Seagulls and Sandwiches

Thursday 5 March 2020

The sun is out, the seagulls are screeching and wheeling about the sky like frantic pieces of cloud, and the town is full of hurrying poets – which can only mean one thing. StAnza 2020 is underway! On Wednesday, after a long stroll between the sea and sky of West Sands, I rushed over to the Byre Theatre, the hub of the festival, for the official launch of #StAnza20. Poets, students, locals, visitors, and members of the university hovered over an array of sandwiches, quaffed wine, and exchanged animated conversation, speculating over the performances to come. Would there be spontaneous singing? Who would be the favourite poet of the night? Which books were people most tempted to read?

Once the sandwiches had disappeared, the crowd was funnelled into the inviting dark interior of the auditorium, and I was taken backstage in preparation for the night’s readings. What followed was a veritable extravaganza of poetry, music, joiking, and film poetry, introduced first by Eleanor Livingstone, and then by Val McDermid, the celebrated Scottish crime writer and special guest for the evening. McDermid spoke of her deep enjoyment of poetry – which lulled following a degree in English Literature, but was reignited by the dynamism and diversity of the contemporary poetry scene. Poetry, she professed, allowed unparalleled access to and expression of feeling. After her impassioned words came a taster of the varied poetry on offer at this year’s festival, with readings from Robbie McLeòid and Jeda Pearl, before I read several poems written during a recent poetry residency at Underfall Yard, a working boatyard in Bristol. We then moved from boats to blue – or rather, to a poem written on Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne in Blue by Maitreyabandhu. ‘How awkward she seemed, the picture cut in half’, begins his poem ‘Rilke Writes to His Wife from the Salon D’Automne’, which sees Count Kessler turn to the speaker, drawing a verbal picture of the wallpaper’s ‘clumsy pattern’:

Now what does it remind you of. . . tears?

Heavy falling tears? And what appears

to be the bracket of a shelf – so insistent

it breaks the picture’s logic, magnificent

in its wrongness, a kind of vice that grips

her anxious-pleasing mind and holds it clipped

in stillness, voiceless in agitation – it captures

doesn’t it, our hankering and fear,

our common lot.

In a delightful fusion of word and image, Cézanne’s painting was projected behind Maitreyabandhu as he spoke.

After the visual treat of Cézanne, we heard from Johan Sandberg McGuinne, a speaker of English, Swedish, Southern Saami, and Scottish Gaelic. His performance of Saami joiks (a joik – or yoik, in anglicised spelling – is a traditional form of song in Saami music performed by the Saami people of Sápmi in Northern Europe) was startling, the rhythms filling the auditorium and resonating with audience members long after the sound had faded out.

The second half of the launch was equally glorious, with work by Agnes Scott Langeland (a Fife local now living in Norway), Anna Crowe, and others, including a reading of Marianne Moore’s ‘The Fish’ by Matthew Caley (‘wade / through black jade’ . . .). In addition to poetry, we saw several film poems, my favourite, a slippery, islandy, seaweedy joy, being Roseanne Watt’s. Anthony Anaxagorou’s performance, meanwhile, was lively, vivid, his pauses perfectly timed, keeping the audience waiting for just – that – last – word. The end of his poem drew in the audience, making them implicit: ‘Are you here to help me carry the burden of my name? Are your hands strong enough to lug it? We all know that the stuck fishbone never meant any harm. Is your hand still on my elbow?’

More soon.

- Suzannah V. Evans, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2020