StAnza 2015: Kei Miller comes home
Former Glasgow-based poet returns to rapturous welcome in Scotland
The Jamaican-born poet Kei Miller was, until recently, claimed as one of Scotland’s own poets; he was Reader at Glasgow University until 2014. Sadly for Caledonians, he has since moved to teach at Royal Holloway in Surrey, but he made a return visit to read as one of the Saturday night headliners at the 2015 StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews this weekend, and proved that his poetry will always receive a warm welcome in Scotland.
Miller's most recent collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion, won the Forward Prize for Poetry last year, a year in which Miller was also named one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets 2014 and shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Costa Poetry Prize. Though his career has been steadily in the ascendant for some time, 2014 was the year he broke through to the British literary mainstream with his poems about post-colonial identity and understanding geography through language.
Much of The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion is written in one of two voices of two distinct characters, either the cartographer or the rastaman. When about to read one of his poems in the voice of the rastaman at StAnza, Miller warned the audience, 'You’re not going to understand anything I’m going to say, and that’s OK.'
But one of the most engaging things about Miller’s poetry is how universally accessible it is, despite many of the poems being framed in the language of academia and historical allusion. At StAnza, Miller delivered one of the warmest, funniest and most intimate poetry readings I can remember. Even though this was a sold-out event at StAnza’s biggest venue, the Byre Theatre auditorium in St Andrews, the rapt audience was engaged with every second of his reading.
Miller read poems about islands, death, place names, the Jamaican 'singer men' employed to provide music while road-builders works, and Miller’s experience of coming to Manchester for the first time, as well as political dialogue as the rastaman and the cartographer exchanged views. 'The rastaman definitely gets the best lines, but he’s not always right', said Miller. One poem took the Goldilocks fairytale and re-framed it as an analogy for colonial atrocities in a reading which succeeded in being funny and inclusive as well as sharp and thought-provoking.
Performing to a rapturous home crowd, Miller’s world-class poetry felt completely at home.
Kei Miller appeared at StAnza: Scotland’s Poetry Festival on Sat 7 Mar 2015.