‘Human beings together’: Friday reflections

Saturday 9 March 2019

Each year I try to prepare for StAnza by:

reading work by the festival poets – check

eating healthily in case I am led astray by friends – check

lots of early nights (see above reasoning) – check

Yet, however I try, I am always bowled over by the…the, you know….the EVERYTHING of the Festival. StAnza brings together different voices, genders, ages, nationalities, languages, artistic disciplines and practices, until I am dizzied by it all. Joyfully, excitedly dizzy with the words and movements of people around me, performing, discussing and, not to be underestimated, the chance conversations and catch ups that happen in shreds of time while queuing or at the bar with friends old and new.

Reflecting on yesterday, sitting in the morning sun with a coffee, I see patterns and themes emerging from Friday: female poetry and experience; the richness of many different languages; and embodiment. Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of being a judge for ‘Poems Aloud’, St Andrews University Library and StAnza’s student recitation competition. Along with fellow judges, Richie McCaffery and Professor Sally Mapstone, I was treated to performances of a range of poems written by festival poets, all of which had been learned by heart. The standard was excellent; what struck me most was how the participating students embodied their chosen poems, through their breath, their voices, their gestures and stance. They were living these poems, taking the words of another writer and making them their own. As with all competitions, there had to be a winner; in this case, Jenna Schmidt for her nuanced, lyrical delivery of Christine De Luca’s ‘Soonscapes’. As one audience member commented, ‘I could listen to her all day.’ Congratulations to Jenna and to everyone who participated. More than one person remarked on how supportive and appreciative the students were of each other, creating an atmosphere of everybody being in it together rather than against one another. Thanks go out to Caroline Teague who brilliantly entertained the audience and participants by performing during the judgely huddle.

StAnza always has the power to surprise me, to wrongfoot me and shock me back into my self. Yesterday evening’s sharing of work from ‘In this cold’s tending time’ was one of those encounters. Luke Pell, Lucy Cash and George Mario Angel Quintero’s collaboration is growing and unfolding throughout this year’s festival, as they work across three gardens in St Andrews, creating poems and movement. Their work explores poetics in the body; how words live in the body. What is the nature of liveness? How do we share it? There is daring and danger in this work, in committing to sharing and showing work which is still growing, work which may not yet know entirely what it is. Yet, within this vulnerability lies power. Seeing Lucy and Luke lying on the floor of the Byre reception, holding positions, responding and tending to their environment and the others within the space was provocative. This is not what people usually do in the Byre Reception. I was jolted out of the seductive power of the day’s words and into an awareness of my own embodiment in the space. How do I, how do we negotiate the spaces and people we are among? Do I stop, breathe and listen to the poems of my body, my breath? Am I aware of the bodily poetics of others? As Lucy said to me later, ‘This is about being human beings together.’

‘In this cold’s tending time’ continues in the three gardens across the weekend, with 5.30pm sharings at the Byre reception. I urge you to drop by and drop in to this slower, meditative pace. It will tend to you throughout your festival journey.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Friday was International Women’s Day and this was embodied in yesterday’s programme. Poetry by women took centre stage literally and metaphorically throughout the day, including Fiona Moore, Jill Abram and Gerda Stevenson to name only a few. There isn’t time or space here to write about every performance from yesterday. (I checked but Eleanor and Annie gave me this thing called a deadline…) So, I’ll make do with mentioning a couple of highlights.  After Nadine Aisha Jassat’s events, the Byre hummed with delighted chat. Reading from her debut collection Let Me Tell You This, Nadine spoke powerfully to her experiences as a young woman of mixed heritage. One of the festival volunteers, Milena said how she had particularly enjoyed ‘The Old Codgers’ which described with humour and tenderness, Nadine’s linguistic inheritance which  weaves together her mother’s broad Yorkshire vowels and her father’s ‘Hindi-meets-Shona-meets Gujarati-meets-Afrikans’. Nadine’s is a complex, important voice that we very much enjoyed hearing. If you didn’t have chance to hear her, do seek out her book.

Complex, important female voices were also very much in evidence on Friday evening on the Poetry Centre Stage with Jacqueline Saphra and Menna Elfyn. Jacqueline read a number of poems about her parents, in particular exploring her complex relationship with her father. In the second half of her reading, Jacqueline read in full her pamphlet ‘A Bargain with the Light: Poems After Lee Miller’. It is a carefully crafted crown of fifteen sonnets. In addition to addressing Miller’s professional development and career as a photographer, the poems do not shy from the sexual violence that Miller experienced as a child. Rather they look straight into the camera and do not blink, and are ripe with multiple meanings; ‘Perhaps you’re numb. You turn and strike a pose.’

Menna Elfyn also read poems which showcased her love of language, humour and a light touch, ‘splintering’ Welsh into her translated poems which in her voice leaped off the page and sang. Yet there was also darkness stitched into the performance. Last night Menna Elfyn described poetry as something which saved her when she was fifteen and the poems which she read are a saviour and a comfort for her readers. She shared a number of poems from the collection Bondo about the Aberfan tragedy in which 144 people lost their lives when a colliery spoil tip collapsed over a village in 1966. These showed her personal engagement with the grief of Aberfan and speak as a national remembrance to the disaster. The effect on the audience was palpable. I for one, became aware at the end of one poem, that I was so caught in Menna’s imagery that I had held my breath throughout the poem.

These were two outstanding performances and I’m sure that for me, as for others in the audience, their words will continue to resonate and settle in the days and weeks to come. Thank you, poets, dancers, students and StAnza – Friday was a remarkable day.