Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Nothing else is ever anything unless lit by it

Jackie Kay and Kate Swan on the work of Margaret Tait

by Jackie Kay and Kate Swan

For a trove of Margaret Tait archive material, the Margaret Tait 100 website compiled and curated by Sarah Neely, is superb. You can also watch several of Margaret’s films on the National Library of Scotland site and get further details through the British Film Institute site.

During the past year, events, screenings and a new website have helped to celebrate the work of pioneering film poet, Margaret Tait. Born on Armistice Day in 1918 and active as a film-maker and writer from the 1950s until the late 1990s, when she died in Kirkwall, her work is still fresh, surprising and worthy of repeated viewing and reading.

Around the start of the year-long celebrations, the Scots Makar, Jackie Kay, introduced some of Margaret’s short films at a session chaired by Nicola White at the Cromarty Film Festival. What follows is drawn from what she said in her introduction and in answers to questions from Nicola and the audience. Further observations are from Kate Swan (also in the audience), who worked for several months with Margaret on Orkney, as executive producer and co-producer of her only feature film ‘Blue Black Permanent’ (1992).

Jackie Kay: I first came across the wonderful work of Margaret Tait through my friend, Ali Smith, whose sister – Anne Macleod – is here with us. I hadn’t heard of her before, hadn’t seen her work. And I was amazed that this woman, who was born the day the First World War ended, was a person who almost declares peace in her work.

Her work is so innovative and inspirational, because it always does more than one thing at once. It looks straight at her subjects; doesn’t shy away from anything and gives the most surprising close-ups of people, such as in her astonishing film on Hugh MacDiarmid.

There was MacDiarmid – a famously quite vain man (especially about his hair). She gives us a portrait which gives a sense of him as a boy, as well as a man. It gives you a real sense that writers keep their childishness: if you notice, an awful lot of writers are quite childish! Because you’re always in touch with your imaginative self, with your girl self or your boy self, the thing that made things up when you were young. And that portrait, of Hugh walking along the edge of things, captures that. It also captures how he was on the edge of things politically, and on the edge of what ‘Scottishness’ was: ‘I’ll hae nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur/Extremes meet..’. I think it’s fascinating that you get that in her short film portrait.

Then her films give you an idea of how a person can be brought to life in a way that is very different from how we see documentaries today. She was ahead of her time. Her film of her mother ‘Portrait of Ga’ (1952) is tender and touching, because Margaret Tait was doing things that nobody else was doing then, such as taking time to show a sweetie being unwrapped. I love the slow-motion-ness of that.

She understood that time is a poem, in a sense. Time is a poem and the land is a poem and the land makes a poem happen. And she understands the relationship between stories and heather and sea and people and land. In the world of Margaret Tait, all of these things are quite utterly, beautifully connected - to such an extent that you’re riveted by it.

Strangely enough, her film work reminds me of the film work of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer who wrote ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and a number of other extraordinary works. But she also made films, which most people don’t know about. I saw them at the Library of Congress. She also takes people – ordinary people – and the moments we don’t usually get to see in films. When she shows African-American kids playing games, she records those games, but she’s also part of what she’s filming. Zora Neale Hurston’s films and Margaret Tait’s – I’d love somebody to come along and do a study of the two of them. You also get a sense when you’re watching one of Margaret’s films that she’s in it, but also distant from it; part of it and also not. That vantage point was very unusual then.

Kate Swan: I met her in about 1989, so worked with her closely for about three years until ‘Blue Black Permanent’ was released. Then we stayed in touch until she died.

She was quiet, focussed and absolutely clear about what she wanted. She worked in a wonderful little church on Orkney – about ten miles from where she lived – a de-commissioned church where she kept everything, all her boxes of film, a little office on the side where shed write – freezing cold! I spent days and weeks up there with her. If you needed a pee you had to use a bucket on the lawn outside.

JK: Hard core!

KS: She handled all the correspondence that went back and forth with funders, such as the British Film Institute and Channel 4, very well. But she was determined to get her way, her view. I think one of the amazing things about ‘Blue Black Permanent’ (now available on the BFI player and MUBI) is that Margaret kept hold of the film she wanted to make. All the shorts were made just by her – she filmed and cut them herself. On a feature film, she had to work with a huge crew and others, such as financiers and costume people. But she kept hold of it, because she made what she needed to make. She was a pure artist that way.

JK: And ‘pure artist’ is what you think when you’re seeing these films, because there’s something pure and clear and clarifying about them – as fresh as the bubbling water that they show. I really admire people that have a vision and know what they want to do. She didn’t make money from her short films – she lost money. And when she was offered the chance to work with Grierson [the most influential documentary film maker and producer in Scotland and Canada through several decades from 1929, Ed.] but only if she did so in the way he wanted – she refused, as if saying: ‘This is my vision. This is what I want to do.’

KS: I think that she understood that not everyone ‘got’ what she was trying to do. But for ‘Blue Black Permanent’ she needed all these people to help her to make it. It was like being a solo player and suddenly having an orchestra to conduct, and she was superb.

JK: A film is a poem and a poem is a film in the world of Margaret Tait. These films work very much like poems do, because of the way you are looking at things in complete detail. Poems have a love of language and metaphor. In the films, the language is the film itself, but the vantage point is that everything is seen with the poet’s eye. So the poem is the land and the land is the poem for her. Everything is connected.

In the film portrait of her mother, she looks at all the materials that her mother is wearing, all those clothes, close-up. You get a sense of the clothes and their textures being like the land itself. Just after that, she jumps to the land and juxtaposes things – in the way that poets do, often to allow you to understand things in sharp relief.

I find that extraordinary, because it’s very intimate and it’s also got a kind of distance; it does both at once. Her mother is her mother, and it’s personal. But she could be any number of mothers or grandmothers that we all know and identify with.

She’s got that ability, that poets have as well, to make something particular and universal at the same time. I think it’s a really interesting use of film too. It feels so fresh, like something you haven’t really seen, these particular angles and ways of looking. ‘Portrait of Ga’ is an unusual portrait of an old woman. Almost like a ‘day in the life of’, she goes through things in her life – her wee rollie, to her boiled sweet, to the different clothes that she wears, to running along. And she gives us these moments in time, for all time, really.

It’s the same with her Hugh MacDiarmid film. We have that portrait now of him, showing an utterly different side than the one we usually get in Scottish literature, which is quite macho. It gives an almost feminine side to him.

In Margaret Tait, you get someone who’s a poet and a film-maker, and the two things are completely intertwined. If I write a poem and it’s made in to a film, I’m not actually making the film, although I find the whole medium of film very exciting to work with as a poet, because of the many ways in which there’s an affinity between the language and the camera.

In the closing lines of her poem ‘Light’ she says:

The movement that light is/Comes out of the sun/And it’s so gorgeous a thing/That nothing else is ever anything unless lit by it.

It’s like her films. I love the closeness of her poetry to her films. I think if you sat down and read her poems without ever knowing her films, you’d have a much less rich experience. They’re almost in conversation with each other, her poetry and the film.