Saturday at StAnza: a coming together of fragments

Sunday 5 March 2017

St Andrews in the mist...

St Andrews in the mist...

'There's a winding and a wending and a being lost that's really important to writing poems.' -  R. A. Villanueva

Yesterday, I talked a bit about uncertainty, and the opportunities uncertainty offers. Far from a negative thing, it’s all about possibility. Of course, this can be stressful in itself – just ask anyone who works freelance. But it can also be freeing. 

Something that has come up again and again in connection with the festival theme of On The Road is the necessity of getting lost. 

At Poetry Breakfast, David Evans talking about flaneuring: the idea of wandering, observing and being lost, in contrast to the fragmented nature of our modern existence, where we are constantly hurrying from A to B, bombarded on all sides by images and information clamouring for our attention. Michelle Cahill then linked this fragmentation of modern experience to the fragmented narrative of the journey, and particularly of migration. ‘Is identity a structured thing,’ she asked, ‘or is poetry a way of bringing it together through fragments?’ 

Poetry certainly brought people together in my second event of the day: Border Crossings, with R. A. Villanueva and Matthew Caley. In the atmospheric cavern of the Undercroft, R. A. Villanueva captivated and carried the audience through his set, finishing on a poem that involved audience participation. Normally, audience participation is something I balk at (isn’t it sometimes like going to a Robbie Williams concert, where he makes the audience do most of the singing?) but what R. A. Villanueva set up was a kind of call and response, an intonation of a repeated line, ‘The world has always been ending.’ With the collective voices echoing off the rough stone of the Undercroft, it was like a congregational affirmation at a church service. The poem felt ritualistic, almost religious. 

Next Mattew Caley took the microphone, his deep rich voice resonating through the low-arched room, causing a ripple of laughter at his definition of a tanga as ‘a morbidly obese haiku.’

From one of the festival’s most intimate venues to its largest, with In Conversation with Hamish Brown and Jim Crumley. The event was billed as two writers discussing ‘poetry, travel and seeking high places’, but the part of the event I found most arresting was the discussion of silence. Both writers described moments of experiencing absolute silence in nature, when there were no human noises, no bird sounds, no rustles in the grass. They talked about ‘feeling’ the silence as much as hearing it, and Jim Crumley described that kind of absolute natural silence as ‘sacred’. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last few days with my head so steeped in words, but the sanctity of that silence really hit home for me. In the midst of language, it can be so easy to forget about the silence that it is born out of. 

But, at the penultimate day of StAnza, silence can only reign for so long. After a quick dinner at the Byre, it was time for Poetry Centre Stage. 

The first poet to perform was Sarah Howe, reading from her T S Eliot Prize-winning collection, Loop of Jade. A personal thanks has to go here to Annie Rutherford, who introduced the evening, for mentioning the #derangedpoetess twitter hashtag, and for her shoutout to me for being the hashtag’s initiator. 

Sarah Howe’s poetry struck me as being very tied up with the idea of protest. Not just because of the controversy that emerged following her winning of the T S Eliot Prize last year, but because of the rhetoric with which she surrounded her poems. She spoke about prose poems, and described the prose poem as a form  that defies definition, falling in the gap between poetry and prose – in a sense, a form that protests against segregation of different forms. In reference to her own position as a ‘controversial’ figure, she said: ‘If Plato thought poets were important enough to banish us from the ideal Republic, that’s good enough for me.’ Reading in her beautifully narrative voice, she kept the audience hooked right through her reading, until I couldn’t believe it when the interval arrived so soon. 

After the interval, it was Jackie Kay who took to the stage. She spoke about her role as Makar, and how the word is so much more appealing than the English term ‘laureate’; rather than resting on her laurels, her role is all about making – the creation of poetry. In contrast to Sarah Howe’s calm and restrained storytelling, Jackie Kay is an entertainer. Watching via the big screen in the upstairs Studio (or, as she called us, the ‘overspill’ people), her fun and humour translated into a kind of raucousness. There's something about the poet not actually being in the room that allows for a kind of free and raucous reaction to the work. (It also allows you to take off your shoes and curl up in the big comfy armchairs, but maybe that's just me.) 

And speaking of raucousness… Last night was the StAnza Slam. Hosted by Paula Varjack, poets competed for the title of StAnza Slam Champion 2017, and the chance to go on to compete in the Scottish National Slam. The crowd whooped and hollered and cheered for their favourites, as a wide variety of voices and styles stood before us on the stage. However, there could only be one winner. With a fiercely energetic poem about tiredness (one which seemed hugely appropriate as we reach towards the end of StAnza 2017), Kevin McLean took the coveted title, to rapturous applause. 

Kevin’s victory poem rounded off the night, and we headed home with words still flickering through our heads. A late night hot chocolate and a sleep, ready to begin the final day of StAnza 2017. 

By Katie Hale, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2017


Kevin McLean: StAnza Slam Champion 2017

Kevin McLean: StAnza Slam Champion 2017