As I sit back in my usual 9-5 (cue Dolly Parton), I’m still turning last weekend over in my mind and re-examining it, still teasing out lines or metaphors or reflecting on a conversation had afterwards in the Byre bar over a couple beers. I will admit, I am one of the biggest StAnza-geeks about. I book the time off of work way further in advance than necessary, hovver around the website on launch date and count down the days a little bit like I probably used to with Christmas.
This year, I reprised my role as a volunteer tackling social media, sound tech-ing and some hosting and participant liasoning. My last event of the festival is with British-Nigerian poet Tolu Agbelusi at Poetry Café (where I scoff my fourth pie in four days…)
Tolu reads: ‘Wherever I am, I am of the other place. The one I just left.’ Here, she describes the feeling of being from two countries, not fully accepted by either culture. I jotted the line down immediately as it beautifully summarised a theme that ran throughout this year’s StAnza: (“Another Place”) as well as a feeling throughout many poets work. It was echoed in other poets work: Ishian Hutchinson’s reflection on his homeland of Jamaica whilst living in New York, Mary Jean Chan’s playful examination of Cantonese, Hannah Lavery’s poem which focuses on her father, a Scot, who was rejected by a country that made him ‘foreign’ in his own homeland. The places traversed this StAnza ranged from Italy, Jamaica, Spain, Nigeria, England, Canada, China, back to Scotland.
I started to think beyond this map, however, as for some, this whole “other” place was not a physical location but a life that moved into a new setting: Ben Norris reflects on coming back to his home train station after moving to London, Caroline Bird spoke about living in a hospital rehab room - these other places of transition, not necessarily accessible to all. Even more abstract, sometimes ‘Another Place’ is entirely inaccessible - as in A.E. Stallings “Lost and Found” long-form poem she read at Centre Stage, where she traversed some underworld like landscape of lost things in a dream.
It could be the location Liz Berry builds in her Forward-winning poem “The Republic of Motherhood”, where motherhood is not a change of life, but a physical landscape built out of hospital rooms, late nights and graveyards. This poem appears in her pamphlet of the same name, aptly designed to look like a passport - something which grants us entry to this new location. It was fun trying to doodle these half-places on StAnza’s poetry maps of Scotland and Europe, trying to come up with the right phrasing to describe them.
StAnza itself could be called another place: a long weekend of reconnection and focus on a sole art-form that we seldom get the chance to have. After five days of immersion it feels odd to board the train back home and switch the conversation to laundry or alarm clocks. I already miss the bizarre routine of running across rainy St. Andrew’s between readings, markets, bookshops and the Byre.
Another theme was ‘Off the Page’ - a theme that could be applied to any StAnza, with its rich focus on poetry performed or made intimate. It isn’t just read alone but interpreted in visual art, taken on windy walks, or through Luke Pell and Kitty Fedorec’s movement, and accompanied by music, such as at Jazz Work’s annual Jazz Night or Anton Wojcik’s “How to Keep Time” which blended spoken word with drumming.
Another ‘off the page’ interpretation was StAnza’s first ever flash-mob where participants performed Edward Lear - complete with blue latex gloves - by surprise one evening. I must admit, when I heard there was a ‘poetry ruckus’,(as another volunteer dubbed it) I half expected some kind of Jeanette Winterson-like scuffle in the car park over slighted publications.
“Off the Page” however, had less literal meanings. I think about Nadine Aisha Jassat, Caroline Bird, Joe with the Glasses, Carly Brown, J.O. Morgan - and many more - whose words are completely different when they read them aloud from when you read them on the page. The joy of StAnza is being able to see poetry imbued with new meanings. A pause here, quicker pace, volume all can change your perception of a poem completely. I linger too on the immediacy of Jacqueline Sapphra’s reading, where she used photography of and by Lee Miller in projections. Sapphra brought an, often-forgotten, woman straight off the print and almost into the room. It’s common to hear poetry or art referred to as a “conversation” but it’s rare to see this play out in front of you.
I think the goal of poetry is always to take us somewhere new beyond much more than what is printed on paper. We traverse the experiences of others through our own empathy and imagination. We take the journey alongside A.E. Stallings in her dream, we are in the rehab room with Caroline Bird, watching Birmingham Rollers in the sky with Liz Berry, walking down a racist hostile street with Nadine Aisha Jassat.
Of course, it will never be same as lived experience, but as John Burnside reflected in the StAnza Lecture, poetry is ‘always saving the world’ as our ‘primary way of reflecting on how we want to see the world.’ We are the closest we will ever be to the other place of someone’s perspective and sightlines without ever leaving our chairs. Maybe we leave StAnza not having saved the world, but definitely having our own reshaped and brightened for the better.
I start my StAnza experience browsing the poetry market which turns out to be a treasure trove of presses publishing poets writing all kinds poetry. I am thrilled to flick through anthologies that feature Scottish poets and poetry written in Scots dialects and Galic. Many of these pamphlets and books are illustrated with paintings and drawings showcasing as much talent as the words they accompany. The poets and publishers behind the presses are there to talk and share interesting industry insight as well as a laugh! Their friendlessness and passion make me feel right at home. I buy A.C. Clarke’s latest book ‘War Baby’, a stunning collection prose mixed with poetry, and just feel sorry I can’t buy more! In particular, the collections published by Roncadora Press which are as much works of art as books.
At the Undercroft, I watch poets Laura Accerboni and Kathrine Sowerby read a selection of their poems in a room that seems to transport us all centuries back. With its arched roof and exposed ancient bricks, lit by warm yellow light, we wait for Accerboni to begin in a hushed, expectant silence. She does not read translations, she reads her poems in her native Italian. This is perfect for the medieval room, and even though I can’t speak Italian, I find beauty in listening to the power in her voice. Sowerby follows, and while her poems are in English and focus on the contemporary, many set in the domesticity of home, her performance is a natural continuation on from Accerboni. Sowerby’s reading balances strength with vulnerability. As she reads each line with a humble rawness, you can hear the fierce connection she has to her poems.
Leaving the Undercroft, I find myself back in 2019! On South Street surrounded by people enjoying the sun, I feel like I must have time travelled. I decide to visit the Byre Theatre again, the buzzing center of the festival, and while I am sat enjoying a delicious coffee, a St. Andrews student asks me if I would like to hear a poem. Of course I do, so he sits down across from me and reads Flann O’Brien’s ‘A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man’. Afterwards he tells me that it is one of his favorites, one he loves to come home and read after he’s had a few drinks. It is a lovely moment of passing warmth and connection. Over my weekend at StAnza, I have experienced many.
A stranger sitting beside me, in the back row of the Byre Auditorium, soon becomes my friend. Over the interval of the Centre Stage performance, we are both still happily stunned by the exceptionalism and power of Ishion Hutchinson’s reading, and so the stranger is not surprised to see that after nipping out for a drink, I have returned having also bought a copy of Hutchinson’s latest collection ‘House of Lords and Commons’. My new friend tells me that they are Canadian and wish there was something in Canada like StAnza. The festival celebrates poets who write in languages and dialects other than English and its refreshing to see the focus expand to include some outstanding poetry written in other tongues. Caroline Bird performs in the second half and coming on stage she meets a crowd still fizzing with excitement after witnessing Hutchinson’s set. Her performance follows with grace, she reads some of her work, both new and old, brilliantly and unapologetically. She reads one poem that she wrote at was just seventeen years old, a poem about her divorce, another about a questionnaire she filled out years ago, upon her admittance to rehab. She ends her set with a poem celebrating her mother. Between all of these poems Bird has us laughing our heads off with anecdotes from her life. Both Hutchinson and Bird create a remarkable sense of closeness between us and them, a sense of connection that feels rare, powerful and exciting. I feel so lucky to have been able to attend StAnza 2019, and I can’t wait to for what’s in store next year!
Each year I try to prepare for StAnza by:
reading work by the festival poets – check
eating healthily in case I am led astray by friends – check
lots of early nights (see above reasoning) – check
Yet, however I try, I am always bowled over by the…the, you know….the EVERYTHING of the Festival. StAnza brings together different voices, genders, ages, nationalities, languages, artistic disciplines and practices, until I am dizzied by it all. Joyfully, excitedly dizzy with the words and movements of people around me, performing, discussing and, not to be underestimated, the chance conversations and catch ups that happen in shreds of time while queuing or at the bar with friends old and new.
Reflecting on yesterday, sitting in the morning sun with a coffee, I see patterns and themes emerging from Friday: female poetry and experience; the richness of many different languages; and embodiment. Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of being a judge for ‘Poems Aloud’, St Andrews University Library and StAnza’s student recitation competition. Along with fellow judges, Richie McCaffery and Professor Sally Mapstone, I was treated to performances of a range of poems written by festival poets, all of which had been learned by heart. The standard was excellent; what struck me most was how the participating students embodied their chosen poems, through their breath, their voices, their gestures and stance. They were living these poems, taking the words of another writer and making them their own. As with all competitions, there had to be a winner; in this case, Jenna Schmidt for her nuanced, lyrical delivery of Christine De Luca’s ‘Soonscapes’. As one audience member commented, ‘I could listen to her all day.’ Congratulations to Jenna and to everyone who participated. More than one person remarked on how supportive and appreciative the students were of each other, creating an atmosphere of everybody being in it together rather than against one another. Thanks go out to Caroline Teague who brilliantly entertained the audience and participants by performing during the judgely huddle.
StAnza always has the power to surprise me, to wrongfoot me and shock me back into my self. Yesterday evening’s sharing of work from ‘In this cold’s tending time’ was one of those encounters. Luke Pell, Lucy Cash and George Mario Angel Quintero’s collaboration is growing and unfolding throughout this year’s festival, as they work across three gardens in St Andrews, creating poems and movement. Their work explores poetics in the body; how words live in the body. What is the nature of liveness? How do we share it? There is daring and danger in this work, in committing to sharing and showing work which is still growing, work which may not yet know entirely what it is. Yet, within this vulnerability lies power. Seeing Lucy and Luke lying on the floor of the Byre reception, holding positions, responding and tending to their environment and the others within the space was provocative. This is not what people usually do in the Byre Reception. I was jolted out of the seductive power of the day’s words and into an awareness of my own embodiment in the space. How do I, how do we negotiate the spaces and people we are among? Do I stop, breathe and listen to the poems of my body, my breath? Am I aware of the bodily poetics of others? As Lucy said to me later, ‘This is about being human beings together.’
‘In this cold’s tending time’ continues in the three gardens across the weekend, with 5.30pm sharings at the Byre reception. I urge you to drop by and drop in to this slower, meditative pace. It will tend to you throughout your festival journey.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Friday was International Women’s Day and this was embodied in yesterday’s programme. Poetry by women took centre stage literally and metaphorically throughout the day, including Fiona Moore, Jill Abram and Gerda Stevenson to name only a few. There isn’t time or space here to write about every performance from yesterday. (I checked but Eleanor and Annie gave me this thing called a deadline…) So, I’ll make do with mentioning a couple of highlights. After Nadine Aisha Jassat’s events, the Byre hummed with delighted chat. Reading from her debut collection Let Me Tell You This, Nadine spoke powerfully to her experiences as a young woman of mixed heritage. One of the festival volunteers, Milena said how she had particularly enjoyed ‘The Old Codgers’ which described with humour and tenderness, Nadine’s linguistic inheritance which weaves together her mother’s broad Yorkshire vowels and her father’s ‘Hindi-meets-Shona-meets Gujarati-meets-Afrikans’. Nadine’s is a complex, important voice that we very much enjoyed hearing. If you didn’t have chance to hear her, do seek out her book.
Complex, important female voices were also very much in evidence on Friday evening on the Poetry Centre Stage with Jacqueline Saphra and Menna Elfyn. Jacqueline read a number of poems about her parents, in particular exploring her complex relationship with her father. In the second half of her reading, Jacqueline read in full her pamphlet ‘A Bargain with the Light: Poems After Lee Miller’. It is a carefully crafted crown of fifteen sonnets. In addition to addressing Miller’s professional development and career as a photographer, the poems do not shy from the sexual violence that Miller experienced as a child. Rather they look straight into the camera and do not blink, and are ripe with multiple meanings; ‘Perhaps you’re numb. You turn and strike a pose.’
Menna Elfyn also read poems which showcased her love of language, humour and a light touch, ‘splintering’ Welsh into her translated poems which in her voice leaped off the page and sang. Yet there was also darkness stitched into the performance. Last night Menna Elfyn described poetry as something which saved her when she was fifteen and the poems which she read are a saviour and a comfort for her readers. She shared a number of poems from the collection Bondo about the Aberfan tragedy in which 144 people lost their lives when a colliery spoil tip collapsed over a village in 1966. These showed her personal engagement with the grief of Aberfan and speak as a national remembrance to the disaster. The effect on the audience was palpable. I for one, became aware at the end of one poem, that I was so caught in Menna’s imagery that I had held my breath throughout the poem.
These were two outstanding performances and I’m sure that for me, as for others in the audience, their words will continue to resonate and settle in the days and weeks to come. Thank you, poets, dancers, students and StAnza – Friday was a remarkable day.
One of the themes of our festival this year is ‘Another Place.’ And because there was so much to see yesterday and I am but one blogger (who cannot be in every place at once!) I chatted with Helena Fornells who designed and led the morning poetry walk inspired by the festival theme, finding locations around the town of St Andrews that had connections with other countries. Under a gray sky (but thankfully no rain!), she took participants around the town yesterday, leading them, for example, to a site on Market Street where a Bohemian Marytr Pavel Kravar was accused of spreading heretical ideas and burned at the stake, and reading a poem by a contemporary Czech poet Tereza Riedlbauchova. Helena also informed me that apparently Borges was in St Andrews in the 1970’s, visiting Alistair Reid, and there is a myth that, when he was here, he quoted from The Seafarer, or lines from Beowolf, directly to the North Sea. In honor of this, she took her participants to the pier and read from ‘Borges on the Wall’ by Chris Jones.
Even if you weren’t able to join Helena on her walk, I would highly recommend (for those in town) for you to take a stroll down to the pier and look back at St Andrews. It is my favorite view and the one that made me first fall in love with the town. Perhaps you could even quote some lines out to the sea, if you feel so inclined!
My own day started with my Poetry Café event with Joe with the Glasses. I am not going to lie – while I was really looking forward to performing and seeing Joe perform as well, I was also quite excited about the pies. Stuarts of Buckhaven provide the most delicious pies (macaroni is my preference) for these events. A fed audience is a happy audience and yesterday was no different. Joe and I performed to a very full room and the audience was a really supportive and responsive one. Joe and I both hail from another place – the USA – and while our styles are different, both of us explored themes of growing up and our relationship with the country we left behind when we both moved to Scotland.
I have always found that leaving behind a place makes us reflect on it all the more. And then of course - when and if you return - you often see it with new eyes. Yesterday I shared a humorous poem reflecting on my experience of Abstinence Only Sex Education that I experienced in Texas public schools (I didn’t know how bizarre this sort of 'education' was until I left Texas). Joe’s poetry is lyrical and poignant, often reflecting on how to best represent and reflect the culture that he left behind, the racism and violence present in the US. I have to thank StAnza for pairing us up because not only do I hugely admire Joe’s work, but I think we were a good match. There was plenty of variety between us, but also many parallels: both of us bring a sense of theatricality and energy to our delivery and both of us reflect, in different ways, on what it is to be a poet, and a person, living in ‘another place’.
The evening’s Centre Stage readings took us to yet more places, this time mythological. While I always enjoy the Centre Stage readings, I have to say that A.E. Stallings’ reading last night was one of my favorites I’ve ever seen. Towards the start of her reading, she led us down into the dark depths of the underworld with her poem ‘Hades Welcomes His Bride’, to the land where sight is a ‘lesser sense’ and the young bride must learn ‘directions through your fingertips’ (‘Poets love the story of Hades and Persephone,’ she remarked before the poem. ‘It is our favorite’). I could go on and on about this and her other poems, but basically Stallings’ reading was brilliant. I would also particularly recommend checking out her poem ‘Like’ which, she told us, tries to reclaim the word ‘like’ - such an overused word in our everyday conversations - ‘for the poets’. And why not? It is, she reminded us, at the heart of the simile.
The final poet of the evening was John Burnside, a local favorite of international renown. Burnside’s work often deals with place (I think of his novel The Summer of Drowning and the eerie, Arctic Circle setting of perpetual brightness). He shared with us a lot of wonderful new work, but one poem that stands out to me is a sweet and tender one called ‘Studio Weather’, which explored how seeing a familiar place through his son’s eyes made him look at it in a new way.
The day ended, as so many StAnza evenings do, with jazz music, wine and conversation in one of my personal favorite places, the Byre Theatre, and we went home at closing time with the promise of more amazing poetry to come.
- Carly Brown, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2019
The week has finally arrived. Poets from near and far have flocked to our little town on the coast of Scotland for five days of poetry, art, film, music and more. Five days of celebration, collaboration and creative conversation. Five days, in short, of StAnza Poetry Festival.
I myself travelled to St Andrews from Edinburgh – not too far a jaunt, considering that many of our poets hail from much, much further afield! Once I arrived in town, I headed straight to the Byre Theatre and met up with some of the other poets and volunteers, some I’ve known for years through working and performing at the festival, and some who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time yesterday.
After delicious sandwiches and wine, we kicked off the festival in style at the Launch Event, which provided a taster of just some of the poetry, film and music on offer this year. You could call it a poetic smorgasbord? Poetry tapas? It’s possible I am just reaching for these food metaphors because I’m very excited for the macaroni pies this afternoon at my own Poetry Café event!
Nevertheless, it was a rich variety of voices and styles, featuring poets from a myriad of locations - from London, to Toronto, to Colombia. As Douglas Dunn reminded us in his speech launching the festival, ‘there are many different kinds of poetry, all of them valid’, and it was great to see so many different kinds of poems last night. Poetry in Catalan and Italian, poetry sung and poetry projected on the walls.
And perhaps because it is, as Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone pointed out, the ‘year of conversation’, last night I kept thinking about how poetry itself is always a form of dialogue, an ongoing conversation between each poet and each reader. Whether that conversation happens by someone flicking open a collection and reading in the silence of their living room, interacting with the words on the page, or whether by sitting in a bookstore, pub or theatre listening to someone share their work aloud with you – as we did last night.
Conversation itself was a theme that cropped up at various times in the poems we heard at the launch. Both of Fiona Moore’s poems, she informed us, were started from different conversations, including one begun in dialogue with another poem and one inspired by a real life conversation. Poetry is so often a response to other works of art, as well as an ongoing conversation with the past. Peter Mackay read a bawdy and brilliant poem from The Light Blue Book: 500 Years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive Poetry and Anne Martin shared with us a beautiful and haunting Gaelic song.
Another particular highlight for me was Poet in Residence Caroline Teague’s searing poem about her experience of feeling like ‘the abominable woman of anger, the monster in the hills’ and the societal pressure on women to be smaller, to take up less space, both literally and metaphorically.
I was also invited to perform at the launch, which was very special for me. Having volunteered at StAnza since my first year at the University of St Andrews (8 years ago!), I always dreamed of one day performing at the festival. So it was a real pleasure to join the other poets on stage and share my work last night. 19-year-old Carly would have been thrilled!
Throughout the event, we were also treated to readings from John Burnside and A.E Stallings, who will be reading at tonight’s Poetry Centre Stage event, and some lovely, lyrical tunes from Megan D.
As Robyn Marsack pointed out in her closing remarks, poetry and conversation are essential, now more than ever. At such a turbulent time, where there is a lot of talk of walls, barriers and isolation, poetry is a space of traversing distance, of connection, of taking someone’s hand and saying: This is how I see it. How do you see it?
And StAnza offers a space for those conversations to continue beyond the sharing of the work itself, but also spilling out into the Byre Theatre, the pubs and coffee shops, the beaches and cobblestoned streets afterwards, so that we can continue to converse and connect. Yes, our throats might be sore from all that talking by the end of the week (in my case, it already is!), but what a valuable opportunity to have so many voices in one place and to be inspired by one another.
So let’s raise a toast to the 22nd year of StAnza! After what we saw yesterday, it is bound to be a hugely enjoyable and stimulating festival indeed.
By Carly Brown, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2019
If you can't join us in St Andrews this week, or can't be here every day or at each event, you can still be part of the audience, and take part in the conversation at three StAnza events this week. Each of our three Poetry Breakfast events, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10.00, will be webcast live at https:/www.st-andrews.ac.uk/livevideo/ Tune in to watch and listen, and then let us have your comments and questions via twitter (@StAnzaPoetry) or on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/stanzapoetry/.
All events connect with A Year of Conversation. On Friday, Fiona Moore will chair a discussion on our Another Place them, with particular reference to climate change and other current issues. She will be joined by Jon Plunkett, Harry Josephine Giles, Polly Atkin and Alice Talbot.
On Saturday, Jill Abraham will take poetry Off the Page with Ben Norris, Sara Lodge, Julia Bird and Will Harris.
On Sunday, Tom Pow leads a discussion on translation as coversation with Ken Cockburn, Madeleine Campbell, Richard Elfyn and Mónika Ferencz.
Friday 10.00-11.10, Saturday 10.00-11.10 and Sunday 10.00-11.00