Festival Blog: Day Two, Stephanie Green on poetic larceny

Saturday 17 March 2012

Stephanie attended Kwame Dawes's workshop on Thursday and followed it with other StAnzaesque visual adventures:

Thieves, Liars, Pedlars and Soldiers - and Poets. 

I never thought I'd be incited to a life of crime today but this is what happened.  'If you have a great sense of morality about this Grand Larceny, best leave the workshop now', said Kwame Dawes.  As T.S.Eliot put it - second-rate poets borrow, good poets steal.  But as Kwame said, 'steal but go to town on it.'  In other words , make something of your own.

This was a workshop about the Ekphrastic - writing poetry inspired by art – my second workshop in a row, phew, but I needn't have worried. Kwame, who has great warmth and personality made it fun and I left the workshop with a notebook full of approaches  to try out later. It won't just be art students propping their easels in front of Old Masters in galleries now but poets brandishing notebook and pen- speed-writing, gleaning images to make into something rich and strange later. (Echoes of Lavinia's workshop at Balmungo House – the image, the image.)

I decided to put Kwame's theories to the test by catching up with other art installations/exhibitions -  poetry inspired by photos or conversely photos inspired by poets.  Co-incidentally our workshop took place in the Town Library surrounded by Norman McBeath's photos:  Creative Capture: photos and a poem each of 6 poets who have been are still teaching at St Andrew's University. What a roll-call: Douglas Dunn (recently retired), John Burnside, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie (now at Stirling Uni) Don Paterson and the latest arrival at St A, Jacob Polley.

These are studio portraits - not the open-mouthed poet in performance, obscured by a mic nor Flickr  off-stage unguarded moments, blurred or blinking. I think I might just hang up my camera straps. Be that as it may, these are seriously good photos - black and white, portraits in depth. It's interesting to muse though, how much the photos catch the personality of each poet or whether it reflects or contradicts the persona revealed in each poet's poem.  It must have been hard to select just one poem. I hardly dare say each has the poet's 'voice' since I know Don P says that concept is a nonsense – every poem has its own voice - but all the poems chosen  are instantly recognizable as that poet's.   I'm not sure all the photos caught that elusive something of the poet's personality. My favourite photo and poem pairings were of Kathleen Jamie, looking quizzical and her poem 'Speirin' and Don Paterson's looking Noirish with his Film Noir-like poem 'Rain'.

You can see these photos online via  Echoes from the Vault.

Dan Phillips was last year's artist in residence and his photo  portraits of poets performing, with much emphasis on hands, hands gesturing, jazz hands, hands to lean books on, are on show in the Byre's Bistro and Bar. I recognized Jo Bell, John Glenday, Lorna Callery amongst others. They could not be more different from McBeath's. For the OTT, look at the portrait of  Bob Holman, New York's performance star, with our own American born/currently Scottish-based Ryan van Winkle

So wherever you go in St A this year there are photographs - the most stunning exhibition of all has to be Simonides' poetry and Robert Crawford's translations into raw Scots and English, alongside Norman MacBeath's photos. I have blogged about the latter when the exhibition was shown at Edinburgh Art College as part of the Edinburgh International Festival last summer (2011).

It was the most interesting art installation of the EIF for me and terrific  to see it again here at StAnza. A sombre note to the festival but if you only come for one thing it should be this heart-stopping exhibition , both photos and poems.  There is no body bag installation as at ECA, though as Crawford has said, the poems themselves are little 'body bags' - memories of the dead- recollections of what is lost.

Photography is obviously a big component of StAnza this year.  And St Andrew's University has an amazing special collection of early photography - it could be said to be the poetic hub of Scotland. But more of that serendipity (No, obviously well thought-out planning) over the weekend.