Moonlight and Mermaids

Sunday 8 March 2020

Nine years ago, when I was a first year undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews, I signed up to be a volunteer photographer for StAnza Poetry Festival. Little did I know that, almost a decade later, I would still be involved with StAnza. Although I no longer live in St Andrews, I am called back every year – like a migratory bird – to witness the extraordinary array of poets from across the globe sharing their work in this little seaside village. Each year, I see many of the same faces - volunteers like myself who travel from far and wide to come help the festival run smoothly, attendees who return yearly to sample the ever-changing menu of poetic delights - but there are always new faces too and a chance to discover new poets who might just become new favorites.


Yesterday I had the pleasure to introduce our Past and Present event with Sarah Corbett and Katie Garner and I learned about female writers of the Romantic era. Some I’d heard of before but knew little about – Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of William Wordsworth), Ann Radcliffe – but some were completely new to me, such as Anne Bannerman and Jessie Stewart. As Sarah Corbett explained in her discussion, Dorothy Wordsworth is usually given little attention when William Wordsworth is taught at school. There is usually a brief mention of a ‘sister who scuttled along after Wordsworth,’ Corbett explained, ‘a scurrying, shadowy figure.’ But Corbett’s poetry brings this ‘shadowy figure’ into the light and yesterday she discussed the close, almost symbiotic, relationship between Coleridge, William and Dorothy (‘3 souls in one body’). Katie Garner’s talk then plunged us deep into the ocean, where she discussed her research on mermaids and underwater fantasies in gothic fiction. She spoke about why women living in restrictive 18th and 19th century society might have been drawn to writing about powerful sea creatures – mermaids who are able to swim about freely, using their voices and commanding the waves.


Down, down a thousand fathom deep

Among the sounding seas I go; 

Play round the foot of every steep

Whose cliffs above the ocean grow.

There, within their secret caves,

I hear the mighty rivers roar; 

And guide their streams through Neptune’s waves

To bless the green earth’s inmost shore: 

- Ann Radcliffe, ‘The Sea-Nymph’, from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)


And speaking of commanding voices, the incomparable Joelle Taylor took the stage at the Byre Theatre during the afternoon to perform poems from ‘Songs My Enemy Taught Me.’ Taylor is a mesmerizing performer, sharing turbulent and haunting memories of healing and trauma through the fragmented, poetic form of the canto. She described these cantos as ‘little film scenes’. Lines are also repeated through 'Songs', recalling the previous poem or alluding to the next, which perfectly suited her themes of memory and grief: her language goes backwards so that it can go forwards. I found myself (like much of audience) crying during her performance.


Another poet who enchanted the audience yesterday at the Byre was our 2020 StAnza Slam winner, Nina Vuleta. Her first poem, about loss and binary code, also made brilliant use of repetition, her lines alluding to the repetitive nature of binary code itself (a mix of zeros and ones) but also how loss propels us into our memories again and again. Her second poem explored insomnia through the metaphor of music: ‘my body is an orchestra, the moon a cruel conductor’. While Vuleta’s poems were of a more serious and contemplative nature, we also had humorous poems about everything biscuits to Disney movies. As always, it was a brilliant and varied mix, and MC Katie Ailes created a fun, relaxed and energetic vibe for poets to take the stage.


I write this post from the train headed home: the Fife landscape whirring by in grays and greens, punctuated by the occasional silver flash of the North Sea. Although this is the end of the festival for me, my backpack is full of new books, my head is full of new poems and I am certain that, next year, I’ll return.


- Carly, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2020


Dr Carly Brown is a spoken word poet and bestselling children’s book author. You can find her on Twitter @TheForthBelle. She blogs weekly about writing, books and 18th century history on her website: