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
When I was asked to blog about a day at StAnza, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. Would it be a day of excitement and fun, or a day stuffed to the brim with boring lectures?
Well, it certainly didn’t start out with any of the latter. The first event, Poets at Home, was hosted by Caroline Bird, who shared the faces she makes when writing. As someone who can positively devour YouTube videos, I was delighted by the video recorded in Bird’s home office. The poet was funny and relatable, and I found myself chuckling more than once. Afterwards, I spent thirty automatic seconds looking for the like button, so reminiscent had the video been of a lazy afternoon spent with my favourite YouTubers.
Bird was followed by Mhairi Owens in something called an Inspire Session. It only lasted ten minutes, and while I appreciated the concept – we can all use a bit of inspiration every once in a while – I found myself disappointed by the impersonality of it. Every day StAnza releases a different poet’s top tips for writing, provided as either a short video or a sound clip. I got the latter, and the voice on a computer was a reminder for me of our current world of social distancing.
Thankfully, this feeling only lasted until the next event: Poetry Café with Ink Asher Hemp, whose video offered a more personal relationship with the poet. Hemp’s poem, dealing with our current environmental crisis, was as uncomfortable as it was lovely – a reminder of the responsibility we’d all prefer to forget about.
This was followed by a Round Table with Indian poet Tishani Doshi along with the realisation that I shouldn’t have waited until the last moment to buy the ticket. Oops.
Thankfully, I didn’t need a ticket to call in during Dial-a-Poem, which turned out to be exactly what it sounds like. I called a number, and a very pleasant lady asked me if I wanted an option of themes to pick between. Amused, I said yes, and soon I was listening to the poem ‘Job of Paradise’ by Roger Robertson, read to me on a one-on-one basis. Talk about making poetry personable despite the distance. Dial-a-Poem might’ve been my favourite part of StAnza so far (competing with the delightful Caroline Bird).
The event took less than five minutes (though I could, of course, have asked for a second poem), which meant that I was only a few minutes late for my next event of the day: Poetry Centre Stage with Michael Grieve and Mona Kareem. There was something incredibly meditative about being read poem after poem, and I quickly stopped worrying about analysing them – instead I simply lay back, closed my eyes, and allowed the words to flow over me – a rejuvenating experience during that dreaded exam period.
Another read-out-loud poetry experience was given during the Past & Present event, a crossover between StAnza and the New Caribbean Voices podcast. Both the poems and discussions they produced were interesting and thought-provoking. However, I found the audio clip again ruined the illusion that I was part of the discussion and not merely eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
Past & Present was followed by the Poetry Centre Stage with Jericho Brown and Jonathan Edwards. I was looking forward to Edwards (whose poetry I knew), but if I’d known what I was in for, I would’ve been less indifferent to Brown. Not only were his poems fantastic, but he also knew how to read them – how to use his voice to make them even more potent than on paper.
Finally, I came to my first and only Zoom session of the day – a spoken word live webcast named Risk a Verse. This was far from my first spoken word experience (though my first online one), but I admit that I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I would’ve liked. Not because of the poems, which were lovely, but because I’d spent an entire day being filled to the brim with poetry – there was simply no room left.
This also caused me to fail to appreciate the goodnight poems in Between the Covers by Sheila Templeton, and I suppose that one good thing about doing StAnza online is that I can simply listen to them again tomorrow – with a fresh mind and a newfound appreciation.
Overall, I was impressed with this year’s StAnza. It couldn’t have been easy to make such a social event take place entirely online, but they did a remarkable job.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but today was a day of relaxation, chuckles, and poetry.
Thursday at StAnza kicked off with Rob A Mackenzie discussing Miroslav Holub, a Czech poet and immunologist who came of age, Mackenzie tells, us at the start of WW2. It was a fascinating talk, giving an insight into the brilliant mind of a poet who, in his own words was ‘open-minded about all the phenomena of experience, including the irrational’.
An early highlight of my day though was the second half of the Past/Present session, Helena Nelson’s gloriously cheeky and equally insightful introduction to the work of Ruth Pitter. Nelson began with the story of Pitter’s friend and somewhat fair-weather fan, C S Lewis, who praised her ‘serious’ poetry, but turned his nose up at her light verse. Pitter’s response to his criticism in a letter to a friend had me laughing out loud: ‘I can only hope he will never discover The Rude Potato’. Nelson left us hanging until the end to hear the aforementioned poem. It was more than worth the wait. I have already recommended it to several friends and family members.
After that, I grabbed a quick 3-minute shot of inspiration from Anthony Anaxagourou who shared a writing prompt for ‘if you ever want to create language that’s pushing against logic or convention’. Don't we all? I can’t wait to try it out myself.
Helen Boden’s session took us on a virtual walk through a ‘fictive topography’ based on the Fife Coastal Path, a route I loved to wander before lockdown. Her beautifully curated poems and accompanying images struck a deep note within me, a sort of re-grounding in a landscape that has sometimes felt consigned to memory or even myth this year. Short phrases from the poems are still with me: ‘What if the movement isn’t progress?’ (Eleanor Rees); ‘I want to change my element’ (Jay Whittaker); ‘fishwife fretting’ (Helen Boden); ‘wind-kerned grasses’ (Autumn Richardson, Richard Skelton and Corbel Stone).
Not wanting to dwell for too long on missing Roger Robinson’s Round Table, it was on to Access All Areas with Jacqueline Saphra, a fascinating lecture that warrants more than a couple of hours of late night reflection to comment fully. Saphra argued with humour and sensitivity for the democratisation of both tradition and innovation in poetic form: ‘The inventors are gone. You can choose your inheritance’.
I snuck in a call to Dial-a-Poem before the next session. The phone rang for a good few seconds, making me oddly nervous (have I called the wrong number?). This novel form of poetry performance jolted me out of the now well-worn rhythm of tuning in to a livestream. I was treated to Volya Hapeyeva’s ‘Mandatory Happiness’, a poem I heard again later from the poet herself. It was puzzling, joyful and surreal; a fitting poem for the format.
For the headline act, Volha Hapeyeva read in Belarussian from her forthcoming collection In my Garden of Mutants, each poem followed by its translation in English by Annie Rutherford. Hapeyeva’s poems are populated with the vivid minutiae of life, which is used to heartbreaking effect in ‘13th October’, a poem about the lives of a mother and daughter who died in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. The video backdrops of poet and translator contrasted, as did the style in which they each performed the poems, which drew my attention to the delicate act of cultural as well as linguistic translation, and the privilege of being exposed to work that crosses borders and would not be accessible to me otherwise.
Raymond Antrobus spoke to us fresh from a snow tornado in Oklahoma, another reminder that this is an unusual festival year. He was chatty as he told the stories behind the poems. It was as though he was drawing us into his confidence as he described how the absence of live performance has changed his poem’s development, before he shared new work with a note of curiosity in his voice. I was enchanted. This was not only brilliant poetry, but storytelling that filled the room – a difficult enough feat when poet and audience share the same physical space, but a vital kind of magic when screens and oceans divide us.
I finished the day lying flat on my back (I’m sure I speak for many back-of-the-class fidgeters when I say there are some advantages to digital festivals) listening to Larry Butler, whose gentle but sturdy nature poems were a perfect way to wind back into myself after a day of leaping into other worlds. If I hadn’t had a blog post to write, I could have drifted off to his closing words: ‘Sweet dreams to everyone at the StAnza Poetry Festival’.
Our guest editors for the day, Burning Eye Books, interview some StAnza 2021 poets.
Burning Eye has a strong connection with StAnza. Many of our poets have appeared at the festival in the nine years we have been publishing including Jemima Foxtrot, Vanessa Kisuule, Paula Varjack, Kirsten Luckins, Ash Dickinson, Selina Nwulu and Scott Tyrrell. This year is no different, with three poets published by Burning Eye: Raymond Antrobus, Hannah Raymond-Cox and Desree.
We published Raymond Antrobus’ debut pamphlet in 2012 but it was his trailblazing Penned in the Margins' collection The Perseverance in 2018 that bagged him wide acclaim and a hat full of prizes. With a new collection due this year from Picador we asked Ray whether he felt a weight of expectation in following such a successful book:
"To be honest," he said, "I haven't thought about the noise around the success of The Perseverance. I've just aligned myself with the next book I had to write that felt urgent for me. It's called All The Names Given and loosely examines the life of my grandfather, who was a preacher, and my mother, as well becoming newly married, which was a surprise for me. The real theme of the book is time, history and intimacy. It's coming out with in September and I can't wait for it to be in the world."
Watch Raymond Antrobus' Poetry Centre Stage, which goes live on Thursday at 7:30.
Hannah Raymond-Cox’s collection Amuse Girl was one of the highlights of our 2019 list. As she prepared to MC this year’s StAnza Slam - Sleepover Style, we asked Hannah whether the last year had changed the course of her writing:
"The last year allowed me to really focus on what kind of poetry I wanted to write," she said. "I was coming to the tail end of my time as a Barbican Young Poet, where I had the chance to see a cross-section of poets’ work, and learn what I responded to creatively. I have been steadily moving into interactive and immersive work across all my artistic practices, and decided that I would want my poetry to do the same, to push boundaries of form. Audio and visual stimulus is very fun, but in a world where live arts have been severely impacted, I wanted to think about sustainable and accessible poetry that speaks to an audience hungry for narrative choice. With that in mind, I’ve been developing an interactive digital and physical poetry installation game centred on memory loss and grief with Jeff Tanton at Mediatonic."
We will publish Desree’s book I Find My Strength in Simple Things in May. She will be performing in Sunday’s Poetry Café, a lunchtime slot regularly filled in recent years by a Burning Eye poet. We asked her what she felt were the best characteristics of the performance poetry world:
"The community," she said. "There is a sense of family within the performance poetry world that comes with seeing people, often, more than twice a week. That coupled with the fact that a lot of the time due to the nature of our work, it means that we tend to know a lot about each other. Another thing that I love about the performance poetry world is that, in the dark rooms, sometimes in the basement of pubs, is where revolution feels possible. Though it can often be described as an echo chamber (and don’t get me wrong, it can be), it can provide the fuel to go out into the wider world and demand change."
Check out Desree's Poetry Cafe, which goes live on Sunday at 1pm.
Festivals through zoom... who would have thought we’d be here a year ago? Nevertheless, we persevere, and this year's StAnza is proving to be a breath of fresh air for our rather stale state of living in lockdown. Tuesday kicked off with an Inspire Session from Joelle Taylor in which she discussed the concept of page fright: a blank wall or a window depending on your perspective. Her advice was to pick a line at random from any book, write it down on paper then continue to write, keeping pen to page for five minutes and letting whatever comes to mind flow. As a student with deadlines approaching and stress mounting, this advice is very welcome!
Jinhao finds the creative freedom of Instagram similarly liberating, posting first drafts on their platform in order to share the flaws involved in the creative process. This way of sharing edits with their audience allows for a more immediate and personal connection to their fanbase than traditional publication. For both poets, Instagram allows them to reach a wider audience, but more importantly to connect with other artists. I find this idea of community particularly appealing during lockdown, as a way to share creatively online while government restrictions prevent us from meeting in person.
Later in the day we joined Will Harris for the Poets at Home session, a new feature for StAnza. Recorded on his phone and laptop, the session gave us an inside look at the creative process behind making poetry. Despite the virtual medium, this felt very personal, and chimed with earlier discussion in the Meet the Artists section about using technology to connect and share creatively. From handwritten notes jotted down on paper, to photographs and screen shots of media found on the internet, this segment felt archival in nature. The process of creating poetry has been the main focus of today’s events, and I’ve enjoyed learning more about how each poet happens across their inspiration.
In her poem ‘hand-me-downs’, placed boldly near the very beginning of her debut collection Collective Amnesia, South African poet Koleka Putuma writes: ‘I have learnt how to say my glass is half full even when it’s broken’. This collection as a cohesive entity offers no such pretence or platitude. Beautiful, thought-provoking, and scorching in its honesty, Collective Amnesia is a cathartic pouring-forth of words left unsaid for far too long.
Putuma’s poetry is heavily intertwined with her own identity. Here, she explores what it means to be a womxn (her own insistent terminology) in a world where men feel entitled to your space and your body; what it means to be a lesbian under the eyes of Christianity, or under the hands of a lover; what it means to be a Black South African living in a country that white people laid unjust colonial claim to.
You can’t go up the mountain without going past my property,
I ask if she owns the mountain
And she says she owns this land.
Much of the third act of the collection, ‘Postmemory’ (following ‘Inherited Memory’ and ‘Buried Memory’), picks apart the hypocrisy of colonizers and their descendants claiming they can own anything on stolen land. ‘mountain’ in particular focuses on how unthinkable it should be for someone to take a mountain in a country they essentially invaded and claim it as private property – and yet it happens, with mountains, with people, with ways of life. The repetition in this poem, over and over again, describing how colonialism and its knock-on effects wear one down little by little, is exquisite. It gives the impression that while this collection is powerful on paper, it could be transcendent if performed aloud.
Her prose carries something of Audre Lorde in it – both ephemerally and quite literally. Putuma goes as far as to name her as part of her ‘lifeline’ in what is presented as the poem-that-is-not-a-poem of the same name.
Several of the poems in Collective Amnesia tell stories that so enrapture you to the point where you find yourself carried across several pages before you remember to blink. Others take the opposite approach, though both have equal power....
This is an excerpt of a review by Simon Jordan. For more information on Koleka Putuma and her digital installation of Collective Amnesia at StAnza21, please click HERE. To read the whole review, go to the DURA webpage.