Seven Stanzas for StAnza (2020)
I learned in-line rhym-
ing three beers from resolved to absolve,
where a bard in the bar
is worth twa in the Byre
and I guess you’re right: pace yersel.
I learned that flat white can be quiet
a crowd at an open mic can’t shout too loud,
as the mic is always too high or too low,
murmuration’s no measure of volume
and I know you’re right: watch yersel.
I learned that a shard in the foot
of a verse cuts me worse
than a razor clam out on West Sands,
single malt is no measure of volume
and of course you’re right: mind yersel.
I learned that it was time for bed
when the poet said “I don’t dance,
no really, I’m good”
though we knew that they would
and you’ll surely say: take a look at yersel.
I learned no one sings happy birthday
even once at the sink after twelve
and the gulls here crow free with the room
and coffee and coffee it bears repetition
though I know that you’ll say: well hell mend ye!
And like the bard said, it is time for bed,
but my poem which sings in the shower
doesn’t dance on the page
and still dies on the stage
and I hear you say: well I telt yer.
As I head for a beach that is harder to reach
where makars skim stones whistling
sand in their shoes breaking waves of
lucidity down at the blade of the drinkers’
moon, I am cutting this line about what you might say
in the light of advice at a workshop.
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Poetry Online: for this year's festival we commissioned six new poems, with translations of two of them, plus the translation of a seventh poem for our digital installation Coast Lines. Our thanks to the poets and translators for agreeing to us sharing these online. We're releasing one a day; today, Shore People, by Donald Adamson. http://www.stanzapoetry.org/festival/events/coast-lines-0
Poetry Online: for this year's festival we commissioned six new poems, with translations of two of them, plus the translation of a seventh poem for our digital installation Coast Lines. Our thanks to the poets and translators for agreeing to us sharing these online. We'll release one a day, starting with The Naming Stone, Stromness - by Julie-ann Rowell. http://www.stanzapoetry.org/festival/events/coast-lines-0
Poem and photo credit: Julie-ann Rowell
In these challenging times, when so many people need to stay home, StAnza will be working on our own and with partners to share online material in different formats from this year’s festival and also older material commissioned by StAnza or prepared for our festivals. Our hope is that we can offer a range of poetry in all registers and moods to engage, entertain and inspire you over the weeks ahead. Eventually we’ll hope to have this collected in an accessible way, but meantime we’ll be sharing material via our blog and distributing this by newsletters and on social media.
The Museums of the University of St Andrews, with whom we often collaborate for the festival, approached us last week asking about material which they can include in their own plans to provide material online. Yesterday the first result of this collaboration was shared by them on social media. An excerpt of a poem we commissioned for StAnza 2015 from J.L. Williams was included in post with a video of material from the museum’s collections. If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you can follow them at: https://www.facebook.com/MuseumsUniStA/ and https://twitter.com/MuseumsUniStA @MuseumsUniStA. We are trying to find out if the video is available online other than on Facebook or Twitter. Meantime, however, you can hear J.L. Williams read her poem online and find out more about the project which inspired it at these links:
So it falls to me to try and encapsulate StAnza 2020 in all its themes, events and conversations. Before I begin, do go and read the other blogs by Suzannah V. Evans and Carly Brown for a beautiful in-depth look at each day of the festival (I’m still so impressed by how much they managed to attend, I don’t think they sleep!)
“I have packed my suitcase full of sea glass and hag stones, mermaid’s purses, seashells: auger, whelk, razor clam, periwinkle.” So says Rachel Plummer on Twitter before they take the train to StAnza to run the children’s workshop on mermaids and messages in bottles. I can’t think of a better suitcase with which to tackle this year’s festival. The main theme this year was Coast Lines which was apt for a few reasons: St Andrew’s proximity to the sea, the prevalence of the sea as a theme in poetry throughout time (I’m looking at you Samuel Taylor Johnson!) and how, with increasing climate change, Scotland’s seas are at risk from us and a danger to homes from flooding.
The collective reading this year similarly picked up on this theme. However, the understanding of the sea was more linked to the potential of climate change, as we read from Bloodaxe’s anthology of climate change poems. The poem I read aloud, for example contained the lines:
Do not save love
to the flood
The sea can be terrifying or all-consuming. It forces us to face nature and recognise how small we are in comparison to it. Val McDermid shows this thalassophobia (fear of the sea) in one of her selections for poems she would take to a desert island (“Law of the Island”, Robin Robertson):
They lashed him to old timbers that would barely float, with weights at the feet so only his face was out of the water.
But the sea is not always a harbinger of danger. We also had poems which demonstrated its wonders. StAnza’s language focus this year was Due North; highlighting poetry from Shetland, the Northern Isles, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. At one Past and Present session, Ian Crockatt spoke about Old Norse poetry including poets such as Rognavald Kali Kolsson who came to Orkney by sea. These poems would not exist if it weren’t for the sea. In Norse mythology Odin, who is the god of poetry, gains his poetic knowledge from the Mead of poetry which came from, as Crockatt puts it: “the sea, blood, spew and spit.”
It might sound like they have a poor view of poetry, but he goes on to explain they believed in “the magic power of words when turned into poems.” Meanwhile, at her Border Crossings reading, Suzannah V. Evans read a poem she wrote whilst poet in residence at Underfall Boatyard in Bristol where she asked passersby to help name a part of the boat which was nameless. I left thinking about naming, and how poetry gives us that space to create these phrases Suzannah lists, or to name our experiences and give us ourselves a name. Poetry carries this almost magical power to give us words for the abstract.
The sea too carries something mystical about it. In another Past and Present reading, Katie Garner speaks about “the power of the mermaid’s voice” and shows how, for female poets of the past, the sea offered a new landscape to take as their own. I think too of those who are trans and non-binary, for example, within Rachel Plummer’s poem “Selkie” from their collection Wain which reimagines Scottish folklore with LGBT+ perspectives:
Let them find me there by the shore:
the girl-seal with a secret
boy inside. Rough-voiced. Black-eyed.
as the beach by the tide.
Artwork from Wain by Helene Boppert is scattered throughout the Byre and in the Town Library. The watercolours masterfully bring this sense of flow and movement to them, much like the characters within the sea. It’s as if the characters are moving away from something and into a new space. In poetry, the sea gives a freedom, both in its vastness to move through, but also because it is not owned land with the same political dynamic. The voiceless can find a new identity, a new landscape to explore and own, a new voice.
On Sunday, my last day at StAnza, before my first poetry reading, I take a walk on the beach and try to record the sounds of the sea. I wanted to take a piece of the sea and these conversations home with me but the sound of the waves is totally obscured by the wind. Maybe I am stretching too far to try and make a concluding metaphor out of this, but it feels like a sign that we need to listen to the quieter voices. We need to listen to the sea, and the planet as a whole, as climate change increases, and we need to listen to the voices that often aren’t granted speech. Poetry can express the inexpressible, but it also gives a voice to the voiceless. I will do my best to keep listening. I hope you do too.
Well! It’s the last day of StAnza, and in celebration of this wonderful festival, the sun is throwing itself down in bright rays from the sky. The sign outside J & G Innes is glowing in gold, umbrellas have been tucked away, and the whole town is shining and brilliant. I have just returned from a mad tumble in the sea – but I jump ahead. Before I talk about the cold surf and watchful seagulls, it would be remiss of me not to mention the many poetic happenings of Saturday, which opened with breakfast readings, a workshop led by Carolyn Forché, and varied/various poetry performances.
One of these performances centred on ideas of the north, ‘Due North’ being one of the festival’s themes this year. Nancy Campbell and R. A. Jamieson read cold work, centred on ice and snow and beaches. Campbell opened the event, noting that after she had moved around a lot, it was good to be back home in Scotland. She reads a poem written in the voice of an ice core emerging from Antarctica, later talking about a museum which is waiting for ice to melt in order to retrieve artefacts from underneath it. She is fascinated by the Arctic’s myths, the way they explore a sense of kinship between humans and animals in the form of shapeshifting stories, and reads a poem entitled ‘Umiarissaat / The Seal People’:
I watch four shadows pass beneath the sun.
They are not men, those bearded ones
with fat, stooped heads and shining skin
aboard a boat with no beginning.
R. A. Jamieson is also preoccupied with the north, and speaks of his attempts to connect Shetland with the Scandinavian world; many of his poems are translations from Scandinavian languages. His voice when he reads is warm and easy to listen to, and his feet tap, fingers working too, in time with his vocal rhythms. His poem ‘Nort’ begins ‘here, in the north’, and uses the word ‘north’ as a kind of touchstone throughout:
to live here you must share the lamp and light the life
remember to knock away the ice, plant bulbs
to sprout and thrive
here in the north,
listen for the lark’s song in your self –
sing loud harmony
a short tune in the long silence
Later, StAnza attendees must choose between the wide array of poetic offerings, including a ‘Found in Translation’ event which features very new work (‘As fresh as poetry comes’, reads the brochure) created on site at the festival’s Scottish/Norwegian translation workshop, Joelle Taylor’s spoken word event, and an intimate reading with Lachlan Mackinnon. I attend the Five O’Clock verses with Jay Bernard and Yolanda Castaño – the final event of its kind – and it is heartbreaking and filled with song and filled with laughter – and I think one of the best examples of StAnza’s excellent programming. At night, I huddle away with fish and chips.
Sunday, now, feels calmer. My own reading with Jay G. Ying has taken place, the sea has been swum in, and frothy hot chocolates have been consumed. The seagulls are still squawking, the sun is shining, and the night is young – with much more music and poetry to come.
- Suzannah V. Evans, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2020