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.
Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library shares news from the library.
Has it been a year since the last StAnza? It seems like yesterday…and a decade, the temporal equivalent of the famous shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the camera zooms in while tracking out. As I recall it, news of the oncoming pandemic was bearing down hard on StAnza last year as it took place, which led to the Library reluctantly cancelling its trip up to St Andrews and an interview we planned to record for our podcast.
Since then, many of us have discovered the joys of video-conferencing and online readings. The show will go on! The return of StAnza as we leave the season of Covid hell is like a dove reappearing with a fresh olive leaf in its beak. We at the SPL are looking forward to tuning into an irresistible line-up of fresh talent and mature voices.
It’s been a heck of a year for the SPL too, as you can imagine. In common with every arts organisation in Scotland, we faced the dilemma of how to continue our services when the heart of our business – our building, where our collection is housed and our events are staged – was out of bounds. So, we evolved.
In terms of borrowing, we now offer a ‘click and collect service’, where borrowers, after consulting our catalogue, which can be accessed by our website, call or email us to say which titles they’d like. After that, they can come down to the Library in person, where a member of staff will safely hand them their books at the entrance. We also offer free postal loans.
We recently invested in a new website to better present digital content. As a result we were able to adapt more agilely to lockdown through the commissioning of films and online activity that can be accessed at home and in the classroom. With live events not possible, we looked into how we could share poetry with our audience, particularly on significant dates on the poetry calendar. For National Poetry Day, we filmed John Hegley in the Library reading his work and speaking with fellow poet Michael Pedersen. As the year ended, we filmed a 30-minute introduction to the Library, its work and history, featuring poets Louise Peterkin and R.J. Arkhipov, and hosted by Saltire Prize-winner Janette Ayachi, who turned out to be a natural (BBC Scotland, hire her now!).
For Burns Night, we commissioned three pieces featuring Dundee’s Morgan Academy, writer and presenter Alistair Heather and Scots language advocate Lennie Pennie reading Burns poems. We also commissioned a series of short films featuring James Robertson and Sheena Blackhall, two of Scotland’s leading proponents of Scots language. In conversation with Alistair Heather, the poets selected and shared favourite children’s poems that they think young people and teachers would enjoy as much as they do. Finally, our film Pass the Mic, hosted by Vic Galloway and featuring performances by Courtney Stoddart, Victoria McNulty and Kevin Gilday, was a joyous ‘virtual ceildh’. Supported by the Scottish Government, it was produced by the Scottish Poetry Library as part of the Robert Burns and Winter Festivals cultural programme.
We placed these films on our website, YouTube and all the places you would expect – and have had an astonishing response. The 30 minute film of Sheena Blackhall talking about children’s poems in Scots has been watched all the way through over by 8,000 people and ‘reached’ another 50,000 via Facebook alone. When in pre-pandemic days we held events in the building, at best we could contain an audience of 60 people. Video and social media have opened up opportunities for connecting audiences with poetry. Hell of a way to find out just how effective, sure, but once the world opens up again, we anticipate continuing to work on video, although of course we’ll also be looking forward to staging our first live events. I’m sure StAnza is also relishing the thought also of a return to safe in-person events. The world is waking up and there is no better place to be (virtually this year) than StAnza.