At StAnza: thinking beyond this map

Wednesday 13 March 2019

As I sit back in my usual 9-5 (cue Dolly Parton), I’m still turning last weekend over in my mind and re-examining it, still teasing out lines or metaphors or reflecting on a conversation had afterwards in the Byre bar over a couple beers. I will admit, I am one of the biggest StAnza-geeks about. I book the time off of work way further in advance than necessary, hovver around the website on launch date and count down the days a little bit like I probably used to with Christmas.

This year, I reprised my role as a volunteer tackling social media, sound tech-ing and some hosting and participant liasoning. My last event of the festival is with British-Nigerian poet Tolu Agbelusi at Poetry Café (where I scoff my fourth pie in four days…)

Tolu reads: ‘Wherever I am, I am of the other place. The one I just left.’ Here, she describes the feeling of being from two countries, not fully accepted by either culture. I jotted the line down immediately as it beautifully summarised a theme that ran throughout this year’s StAnza: (“Another Place”) as well as a feeling throughout many poets work. It was echoed in other poets work: Ishian Hutchinson’s reflection on his homeland of Jamaica whilst living in New York, Mary Jean Chan’s playful examination of Cantonese, Hannah Lavery’s poem which focuses on her father, a Scot, who was rejected by a country that made him ‘foreign’ in his own homeland. The places traversed this StAnza ranged from Italy, Jamaica, Spain, Nigeria, England, Canada, China, back to Scotland.

I started to think beyond this map, however, as for some, this whole “other” place was not a physical location but a life that moved into a new setting: Ben Norris reflects on coming back to his home train station after moving to London, Caroline Bird spoke about living in a hospital rehab room - these other places of transition, not necessarily accessible to all. Even more abstract, sometimes ‘Another Place’ is entirely inaccessible - as in A.E. Stallings “Lost and Found” long-form poem she read at Centre Stage, where she traversed some underworld like landscape of lost things in a dream.

It could be the location Liz Berry builds in her Forward-winning poem “The Republic of Motherhood”, where motherhood is not a change of life, but a physical landscape built out of hospital rooms, late nights and graveyards. This poem appears in her pamphlet of the same name, aptly designed to look like a passport - something which grants us entry to this new location. It was fun trying to doodle these half-places on StAnza’s poetry maps of Scotland and Europe, trying to come up with the right phrasing to describe them.

StAnza itself could be called another place: a long weekend of reconnection and focus on a sole art-form that we seldom get the chance to have. After five days of immersion it feels odd to board the train back home and switch the conversation to laundry or alarm clocks. I already miss the bizarre routine of running across rainy St. Andrew’s between readings, markets, bookshops and the Byre.

Another theme was ‘Off the Page’ - a theme that could be applied to any StAnza, with its rich focus on poetry performed or made intimate. It isn’t just read alone but interpreted in visual art, taken on windy walks, or through Luke Pell and Kitty Fedorec’s movement, and accompanied by music, such as at Jazz Work’s annual Jazz Night or Anton Wojcik’s “How to Keep Time” which blended spoken word with drumming.

Another ‘off the page’ interpretation was StAnza’s first ever flash-mob where participants performed Edward Lear - complete with blue latex gloves - by surprise one evening. I must admit, when I heard there was a ‘poetry ruckus’,(as another volunteer dubbed it) I half expected some kind of Jeanette Winterson-like scuffle in the car park over slighted publications.

“Off the Page” however, had less literal meanings. I think about Nadine Aisha Jassat, Caroline Bird, Joe with the Glasses, Carly Brown, J.O. Morgan - and many more - whose words are completely different when they read them aloud from when you read them on the page. The joy of StAnza is being able to see poetry imbued with new meanings. A pause here, quicker pace, volume all can change your perception of a poem completely. I linger too on the immediacy of Jacqueline Sapphra’s reading, where she used photography of and by Lee Miller in projections. Sapphra brought an, often-forgotten, woman straight off the print and almost into the room. It’s common to hear poetry or art referred to as a “conversation” but it’s rare to see this play out in front of you.

I think the goal of poetry is always to take us somewhere new beyond much more than what is printed on paper. We traverse the experiences of others through our own empathy and imagination. We take the journey alongside A.E. Stallings in her dream, we are in the rehab room with Caroline Bird, watching Birmingham Rollers in the sky with Liz Berry, walking down a racist hostile street with Nadine Aisha Jassat.

Of course, it will never be same as lived experience, but as John Burnside reflected in the StAnza Lecture, poetry is ‘always saving the world’ as our ‘primary way of reflecting on how we want to see the world.’ We are the closest we will ever be to the other place of someone’s perspective and sightlines without ever leaving our chairs. Maybe we leave StAnza not having saved the world, but definitely having our own reshaped and brightened for the better.