StAnza audiences like their poetry fresh. By Jay Bernard, StAnza Artist in Residence 2010
The sun put her cloche on for us today and gazed blindingly upon our wee grey toon. Which isn't to say the wind wouldn't flail the face off you as you rounded a corner, but bright mercies! I've taken up position in the Byre Theatre to relate the happenings of the day; The Flaming Lips' 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song' has come on the stereo, there's some delectable poetry art work on the big screen to my left and some old friends milling around somewhere behind me - lovely symbols of another stimulating day on the poetry blogging beat.
Today, I introduced the New Poets Showcase in the Council Chambers. The blurbiage, ladies and gentlemen:
For the first time the top poets from the creative writing programmes of the major Scottish universities, the University of St Andrews (Ellen Cranitch), the University of Edinburgh (Claire Askew) and the University of Glasgow (Billy Letford), will come together with a prize winning alumnus of the 2000 Foyles Young Poet of the Year award (then the Simon Elvin Young Poets of the Year Award) (Sarah Howe), now at Cambridge University. Come and be entertained by the voices of the future.
I must say the StAnza showcases are among my very favourite, now annual, StAnza events, an opportunity to hear a diverse range of voices and verses in one sitting. This one showcased the poets coming through the sterling work of creative writing MLitts and MScs across the country, and of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award (Saturday's showcase will celebrate New Writing North and StAnza's firm connections in the north-east of England). A lovely mix, a big smiley audience, Sarah's crocodile poem; Claire's pamphlet burny hot off the Red Squirrel press; Ellen's tender poetry for her late mother; Billy's Burnsian rendering of a midge bite, a broad and impressive range.
While in the Byre foyer, after a tasty soup (foodie alert: tomato!) with StAnza press officer, the wonderful Annie Kelly, I was oxter-cogged by the Dumfries and Galloway mafia, in the form of Hugh Bryden and poet Jean Atkin to use my spare 15 minutes wisely and well, by repairing to the Preservation Trust Museum for a guided tour of Hugh's Ronacadora exhibition, In Black and White! Sometimes one is simply in the right place at the right time! Deep joy, the sun streaming through the windows, Hugh explaining how the complex making of Jean's book appeared to him a dream (Hugh: illustrator and publisher by day, seer by night...), of how he and Hugh McMillan, heading to London in 2010 for the Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlets, designed their Willow Pattern collaboration on the paper plate saved from a tea and toastie stop: when the muse strikes! Some pics, of Hugh and Jean and the fine work of Roncadora Press, below.
Today Bob Holman, ('Poetry Czar' and founder in 2002 of the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan) and his fantastic spectacles rocked into town. He immediately went on the prowl for a kilt. Today I had a bottle of Coca Cola with a straw in it, an ice cream from Janetta's Ice Cream Emporium, having dispatched the brave Jo Bell there for an impromptu performance to a snaking queue and played musical chairs at dinner, as we invited lone poets to break bread - or the Byre's fab beef bourguignon - at our table. While dining, I got a tiny insight into the fascinating world of translation: did you know that the Welsh word for microwave is popty ping? And if you did, did you know it isn't solely for onomatopoeic reasons, but that it literally translates as "the oven that goes ping"? Isn't that marvellous? When words collide! Also marvellous, in a news just in kind of way, is the Belgian chocolate I've just consumed, a gift from Ghent and Krikri's Helen and Jelle.
I enjoyed today's 5 O'Clock Verses with Tom Petsinis and Kevin Young, enjoyed talking about silence - awkward and comforting - with Rachael and Patricia, enjoyed my small stature fails to ignite the Byre electronic door, enjoyed many fine sightings of brogues, enjoyed a passing South Street chatette with my former tutor, the ineffable Douglas Dunn, who's centre stage on Sunday evening at 8pm with Ciaran Carson, and enjoyed being part of five simultaneous conversations - involving jogging, disco, J Alfred Prufrock, cupcakes and an imminent event - on the Byre couches; a skill only the hardened StAnza comer will have mastered...
I leave you in anticipation of tonight's Risk A Verse (see what we did!) Open Mic, due to begin at 10.15pm (if you're within running distance, come!), and more cheese, upon which a pack of students, here for the mic, have gleefully descended like seagulls on chips) and the dulcet tones of Tina Turner, 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' blasting from the speakers... The beat goes on!
It's 7pm, I'm in the foyer of the Byre and there's a pleasant surround sound buzz on all levels. We're between acts - Brian Johnstone (right, putting the spec in spectacular... Spectacles: model's own) and Natasha Trethewey read at the first 5 O'Clock Verses session in Parliament Hall, elegies for time past, and perfect for one of this year's themes, 'Timepieces'; Fiona Sampson and Yang Lian are about to share the Byre Auditorium stage, with Yang's translator, Brian Holton, at 8pm. Thai green chicken curry has been consumed in between. I am sitting beside the Ryan Van Winkle; we are both en laptops while facing a wall with a constant pictorial loop of participants on it; imagine his surprise and my glee when this happened:
But what a day and what a lot of different poetries have come before this point! I've been involved with StAnza since I was a student here at St Andrews, latterly as former director Brian Johnstone's PA, when my job was to man the phone, put out fires or rush to Leuchars train station to retrieve a mislaid poet: in short, this is the first year I've been able to pull up a pew and drink down some words! Today I dived right in with a Past and Present session in the Town Hall - my first! - with Kevin Young speaking about the late, great Lucille Clifton and Stuart Kelly on the poetry of the late, once-considered-great Sir Walter Scott. An illuminating session in which Kevin revealed his great respect for 'Miss Lucille's' work and warmth - "I can't think of very many poets I'd want to hear 73 poems by", he said, of a recent event in which 73 of her poems occurred - and Stuart explained how Sir Walter's poetry was once held in such repute that advertisers of the day aped the final lines of 'Marmion', notably to aid sales of moustache wax...
From the past to pies, glorious pies!, and a ridiculously lovely session with Jo Bell, who read poetry of friendships, ship ships, the boating life, and a few naughty ones for good measure. She also declared that she found StAnza to be the friendliest poetry festival, which is of course a lovely thing to hear. Did we seduce her with the pies? Or was it the bank of chocolates and strawberry tarts left out for everyone after her event? Either way, we acknowledge that traversing St Andrews during StAnza without bumping into someone keen to discuss poetry isn't easy! Then for something a little bit different... Krikri were first introduced to StAnza audiences as part of the Distant Voices Festival in November 2009, pushing the envelope with their soundscapes in Ghent while we watched from the Byre Theatre. This was the first time we'd seen them perform in the flesh, and I'm afraid their lively and engaged exploration of contemporary trends in performance, sound and visual poetry doesn't really translate into words! Mind-wobbling, ear-bending stuff. So it's been a day of poetries, or multiple voices, of remembering the past and celebrating the present. We'll be raising a glass to that - and St Patrick - tonight in the Byre Bar, where there'll be a spot of lovely jazz too. Perhaps we'll see you there...
Before I take a step across the threshold into a curtain of fine St Andrews rain, towards another delightful day immersed in poetry, a cup of tea and an admiring glance over yesterday's fine beginnings, begun in earnest at 5pm in the Byre Theatre.
A big jostly crowd of poets, poetry fans, guests and students were treated to a taster, 'both figurative and literal' in the words of Director Eleanor Livingstone, of this year's programme: what with this year being Scotland: Land of Food and Drink, there's a raft of excellent locally produced nosh to complement what’s always on the StAnza menu. The fine Cairn O' Mhor wines doing the rounds (strawberry and bramble and elderflower, oh my!) were only the tip of the gastronomic iceberg; I solemnly declare to sample those cheeses and chocolates and pies for your vicarious pleasure.
Glasses charged, we heard a poem each from Emory-based Kevin Young, StAnza's first ever Gaelic Poet in Residence, Maoilios Caimbeul, Lidija Šimkutė, gorgeous traditional music from the sickeningly talented Mairi and Steaphanaidh Chaimbeul, and an address to visiting poets on the perils of St Andrews from BBC Radio Scotland's Tom Morton. Appetites finely whetted, we repaired for a big warm welcome to StAnza meal (salmon to start and chicken stuffed with haggis, if you foodies care to know!); this was a great chance to chat with the likes of Ghent based Jelle and Helen, aka Krikri, who'll perform today at 2.15pm (a must see!) The disconcerting part of the meal for my myself and fellow diner Jim Carruth was being observed by Jay Bernard's cartoon portrait of me from StAnza 2010.
Onward then to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's opening concert at the Younger Hall or the Golden Hour in the Byre bar, depending on your fancy (options!); I was introducing the Golden Hour and my friend and colleague at the Scottish Poetry Library, beard about town Ryan Van Winkle and it was a joyful occasion. Ryan opened with poems from his new collection Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. Then Billy Letford (I went from never having met Billy to being introduced to him 5 separate times) seduced the entire rapt room with his fine poetry from the rooftops and poetry of bird song, all read from memory. Singer songwriter Hailey Beavis never disappoints, with those swoonsome lyrics and that eargasmic voice, and the compulsive energy of the John Langam band, all folky and fiddles and klezma makes this non-dancing library worker want to shed her cardigan and dance.
And the wonderful thing about StAnza, that always sets it apart from other festivals, is the craic; the ending up in Aikman's Cellar Bar with Jo Bell (also on later today at the Poetry Cabaret,1pm) and Billy and student volunteers havering on about Raymond Carver and hotel beds wider than boats and toasting St Patrick at midnight. So here's to a fine beginning and four more days of the same potent stuff!
StAnza is about to take off! The final preparations are being made at the Byre Theatre for this evening's launch and the first of the festival events. In just a few hours, the theatre will be filled with poetry, music and the lively mix of poets, artists, and poetry fans that makes the festival such a unique and convivial experience. BBC Scotland's Tom Morton will be the special guest at our 5.30 launch and will introduce some of the poets: our first ever Gaelic Poet-in-Residence Maoilios Caimbeul, USA poet Kevin Young and Australia’s Lidija Simkute.
Covering StAnza happenings will be our guest blogger Peggy Hughes (above left), who works at the Scottish Poetry Library, arguably one of the hippest literary libraries in the world - and they do a mean afternoon tea, too. Peggy will be casting a keen and highly amused eye over what goes on at StAnza – she’s going to cover a variety of events and snatch some micro-interviews with Stanza poets and people at the festival. And there’ll be a section about books: books we couldn’t put down; books to recommend; ‘a book I couldn’t finish’; books people wish were back in print and opinions about e-books.
Experience the best of festival via the StAnza Blog over the next few days and tell us what you think. We will also be active on Twitter, Flickr and on Facebook.
Our guest blogger, poet Carrie Etter, started her writing career through communities of poets in her native USA. What does she expect to find on her visit to Scotland?
Over the years, I’ve been a member of a number of poetry communities, but for the sake of space I’ll just talk about my first few. Growing up in Normal, Illinois, I found my first such community when at the local university I took an adult education class, ‘Women Writing Women’s Lives’. I was fifteen and the youngest present by ten years. Eight from the class, including myself, stayed together for several years, continuing to workshop fiction, poetry, and memoir, and giving readings as a group around Illinois; we called ourselves Womanwriter.
As few in the group were avidly pursuing poetry, I think it was that much more important I found another community through the literary magazines I discovered in the university library. I started noticing recurring names and turning directly to poets I particularly liked, and when I began publishing my own poems, I felt increasingly part of a community of the page and periodical and think that’s partly why I have such a great affection for “little” magazines.
Moving to Los Angeles at 19, I found a vast community of poets that roved from reading to reading across the city—indeed, across several counties! Soon I learned that one could go to a reading every night of the week, and to try to bring it all together in those pre-internet days, I founded Out Loud: The Monthly of Los Angeles Area Poetry Events, a newsletter that began with 200 photocopies and myself the only person involved, and ended five years later with 3000 printed copies a month and a volunteer staff of 18. Financially I was barely getting by, but I had the best of times.
In Venice, California, on the western edge of L.A., Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center continues to thrive, and those involved in its full, varied schedule include many I knew twenty years ago. Fortunately Facebook helps me keep in touch with some of them, and I hope someday to return and read there, a homecoming I’ve fantasized about perhaps once too often.
Coming to StAnza for the first time, I’ve been curious about the Scottish poetry community, so I wrote to some Scottish poets I know for insight. Scotland’s answer to Beyond Baroque appears to be the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. As J.L. Williams remarks, “The SPL is an amazing resource in so many ways - the collection, the people who work there, the events they put on. It's really a hub for poetry in Edinburgh, and feels so vibrant and alive.” Poetry series also provide a useful meeting place as well as the opportunity to hear a mix of local and visiting writers; Poetry At… and Shore Poets in Edinburgh and St Mungo’s Mirrorball in Glasgow were recommended by a number of poets for their welcoming and supportive atmosphere.
Those surveyed pointed out two main weaknesses in the Scottish poetry community. One lies with publishing, in terms of few poetry presses and lack of attention to poetry by Scottish newspapers. As Robert Crawford writes, “Scotland has no big poetry publisher, and the poetry 'infrastructure' of London probably has a scale and range that's not really matched here.” On the matter of range, the second weakness is the lack of support for “other” or “experimental” poetries; there’s no Scottish magazine that publishes it to any extent, no reading series devoted to it. Sadly, one established “experimental” poet felt there was no place for his work in Scotland. I hope, though, that this is beginning to change. Rob A. Mackenzie, organizer of the Poetry At… series, is becoming known for a catholic taste and hosting an interesting range of poets, and I was heartened when StAnza welcomed my giving a talk on American “experimental” poet Barbara Guest.
I am eagerly looking forward to my time at StAnza and am grateful to its organizers for the opportunity to become acquainted firsthand with the Scottish poetry community. I’d be glad for others’ thoughts, in person at the festival and here online, to improve my knowledge and understanding of it.
Carrie's talk on Barbara Guest is at the Town Hall on Saturday 19th at 2.15pm. She will be reading at St John's Undercroft on Sunday 20th at 11.30am. Details at www.stanzapoetry.org
StAnza’s children’s programme features two writers who are household names thanks to their writing for children and young people. Both of them have made poetry, appealing and entertaining: as the budding poets in their audiences will attest.
Julia Donaldson (left) is most famous for The Gruffalo, which has delighted generations of children and has been a big hit on BBC television. She has written poetry books, novels and songs for children of all ages, which she talks about in this interview at the Scottish Book Trust. For StAnza, Julia and her husband will be performing Wriggle & Roar, (Saturday 19th) at the Byre Theatre, a fun filled hour of poetry and song for children aged 4+ and featuring some of her favourite characters. Afterwards, Julia will be signing copies of her latest book, Cave Baby.
Philip Gross is a prize-winning poet, whose collection The Water Table won the T S Eliot Prize. But he is immensely proud of his poetry, plays and fiction for young people. ‘I feel quite fierce about that,’ he told Scotsman writer Susan Mansfield in an interview last week. ‘If I’m writing anything that an adult reader would feel short-changed by or patronised by then I shouldn’t be doing it to young people either.’ Philip started writing when his own children were growing up and his writing matched their ages. His latest book, The Storm Garden, is a novel for teenagers. Philip’s show Off the Road to Everywhere, for children aged 8+ is at on Sunday 18th at the Town Hall in St Andrews. During it he will be presenting prizes to the winners of the StAnza Poetry Competition for young people during the show. The winning poems will be on display at the Byre Theatre.
Click here for more details about the Children’s Programme.
Read Philip Gross's full Scotsman interview here.