By her own very modest assessment, it’s a fortuitous, to some extent even “freakish” journey that Hannah Lavery has been on over the last decade or so, from English teacher at Woodmill High School in Dunfermline to professional and acclaimed writer of poetry and plays. Much more than that – and this not by her own very modest assessment – hers is a voice which speaks to and for the conflicted conscience of Scotland around issues of identity, race, justice and belonging with a power and authenticity like perhaps no other.
Lavery first performed her poems live at an Edinburgh open mic night in 2017, a nervous mother of three in her thirties. “It felt impossible at the time that I was in a pub reading my poems at all, to be honest,” she reflects. Yet that night would put her on a path – via more performances at spoken word nights such as Neu! Reekie!, Sonnet Youth and Flint and Pitch, poems published in creative writing titles such as Gutter, and a spell of full-time work in audience engagement at the Scottish Poetry Library – to being named Edinburgh Makar. Lavery’s three-year tenure as the capital’s poet laureate commenced in October. Come February, her debut poetry collection Blood Salt Spring will be published by Polygon.
Lavery began scribbling words in notebooks for her own private fulfilment from the age of 12, long before she even knew what poetry was. But growing up in a mixed-race family where both of her parents were nurses, left her with no notion that a career in writing might one day beckon. (Her father was estranged for most of her life and died in 2017; the familial baggage he left behind later became the subject of Lavery’s deeply personal and moving play, The Drift.)
“I definitely wasn’t brought up in a family of people that were writers,” she says. “It was never a kind of career that 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 because I was brought up by nurses,” she reflects. “I always had to work out how I was going to be useful to the world. Writing poems just didn’t feel like a very noble way to live your life. Like, how is that useful to anybody? How is that of service to anybody?”
An absence of any sense of entitlement to her career as a poet, let alone one with the ear of the nation, is one among many things that makes 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 perhaps an ingrained instinct to seek the “useful” in everything she does.
The last several years of Lavery’s career have been heavily shaped by Lament for Sheku Bayoh – a play based on the real-life story of the black 31-year-old gas engineer, husband and father of two who died in Police custody on the streets of his hometown of Kirkcaldy, Fife in 2015. Originally commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre in 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 only a howl of raw grief and anger, but an overdue reckoning with the myth of Scotland as a land of equality and humanity, somehow unaccustomed to acts of racial hate and violence.
The pandemic meant the play couldn’t be properly performed for a live audience until the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2021, but Lavery was determined to stick with it until the point where she could “give it away”, as she puts it. A filmed version of the play shared online last November has taken on its own added resonance following the sudden death a year later of the play’s composer, musician Beldina Odenyo, aged 31. “The film allowed us to have, you know, some part of some legacy for Beldina too,” she says, momentarily welling up just speaking her name, “which feels really important.”
The public inquiry into Bayoh’s death is still ongoing. “I hope that it started some conversations that we needed to have in this country,” Lavery continues, of the broader legacy she hopes Lament for Sheku Bayoh will have. “About what it is to belong, and the damage that conversations about Scottish exceptionalism have and how that gaslights so many people’s experiences of living here. My hope for that piece was that it would inspire some change, as well as inspire some support for the family to seek answers. And to get answers.”
Her new collection Blood Salt Spring was compiled and partly written during lockdown, but it pulls together poems from across her life – “there are pieces that have been with me for a long time,” she says. Yet it is also, she adds, “a reaction to the last few years”, not just in terms of the disconnection and distresses brought caused by Covid-19, but also the many conversations around Black Lives Matter that have happened since May 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. “It felt like there was a real opening of old wounds,” says Lavery.
“This collection touches on that trauma that we were experiencing. Both the trauma that has been inherited – that was rooted in the life experience of being a woman of colour – but also the trauma of that particular moment.”
“There was a lot of going back to places that were quite painful or quite difficult,” she continues, “but I felt like a journey that ended somewhere hopeful.”
As she prepares to publish her debut poetry collection, it’s interesting to note that Lavery admits to not having known how one actually becomes a writer back when she was a high school English teacher. How would she would have responded if one of her pupils had asked her that question all those years ago?
“There was always poetry and writing and reading around me on both sides of my family,” she answers, returning to her own childhood. “While I never thought I could do it, I definitely knew I loved it. I knew I loved words, and I loved language.
“I think if a kid had asked me how they become a writer,” she says, “I would have said: you have to be a reader first.”
Blood Salt Spring by Hannah Lavery is published by Polygon in February
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