Thursday at StAnza kicked off with Rob A Mackenzie discussing Miroslav Holub, a Czech poet and immunologist who came of age, Mackenzie tells, us at the start of WW2. It was a fascinating talk, giving an insight into the brilliant mind of a poet who, in his own words was ‘open-minded about all the phenomena of experience, including the irrational’.
An early highlight of my day though was the second half of the Past/Present session, Helena Nelson’s gloriously cheeky and equally insightful introduction to the work of Ruth Pitter. Nelson began with the story of Pitter’s friend and somewhat fair-weather fan, C S Lewis, who praised her ‘serious’ poetry, but turned his nose up at her light verse. Pitter’s response to his criticism in a letter to a friend had me laughing out loud: ‘I can only hope he will never discover The Rude Potato’. Nelson left us hanging until the end to hear the aforementioned poem. It was more than worth the wait. I have already recommended it to several friends and family members.
After that, I grabbed a quick 3-minute shot of inspiration from Anthony Anaxagourou who shared a writing prompt for ‘if you ever want to create language that’s pushing against logic or convention’. Don't we all? I can’t wait to try it out myself.
Helen Boden’s session took us on a virtual walk through a ‘fictive topography’ based on the Fife Coastal Path, a route I loved to wander before lockdown. Her beautifully curated poems and accompanying images struck a deep note within me, a sort of re-grounding in a landscape that has sometimes felt consigned to memory or even myth this year. Short phrases from the poems are still with me: ‘What if the movement isn’t progress?’ (Eleanor Rees); ‘I want to change my element’ (Jay Whittaker); ‘fishwife fretting’ (Helen Boden); ‘wind-kerned grasses’ (Autumn Richardson, Richard Skelton and Corbel Stone).
Not wanting to dwell for too long on missing Roger Robinson’s Round Table, it was on to Access All Areas with Jacqueline Saphra, a fascinating lecture that warrants more than a couple of hours of late night reflection to comment fully. Saphra argued with humour and sensitivity for the democratisation of both tradition and innovation in poetic form: ‘The inventors are gone. You can choose your inheritance’.
I snuck in a call to Dial-a-Poem before the next session. The phone rang for a good few seconds, making me oddly nervous (have I called the wrong number?). This novel form of poetry performance jolted me out of the now well-worn rhythm of tuning in to a livestream. I was treated to Volya Hapeyeva’s ‘Mandatory Happiness’, a poem I heard again later from the poet herself. It was puzzling, joyful and surreal; a fitting poem for the format.
For the headline act, Volha Hapeyeva read in Belarussian from her forthcoming collection In my Garden of Mutants, each poem followed by its translation in English by Annie Rutherford. Hapeyeva’s poems are populated with the vivid minutiae of life, which is used to heartbreaking effect in ‘13th October’, a poem about the lives of a mother and daughter who died in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. The video backdrops of poet and translator contrasted, as did the style in which they each performed the poems, which drew my attention to the delicate act of cultural as well as linguistic translation, and the privilege of being exposed to work that crosses borders and would not be accessible to me otherwise.
Raymond Antrobus spoke to us fresh from a snow tornado in Oklahoma, another reminder that this is an unusual festival year. He was chatty as he told the stories behind the poems. It was as though he was drawing us into his confidence as he described how the absence of live performance has changed his poem’s development, before he shared new work with a note of curiosity in his voice. I was enchanted. This was not only brilliant poetry, but storytelling that filled the room – a difficult enough feat when poet and audience share the same physical space, but a vital kind of magic when screens and oceans divide us.
I finished the day lying flat on my back (I’m sure I speak for many back-of-the-class fidgeters when I say there are some advantages to digital festivals) listening to Larry Butler, whose gentle but sturdy nature poems were a perfect way to wind back into myself after a day of leaping into other worlds. If I hadn’t had a blog post to write, I could have drifted off to his closing words: ‘Sweet dreams to everyone at the StAnza Poetry Festival’.