Exploring The Self in Poetry: Friday Reflections

Saturday 10 March 2018

The sun was shining in St Andrews yesterday and it was my first day here at StAnza 2018. You’ve no doubt been enjoying the previous blog posts from our other In-House blogger, the fabulous poet Katie Hale. If you’ve not read them yet, go ahead and have a look! But Katie has now handed over the baton to me for the rest of the festival, so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Carly – spoken word poet and longtime StAnza volunteer. I’ll be blogging about the last few days of the festival and I’m looking forward to experiencing all that StAnza has to offer.

As you know, one of the themes we’re exploring this year at StAnza is The Self. Perhaps because the first event I saw yesterday was about poetry and memoir (‘From Metaphor to Memoir’ featuring Brian Johnstone and Anne Pia), I spent the whole day thinking about poetry as a means of self exploration – how poetry can be used to reflect on, shape and order our life experiences. How it can help us to construct a sense of self or to create a narrative of our lives. What events do we choose to zoom in on, to go back to over and over in our minds, like thumbing through the pages of a well-read book? And what moments are lost in the messy tangle of time?

For many of us, the big world events that we’ve lived through loom large in our personal narratives. Anne Pia and Brian Johnstone both spoke about WWII as a key topic in both their memoirs, Johnstone calling it an ‘omnipresent point of reference’ in his life and work. Yet these big, tumultuous world events affect us all in very distinctive ways. Our lives and senses of self are often located in prosaic moments and personal relationships with those around us: Johnstone’s memoir focuses on revelations within his own family and Pia’s traces the lives and experiences of her Italian-Scots family members in post-WWII Edinburgh.

In Martin Figura’s vibrant and innovatively staged show Dr. Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, his relationships with his family dominate the poetic narrative as well, specifically his relationship with his daughter, Amy, whose smiling face beams out at us in bright photographs on a screen above him in the Byre Auditorium. We locate ourselves within these constellations of interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the language and imagery of orbiting celestial bodies is present throughout Catastrophe Machine.

Or we may find a sense of identity and connection with people who we have never met, such as authors or activists who came before us. At Poetry Café, Hannah Raymond-Cox performed an extract of her show Polaris, which explores how she located herself within queer history and culture as she was growing up and searching for connection and community. Catherine Wilson performed next at Poetry Café and one of her poems was a modern reimagining of a poem from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Catastrophe Machine paid homage to another writer, Allen Ginsberg, including photographs of Figura’s visit to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and a playing a short snippet from a recording of Howl. At Poetry Center Stage, we encountered Ginsberg again, only this time in a short poem by Mark Ford entitled ‘Oxford, 1985’, which relates a witty anecdote from that ‘golden summer’ when he met the famous American poet.

Or perhaps we might express and explore our identities in poetry through evoking specific tastes or smells. Hannah Raymond-Cox’s poems described the cracked black pepper in her aunt’s soup, or the act of drinking mugs of tea as comfort and refuge. Anne Pia’s work brought to us mouthwatering descriptions of Italian cooking: homemade ricotta, pizza with oil.

Poetry is a place where you can also play with this idea of a self. Many of the poems I saw yesterday were (according to the poets themselves) at least somewhat autobiographical, but I often thought of the many multifaceted selves on display during any one reading. There was the self who experienced the event, who composed the work, who edited it (perhaps many times) and who read it in that space, right then. These might all be very different people. The self is always transforming, in flux. The self expands and multiplies the longer you look at it. There are also, of course, the many different selves who are listening to the poem, each getting something slightly different from it.

Masks and fake mustaches at the Byre Theatre

We are creating ourselves everyday and poetry is a vibrant way to explore and express that creation. In Pippa Little’s poem ‘Against Hate’, which she performed at Poetry Center Stage, she spoke movingly about choosing deliberately to focus on that which is good, in a world where so much is ‘bloody, inexplicable.’ She describes a moment of connection with a train conductor, when he stops the train to care for a wren. Then, she and the conductor ‘talk of things we love until the station.’ We create ourselves through our relationships, our influences, our modes of expression, but also through what we choose to focus on and what we choose to love.

Here at StAnza, it’s amazing that all of these various selves are coming together to share in a love of poetry. And I cannot wait to see what the rest of the festival brings. Cheers! 

by Carly Brown, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2018 (Part II)