Soundscapes and Stones

Friday 6 March 2020

I’m sitting in the Byre Theatre, and I can hear cups clattering against saucers, footsteps shuffling on stairs, the tapping of a walking stick, jazz music floating up from below, a coffee grinder, and the many interweaving voices of poets and poetry lovers. In front of me is a listening booth where headphones play sound poetry by the Finnish writer Stina Saari; others play a poetry and music fusion by Pauline Prior-Pitt and Catherine Eunson. #StAnza20 has been a sonic treat.

Thursday morning plunged StAnza participants into the soundscapes of the sea, with a workshop on coastal writing led by Lesley Harrison, readings by Johan Sandberg McGuinne and Gerry Cambridge, and the StAnza 2020 Lecture on Modernist women’s poetics and the sea, given by Matthew Caley. He opened our ears to Marianne Moore’s poem ‘The Fish’, noting that the intricate syllabic count prompts the reader to be alert at each stage of the poem. Thom Gunn, Caley observed, spoke of the poem’s ‘casually shocking enjambments’ – and Caley drew attention to the possible violence of these, bringing in work by Jacques Lacan and H.D., and considering the sea in relation to the unconscious.

Photo credit: Suzannah V. Evans

After a sea stroll, where I admired the violet sky and (in the late afternoon light) violet sea, it was time for the festival’s first Poetry Centre Stage event, with the evening split between Anthony Anaxagorou and Jen Hadfield. It took three years to write After the Formalities, Anaxagorou informed the audience, and he spoke of how he had wanted to ‘fuse rigour and anecdote’ in the collection, citing Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, among others, as influences. The book is also about his identity as a Cypriot, and one which touches on ‘bigger constructs of race and identity’. He opened his reading with ‘Cause’ (‘my worry is a whole country’), following it with a poem inspired by his son’s questions about death. ‘The strange thing about parenthood is that you become more aware of distances’, Anaxagorou notes. When he reads, it is with clear pleasure, his body moving in time to his words and his gestures framing the space around him; his timing, with each poem, each line, is impeccable. The longer set delights him – it’s a chance to ‘test drive the book, test its mettle’.

Jen Hadfield reads next, with just enough time before her performance for intermission ice cream. Her new collection, The Stone Age (due out in 2020), explores neurodiversity, and she begins by reading a poem from a sequence on the subject – written before she knew it would be part of a longer piece. ‘In the writing of this book, I’ve wanted to explore different levels of consciousness’, Hadfield explains, noting that it is always useful to think about what it means to be ‘typical’. She reads wonderful poems about conscious stones – cliffs with feelings – with one piece addressed to a standing stone; her delivery is quietly composed and utterly absorbing. ‘Nudibranch’ is one of my favourite poems of the evening, its title punning on the marine gastropod mollusc and a skinny dip in Shetland: ‘each breaking wave / dousing me of costume, / comfortably / divested of my name.’

The later evening saw many of the StAnza attendees ‘comfortably / divested’ of their names as jazz musicians took to the floor and listeners took to their dancing, with the (sometimes slow, sometimes very vigorous) dancing interspersed with open mic poems. The rest of the night was as filled with conversation as it was with wild dancing and sand-filled shoes.

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