A Poetry Breakfast panel gets going at StAnza 2010
StAnza is well known for its lively, energetic atmosphere, for the buzz that it creates around the poetry. This is due as much to its discussion and conversation strands as to the performances and readings. By turns celebratory and controversial, these talks influence the way we think about poetry. It’s a conversation that festival goers carry on long after the festival itself is over.
The StAnza Lectures have a history of their own: of creating conversations on often controversial topics that spill over into the press and the blogosphere. On Friday 18th, Robert Crawford brings ancient poetry bang up to date with his lecture: ‘Simonides and the War on Terror’. The Greek poet was famous for his commemorations of those who fell in battle and Crawford looks at contemporary concerns for the casualties of terrorism – civilian and military.
The festival themes and other topics get mulled over during the Poetry Breakfast series brings together poets, critics and academics – experts in their fields. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reminds us that this is arguably one of the most influential literary texts in English. Poet (and Poetry Review editor) Fiona Sampson joins in the discussion on Friday 18th. On Saturday 19th the Timepiece theme gets ticking again with the help of poets Hugh McMillan and newcomer Anna Woodford among others. As with all the Breakfasts, the audience get their say too, over the coffee and pastries.
It is often (too often) said that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Sunday’s Poetry Breakfast may well turn that notion on its head: Gaelic poet Kevin MacNeil is presenting some new translations especially commissioned by StAnza, and he will be joined in discussion by Don Paterson (who has major versions of Machado and Rilke under his belt) and Australian poets Tom Petsinis, Lidija Šimkutė, of Greek and Lithuanian extraction, respectively. That’s a lot of languages in the mix!
Elsewhere, there’s the chance to explore the true stories behind the great poetry. Edwin Morgan’s biographer, James McGonigal will be in conversation about the much mourned Makar. He will be talking to Robyn Marsack of the Scottish Poetry Library, which holds the Edwin Morgan Archive. And poet Gawain Douglas will be offering an alternative view of his great uncle Lord Alfred Douglas – Oscar Wilde’s lover – as part of his own family history.
There’s more about the talks at www.stanzapoetry.org. And you can keep the conversations going afterwards via blogs and Twitter (@stanzapoetry).
StAnza’s Artist-in-Residence this year is the photographer Dan Philips. Here he explains how how his project came about and why the photographer’s interaction with the sitter is so important.
It was about this time last year that I first became aware of StAnza. Having photographed the previous Director Brian Johnstone, in his home, I became intrigued and so spent a day in the company of the poets last year.
And it inspired me. Shooting ten portraits in a day it struck me how this kind of photography - more than any other - is about developing relationships. Your sitter can either collaborate with you, co-operate, enjoy the process and suggest ideas, or they can resist against it, be uncommunicative, or simply feel pushed for time. And the irony is that the latter can be as productive for pictures as the former. One of my best images from last year was of Linton Kwesi Johnson in his dressing room before his performance. He’d agreed earlier in the day, but the shoot being mere minutes before him going on stage, he was obviously pushed for time. I think the tension shows in his face and I love the picture.
So my residency is about bringing this relationship to the fore. After shooting each portrait I’ll ask each sitter to perform an ‘intervention’ on the printed image. I’ll give them some pens and what they do is up to them. They can ‘respect’ the image, or they can mock it.
And with StAnza being so clued up online those that can only visit for a day or two will be able to see the continued works on the StAnza Flickr stream, on Twitter, and on this blog.
You can see some of Dan’s previous work, including the portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson, here.
Festival going has many attendant pleasures; meeting new people and enjoying the bustling atmosphere is as much fun as experiencing the events. StAnza has become famous for the buzz it creates around its hub venue, the Byre Theatre, with its Bistro and bars and elsewhere in St Andrews, as our Photo Gallery for 2010 shows. Festivalgoers often find themselves talking to the poets they’ve just heard, in the bar afterwards, and people will mingle and chat over coffee and drinks between events.
Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, was keen to develop this convivial element of StAnza. ‘Food and drink have always been integral to the festival, from the hospitality offered to performers to informal drinks and meals at our venues,' she says. 'We wanted to make attending the festival a wholly rounded experience for our visitors.’ The result is a wider range of foodie treats with a distinctly Scottish flavour, from pies, preserves and cheeses, to fruit wines and chocolates.
This year you can happily eat and drink your way round StAnza, thanks to its series of Poetry Café events: tuck in to free coffee and pastries at the breakfast discussions, enjoy a pie and a drink (and more) with the lunchtime poetry performances or try the snacks at the evening events. In St Andrews, there’s a poetry tasting session at ice cream parlour Jannetta’s and Scottish nibbles will be served at the open mic in Zest Café and Juicing Bar. For ideas on how to fit in the food around the verses, take a look at our itineraries. You can also get involved in our shop window competition, which has a restaurant meal for two as the prize.
Poets of course have always had plenty to say on the subject of food and drink. Robert Burns, as we know, praised haggis and neeps and ‘halesome parritch’ too. The poet Hafez who is subject of one of our art exhibitions had a thing or two to say about wine (he did come from Shiraz after all). And today’s poets are just as keen. Just listen to StAnza poet Kevin Young’s memories of family cooking in the American South!
Do you have a favourite poem celebrating food and drink? Or know a few appetising lines? Let us know!
Guest blogger Claire Askew explains how the women in her family have chronicled their own histories and inspired her poetry - especially her storytelling grandmother.
One of the themes of this year’s StAnza is Timepiece, or “the dynamic between verse and the recorded and unrecorded past.” It seems fitting, then, that this year will see my StAnza performance debut (in previous years I’ve been too shy even to step up to the Open Mic), as I am somewhat obsessed with exploring the past, and mostly the unrecorded past, in the poems I write.
I come from a large, eccentric, mongrel family, which is predominantly northern English/southern Scottish. On my mother’s side, I’m directly related to the infamous border Armstrongs; on my father’s side there’s a whole mix of old Lakeland tribes, with a few wild cards (including a mysterious Romany gypsy) thrown in for good measure.
My family is dominated by its women. There are an awful lot of us – my mother has three sisters, I am one of two girls and have countless female cousins – and that’s just the past two generations. However, the women in my family also tend to be storytellers: carriers for gossip, anecdote, morality and myth. We’re all obsessed with genealogy and love nothing better than sitting around, telling and re-telling old stories we’ve all heard a thousand times before. And apparently, we’ve been like this for decades.
It seems women of my family are throwbacks to a bygone era of predominantly oral culture, when fireside storytelling – almost always a female activity – was the primary means of keeping the memory of relatives alive. Take my maternal grandmother, for example – a hard-nosed, determined Northern woman who smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and always told you exactly what she thought of you. She was one hell of a handful, and no one in the family had a relationship with her that wasn’t painfully complicated. However, she knew how to spin a good story, and after she died a few years ago, she immediately started becoming one – woven inextricably into the latest chapter of family mythology. She appears again and again in my work. Sometimes she’s quite obviously at the forefront of things – it’s her talking, taking control as she so often did. Sometimes I’m talking to her, or about her – sometimes the jokes are at her expense. Sometimes she’s just there on the periphery, chucking in one of her infamous sayings to colour a stanza or two: “you’ve been brought up in a bottle and seen nowt but cork!” For me, family history isn’t just inescapable – it’s a goldmine of great material I’d be nuts to ignore.
(Photo by Alastair Cook)
The second of our guest bloggers, poet Kevin Williamson, talks about how he got up close and personal with Robert Burns – through committing his verses to memory.
2011 is the International Year of Forests, the International Year of Chemistry, and the International Year of the Bat. As someone who loves forests, takes an occasional interest in chemistry, and has nothing per se against bats, I wish them all well.
But I guess we’re meant to celebrate these things. 2009, for instance, was the International Year of Astronomy. To “celebrate” I watched every episode of ‘The Sky at Night’. Just as I did in 2008. And most other years. And why not. Patrick Moore is a national treasure and his show steadfastly and gloriously refuses to dumb down.
2009, of course, was also the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth. Like most Scots I love the poetry and songs of Burns so any excuse for a celebration of his life and work is fine with me. But for that special year, for reasons that wouldn’t make sense if I tried to explain them here, I chose to engage with Burns on a more personal level.
Yes, I trotted along to some of the official events. Yes, I read the excellent new biographies of The Bard by Robert Crawford and Patrick Scott Hogg. And yes, but with a more furrowed brow, I ploughed through ‘Fickle Man’ - the thought-provoking collection of essays on Burns edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers. But I wanted to get under the skin of the man in a way that was more personal than biography or critique permits.
So I chose to commit some of Burns’s poetry to memory. One poem a fortnight to begin with. This wasn’t easy. I can barely remember, word for word, the vast majority of my own poetry. For numbers and dates and pointless trivia I’m a bit like Rain Man. But many years ago I was diagnosed with something supposedly on the same spectrum as dyslexia but related to processing sequences. (As friends and family will confirm don’t ask me for directions. Turn three corners and I’m lost.)
I’m aware of memory techniques that involve visualisation but applied to Burns’s poetry it seems sacrilege, akin to swinging a scythe through the wonderfully precise rhythms of the verse. So I read through the poems slowly, committing them to my subconscious, word by word, couplet by couplet, verse by verse. I would recite each poem aloud, dozens, a hundred times or more for the longer ones. It was a most enjoyable experience. I’d recommend it.
Another enjoyable part of this process was working with the spaces between the syllables, experimenting with inflexion and tone. The more I worked with each poem the more it revealed of itself, and of the author. As I recited the words to deserted beaches, shower curtains and empty forests I kept thinking: “How would Burns have performed these pieces in public?”
I consider myself an old fashioned Scottish radical, a republican, and of the left, and the appeal of some of these poems is their radical and even subversive nature. Despite the risks such a venture would involve - in the political turbulence of the late 1780s and early 1790s - many of these poems were clearly written for performance.
I toyed mischievously with another thought: “If he was alive today, and immersed in 21st century poetry and radical politics, as I like to think he would have been, how would Robert Burns have performed his verse, if, say, he had been invited to an event like StAnza?”
I’ll try and answer some of these questions, as best as I can, when I present ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ at StAnza on Sunday 20th March.
StAnza boasts 12 exhibitions and installations by poets and artists, all of which explore the fruitful relationship between poetry and visual art. They are complemented by a series of poetry films, digital projections and photography, showcasing the talents of a new wave of poet/filmmakers. Here is a taster:
Steve Ronnie’s The Secret Love of Objects creates the hidden voices within old technology and one of his exhibits is on the cover of the StAnza brochure. Based near Newcastle, he is working on his first poetry collection and will be reading at StAnza as part of the New Writing North Showcase. Catriona Taylor’s A Thousand Sails is a response to the landscapes of Sorley MacLean’s poetry. The artist trained at the Edinburgh College of Art after working for some years in the theatre.
Iranian born painter and printmaker, Jila Peacock’s Ten Poems of Hafez is a series of calligraphic shape poems, using words from the poetry of Hafez. Click here to view an extract of her film The Tongue of the Hidden (also showing at StAnza), also inspired by Hafez’s metaphysical verses.
StAnza has been showing selections of short poetry films for some years and the artform is growing more significant: this year’s crop includes work by Ronnie, Taylor, Alastair Cook, Martin Belk and Kenny Munro
Poetry takes on three dimensional forms too: the Poetry Society’s centenary knitted poem will be on display at the Town Hall, all 13 by 9 metres of it, and the project has inspired a smaller St Andrews version, a knitted haiku created by the town’s keen knitters that is also on display. Visitors are invited to pick up needles and wool and add a square. And the story behind Tagore’s Poetry Boat, painted by art students in Bengal, will be revealed by Kenny Munro at the St Andrews Public Library on Saturday 18th March.
The exhibitions are all free and to be found at the Byre Theatre, the Town Hall and the gem that is the Trust Museum in St Andrews. The artist Jean Johnstone, who organised the shows for StAnza, is leading a guided tour of them all on Saturday 18th at 3.30pm. A perfect way to appreciate a visual treat.
The Tagore Poetry Boat from Bengal