Words & Wanderlust: Thursday at StAnza 2017

Friday 3 March 2017

Haiku at Large

Haiku at Large

Thursday is always a difficult day at StAnza. It’s the day when you have to start making choices – not only about what to see when events clash, but also about how you’re going to pace yourself for the week ahead. Do you go all out, trying to pack in fourteen events a day, or do you select just a couple? I had a lot of conversations with people who were trying to find the right balance of how to make the most of the festival. The trouble is (and it’s a good kind of trouble to have) that there are just so many good events. 

I started the day with the first Border Crossings event of the festival, with David Wilson and Janette Ayachi. (Actually I started the day with a delicious salmon & scrambled egg on toast, but who’s counting?) 

I sat in the Supper Room at the Town Hall as Janette Ayachi started to read, and I felt the world open out before me. Her poems ranged from Venice, to Barcelona, to the Adriatic Sea, to airports, ‘where the the choked heart unclogs itself.’ She spoke with the uninhibited wanderlust of someone who is utterly in love with travel, and by the time her reading ended, I thought my own wanderlust couldn’t get any more pronounced. 

Until David Wilson took the microphone, that is. His poetry spoke of a different kind of travel, of the pull of using your own body to climb a rock face, or scale a mountain. His poems had a deep gravitas that contrasted interestingly against Janette Ayachi’s wonder-filled (and wander-filled) poems, and both left me desperate to travel the world. 

But instead of countries or continents away, my next event was just upstairs: Past & Present,with Neil McLennan talking about Wilfred Owen, and Alice Oswald talking about Homer. For me, this Past & Present really earned its name. Both speakers, although talking about historic poets, seemed also to be talking about StAnza itself. First Neil McLennan, in talking about Wilfred Owen’s experiences at Craiglockhart Hospital, emphasised the importance of his meetings with Sassoon and Graves, and the coming together of poetic minds: the importance of ‘space to think, to connect, and to write.’ What is StAnza, but a space to think and connect? 

Next, Alice Oswald spoke about Homer, and the lightness of Homer’s work in the original Greek, pitted against the bodily weight of translations. She explained how Homer’s poetry, like jazz, worked through a kind of improvisation, formed of blocks of ‘lucky grace’ – a kind of stance against the ‘classical-poetry-as-formula’ approach – and how the whole work had a kind a of movement, a wind blowing through it (something else very relevant to St Andrews).

‘That’s the thing about oral poetry,’ she said, ‘You can’t really trace it – it just goes on, looping and looping into the past.’

Neil McLennan talking about Wilfred Owen

Neil McLennan talking about Wilfred Owen

This oral (and aural) sharing of poetry continued with the first Five O’Clock Verses of the festival, with two Bloodaxe poets: A. B. Jackson and Joan Margarit. Both poets took the audience on a journey, whether it was in a boat with St Brendan, to a garden holding vigil for a dead mouse, or through the melodic sounds and language of Joan Margarit’s Catalan poetry, so beautifully translated by StAnza’s own Anna Crowe. 

The journeys continued into the evening, with Rebecca Sharp talking about her experiences at a Nicaraguan poetry festival in Poet on the Road, and then with Poetry Centre Stage. Robert Crawford’s lilting Scottish voice took us on a journey through Scotland, and down to Grasmere in the Lake District, with a tour of Dove Cottage (former home of William Wordsworth). This was a poem that particularly struck home for me, as I’ve done quite a bit of work for the Wordsworth Trust over the past few years, and taken that tour alongside numerous school groups. And with such a big contingent of Cumbrian poets in the audience, I know I wasn’t the only one fighting the urge to cheer! 

Next, Alice Oswald took the stage for a second time that day, with spell-binding performances of poems from her latest collection, Falling Awake. Falling is definitely the right word; throughout her reading (which I watched from the comfortable chairs of the Studio Theatre via live screening) I felt as though I was tumbling into her voice. As someone said to me in the bar afterwards, it was as if she sucked all the light from the room and gave it back to you in the form of a poem. 

The evening drew to a close with the Jazz Night: jazz musicians jamming and performing to a packed Byre Theatre bar, with five poets taking floor spot to read alongside the band. Watching the poets and musicians perform together was a fascinating experience, as each sought to find the rhythm and tone of the other. With every performance, there was an uncertainty as the poet began to speak, a slight and tentative disconnect between music and voice that quickly found its groove. As voice and music wended together, it was visible not just in the eyes of the performers, but in their bodies, as poets started to move and speak to the wandering beat of the jazz band. If StAnza is all about that space to connect that was so key to Wilfred Owen, then this was a connection on the most intuitive, corporeal level. 

Perhaps it’s true what Joan Margarit said during his reading: ‘I doubt whether any journey could be anything that the traveller was not, before he set out.’ Perhaps we all bring our previous ideas and expectations to any event we attend. But what this first full day of the festival certainly did do was to speak to those ideas that had already lain dormant inside us. 

As Janette Ayachi said in her opening poem, ‘An Inch from Rapture’: ‘I just want to keep my eyes open when I walk.’ And I for one feel as though I spent the day with my eyes as big and wide as the blue St Andrews sky.

By Katie Hale, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2017

#StAnza17

St Andrews: StAnza 2017

St Andrews: StAnza 2017

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