I have packed my suitcase full of sea glass

Wednesday 11 March 2020

So it falls to me to try and encapsulate StAnza 2020 in all its themes, events and conversations. Before I begin, do go and read the other blogs by Suzannah V. Evans and Carly Brown for a beautiful in-depth look at each day of the festival (I’m still so impressed by how much they managed to attend, I don’t think they sleep!)

“I have packed my suitcase full of sea glass and hag stones, mermaid’s purses, seashells: auger, whelk, razor clam, periwinkle.” So says Rachel Plummer on Twitter before they take the train to StAnza to run the children’s workshop on mermaids and messages in bottles. I can’t think of a better suitcase with which to tackle this year’s festival. The main theme this year was Coast Lines which was apt for a few reasons: St Andrew’s proximity to the sea, the prevalence of the sea as a theme in poetry throughout time (I’m looking at you Samuel Taylor Johnson!) and how, with increasing climate change, Scotland’s seas are at risk from us and a danger to homes from flooding.

The collective reading this year similarly picked up on this theme. However, the understanding of the sea was more linked to the potential of climate change, as we read from Bloodaxe’s anthology of climate change poems. The poem I read aloud, for example contained the lines:

     Do not save love
     for things
     Throw things

     to the flood

The sea can be terrifying or all-consuming. It forces us to face nature and recognise how small we are in comparison to it. Val McDermid shows this thalassophobia (fear of the sea) in one of her selections for poems she would take to a desert island (“Law of the Island”, Robin Robertson):

     They lashed him to old timbers
     that would barely float,
     with weights at the feet so
     only his face was out of the water.


But the sea is not always a harbinger of danger. We also had poems which demonstrated its wonders. StAnza’s language focus this year was Due North; highlighting poetry from Shetland, the Northern Isles, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. At one Past and Present session, Ian Crockatt spoke about Old Norse poetry including poets such as Rognavald Kali Kolsson who came to Orkney by sea. These poems would not exist if it weren’t for the sea. In Norse mythology Odin, who is the god of poetry, gains his poetic knowledge from the Mead of poetry which came from, as Crockatt puts it: “the sea, blood, spew and spit.”

It might sound like they have a poor view of poetry, but he goes on to explain they believed in “the magic power of words when turned into poems.” Meanwhile, at her Border Crossings reading, Suzannah V. Evans read a poem she wrote whilst poet in residence at Underfall Boatyard in Bristol where she asked passersby to help name a part of the boat which was nameless. I left thinking about naming, and how poetry gives us that space to create these phrases Suzannah lists, or to name our experiences and give us ourselves a name. Poetry carries this almost magical power to give us words for the abstract.

The sea too carries something mystical about it. In another Past and Present reading, Katie Garner speaks about “the power of the mermaid’s voice” and shows how, for female poets of the past, the sea offered a new landscape to take as their own. I think too of those who are trans and non-binary, for example, within Rachel Plummer’s poem “Selkie” from their collection Wain which reimagines Scottish folklore with LGBT+ perspectives:

     Let them find me there by the shore:

     the girl-seal with a secret
     boy inside. Rough-voiced. Black-eyed.

     Washed bare
     as the beach by the tide.

Artwork from Wain by Helene Boppert is scattered throughout the Byre and in the Town Library. The watercolours masterfully bring this sense of flow and movement to them, much like the characters within the sea. It’s as if the characters are moving away from something and into a new space. In poetry, the sea gives a freedom, both in its vastness to move through, but also because it is not owned land with the same political dynamic. The voiceless can find a new identity, a new landscape to explore and own, a new voice.

On Sunday, my last day at StAnza, before my first poetry reading, I take a walk on the beach and try to record the sounds of the sea. I wanted to take a piece of the sea and these conversations home with me but the sound of the waves is totally obscured by the wind. Maybe I am stretching too far to try and make a concluding metaphor out of this, but it feels like a sign that we need to listen to the quieter voices. We need to listen to the sea, and the planet as a whole, as climate change increases, and we need to listen to the voices that often aren’t granted speech. Poetry can express the inexpressible, but it also gives a voice to the voiceless. I will do my best to keep listening. I hope you do too.