Catch up with the SPL, a regular visitor at StAnza

Monday 8 March 2021

Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library shares news from the library.

Has it been a year since the last StAnza? It seems like yesterday…and a decade, the temporal equivalent of the famous shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the camera zooms in while tracking out. As I recall it, news of the oncoming pandemic was bearing down hard on StAnza last year as it took place, which led to the Library reluctantly cancelling its trip up to St Andrews and an interview we planned to record for our podcast.

Since then, many of us have discovered the joys of video-conferencing and online readings. The show will go on! The return of StAnza as we leave the season of Covid hell is like a dove reappearing with a fresh olive leaf in its beak. We at the SPL are looking forward to tuning into an irresistible line-up of fresh talent and mature voices.

It’s been a heck of a year for the SPL too, as you can imagine. In common with every arts organisation in Scotland, we faced the dilemma of how to continue our services when the heart of our business – our building, where our collection is housed and our events are staged – was out of bounds. So, we evolved.

In terms of borrowing, we now offer a ‘click and collect service’, where borrowers, after consulting our catalogue, which can be accessed by our website, call or email us to say which titles they’d like. After that, they can come down to the Library in person, where a member of staff will safely hand them their books at the entrance. We also offer free postal loans.

We recently invested in a new website to better present digital content. As a result we were able to adapt more agilely to lockdown through the commissioning of films and online activity that can be accessed at home and in the classroom. With live events not possible, we looked into how we could share poetry with our audience, particularly on significant dates on the poetry calendar. For National Poetry Day, we filmed John Hegley in the Library reading his work and speaking with fellow poet Michael Pedersen. As the year ended, we filmed a 30-minute introduction to the Library, its work and history, featuring poets Louise Peterkin and R.J. Arkhipov, and hosted by Saltire Prize-winner Janette Ayachi, who turned out to be a natural (BBC Scotland, hire her now!).

For Burns Night, we commissioned three pieces featuring Dundee’s Morgan Academy, writer and presenter Alistair Heather and Scots language advocate Lennie Pennie reading Burns poems. We also commissioned a series of short films featuring James Robertson and Sheena Blackhall, two of Scotland’s leading proponents of Scots language. In conversation with Alistair Heather, the poets selected and shared favourite children’s poems that they think young people and teachers would enjoy as much as they do. Finally, our film Pass the Mic, hosted by Vic Galloway and featuring performances by Courtney Stoddart, Victoria McNulty and Kevin Gilday, was a joyous ‘virtual ceildh’. Supported by the Scottish Government, it was produced by the Scottish Poetry Library as part of the Robert Burns and Winter Festivals cultural programme.

We placed these films on our website, YouTube and all the places you would expect – and have had an astonishing response. The 30 minute film of Sheena Blackhall talking about children’s poems in Scots has been watched all the way through over by 8,000 people and ‘reached’ another 50,000 via Facebook alone. When in pre-pandemic days we held events in the building, at best we could contain an audience of 60 people. Video and social media have opened up opportunities for connecting audiences with poetry. Hell of a way to find out just how effective, sure, but once the world opens up again, we anticipate continuing to work on video, although of course we’ll also be looking forward to staging our first live events. I’m sure StAnza is also relishing the thought also of a return to safe in-person events. The world is waking up and there is no better place to be (virtually this year) than StAnza.