’s not just a howl of raw grief and anger, but a saddened account of the myth of Scotland as a land of equality and humanity, somewhat unaccustomed to the acts of racial hatred and violence.
The pandemic meant the piece couldn’t be properly performed in front of a live audience ahead of the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2021, but Lavery was determined to stick with it to the point where she could ‘give it’, as she says so. A filmed version of the piece shared online last November took on added resonance after the sudden death, a year later, of the piece’s composer, musician Beldina Odenyo, 31. “The movie allowed us to have, you know, part of a legacy for Beldina as well,” she said, gushing momentarily just as she said her name, “which sounds really important. “
The public inquiry into Bayoh’s death is still ongoing. “I hope that started some conversations we need to have in this country,” Lavery continues, of the broader legacy she hopes to have Lament for Sheku Bayoh. “About what it’s like to belong, the damage caused by conversations about the Scottish exception and how it informs so many people’s experience of living here. My hope for this piece was that it would inspire some change, as well as some support for the family to seek answers. And to get answers.
Her new Blood Salt Spring collection was compiled and partly written during the lockdown, but it brings together poems from her entire life – “there are pieces that have been with me for a long time,” she says. Yet it is also, she adds, “a reaction to recent years”, not only in terms of the disconnection and distress brought by Covid-19, but also the many conversations around Black Lives Matter that have had took place since May 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. “It was like there was a real opening of old wounds,” says Lavery.
“This collection touches on this trauma we were experiencing. Both the inherited trauma – which was rooted in the life experience of a woman of color – but also the trauma of that particular moment.
“There were a lot of comebacks in places that were quite painful or quite difficult,” she continues, “but I felt like a trip that ended in a place full of hope.”
As she prepares to publish her first collection of poems, it’s interesting that Lavery admits she didn’t know how to become a writer when she was a high school English teacher. How would she have answered if one of her students had asked her this question all those years ago?
“There has always been poetry, writing and reading around me on both sides of my family,” she responds, returning to her own childhood. “Although I never thought I could do it, I really knew I liked it. I knew I liked the words and I liked the language.
“I think if a kid had asked me how he becomes a writer,” she says, “I would have said, you have to be a reader first. “
Hannah Lavery’s Blood Salt Spring is published by Polygon in February
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