A Coming Together of Voices

Friday 9 March 2018

‘There are as many versions of a city as there are people living in it.’

Michael Symmons Roberts
(Poetry Centre Stage, StAnza 2018)

This is my second post as this year’s in-house blogger for StAnza. It is also, coincidentally, my last. Don’t worry, though – there’ll still be reports from the poetry epicentre. It’s just that, between now and tomorrow, my words will magically morph into those of fellow poet and StAnza volunteer Carly Brown. (Teamwork makes the dream work, right?)

It seems to me that a lot of this sort of transformation happens at StAnza. 

Last night, at the Poetry Centre Stage event, Michael Symmons Roberts spoke about his latest collection, Mancunia, which both is and is not Manchester – a kind of transformation of place from real to semi-fictionalised. When introducing this idea of the sort-of-real city, something he said really resonated: that there are as many versions of a city as there are people living in it. 

It struck me that the same is true of a poem: there are as many versions of a poem as there are people who inhabit it, whether fleetingly at a reading, or long-term through a constant return to its music and structure. Pushing the metaphor even further, I think the same is true of StAnza, too. There are infinite versions of the festival – not least because Thursday is the day when it starts becoming impossible to go to everything without some form of time travel. 

So we choose. We sit in a room with other people who have made the same choice to come to this particular event, but may make different choices in an hour’s time. We become both individuals and collective audience in the same moment. 

This idea of the collective self segways nicely into talking about another of Thursday’s events: Sinéad Morrissey’s sold-out StAnza Lecture: ‘Put Off That Mask’ (sponsored by the Poetry Book Society). In the lecture, she discussed portrayals of the self in lyric poetry, and how ‘I’ is ‘the most dangerous and dynamic word you can use in a poem’. To what extent do we trust the poet’s portrayal of themselves as an individual? To what extent is the lyrical ‘I’ a ‘dazzling fiction’, a ‘trustworthy conduit’? 

Sinéad Morrissey talked about the existence of multiple ‘I’ voices in any given narrative. Perhaps, as with cities and poetry festivals, there are as many different versions of ‘I’ as there are people who read the poem. 

This blending, of the individual into the communal togetherness of a poetry festival, is something that continued throughout the day – from the combined voices of poet and translator in Ester Naomi Perquin’s wonderfully sharp and tender poems, well into the Jazz Night in the bar of the Byre. Yesterday, I wrote about how music knits people together, creating new friends and reuniting old. But last night at the Jazz session, something more took place. Instead of the music just connecting people in a common experience, a kind of fusion occurred. As performers with and against the rhythms and melodies of improvised jazz, the individual voices of both poets and instruments blended to create one performance, both poetry and music at the same time. Not just a coming together of individuals (or, to push yesterday’s metaphor, three separate wine glasses on the same table), but a real uniting of form and voice to create something greater. 

Which is sort of a metaphor for StAnza, when you think of it. 

And with that perhaps unwisely stretched metaphor, I will now step away from my thumb-worn keyboard, and seamlessly become Carly Brown, so that together, this blog may transform into more than the sum of its bloggers. 

Thanks for reading and keep tuning in. 

By Katie Hale, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2018 (Part 1)