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