On Being a Scottish Poet – or am I?

A couple weeks ago, in the first seminar discussion for the Constructions of Scotland class I’m auditing at Strathclyde, we were introducing ourselves and the professor (Dr. David Goldie) said he’d heard I was a Scottish poet. “Well,” I fumbled, flattered but confused, “I do write poems and I’m in Scotland…” He replied, laughing, “There you go! A Scottish poet.” He then went on to unpack this and led us into a discussion of what constitutes identity, particularly in the literary world. It’s a question that’s been working in the back of my mind for weeks now: can I, as an American citizen freshly moved to Glasgow, really assume the title of Scottish poet? It’s true that I’ve written poems while physically in Scotland, as well as poems about Scotland. And I’m active in the Scottish slam scene while I’ve never taken the stage in the U.S. But still. My Philly accent gives me away as American the moment I open my mouth to read stanza one. It’s caused me to think: how do we define who is a Scottish writer? Or a Scottish dancer, or artist, or whatever one’s craft may be?

I attended the launch of Be The First to Like This, an excellent anthology of new Scottish poets, edited by Colin Waters, at the Scottish Poetry library a couple weeks ago (it’s well worth the read – link to purchase here). I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the poets read their work from the anthology, yet I was surprised at the diversity of voices. At the launch of a book of new Scottish writing, there were relatively few Scottish accents to be heard! This is, on the one hand, good: Waters did not revert to cultural nationalism and choose for his collection only those poets who could “prove” “Scottishness” through birth or blood, rather choosing to reflect in his selection the diversity of modern Scotland. And as a foreigner hoping to gain some traction in the Scottish literary world myself, it was encouraging to see how the established poetry community welcomes different voices with open arms. At the same time, however, I was left questioning how wide the definition of a Scottish poet could get. If I were to write a poem in the U.S. then have it published years later in Edinburgh, would it qualify as a “Scottish poem”? And, as a scholar, how is one to interpret common themes and trends in “Scottish poetry” when it is so diverse, arising from such varying influences and places? These are common questions in the age where it is impossible – and foolish – to draw simple conclusions about any one culture from people living in one place. Poets do not instantly change their writing style when they move, and it is reductive and problematic to make sweeping generalizations about writers from any one region. This is a good caution to me in conducting my research not to seek codes that explain an entire population of writers, for this is not only futile but can lead to the perpetuation of harmful/ignorant stereotypes.

So am I a Scottish poet? I suppose I might now claim a hyphen, becoming a “Scottish-American” poet; or I could relinquish this cultural need for labels and simply get back to writing poems!

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