Anatomy of a natural poet

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POETRY has never been the sport of celebrities. Unless you're Roger McGough, you can forget about being recognised down the supermarket. "Have you got any Kathleen Jamie?" I ask an assistant hovering around the poetry shelf (singular) of my local bookshop. "Kathleen who?" comes the reply.

Not that Jamie - about to publish six new poems as part of the major new exhibition, Anatomy Acts - would mind. Despite being one of the UK's foremost poets, fame really isn't her bag. "I can't think of anything worse," she says, when we meet in Jamesfield Organic Restaurant, a barn with a view over the flat fertile flood plain of the Tay near her home in Newburgh.

Even her students at St Andrews University, where she lectures part-time in creative writing, "don't know me from Adam," she says, laughing. "You might think it'd be an idea if your students read your work to know where you're coming from, but they don't."

Born in 1962 in Renfrewshire and brought up in Edinburgh, where she studied philosophy, Jamie is "a big fish in a small pond". Publishing her first book of poetry aged 20, she won the Eric Gregory Award, followed by numerous Scottish Arts Council Book Awards. Shortlisted three times for the TS Eliot Prize, she won the Forward Prize twice - first in 1996 for Best Single Poem and most recently in 2004 for her poetry collection The Tree House.

Feted by fellow bards such as Don Paterson, her latest prose work, Findings, a series of close-up observations in prose published last year, was described - much to her delight - as "where the Presbyterian meets the Tao". All she does, she says, is look for things that are not trivial.

Certainly her latest offering is far from trivial. The six new poems, inspired by her experience of looking through the anatomical holdings - body parts in jars - of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh for a fascinating chapter in Findings, will complement the more historic material on display as part of the Anatomy Acts exhibition at Edinburgh's City Art Centre.

Jamie drags out her laptop and shows me the pictures as nearby diners discuss free-range bacon over their Fairtrade coffee. "I'm not putting you off your food, am I?" she asks. "I've looked at these so often I forget where I am."

Jamie is as neatly put together as one of her poems, a guise that gives away little. Her past interviews, quoting far more from admirers and her own poetry than from her, suggest Jamie is intensely private. Indeed, we are not meeting at her cottage in nearby Newburgh because Jamie admits to getting "edgy" about inviting journalists into her home.

The intrusion of a poem, however, is a different matter. Her considerable output covers giving birth to her children, her mother's stroke and her husband's pneumonia - indeed, she even occasionally writes about the lives of other poets.

BUT JAMIE SEES a clear distinction. "Everything I want to say is in my books. I've taken great effort to get it right and publish it. I can't bear it when people try to jump over the books and get to me personally. I'm not remotely interested in writing down my feelings or my experiences. Who the hell's interested in that? Not me for starters.

"These poems, pieces of prose, they're artefacts. They're..." she pauses, feeling around for a word with sufficient finality, "made". Jamie can sound terse, exasperated, nervy, and yet there is also a warmth. She's just not one for filling in the gaps in conversation.

For the past few months, before she whittled it down to the six laptop images, Jamie has been carrying around 200-odd postcards of the kind that would raise serious eyebrows if she were "to get run over by a bus". Meticulous early 19th-century medical drawings made by surgeons and artists, they range from a series of nine foetuses in various stages of development - "Little man, homunculus; revealed within your rind," as she puts it in the subsequent poem - to a lovingly realised ovarian tumour: dark and horrifying with its 'frogspawn' appendages, and yet curiously beautiful, at least in Jamie's eyes.

"I like the form, the shape. It's almost right, but it's not. It's as if it's auditioning for a place in the world, and the answer is 'No'."

Unsurprisingly with Jamie, the natural world is never far away. An image of a brain, with its root-like pathways, leads her to suggest that humans are "just like trees". "Why should that be amazing? It's obvious when you think on it. We evolved from the same earth as all these other things."

Her thoughtful poems, with varied voices, humanise these excised body parts and the chain of science, exploitation and suffering behind them. Jamie finds the beauty in the unnatural and the sadness in the scientific. "What I notice is something of me, of course, but I love it when I can just get my own ego out of the way. That's what I want to do now. I'm more allied to the surgeons than the artists in that respect."

It is this curiosity and sense of wonder that characterises Jamie's approach to all new projects. She has travelled widely in the past, substantially in Pakistan and Tibet, publishing various travelogues, but settled in Newburgh because of circumstance. "The kids are in school, my mother is just up the road. I'm stuck here. Occasionally I think it would be nice to be somewhere else for a change, but if you've got to be somewhere, there are worse places than Scotland. A few hundred yards and you're off the beaten track. I feel quite smug."

Next week she's off again, on a boat with a group of archaeologists and ornithologists to North Rhona, north of Lewis and west of Orkney. Reminiscent of her Findings explorations, she could be happy doing this for the rest of her life. "Living on a boat, involving ourselves with birds... great!"

As if on cue, the free-range chickens outside suddenly bolt for their huts, the second time in 10 minutes, and rain starts to hammer on the corrugated Perspex roof of the restaurant. Jamie is transfixed. "Maybe it's not the rain that's chasing them indoors," she observes, looking at the gulls flying overhead. "Watch out! Squawk!" She laughs with a childlike glee.

Her husband, Phil, never minds her travels. "I keep asking, and he keeps not minding," she says, although it's rarely more than once a year now. A woodworker from London, they met after university due to a shared passion for climbing and hillwalking, which the arrival of Duncan, 10 and Freya, eight, temporarily curtailed.

It has been over a year since Findings was published. "I just have to sit and wait and see how the spirit moves me," Jamie says. "This is quite fruitful," she adds, tapping her six new poems. "I could easily do more of these, using the images, make a whole book's worth. I like to get hold of a thing and just go deeper and deeper. You can't predict what will interest you next. You can't say what direction it will take. That's a terrible mistake to make. I do occasionally think about not writing, but so much of my sense of self is bound up with it now. It's essential."

Anatomy Acts, City Art Centre, Edinburgh (0131-529 3993), until July 9