(c) Al Buntin
Brian was already well known in Scottish poetry circles for his own writing and as an events organiser when he helped deliver the first StAnza festival in St Andrews in 1998. As festival director from 2000 to 2010 he led StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, from its modest beginnings to recognition as a leading international festival and a major fixture on the Scottish cultural calendar. After he stepped down from this role in 2010 to concentrate on his own writing, he continued to support and encourage StAnza, serving as a Consultant from 2010 until 2013 and remaining a StAnza member until his death. In 2015, in recognition of his contribution to the organisation, he was appointed Honorary President. StAnza owes Brian a huge debt and he is remembered with fondness and gratitude by those at StAnza who worked with him from 1997 until 2020.
Anna Crowe was another of StAnza’s co-founders. She recalls what a pleasure and privilege it was for her to work alongside Brian and Gavin Bowd to plan a new Scottish poetry festival.
“From the very beginning Brian, who had a lot of experience in organising poetry readings, had ambitious hopes for what has become StAnza (the cunningly-spelled title was his idea, as was the logo). I was keen to make the festival international in scope, and Brian had the vision and energy to see how this could be achieved. He quickly saw that it would be crucial to the festival’s success to involve the new Byre Theatre built in 2001, and to make it our hub, and he used his gifts of persuasion to convince the theatre management of this new idea, namely that poetry would in fact bring big audiences. Following advice to make the festival independent of the University, we were able to attract our own funding, and Brian had a tremendous gift for persuading people to back StAnza. This was because he believed in it so strongly and funders recognised that commitment and were brought on board. Brian was a man of great generosity and human warmth, with a gift for making friends. With his artist wife, Jean, he welcomed many visiting poets to their house in the Fife countryside. He was a dedicated poet with a distinctive voice and passion for memorialising what others might overlook. His interest in music and art led him into fruitful collaboration. Brian will always be remembered as the man who made StAnza happen.”
Drew Clegg, one of StAnza's trustees, has known Brian from their student days and recalls Brian’s early experience organising events:
“When he was an undergraduate Brian was Entertainments Convenor at the university and in that role he brought Pink Floyd to St Andrews. Back then you might have seen the Floyd in London at the Roundhouse or in Paris or Berlin but St Andrews? Brian charmed them and they came and in that youthful moment we can see the quintessential Brian Johnstone. You aim high. You do the best you can do. You fetch the finest poets and artists in the contemporary world out of their usual metropolitan haunts and persuade them to come to Scotland, to the kingdom of Fife, to St Andrews. One among those ‘ finest poets ‘ is himself. He owns a reputation that will grow and grow that he might say with the wee stammering Roman poet Horace ‘Non omnis moriar’ – I’m not all dead. And poetry was but one of Brian’s superbly honed skills. He was a first rate photographer and the detail in his poems, little things caught in a rare light, things most of us would never even notice, is a consequence of the countless creative hours he spent behind the lens. He had been a primary school teacher and by a wonderful example of contingency two of the nurses who cared for him latterly had been in his class. They told how he had been an inspirational figure in their schooldays. All of us who were privileged to know him will not be surprised to hear that said of Brian. The man remains a marvel.
“After a long illness borne with grace he’s gone but has left us with such memories, such poems to read again and again, and of course StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, an enduring legacy for those of us still here and innumerable generations yet to come. Non omnis moriar indeed!"
Eleanor Livingstone worked with Brian as Artistic Director and from 2010 as his successor as Festival Director. Brian’s wide knowledge of poetry, his commitment to StAnza and his ambition for it were the inspiration for her own involvement. He devoted huge amounts of time and energy to the festival and this enthusiasm was catching. His love of music and visual art shaped the inclusion of cross-arts element at the festival which became one of its unique features. Eleanor found him an excellent mentor.
“I learned so much from Brian that was essential in my various roles. I was fortunate in inheriting the relationships he had established – with funders and partners, with venues and the many businesses whose cooperation underpinned the festival’s success – and the procedures and processes he had designed and initiated. It was instructive and rewarding to work with him; he approached the challenges and choices which we encountered with flexibility and insight. And it was also fun – Brian was always great company. By encouraging my involvement with StAnza, Brian gave me an opportunity which changed my life. I will always be grateful for his generous and unfailing support up to and including for this year’s festival, even as his health was failing.”
Robyn Marsack speaks on behalf of StAnza’s Board of Trustees.
“Brian continued to be a genial presence at the Festival after handing over to Eleanor, putting his experience and his vast knowledge of poets and poetry at StAnza's disposal. Free of his director's responsibilities, he was glad to focus on his own work – in prose, poetry and musical collaborations – and indeed launched a new collection in April, The Marks on the Map, when dozens of friends were gathered online to celebrate the occasion. He will be greatly missed, but his hospitable spirit and devotion to poetry will live on in StAnza.”
We offer our deepest sympathy to Jean and Brian’s family and many friends in their loss: 'Always the bough is breaking / heavy with fruit or snow.'
StAnza, Scotland’s unique international poetry festival, is looking for new members to join the Board of Trustees. Having delivered a very successful online festival this year, StAnza is at an exciting time in its development, entering a changed and challenging arts environment under its new Festival Director, Lucy Burnett.
We are aiming for inclusivity, richness of experience and diversity to ensure a StAnza Board of Trustees that reflects the diversity of contemporary society. We would expect applicants to have an active interest in poetry, whether as writers or readers.
With the retirement of several Trustees, we are looking for particular skills to refresh the Board’s range:
- experience of and interest in the digital environment, especially as a ‘digital native’
- experience of developing equalities, diversity and inclusion action
- experience of fundraising
- dealing with environmental issues in an arts context.
And we are looking to fill two posts:
- Vice-Chair – with a view to taking over as Chair in 2022
- Shadow Treasurer – again with a view to taking on this post in 2022.
The Board meets 4/5 times a year, generally alternating between St Andrews and Edinburgh, although currently meeting by Zoom. It is chaired by Dr Robyn Marsack, who would welcome inquiries from those interested in joining the Board. Full information is available in the Trustees’ pack, available here.
We look forward to hearing from you!
When we, at the Edinburgh Literary Salon, took tentative steps into staging our monthly meetings (usually held in an upstairs room in a central Edinburgh bar) online, we didn’t realise what a task it would be. Choosing the best ‘virtual’ platform, attracting an audience, and being au fait enough with technology to cope with glitches: this was the very definition of ‘learning curve.’
StAnza was the last arts festival we attended in 2020 before the world locked down. It gave them a year to prepare for the possibility of holding online events in 2021. Audiences have got the hang of ‘zooming’ and given what we’ve all been though, people make allowances if things are silky-smooth.
Yet it must be said that StAnza has been ahead of this curve for some time, providing online content, finding ways of reaching out across the globe, and with ever-creative presentations. There’s something about poetry that allows, or even encourages innovation. There’s also something about the ethos of StAnza that embraces equality, diversity and inclusion. This year’s festival was destined to be different, but no less exciting and embracing than usual.
Our first delve into the programme was the YouTube channel where there was more than just a tease for the week to come. Besides the early rounds of the Poetry Slam, there were several amusing videos of StAnza volunteers pointing out that we’re spared the trek to St Andrews, dodging the rain while darting between events, and awkward conversations in the queues for the loos. All the same, that sense of excitement (and slightly silly humour) was there; a bitter-sweet reminder that we would miss the special ‘atmosphere’ the place brings to StAnza.
But as Jackie Kay once said, StAnza is a place called poetry. Poetry, in all its richness and variety, was on display in the Festival Launch Extravaganza. This was more-than just a taster of what was to come – it was a feast. We saw Courtney Conrad, Guest Poet at our January Salon (courtesy of StAnza) and another friend of the Literary Salon, Russell Jones – both had events we would want to drop into.
We were reminded of online exhibitions, plus illustrated poetry, music, and how translation and international elements are key to StAnza. Parallels, contrasts, and connections exist, and even though we’re in lockdown (“Bugger,” said Jane Longhurst from the 40th Parallel in Tasmania!) we are nonetheless a ‘virtual poetry community.’ Most important is that much is still available online to enjoy for the rest of March – we will certainly be re-visiting the virtual riches of 2021.
Another advantage of StAnza online is the option to dip into events during the working day, at breakfast, morning break, lunch-hour, or tea. On Monday lunchtime Marina Kazakova gave a fascinating talk on ‘symphonic poetry’, exploring the link between music, poetry, and film. At Meet the Artists on Wednesday we were treated to a diversity of tongues from our own isles, connecting the languages of Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Although internet connectivity provided challenges for some participants, this zoom-conversation led by Peter Mackay/Padraig MacAoidh fell together very well.
Poetry Centre Stage events often showcase contrasting poets and styles. On Wednesday, Polish poet Adam Zagajewski gave a no-frills reading that put his poetry in the spotlight. Conversely, Edinburgh’s Russell Jones pulled out all the stops, divulging poetry’s relation and place in sci-fi, and through comics, and illustration – all making this a varied and vibrant presentation. As Russell said, crossing genres seemed to fit with this year’s theme of crossing borders, finding new ways of reaching audiences.
Sticking with Edinburgh poets, while being transported to the Fife Coastal Path (and sometimes, beyond), the Thursday lunchtime Poetry Walk was led by Helen Boden. While locked down ‘beyond Edinburgh’ in her Pentlands home, Helen put together a selection of words and pictures that certainly whetted the walkers appetite for post-restriction days.
Earlier that morning, the Past & Present event was given by poets well-known to Edinburgh. Rob A Mackenzie’s deadpan performance of his own poetry hides an often wicked humour, and his presentation of the work of Miroslav Holub contained these elements, as well as a fascinating insight into a poet who deftly combined science, language, and darkly comic twists.
Helena Nelson’s contrasting delivery nevertheless demonstrated the importance of ‘light’ humour in poetry, shown through the (sometimes overlooked) verse of Ruth Pitter. With a glint in her eye, Helena kept us waiting right til the end before reciting Pitter’s cheeky poem, 'The Rude Potato'. One to re-watch before the end of March.
Friday Night ended our week at StAnza with Risk a Verse, the open-mic which not only ran very smoothly, ably hosted by Samuel Tongue, but featured some of our own December 2020 open-mic participants. While Zoom doesn’t quite hold the atmosphere of such an event (silent applause takes some getting used to) it was a lovely way to spend an evening tucked up on the sofa with a glass of wine, with still a whole weekend of events left to enjoy.
We’d like to thank Eleanor and Annie for their support of the Edinburgh Literary Salon. Our next meeting, on the 30th of March, features poetry, and storytelling, and as always is free to attend.
Our Guest Editors, the Scottish BAME Writers Network, flag up some of the highlights of their programme.
The Scottish BAME Writers Network (SBWN) is an advocacy group that aims to connect Scottish BAME writers with the wider literary sector in Scotland.
SBWN was co-founded by Alycia Pirmohamed and Jay G Ying in 2018, who were joined by Andrés Nicolás Ordorica and Jeda Pearl Lewis in 2019, and by Dean Atta and Bhavika Govil in 2020. Alycia, Jay and Jeda appeared at StAnza 2020 and Andrés and Nat Raha, another SBWN member, are on this year’s StAnza programme.
SBWN is made up of writers, poets, publishers, editors, journalists, booksellers, bibliophiles, and is open to anyone seeking community with other Black and POC creatives living and from Scotland. Partners include Scottish PEN, Literature Alliance Scotland, National Library of Scotland, and Books from Scotland to name a few.
Poetry and performance
Poetry and performance are vital components of much of SBWN’s programming. Below are just some of the few programmes we have led on which give a flavour of the diversity of our writers.
SBWN Spoken Word Night
In mid-February, we hosted our first public reading of 2021. SBWN Spoken Word Night was curated and hosted by Courtney Stoddart as part of a two-month long poetry and performance development programme. The performers included Nasim Rebecca Asl, Sabrina Latif, Clementine E. Burnley, Wendy Law, Kamala Santos, Bee Asha and Andrew ‘Ace’ Bamusi. The event is still available to watch on YouTube.
For those interested in poetry, we also recommend exploring our ‘2020 Mixtape: Writers of Colour Audio Anthology’, which launched in late 2020 to celebrate the work produced within the Writers of Colour Writing Group, led by Hannah Lavery. This audio anthology was the second anthology produced by the network.
This group began in February 2019 as a monthly writers group for Black writers and writers of colour. During 2020 Hannah ran it online weekly as a response to global events, including the Covid-19 pandemic and heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For those interested in reading more work by members of our community, you can purchase ‘Ceremony’ published by Tapsalteerie Press. Produced in 2019, this anthology of poetry and prose is the result of many in-person workshops where writers of colour met to develop their craft as a community.
Due to Covid-19, SBWN has pivoted all of our programming online. This includes workshops, masterclasses, and live events. In addition to writer development opportunities, we also manage an ongoing blog series. Guest bloggers are invited to pitch ideas three times a year to feature on our dynamic blog which shares experiences, thoughts, and musings about a writer’s life in Scotland.
In celebration of LGBT History Month 2021, we commissioned Sanjay Lago, Mae Diansangu, Etzali Hernández, Sarya Wu, and Clementine E Burnley to share reflections on their personal histories and experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community. The result is a stunning array of poetry, song, and experimental essays. These reflections are offered as both text and audio pieces which can be accessed here on our blog.
SBWN hosts numerous online writing workshops throughout the year. Recent workshops explored ‘Decolonizing Style’ by Jessie Widner and writing diverse characters with empathy by Kritika Narula. We will announce our spring and summer programming in mid to late March.
During Black History Month 2020, we launched the Scottish Black Writers Group, facilitated by writer Dean Atta in association with Scottish PEN. It is a monthly meetup open to writers across the UK and Ireland who are Black/from the African diaspora, including people of mixed heritage.
Scottish Black Writers Group is a space to meet, chat, network and talk about the writing life. Writers both published and unpublished are welcome to join the group. The next meeting will feature Patrice Lawrence in conversation with the group on March 18th – booking information can be found here.
You can find out more information about our programming by exploring our website or by signing up to our monthly newsletter.
StAnza’s Saturday events started off with an energetic discussion on the Breakfast at the Poetry Café live webcast. Before attending any of the events, I had hoped to have a fully immersive experience, and I was in no way let down. Panellists Lisa Kelly, Kate Tough, and Greg Thomas started a conversation with the host Eleanor Livingstone about the meaning of ‘Make it New’. With the chance to hear individual poetry readings, and the panellists’ opinions on the current age and consumerism – it was a conversation I felt lucky to be involved in. The ‘Make it New’ topic is extremely relevant to life in lockdown, and gave a whole new perception to the way life has changed since the pandemic. It’s not every day that you get to hear poets read their own work, comment on society, and bring a new insight to the somewhat stale subject of the pandemic.
Next up in the Poetry Café, was Courtney Conrad’s recorded poetry readings. Her focus was on poetry including black, queer, Christian, migrant, womxn identities. Conrad would introduce us to her work ‘What is fi Mama a fi Everybody’ and ‘Girlish’ – the gift of hearing these intimate poems read aloud by their creator was not unnoticed. After each reading, Conrad would give further context to the piece: where she wrote it, what she was thinking, how her mindset has changed now, and what she wishes we take away from it. She urged her readers to live their lives for themselves, no one else, because she believes that to be a disservice. To hear Conrad’s wisdom and reassuring affirmations throughout her poetry reading was an unforgettable moment for me.
The importance of affirmations, and having a safe, creative space was later touched on at Poets at Home with Malika Booker. Booker, through a pre-recorded video, shared her living space and where she writes. She shared where she sits, where she naps, and where she gets inspired. I think everyone in lockdown at the moment is having particular difficulty being inspired, maybe struggling to sleep, or even to sit still! Seeing a member of the writing community in her workspace, giving her tips and tricks to feeling calm and improving her health in order to excel in her writing was tremendously comforting.
Reaching out to others is important now more than ever, and so when I called up the ‘Dial-a-poem’ phone numbers to hear a pre-recorded poem, followed by a live call and poetry reading, I was moved. StAnza’s ‘hotline for poetry’ felt like a warm hand reaching out in a time of challenging isolation. I got through to Katie Hale, who after pleasant conversation, told me a poem about her first kiss; she read ‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’.
Later that night, I joined Rachel Long, for ‘Poetry at Bedtime: Between the Covers’. Through a voice recording, Long read her poetry aloud from her bed, to me in mine. While Rachel Long’s poetry was pre-recorded it felt very present – a perfect end to the day.
Conversation is an art which we have all managed to keep alive over lockdown, despite the many struggles. The art of flourishing community spirit, and healthy conversation is something I felt in abundance at StAnza’s Festival this Saturday.
Before this, back then when we knew of only one normal and knew little, yet feared a lot we gathered in St Andrews. It was early Spring. We always gathered then in St Andrews. It was StAnza.
Poetry pilgrims drawn there willingly to be inspired, converted, confirmed and have our perceptions challenged, our ideas assured and our hearts set alight by our common bond – a love of poetry, our cherished craft which would and will endure.
I had my normal wonderful few days. I did all the normal StAnza things. I immersed myself in familiar poets, I dipped a toe into new voices and without thought enjoyed my normal StAnza, drank too much coffee, ate too much cake, maybe just enough wine and didn’t buy enough books. I never buy enough books. Sorry.
And then it was my turn to contribute. I had produced a show HamishMatters to mark the end of a year of celebrating the centenary of Hamish Henderson’s birth and filled the main stage of The Byre with poets and musicians backed by audio visuals. The adventure had started the previous year at StAnza with slivers of new poems still being nurtured and then projected on to the Byre café walls. HamishMatters had woven its message through 2019 by way of books, Festivals, portraits on mountainsides, poems on Kirk roofs, impromptu gigs and the Scottish Parliament to return to St Andrews for a last curtain call. And it was to be – a last curtain call.
On Sunday 8th March, 2020, after the show, after the wine, the laughter, the renewed kinship, the fresh friendships and my dodgy dancing and before I left the Byre boozily content, I hugged Eleanor Livingstone and Annie Rutherford and thanked them for their hospitality and generous support of my work and for StAnza. They would be the last people other than my wife that I would embrace in over a year and I’m still counting.
I know that point won’t be lost on all of you and over months of tragedy, isolation and adjusting to an uncertain future where we have watched our industry dragged to its knees with meagre support from central government, we’ve learned a new lexicon of unwelcome acronyms and become too comfortable with pandemic phrases - lockdowns, bubbles, social distance, long covidand zoom.
I must confess zoom for me was an ice lolly of my childhood and on many occasions I wish it had remained a sugary memory but as the weeks turned into months it became a lifeline of support and our relationship with online creativity has advanced way beyond those initial cobbled together homespun events.
This has been so beautifully and powerfully demonstrated this week at StAnza. I stopped myself there when I typed ‘at StAnza’ because I’m in my jammies at home in between events and looking forward to this evening’s (Saturday) events. I’m typing this now because I can’t guarantee any sense later – there will be wine.
This week has been an emotional weave of what I expect from StAnza. I have found in translation: connections and determination to engage beyond my boundaries. I have immersed myself in the assured brilliance of Roddy Lumsden and Edwin Morgan. I have been inspired and challenged off stage, centre stage, between the covers and been welcomed into poets homes. I have been StAnza’d again and I am in awe and content in equal measures – mostly 250 ml.
Yes, I have missed the random blethers, the quiet corners of reflection and the energy of being there with like minds in the streets that speak of so many shared histories. I have missed swanning about in my Makar of the Federation of Writers Scotland regalia, feeling all self important and being able to promote all the good things they do to encourage poets old and new. I don’t actually have regalia but if I did I’d have enjoyed the swanning. I do however, encourage you to seek out the website and become a member. It’s free hugely welcoming and then come and say hello. My next event is tomorrow evening – Pushkin meets Soutar > https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/zoom-in-on-pushkin-and-soutar-tickets-145225592657
But most of all I miss the hugs.
And we have all missed the chance to say thank you in person to a giant in our poetry world for whom we should all be eternally grateful. So if you wouldn’t mind pausing some time today for a moment and virtually hugging Eleanor Livingstone that would be a beautiful thing. Thank you.
I’ll shut up now and leave you with a short poem I wrote on the way home from StAnza last year. I think it’s message remains true today. Enjoy the last day.
Be not a distant flag
nor a song buried so deep
I can’t find you.
summer will be lost,
autumn remains buried
under winter’s mulch, fidgeting.
To everyone with words
in the darkness we share
I pin my hopes to the stars
for our tomorrow’s
and I pray
for the purity of our art
to find breath once more.
Poet, Editor, Producer
Makar of the Federation of Writers Scotland
Poet in Chief of The Hampden Collection
Makar of the Cateran EcoMuseum
Poetry Editor of the Nutmeg Periodical
Cultural Ambassador for The Friends of Pskov
Committee Member of The Friends of William Soutar
Committee Member of The Friends of Hugh Miller
Programme Manager of the HamishMatters Festival