James T Harding: Only Connect - The StAnza Festival Launch, RiverRun, Twitter & Supper Room

Thursday 7 March 2013

Writer James T Harding on how open discussion is at the heart of what StAnza stands for.

One of the central themes of this year's festival is 'Legacy and Place', and already a lively conversation is growing around the interconnectedness of different places. As well as the more expected linguistic and cultural connections, people have been discussing music, science, and even economics in terms of poetry and poetic interchange.

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales, kicked off both the debate and the festival at the packed StAnza Festival Launch on Wednesday night. In medieval times, she said, Welsh was the main language spoken in Fife. This year's Welsh poetry focus is about the encounter between two poetic traditions (not to mention two rugby teams), but perhaps it's the similarities rather than the differences that will be the most apparent - and the most inspiring.

Lesley Riddoch (Credit: Chris Scott)

Responding to this, Lesley Riddoch threw away her prepared speech for the launch and instead talked to us about her Welsh surname, about how etymology shows us the huge distances travelled by words, and about how the Medical and Biological Sciences Building of the University of St Andrews has toilets flushed by rainwater. (That last one isn't relevant to this post really, but interesting nonetheless.) She characterised poets as “custodians of connection”, finding and recording the moments of recognition between people and cultures that give us so much pleasure.

After the launch, we processed across the MBSB into the lovely North Haugh Theatre for The RiverRun Project. Curated by Liam Carson, the project consists of music, photography and poetry evoking a voyage through the city of Dublin past and present. Again, interconnection was the word of the moment, with poet Biddy Jenkinson explaining how Oliver Cromwell accidentally created a cultural melting pot in Dublin, in which writers and thinkers from all over Ireland and the rest of the world converged, festered in the Black Dog Prison, and wrote some stunning poetry. Meanwhile, haiku by Gabriel Rosenstock and portraits of places and people from Máighréad Medbh and Colm Keegan took the audience from Dublin’s society women and gang culture to Japan and back again.

Later that night, Lesley took this idea of the ancient interconnection between Wales and Scotland to Twitter, sparking a debate to which everyone was able to contribute whether they were in StAnza or not.

Alvin Pang (Credit: Chris Scott)

Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, who attended the launch to read an excellent poem about long-haul air travel, took these ideas about interconnectivity away with him and mulled them overnight. I found myself at a table with him, Sean Borodale and Ron Butlin over lunch in the Town Hall’s Supper Room, and we talked about how our economic situations are more tied in with the rest of the world than ever before. In particular, how the bubble of late-capitalist wealth moves on from country to country at a moment’s notice. That sounds a bit dry, but I promise it was a fun conversation at the time! Also, I wanted to show off about the company I keep at lunch: only at StAnza can you have a pint with multiple T.S. Eliot Prize nominees in one day. ;-)

As you can see, we’ve all had a lot to enjoy and digest so far at StAnza – and we’ve only started...

The point I want to pull out of all this is that StAnza is a bit of a melting pot in itself. The questions raised by Gillian Clarke and Lesley Riddoch in their opening speeches have been echoed, answers, synthesised and argued over throughout the festival, by people from St Andrews to Singapore. This happens in the official events and in the social spaces like the Supper Room in the Town Hall, but also online, through the boisterous #StAnza13 hashtag, @stanzapoetry, on Facebook and through the live Poetry Breakfast panel webcasts. Everyone is interconnected at StAnza – be that in person or online

Canadian poet Erín Moure, StAnza's Poet in Residence, also read at the Launch, adding to the international flavour. (Credit: Chris Scott)

James is available for interconnecting online and at @empowermint. Watch out for more StAnza blogs by him as the week winds onwards.