Photo: Polly Atkin
The concert will feature readings from poets Rachael Boast and John Glenday. and will also showcase Brian’s love of jazz, classical and spiritual music from many places and times, featuring performances from Steve Gellatly, Louise Major and Richard Ingham, Alasdair Coles and Sarah Moerman.
The event will take place on Saturday 23 October from 5.30pm and will be accessible on the Music from St Andrews YouTube channel.
We hope you can join us online for what will be a joyous celebration of music and poetry in honour of Brian’s unique contribution to Scottish culture and the written word.
Perhaps later than hoped (it’s been, ermmm, a busy summer), StAnza is delighted to announce our festival title for 2022: Stories like starting points – a line from a poem in Holly Pester’s Forward-shortlisted collection Comic Timing. The festival will explore the possibilities and pitfalls of narrative in poetry, and will feature poets who take a wide-ranging approach to the question of ‘stories’. Traditional narrative poems. Re-writings of old stories. New ways of telling previously unheard (or unlistened to) stories. And indeed those who contest the power of narrative and the stories we currently tell. To mark the launch of our theme, Don Paterson took the chance to catch up with new StAnza Festival Director Lucy Burnett to ask about her plans for the festival in the years ahead.
You can also hear more from Don and Lucy at a special StAnza preview event at Wigtown Book Festival on 1st October, talking all things poetry and narrative. Tickets available here.
Photo: Murdo McLeod
LB – Hi Don! Well, I've certainly got big shoes to fill... I wonder whether Brian ever imagined that StAnza would endure this long, and successfully, when he organised the first festival with Anna Crowe and Gavin Bowd 25 years ago? What a fabulous legacy he has left us. And Eleanor? What can I say? She has achieved a vast amount in the last 16 years with StAnza, not least in developing the festival’s international profile. As great as it was to see the Scottish football team perform at the Euros this summer, Scottish poetry – through StAnza – regularly features at the European poetry top table.
Joking aside, my own vision for the festival involves framing it as an ‘intervention’ in poetry. StAnza has become known for both its Scottishness and internationalism. I plan to build on this, by directing the festival towards exploring cutting edge issues relating both to the form of poetry itself, and also its relationship with the wider world. I’d like StAnza to become a festival which anyone interested in reading or writing poetry believes they can’t miss, or indeed anyone who might be interested in poetry – I've long believed that ambition and inclusivity can go hand-in-hand with the right approach (participation is key). In terms of the pandemic, one thing we’ve all learnt is the potential of digital and virtual events. We can't wait (please join us in crossing everything) to welcome people back to St Andrews for a real, live festival next year, but we also plan to livestream about 25 events (in and out) through a hybrid format, and to export a StAnza Stravaiging showreel to overseas events and diaspora communities. Last year we had our first ever audience member from Ghana, and there are obvious possibilities for programming international poets who wouldn’t previously have been able to attend in person. In other words, StAnza has the potential to become even more international than previously.
DP – Can you say a little more about the specific kind of thing this idea of ‘intervention’ might accommodate, Lucy? I’m sensing that it’ll afford you the opportunity to showcase certain artists, take certain collaborative approaches, stage types of event that Stanza hasn’t previously tried? Do you see this as an opportunity to recruit new audiences to poetry? What sort of continuity will the new approach have with the longer Stanza tradition?
Photo: Rob Crampton
For 2023 I’ve got an idea for a project called The Poetry Gallery, and I’m planning for the 2023 programme to focus upon poetic interventions on the environment. Our hybrid turn, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for these ‘interventions’ and discussions to occur on an even more international stage.
New audiences? Absolutely. Both within Scotland and further afield. Poetry has had a bit of a resurgence in popularity as of late, and I’d like to help sustain that. When I worked as a University Creative Writing lecturer I became accustomed to first year students’ annual complaint: 'but I just don't get poetry!' I’m sure you can imagine how much it became my mission to convert them (in my experience, the leap between getting and not-getting poetry isn’t huge, and relates to how we expect to read and experience it). In terms of enabling new audiences, I’ve got two programmes planned for 2021 / 22 (funding permitting). Scotland’s Young Makars will provide for budding poets of secondary school age across Scotland through a series of online webinars, as well as further group and 1-1 mentoring for the most promising writers. Well-versed will offer a monthly zoom conversation between me and a festival poet plus further reading resources to encourage the development of poetry reading groups across the country. By reframing the festival, I also hope to better capture its dynamism: to let people know that this is something exciting of which they'd like to be a part (in fact, they mustn’t miss…) We’re hoping to work with a wide range of partners to promote these projects, particularly in areas of lower existing artistic opportunity.
So yes, there are definitely changes afoot, but I've no intention of abandoning the StAnza tradition. In fact, StAnza is already one of the more exploratory festivals; what I'm doing is simply communicating this more overtly. And the festival will certainly feel very familiar to those attending: in St Andrews, with the Byre as our key hub, retaining the popular event strands... And many of my ‘new’ programmes are actually extensions of work which we’ve already undertaken already for many years, albeit on a more local level. I’m also very attentive to maintaining StAnza’s sense of community and playfulness. I might have ‘big ideas’, but underpinning this is a commitment to being friendly, inclusive and welcoming. Only yesterday me and my colleague were discussing a festival 'cake pass', entitling attendees to a slice of cake every day of the festival, which has been rather trending on twitter. Apparently the StAnza community approves!
DP – Definitely put me down for a cake pass. Two cake passes ... Have you considered just twanging the poetry and making it a festival of cake? There’s a lot to get excited about there – I hope you can pull it all off … A practical question – how can folk get involved, both in the run-up to the festival and during StAnza itself? Do you have any plans to involve St Andrews students and staff? I always felt this was a slightly underutilised resource, and that Stanza was very well positioned as a town-and-gown intersection. I certainly wished we could have done more on the University side.
LB – Fantastic. Who knew that my new post was actually a cypher for a bakery franchise?!
How to get involved? If you’re a poet, and you think your writing offers something interesting to our festival focus, then we’d love to hear from you! (Apologies about not releasing the theme earlier. It had been my intention, but I’ve had *ahem* a rather busy summer learning the ropes!) If you love poetry – well, you simply have to come to the festival for fear of missing out! If you hate poetry – come to the festival, and be open to us convincing you!
StAnza is also hugely reliant on volunteers – I can’t overstate their value to the festival (and indeed how much I value them personally). A key moment in my own development as a poet was meeting Ali Smith while volunteering as a bus conductor at a literary festival in York. She was subsequently really supportive, and I know that many StAnza volunteers have equally found the festival a crucial stepping-stone in their work as a poet, or in the arts industry. To date, our key voluntary roles have involved our board of trustees, a committee of long-term volunteers who assist with programming and festival development, and a team of volunteers who help out during the festival itself. I’m particularly keen to extend our year-round volunteering opportunities – and yes, this offers particular potential to those at St Andrews University. We’ve had lots of amazing student volunteers over the years, and we’ve recently recruited another one (Lauren) who is already doing amazing work in spreading the word. StAnza as the hyphens between town-and-gown? I’d like that. I’m also planning on organising our first ever volunteer day next summer, to both recognise voluntary efforts, and offer training and support.
If you’d like to volunteer – please do get in touch and let us know what interests you, and we’ll try and find a role to suit. We’re as keen to support our volunteer’s own development as we are in extending our own capacity.
DP – Of course there’s probably a higher ratio of practitioners to punters at poetry festivals than at any other kind of festival, so there’s always great interest in the workshop / meet the author / masterclass side of things. Is this something you’re keen to develop?
LB – That’s an interesting point – you’ve got me thinking of examples to prove you wrong, but I’m struggling! Of course, it’s well-known that more people write poetry than read it, so the above follows. Again, rather than introducing more such events (there are already a significant number), I’m keen to look at what opportunities there are for people to participate right across the festival. The notion of the festival being dynamic, and an intervention, requires that people feel like they have a voice in things, no matter whether they are Simon Armitage or a first-time poetry festival attendee. Yet I don’t want every event to become a discussion panel either…
I’m planning to look at every event strand in turn and to ask what stake the audience has in it, and how they can engage in a more-than-passive manner. To provide one small example, I intend to encourage those poets reading at the festival to engage with the festival focus in their between-poem chat – to speak of their own poetics, and their own take on narrative and storytelling (in this year’s case). My aim is that by encouraging discussion and debate about poetics in this way, those audience members who are practitioners will be encouraged to ask similar questions about their own work, and to discuss these ideas in the informal but equally important sessions over a bowl of soup at lunch!
I should add here that there’s going to be nothing about the festival which enforces or makes you feel obliged to take part. If you want to sit quietly and watch some poetry, and then slink off to think about it on your own on the harbour walls, then that’s fine too – I’ve just had shivers go down my spine in memory of enforced group activities at Guide camp!
DP – Are there any international festivals you particularly admire, Lucy – and if so, what new ideas or approaches might you want to import? Are there certain festivals with whom you’d like to deepen ties or share events?
LB – Ooooo, great question. And one where I need to answer humbly, and respond that my knowledge of overseas poetry festivals, at this point in time, is actually fairly limited. The opportunity to find out more about them, and to actively participate in the network of European Poetry Festival organisers is one of the things I’m particularly excited about. I know that I have lots to learn!
DP – It’s clearly going to be a while before everything is fully in-person, but maybe the age of the simultaneous online event is here to stay – how do you feel about this? One senses the likes of the Edinburgh International Book Festival will incorporate this permanently into its programming – might StAnza go down the same route? If you do, are there any new opportunities for poetry there?
LB – Yes, for sure. I fully envisage StAnza 2022 as a hybrid event. I think it would probably be daft not to go down this route, especially following StAnza doing so well in a virtual format last year (we won the Saboteur Award for Best UK Literature Festival). But I think the challenge is going to be finding the right balance, and timing it right. I sense (perhaps I’m only speaking for myself) a bit of zoom fatigue at the mo; but we are also not yet in a place where confidence to attend live events has returned. Yet I’m certain that, in time, this will settle down, and it’s great to see the Edinburgh International Book Festival really taking the lead in this regard. We’ve already learnt a lot from watching how they’ve gone about it.
The opportunities of a hybrid festival are numerous. It will enable us to programme poets who we would never have been able to otherwise, and in a much more environmental way! StAnza doesn’t have enough budget to pay for international travel, so in the past we have taken advantage of poets already being in the UK / on tour, or those poets who have received the support of their embassy / national institute. Now when it comes to programming? I feel like a cookie monster with a big jar of…Oh dear, I’m back to the topic of cake again, aren’t I? In terms of opportunities for poetry, the online platform provides fabulous opportunities for different national poetry traditions to cross-pollinate. Even within an English-speaking context, the US has such a different tradition to the UK, before we even begin to explore traditions in other languages, and traditions within traditions. It’s a great chance to shake things up a bit – to be both challenged by other ways of going about things, while also perhaps forging traditions across boundaries. Personally speaking, as someone who has been influenced more by American writers than British ones, I’m really excited to see what happens now.
Of course, there are also benefits in terms of audience numbers and range. At StAnza 2021 we had attendees from the world over, and in 2022 we plan to offer a digital ticket which will continue to enable us to attract international audiences, while we hope to export our StAnza Stravaiging showreel overseas (perhaps to Canada and New Zealand in the first instance). Yet this isn’t just about getting more people through the virtual door, and selling more tickets. It’s also about enabling more people to engage in an international community of poetry and poets, including those who might not otherwise be able to attend for reasons of geography (including Scottish geography), financial means or disability.
DP – If I can ask a more personal question – of course you’re also a poet and photographer, with a strong interest in landscape; what do you see the job (and maybe the notoriously seductive light of the Fife coast) bringing to your own practice? Or are you as terrified that it might stop your own writing dead in its tracks as I’d be?
LB – Haha, hilarious! For sure, this is something I considered at some length when offered the job. And yes, I do think that this role will slow my writing output. But, having had four books published in the last 8 years with Carcanet, Guillemot and Knives Forks & Spoons presses, I’m comfortable with that. Don’t us poetry tutors always bang on about the importance of reading? I’m honestly fascinated to see how the additional poetry reading and listening that I’ll inevitably do as part of this role will change my own practice. I’ve got my own poetry preferences, as we all do. Yet I’m committed to the fullest range of poetry programming for StAnza, to encompass the entire (increasingly kaleidoscopic) range of the form. So I’ll inevitably have my prejudices challenged – and I say, bring it on!
Perhaps it’s also been a good thing that, thus far, I’ve had another project on the go to which I’m committed (I received significant public funding for it) called Scree. This project has ensured that, no matter how big the StAnza workload might be, I have had to maintain my own poetry and photography practice. This said, there have been times this year where there’s been so much going on in my head with two big parallel projects that I felt like bits of it were falling off! (fear not, I’ve since built scaffolding). My own next big writing project is actually likely to be prose, interestingly enough – a book about a fateful year I spent potato farming in Spain. Perhaps that’s healthy, in order to get my head out of the poetry zone. And photography / Fife light? Funnily enough, I spent an intense three days up in St Andrews the other week doing a recce of venues, plus lots of meetings. I optimistically packed my pro camera kit in my bag on day 1, imagining that I’d get a few moments to frame some images of the sea. Suffice to say, the camera (all 15kg of it) stayed in my campervan on days 2 and 3! But I’ve already pencilled in heading back up to St Andrews on some suitably atmospheric day to take photos for our new website-in-progress, and can’t wait to be seduced by it, as of course I continue to be by StAnza, over the coming years.
by Lucy Burnett, Festival Director
Kathleen Jamie has described her poem ‘Lochan’ as simply being about feeling tired, but in the context of the past year-and-a-half of lockdowns it has had particular resonance:
When all this is over I mean
to travel north, by the high
drove roads and cart tracks
probably in June…
Makars and laureates might be thought of as occasional poets, writing poems to mark ‘occasions’. And with this in mind, Kathleen Jamie perhaps seems a strange choice for the makarship. Certainly (and literally) her poems can be occasional in that she isn’t afraid of not writing, of silence. But in my reading, Jamie’s poems are themselves occasions, in their direct simplicity of language and their rooted solidity; as realisations of those moments of intent listening and looking – attention – from which they issue. Substantive pauses… my descriptions aren’t adequate. You need to read the work itself.
‘Lochan’ was published in Jamie’s 1999 collection Jizzen, so many years before the pandemic. Yet its sense of poetic occasion enables it to resonate with ‘occasions’ far beyond its inception. I’m minded for some reason of the hand-polished stone from a stream in Galloway that I carry around with me in my pocket, and which my Mum carried around in her own pocket before me. Perhaps appropriately to this blog piece, ‘Lochan’ is dedicated to Jean Johnstone, the wife of the late Brian Johnstone, one of the three founders of StAnza. The poem has echoes of Basho’s A Narrow Road to the Deep North, and an equal sense of spirituality in direct, honest simplicity which one would associate with the haiku master.
These are some of the aspects of her work that make all of us at StAnza thrilled by the choice of Kathleen Jamie as Scotland’s new Makar. Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay…the poets who have come before are as varied as they are illustrious, and Jamie equally offers something new. Her poetry requires attention without drawing attention to itself. She writes on her website that, ‘I still don’t know what poetry is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not about my “voice”.’ This self-effacing approach finds realisation in her work, as in the following lines from ‘The Wishing Tree’, the poem she read at this morning’s announcement with the First Minister:
And though I’m poisoned
choking on the small change
of human hope,
daily beaten into me
look: I am still alive –
in fact in bud.
Here is a poet aware of all our human limitations and failings, including her own, most especially in the context of environmental crisis. I think the way in which Jamie de-centres her own voice and emphasises the importance of paying close attention to the more-than-human world makes her ideally suited to this role right now.
Jamie resists being labelled an environmental / nature poet, as she rightly resists many labels! But it’s certainly the case that the environment and a commitment to the more-than-human world are core concerns and preoccupations. In her introduction to the recent anthology of Scottish nature writing Antlers of Water, Jamie refers to its interest in the ‘intersection of modernity and nature in a rapidly changing Scotland,’ and such a description equally suits her own practice. In the context of Glasgow’s upcoming hosting of COP26, then, Jamie’s appointment is hugely apposite (can I go as far as to say inspired?!) Only the other week, the latest climate change report emanating from the IPCC described anthropogenic climate change as ‘unequivocal’, while setting out both a warning as to the consequences of continued inaction, and also a sense of hope that it’s not quite too late yet. But what can poetry do about that? I hear you ask. I quote Jamie from the introduction to Antlers of Water:
As we realise we must halt destruction, reduce emissions and renegotiate our relationship with the natural world, our noticing is a vital contribution. Out of our noticing comes our art and our writing. For me, this noticing and caring, this attention, this writing from within personal circumstances, whether about an insect or a mountain, amounts to a political act. In a time of ecological crisis, I would argue that simply insisting upon our right to pay heed to natural landscapes and other nonhuman lifeforms amounts to an act of resistance to the forces of destruction. It doesn’t actually take much to be an eco-writer or a nature poet. It begins when you pay attention to the world, and to language, and strive to bring the two together. This writing matters. And so, crucially, does our reading.
I first read Jamie’s work in 2005 when I was gifted a copy of Findings upon departing my role as Parliamentary Officer at Friends of the Earth Scotland to complete a Creative Writing MA. Subsequently her name and work proved hugely relevant to my doctoral and postdoctoral academic research into the relationship between literature and the environment (specifically climate change). Of all the writers I read in this regard (and there were many), perhaps she captures the problem of writing the scale of climate change most evocatively in the opening of Surfacing:
D’ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?
At your cave mouth, you wonder if the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’ve gone too far with our Anthropocene. But who can answer that? We just can’t grasp the scale of our species’ effects. But the single falling stone which could smash our brains out – we understand that.
In this context, and also elsewhere, she quotes Hugh MacDiarmid’s line, 'Scotland, small?' I both imagine, and am hopeful, that during Jamie’s Makarship we will experience an enlarging of our understanding of who and what Scotland is, through an encouragement to focus upon its smallest details and relationships. She certainly has the refreshing art of saying everything by saying nothing, and not letting us become complacent in our Scottishness. I quote from a poem whose jingoistic sounding title ‘Wings of Scotland’ sits in marvellously constructive tension with the poem itself:
Glenogil Estate: poisoned buzzard (Carbofuran).
Millden Estate: poisoned buzzard (Alphachloralose).
Millden Estate: poisoned golden eagle ‘Alma’ (Carbofuran).
I needn’t continue…When Kathleen Jamie last read at StAnza in 2017 the event was so oversubscribed that we had to livestream (how 2021!) it into another venue so that everyone could attend. I very much look forward to welcoming her back over the coming years. I conclude here by inviting you to raise a glass / cup to Jamie (my own is a morning mug of coffee right now). I'd also like to turn to the Chair of StAnza, Robyn Marsack, who has a knack for finding the right line of poetry for every occasion. One of her favourites is from Edwin Morgan and feels appropriate here, at this moment of embarking:
It’s hard to go.
The Makar position, in the current context, will undoubtedly bring its challenges over the coming years; all of us at StAnza wish Kathleen Jamie well. We hugely look forward to working with her to the benefit of Scottish poetry, and Scotland itself, over the next three years.
Lewis is a young professional with ten years’ experience working in arts organisations across Scotland, including The Byre Theatre in St Andrews, and in his current role of 5 years as the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Marketing Manager. At EIBF he contributed to the Festival’s successful digital pivot in 2020 by research, collaboration and initiating online engagement, drawing on his own interests as a digital native. Within the Marketing team he leads the community engagement work, which focuses on bringing arts events and opportunities to deprived areas of Scotland. A devotee of StAnza since his undergraduate days in St Andrews, Lewis says: ‘I admire StAnza’s approach to inclusive, international programming, its commitment to poets, and its deep connection to the local community as well as a global audience. I bring the expertise and energy to supplement and develop these aspects of the Festival.’
Dr Jane Feaver
During the 1990s Jane was Assistant Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber and maintains connections with several of the Estates of Faber poets. In 2001, she joined Farms for City Children in Devon. She was taken on initially to raise the £350-£400,000 needed each year, but after six months was promoted to Chief Executive, with continuing responsibility for fundraising and responsibility for about 60 staff. After 5 years she left to work on her writing, and was awarded a PhD from the University of Exeter, remaining a Trustee of FCC. She became a programmer of Dartmoor’s biennial literary festival, Chagword, which received grant funding from Arts Council England, regularly turning a profit. She has recently been a Trustee of Kneehigh Theatre, with special responsibility for equality and diversity. Now living in Edinburgh, and having recently published her fourth novel, Jane feels she ‘could make a committed contribution based on the experience I’ve had, in the literary world and as a Trustee on other charitable boards.’
Marjorie is the co-founder, Development Director and Board Member of Open Book, a charity that works in community settings across Scotland, using literature to create human connections and amplify marginalized voices. She has proven experience leading third-sector organisations in the areas of strategy, development and delivery, building on a background in engagement and New York corporate law. A poet herself, she draws on personal experience of leaving Iran as a child to help others develop their own voices. She will be stepping down from her current role as Chair of the Wigtown Festival Company Board. Marjorie says that ‘in addition to attending StAnza as an audience member, I’ve read my own work as part of a showcase, been a poet on the TheoArtistry project, led a public writing workshop, run schools workshops several years, and brought our Open Book readers to events. I’ve been involved with StAnza in a variety of roles and am now keen to support its work’ by joining the Board.
Erin is the CEO of Truffle Pig, a fundraising and organisational development consultancy. She has worked in the arts and third sector in Scotland for just over 20 years, holding a wide variety of roles – arts journalist; event producer; head of digital and marketing; literature officer with Creative Scotland and now fundraiser – across several artforms: performing arts, literature, theatre, film and digital. She has been an EDI advocate in her personal and professional life for many years, for instance working on the Glasgow Women’s Library on the Equality in Progress project. Erin also offers digital and professional fundraising experience to StAnza, and remarks that ‘Despite being perceived as “small”, the festival’s reach is impressive, with a commitment to using an international lens that brings enormous value to the poetry scene in Scotland; whilst the enthusiastic embracing of cross-artform projects is progressive and exciting.’
We're thrilled to announce that our live 'Poetry in the Garden' reading, which had to be postponed in March has now been rescheduled for the end of July!
Poetry in the Garden with Jayne Wilding
Saturday 31 July, 2:30 – 3pm, free but ticketed
St Andrews Heritage Museum Garden (entrance via South Castle Street)
Over the course of the past 18 months, many of us have come to appreciate our relationship with the natural world more than ever. During this outdoor reading in the St Andrews Heritage Museum Gardens, we will hear from Jayne Wilding, a poet for whom this experience has been particularly keenly felt: 'Nature has wrapped her arms around me and held me throughout the past year. The gift of the pandemic has been to come into a deeper appreciation of the body and the healing power of nature. I will be reading poems celebrating this love affair with the natural world.'
Following the reading, we’ll also be raising our keep-cups and water bottles to StAnza’s outgoing director, Eleanor Livingstone!
Do come dressed for the weather, and be considerate of social distancing guidelines. Tickets are available here.
Jayne Wilding is a poet, writer and yoga teacher who lives and writes in the East Neuk of Fife. Her parents were mountaineers and as a child she spent time a good deal of time in the mountains. She is passionate about the healing power of the elements and nature. Her collection In the Moon’s Pantry was published by diehard Press in 2004; her pamphlet sky blue notebook from the Pyrenees was joint runner-up for the 2009 Callum Macdonald Poetry Award.
This event is supported by the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature fund.
This event depends on government regulations and guidance in force on 31 July. It will be delivered in association with venues or partners who are committed to being fully Covid-19 safe and Covid-19 compliant. All audience members should observe and comply with appropriate social distancing and other hygiene precautions. However, and notwithstanding the foregoing, participation undertaken by participants and audience members at their own risk. StAnza cannot accept any liability in respect of Covid-19 safely compliance by participants, members of the public or others or any incidence of infection amongst those choosing to participate in or engage with StAnza events.
1. Jo (How it all began)
i. The circumstances
The Dundee renga has been going for a year noo, and recently we teamed up with StAnza to extend the idea to a wider (world-wider!) constituency, so this seemed like an opportune moment to reflect on what exactly we have done. Beginning with what, exactly, is the Dundee renga? Well, what it has become is a group-generated collaborative poem based on the old Japanese form, generating twenty brief verses a month and involving around thirty writers from Dundee and thereaboots, posted online for aa tae see at the Gude & Godlie Ballatis website, here.
I like projects that appear to arrive on a whim from nowhere, which are content to use the materials immediately to hand - the punk equivalent of the old Hollywood musicals trope of ‘let’s do the show right here!’ I suspect my affection comes more from the way this feeling of randomness resembles the internal spark of inspiration, but occurs socially, as if already a collaboration. If such projects take off, it feels like this moment partakes of the idea of synchronicity, the apparently meaningful coincidence, after which, hopefully, we can all take pleasure in the way they go on to generate actual meaning.
That’s how most of my collaborative projects have kicked off, from random encounters with future co-editors or co-translators to the political poetry blog, New Boots and Pantisocracies, which arose from a few (terrible) puns exchanged online with Andy Ching, linking Ian Dury with Coleridge and leading to six years of postings so far.
Similarly, a couple of Dundee-based haiku written and posted online by the academic, local history librarian, and folklore guru, Erin Farley, led to us wondering if a geographically-fixed renga could be generated by building an email group and asking them to write a verse a day for twenty days every month. (Yes. It could.)
I first took part in a renga sometime in the late 90s/early 00s when Alec Finlay led a day-long session in the Baltic in Newcastle. I then led another session in 2003 at his invitation as the kyaku, or guest poet, who writes the hokku, or opening verse, when we all met in the (reconstruction of the) Centurion’s House in Arbeia, the Roman fort which sits just across the Tyne from me in South Shields. I remember Eck plugging a kettle into an anachronistic power point to make a pot of sencha, just as he had in the Baltic, but with a somewhat different feel. That renga formed part of a chain written along Hadrian’s Wall, published as Writing on the Wall. My opener was
That gull could be cloud, Lowry, a legionary: its wing refuses.
I also remember being delighted that we managed to fit in a line of Virgil from Book 9 of The Aeneid as copied out (wrongly) by an unknown Roman child* and found at the fort at Vindolanda: ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata per urbem’ -- the next lines make it clear that this is a tragic passage about a death in battle: ‘nuntia Fama ruit matrisque adlabitur auris/Euryali…’. (ll. 473–475, rendered in Dryden’s translation as: ‘Soon hasty fame thro' the sad city bears/The mournful message to the mother's ears.’) This was of course in the same year as the invasion of Iraq.
It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that the renga is capable of capturing complex layers of histories and cultures in just this way, the surrounding immediacies and keen observations of several individual minds, and turning them into a singular something, simultaneously capturing and enacting a quality I have come to focus on more and more over the twenty odd years since my first renga: ephemerality.
By that long Greek polysyllable, I’m gesturing at the universe of meanings the Japanese poets contained in terms like okashi (delight), aware (perception of transience), sabi (impersonal loneliness), or karumi (lightness) -- each of which would require a separate article to articulate. But I only mean that, in Larkin’s phrase, ‘Days are where we live’.
A newspaper is ephemeral -- in Greek it is, literally, εφημερίδα, ‘for a day’ - but as a way of approaching the day they represent, newspapers provide a unique combination of major and minor news, cultural summation and trivia, cartoons and games. Indeed, as Erin Farley has admirably discussed, for many years they contained poetry, often (and not only in Dundee) of a politically radical nature. We might read them from cover to cover, keeping clippings of everything that interests us, or we might not. Then the next day we might buy another one, or we might not.
Renga are a sort of newspaper of the soul, but not in the sense of the individual soul - rather, in their attention to both the inner and the outer, to phenomena and epiphenomena, and their grasp of the transformative impact of imagery or vocabulary, they capture the metaphysics of a social territory or milieu or, as here, a city. Whether they report on it or embody it is another question (see part 2).
*But note a possible, less innocent reading here from Peter Kruschwitz.