Poetic Conversations

Thursday 7 March 2019

The week has finally arrived. Poets from near and far have flocked to our little town on the coast of Scotland for five days of poetry, art, film, music and more. Five days of celebration, collaboration and creative conversation. Five days, in short, of StAnza Poetry Festival.


I myself travelled to St Andrews from Edinburgh – not too far a jaunt, considering that many of our poets hail from much, much further afield! Once I arrived in town, I headed straight to the Byre Theatre and met up with some of the other poets and volunteers, some I’ve known for years through working and performing at the festival, and some who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time yesterday.


After delicious sandwiches and wine, we kicked off the festival in style at the Launch Event, which provided a taster of just some of the poetry, film and music on offer this year. You could call it a poetic smorgasbord? Poetry tapas? It’s possible I am just reaching for these food metaphors because I’m very excited for the macaroni pies this afternoon at my own Poetry Café event!


Nevertheless, it was a rich variety of voices and styles, featuring poets from a myriad of locations - from London, to Toronto, to Colombia. As Douglas Dunn reminded us in his speech launching the festival, ‘there are many different kinds of poetry, all of them valid’, and it was great to see so many different kinds of poems last night. Poetry in Catalan and Italian, poetry sung and poetry projected on the walls.


And perhaps because it is, as Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone pointed out, the ‘year of conversation’, last night I kept thinking about how poetry itself is always a form of dialogue, an ongoing conversation between each poet and each reader. Whether that conversation happens by someone flicking open a collection and reading in the silence of their living room, interacting with the words on the page, or whether by sitting in a bookstore, pub or theatre listening to someone share their work aloud with you – as we did last night.


Conversation itself was a theme that cropped up at various times in the poems we heard at the launch. Both of Fiona Moore’s poems, she informed us, were started from different conversations, including one begun in dialogue with another poem and one inspired by a real life conversation. Poetry is so often a response to other works of art, as well as an ongoing conversation with the past. Peter Mackay read a bawdy and brilliant poem from The Light Blue Book: 500 Years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive Poetry and Anne Martin shared with us a beautiful and haunting Gaelic song.


Another particular highlight for me was Poet in Residence Caroline Teague’s searing poem about her experience of feeling like ‘the abominable woman of anger, the monster in the hills’ and the societal pressure on women to be smaller, to take up less space, both literally and metaphorically.


I was also invited to perform at the launch, which was very special for me. Having volunteered at StAnza since my first year at the University of St Andrews (8 years ago!), I always dreamed of one day performing at the festival. So it was a real pleasure to join the other poets on stage and share my work last night. 19-year-old Carly would have been thrilled!


Throughout the event, we were also treated to readings from John Burnside and A.E Stallings, who will be reading at tonight’s Poetry Centre Stage event, and some lovely, lyrical tunes from Megan D.


As Robyn Marsack pointed out in her closing remarks, poetry and conversation are essential, now more than ever. At such a turbulent time, where there is a lot of talk of walls, barriers and isolation, poetry is a space of traversing distance, of connection, of taking someone’s hand and saying: This is how I see it. How do you see it?


And StAnza offers a space for those conversations to continue beyond the sharing of the work itself, but also spilling out into the Byre Theatre, the pubs and coffee shops, the beaches and cobblestoned streets afterwards, so that we can continue to converse and connect. Yes, our throats might be sore from all that talking by the end of the week (in my case, it already is!), but what a valuable opportunity to have so many voices in one place and to be inspired by one another.


So let’s raise a toast to the 22nd year of StAnza! After what we saw yesterday, it is bound to be a hugely enjoyable and stimulating festival indeed.


By Carly Brown, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2019