“…it was impossible not to feel moved, uplifted, and deeply affected by Kay.”

Charlotte reviews Jackie Kay at Ledbury Poetry Festival 2024

Ledbury Poetry Festival 2024 began on strong footing with Jackie Kay’s captivating performance on Friday, June 28th. Reading from her latest poetry collection, May Day, the former Makar of Scotland enthralled a full audience with her animated and thoughtful delivery. Published in April 2024, May Day invites readers to look back with Kay over the many protests and movements she has taken part in over her life. This, in turn, serves as a testimony to her parents’ dedicated political convictions, which have clearly shaped both Kay and her relationship with them.

Throughout her performance, Kay frequently checks in with her audience, thanking them repeatedly for their “fulsome claps,” asking if they are as hot as she is, and joking about the “wee moans” her poetry sometimes elicits. Her performance often blends into a conversation with her listeners, who are engaged and eager to interact. There are nods and raised hands at the mention of names like Peggy Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and Nina Simone. Although she stands onstage, it is evident that Kay and her audience share a deep connection regarding her references.

Kay’s inflection brings humour to unexpected moments. In ‘Mother’s Day, 2022’, she recalls her mother leafing through her address book: “He’s dead. / She’s dead. Oh my. She’s dead. They’re dead. Oh Jesus.” The audience bursts into laughter; Kay’s performance brings a levity to her words, which on paper might sound simply despairing.

The most overt thematic threads in May Day are those of family and of activism. In ‘A Life in Protest’, Kay describes her parents marching to “free Nelson Mandela” or to “STOP THE WAR IN IRAQ”; her mother wearing a badge that reads, “I may be old, but I voted REMAIN.” In ‘Harry Belafonte’, Kay addresses her mother, sharing a vision of “People who fought to make our world better, / having a jam, winging it. […] Together – you, Dad, Audre, Harry, / Paul, Sidney, Nina, Rosa, Bessie. / All of you raising a glass.” Kay shares familial anecdotes in between reading her poems, too, painting her parents as larger-than-life characters deeply committed to social causes.

Even in moments of protest when her family is not present, Kay exhibits a familial regard for those she marches alongside. In ‘A Banquet for the Boys’, Kay recounts ordering “a feast” for a boy and his friends. She had met them on a Black Lives Matter march, during which the boy was injured by police. Through her gifted feast – and this poem – Kay thanks these boys for being “trans-affirming,” “queer-affirming,” “for loving diversity,” and “for knowing what matters.”

The theme of family is epitomized in May Day by Kay’s choice of first and last poem. Both her selective performance and the collection as a whole are book-ended by poems about her parents, both birth and adoptive. In ‘Union Song’, Kay depicts her birth parents “In love in the Music Hall, / and dancing; handsome, pretty.” She tells us she wrote it to give her birth parents “that little moment of romance,” which we all like to afford our parents sometimes.

Her final poem, ‘Cairn’, describes Kay and her family building “a cairn for Helen and John,” her parents, to whom she has dedicated May Day. She names her parents and the loved ones who accompany her, creating an intimate moment as her father’s ashes are scattered. A fish leaps from the loch, hanging in the air as “Nature’s last salute” to her parents.

Walking away from this performance, it was impossible not to feel moved, uplifted, and deeply affected by Kay’s work and her reading. By looking back on various political movements and observing their successes, Kay’s writing inspires hope in young readers and listeners that our own contributions to society’s betterment will succeed too.


Charlotte Ainsworth

Charlotte Ainsworth is an English student excited to explore the world of reviewing literature. Her current interests include the work of female science fiction writers from the 20th century and earlier. Aside from her literary pursuits, Charlotte enjoys walking her dogs, embroidery and playing the trumpet.

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