Estimating the weight of a poet’s work in terms of its impact, its legacy and how far into the collective psyche it has travelled can be a tricky job. But if one measure is its physical weight when printed on paper, Liz Lochhead has little to worry about.

Right now, she and I are sitting in a corner nook of her sun-drenched flat in Glasgow’s Hyndland district.

On the table between us is a solid, 450-page hardback with her face staring out from the cover. Its title is A Handsel – if you don’t already know, it means a gift bestowed – and it bears the simple subtitle, New & Collected Poems.

Produced by Edinburgh-based publisher Birlinn under its Polygon imprint it is, in short, pretty much everything Scotland’s former Makar has ever written, up to and beyond her 2016 collection, Fugitive Colours. A hefty tome, as they say.

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“I’m old, I’m not going to write another one,” she quips, when I mention the size of the book and the breadth of work it contains. So how does she feel looking at it, this summation of her output as a poet? What she feels is that the process of pulling together so many varied collections, and the requirements of checking over seven or so sets of proofs, mean the practicalities of the project have largely subsumed anything else which might bubble to the surface. Feelings, memories. That kind of thing.

Mostly, anyway. “It was quite emotional at a certain point,” she says.

“Obviously poetry’s very personal. It’s not personal in an autobiographical sense, but it’s emotionally autobiographical in a lot of ways … It brought back to me not so much what had prompted the poems, but the actual writing of them and how curative that was and how it kept me going.”

Besides, some of that reflective emotion had already been dealt with a year earlier, when Birlinn produced a 50th anniversary edition of her first collection, 1972’s Memo For Spring. Ali Smith penned a new introduction and Lochhead spent weeks mulling over her preface. Eight weeks, in fact.

The Herald: Liz Lochhead in her home in Glasgow

“That was quite emotional, trying to write the preface,” she admits.

“It was very difficult to write about what it was like. I was trying to tell the truth about it and remember how pleased I was, and how taken aback that the first wee book was happening.”

That “first wee book”, as she calls it, had quite an impact, introducing a new, young, fresh (and, importantly, female) voice into a Scottish poetic landscape then still male-dominated. It’s not hard to see the galvanising effect it had, or why it has since been hailed as a landmark collection by poets such as Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay.

Appropriately, the first poem in A Handsel is a new one. Just as appropriately, it’s called Coming To Poetry and introduces us to a 14-year-old Lochhead, a girl who hasn’t yet put pen to paper in any meaningful sense but who is having her first fateful encounter with the work of doomed English Romantic poet John Keats.

“When I wrote that poem it was before the 200th anniversary [of Keats’s death] and I wanted to celebrate him. I realised that Keats had been important to me as a poet right from when I was a kid. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is probably still my favourite poem, it still has an emotional punch for me.”

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Keats too remains a favourite, even at the expense of staying abreast of the contemporary scene. “I don’t keep up enough with what’s going on because the older I get the more obsessed I am with reading older poets.

“During lockdown I was reading loads of Keats, things like Endymion. The 1930s poets still interest me too, like WH Auden and Louis MacNeice.”

Coming To Poetry also takes in another pivotal moment in her young life: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962.

“We really did think we might be dead soon. So many people were saying things like: ‘Maybe I’m going to die before I get a lumber’. It set the sex and death theme, and of course poor Keats died when he was 25.”

The Herald: Lochhead in 1978, six years after the publication of her first poetry collectionLochhead in 1978, six years after the publication of her first poetry collection (Image: Newsquest)

Then there’s the last poem in the book, from another section containing recent work. It’s called In Praise Of Old Vinyl – “Nostalgia’s everything it used to be/When you’re half-pissed and playing that old LP” – and it too links into Lochhead’s early story.

“I can’t sing,” she tells me. “I think I wrote poems because I was asked to just do silent singing in the junior choir.”

But she always loved song, so while the nuclear explosion threatened in 1962 never happened, the cultural explosion which followed a year or so later supercharged everything for her as for so many other young people at the time.

Before you could say Subterranean Homesick Blues, Lochhead’s nascent love of poetry had become hitched to the songs and lyrics of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and, by the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell. Those are the old LPs.

By then she had left Motherwell’s Dalziel High School and was a student studying painting at Glasgow School of Art. Had she been there a decade or so later, she thinks, she would have encountered the New Glasgow Boys – the likes of Steven Campbell, Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski – and carried on with a brush in her hand instead of a pen. Instead she wrote lyrics which were poems (or poems which were lyrics) and took herself off to readings.

“Glasgow was changing,” she says of the city in the late 1960s. “It wasn’t California. All the buildings were black. But there were poetry readings. Alan Spence and Tom McGrath and the great Tom Leonard all did a reading, and I remember being there and thinking: ‘My poems are as good as these, I should be on there’.

“But when I did show them [poems] they welcomed me. And then from 1971 Alasdair became a great friend. A big influence not in terms of anything I’ve ever written, but in terms of my attitude to creativity.”

This is Alasdair Gray, of course, eminent man of Scottish letters and art, dedicated citizen of Glasgow and a close friend of Lochhead’s until his death in 2019. “I still think about him a lot,” she says.

Lochhead travelled in the decade after they first met – she lived in the US with one partner, a Jewish New Yorker, then moved first to Bristol and then Ankara with another, a Turk – but had settled back in Glasgow by the mid-1980s. By then she was married to architect Tom Logan, who died in 2010 and is memorialised in her poem Favourite Place.

In truth, estimating Liz Lochhead in terms of her impact and her place in the national psyche isn’t that tricky a job. Just look around you – look at her awards and honours, for a start, from her stint as Makar between 2011 and 2016 (she followed the great Edwin Morgan, first holder of the title) to the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry she won in 2015.

Previous winners have included Auden, Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and another other hero of hers, Norman MacCaig. For a poet, that’s pretty good company.

Or look at her public stance on various political issues and her involvement in political campaigns, such as the movement for Scottish independence and the promotion of Palestinian rights.

“It’s apartheid, and people who deny it’s apartheid are denying the reality,” she says, reflecting on a trip she made to the West Bank a decade ago. It’s still a live issue, of course.

The war in Gaza continues and the week after we meet she’s due to join musician Karine Polwart on stage at a Medical Aid for Palestinians fund-raiser at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.

An issue closer to home: does she think she’ll see an independent Scotland in her lifetime?

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“I don’t know how long I’ll live,” she says by way of reply.

“I’m going to be 76 in December and my mum and dad were both dead by the time they were my age. Not that I’m planning to die, but on the other hand I’m not planning to live to 100 if I’m doolally. I’d like to have the wee cyanide pill somewhere. But no, I don’t think I’ll see an independent Scotland in my lifetime.”

Or look at her contribution to Scottish theatre. Inspired by attending plays at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre for the democratising fee of 50p and energised politically by ground-breaking touring shows such as The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil (“It was a big influence, more than I realised at the time”) she stepped into the world herself in the early 1980s.

“I like collaborative things, and it doesn’t get more collaborative than theatre,” she says simply. Since then she has written plays such as Blood And Ice (about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) and Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (self-explanatory that one), as well as critically-acclaimed adaptations into Scots of Molière’s Tartuffe.

“It just started coming out Scots, just like stuff from my granny,” she says of the Molière adaptation.

“And I found out I loved writing in rhyme, so I did that and it was a huge success. The other two great ones were The Misanthrope, which I did as Misery Guts, and The School For Wives, as Educating Agnes.”

She also adapted Euripides’s Medea for a production at the Edinburgh International Festival. Was the appeal partly about democratising these so-called classics? “I’ve got as much right to do them as everybody else,” she scoffs.

Finally, just take a look at your children’s school books to judge Lochhead’s impact and relevance. More than a handful of her poems have made it into the school syllabus, no mean feat for a living poet.

Not that she is entirely approving of the selection. “People did them to death,” she says. “It’s not the way you encourage people to like poetry, going on about themes and talking about things you don’t know much about like enjambment [continuing a sentence beyond the end of a line].”

Still, is the modern 14-year-old pupil having their eyes opened by one of her poems so different from the girl she was encountering John Keats in the early 1960s? The circle of inspiration continues and, though she’s probably too self-effacing to admit it, she has a place in the cultural loop.

A story she tells illustrates it. She was accosted on the bus one day by “a big labourer guy”, member of an earlier generation of Scottish schoolchildren who had been introduced to her work by a teacher allowed more latitude than modern ones working to prescribed texts.

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“He said: ‘You’re that poetry woman, Liz isn’t it? We got this poem at school and it was the only thing that made any sense to me’.”

The poem was The Choosing, written when Lochhead was 18 and included in Memo For Spring. “It’s a poem that appeals to kids that are 16, 17, 18. They [the curriculum-setting Scottish Qualifications Authority] missed that out.”

Sticking with schools, one of her more curious sinecures was as writer-in-residence at Eton College, the storied public school and alma mater of characters such as Boris Johnson and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg. How’s that for a culture clash?

“I stayed in a house in Eton,” she recalls. “The house master was a charming man, and little Lord Snooties would come and toast a crumpet and show me their poems. It was a wonderful three weeks. Very interesting. I realised it’s like university – Oxford or Cambridge – but for children.”

The Choosing is included in A Handsel, of course, but does the poet herself have a personal favourite among the 200-plus other poems?

“No,” she says, very emphatic.

“The favourite poem is the one that’s coming about. At first, when you’re working on one, you don’t know if you’re going to get there. But at a certain point you think: ‘I won’t get exactly what I wanted, but I’m going to get something’.”

A Handsel is vivid and indelible proof of that, over half a century of always getting something – and, as Scotland’s most esteemed living poet, of always giving something too.

A Handsel: New & Collected Poems by Liz Lochhead is out now (Polygon, £25)