Stories like starting points!

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Perhaps later than hoped (it’s been, ermmm, a busy summer), StAnza is delighted to announce our festival title for 2022: Stories like starting points – a line from a poem in Holly Pester’s Forward-shortlisted collection Comic Timing. The festival will explore the possibilities and pitfalls of narrative in poetry, and will feature poets who take a wide-ranging approach to the question of ‘stories’. Traditional narrative poems. Re-writings of old stories. New ways of telling previously unheard (or unlistened to) stories. And indeed those who contest the power of narrative and the stories we currently tell. To mark the launch of our theme, Don Paterson took the chance to catch up with new StAnza Festival Director Lucy Burnett to ask about her plans for the festival in the years ahead.

You can also hear more from Don and Lucy at a special StAnza preview event at Wigtown Book Festival on 1st October, talking all things poetry and narrative. Tickets available here.

Don Paterson

Photo: Murdo McLeod

DP – Hi Lucy! Stanza has obviously grown considerably in size and reputation over the years under Eleanor Livingstone’s expert stewardship (and that, of course, of the great ‘tache himself, our dearly missed friend Brian Johnstone). I’d be very keen to hear about your own vision – what direction do you see the festival taking now? Will the rather different world we’re waking up to post-pandemic offer some unexpected opportunities?


LB – Hi Don! Well, I've certainly got big shoes to fill... I wonder whether Brian ever imagined that StAnza would endure this long, and successfully, when he organised the first festival with Anna Crowe and Gavin Bowd 25 years ago? What a fabulous legacy he has left us. And Eleanor? What can I say? She has achieved a vast amount in the last 16 years with StAnza, not least in developing the festival’s international profile. As great as it was to see the Scottish football team perform at the Euros this summer, Scottish poetry – through StAnza –  regularly features at the European poetry top table.


Joking aside, my own vision for the festival involves framing it as an ‘intervention’ in poetry. StAnza has become known for both its Scottishness and internationalism. I plan to build on this, by directing the festival towards exploring cutting edge issues relating both to the form of poetry itself, and also its relationship with the wider world. I’d like StAnza to become a festival which anyone interested in reading or writing poetry believes they can’t miss, or indeed anyone who might be interested in poetry – I've long believed that ambition and inclusivity can go hand-in-hand with the right approach (participation is key). In terms of the pandemic, one thing we’ve all learnt is the potential of digital and virtual events. We can't wait (please join us in crossing everything) to welcome people back to St Andrews for a real, live festival next year, but we also plan to livestream about 25 events (in and out) through a hybrid format, and to export a StAnza Stravaiging showreel to overseas events and diaspora communities. Last year we had our first ever audience member from Ghana, and there are obvious possibilities for programming international poets who wouldn’t previously have been able to attend in person. In other words, StAnza has the potential to become even more international than previously.


DP – Can you say a little more about the specific kind of thing this idea of ‘intervention’ might accommodate, Lucy? I’m sensing that it’ll afford you the opportunity to showcase certain artists, take certain collaborative approaches, stage types of event that Stanza hasn’t previously tried? Do you see this as an opportunity to recruit new audiences to poetry? What sort of continuity will the new approach have with the longer Stanza tradition?


Lucy Burnett in a grey v-neck jumper and jeans, standing against a black background

Photo: Rob Crampton

LB – I guess it’s more the angle I plan to take on things, rather than different things, necessarily. More of an exploratory turn. Viewing poetry as dynamic, and shifting. StAnza’s title for 2022 is Stories like starting points (a line from a poem in Holly Pester's Forward shortlisted Comic Timing). Until now, StAnza’s tended to describe itself as celebrating its themes, but I’m more interested in a more open-ended approach. This year the festival will explore the role of narrative in contemporary poetry. Our programming will take a wide-reaching approach to this, to include narrative poetry for sure, but also seeking out new ways of telling unheard stories, of re-writing existing stories, and also of contesting the dominance of the stories we traditionally tell and how we tell them. The current raft of StAnza strands already provides a really good platform for this approach, but I’ve also got new ideas, including a 'debate' strand (I’m really excited about the two writers I’m hoping to programme for 2022) and the use of a cutting-edge new venue alongside the Byre for events traversing artistic boundaries between performance, music and poetry (I’ve always loved genre-bending work).


For 2023 I’ve got an idea for a project called The Poetry Gallery, and I’m planning for the 2023 programme to focus upon poetic interventions on the environment. Our hybrid turn, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for these ‘interventions’ and discussions to occur on an even more international stage.


New audiences? Absolutely. Both within Scotland and further afield. Poetry has had a bit of a resurgence in popularity as of late, and I’d like to help sustain that. When I worked as a University Creative Writing lecturer I became accustomed to first year students’ annual complaint: 'but I just don't get poetry!' I’m sure you can imagine how much it became my mission to convert them (in my experience, the leap between getting and not-getting poetry isn’t huge, and relates to how we expect to read and experience it). In terms of enabling new audiences, I’ve got two programmes planned for 2021 / 22 (funding permitting). Scotland’s Young Makars will provide for budding poets of secondary school age across Scotland through a series of online webinars, as well as further group and 1-1 mentoring for the most promising writers. Well-versed will offer a monthly zoom conversation between me and a festival poet plus further reading resources to encourage the development of poetry reading groups across the country. By reframing the festival, I also hope to better capture its dynamism: to let people know that this is something exciting of which they'd like to be a part (in fact, they mustn’t miss…) We’re hoping to work with a wide range of partners to promote these projects, particularly in areas of lower existing artistic opportunity.


So yes, there are definitely changes afoot, but I've no intention of abandoning the StAnza tradition. In fact, StAnza is already one of the more exploratory festivals; what I'm doing is simply communicating this more overtly. And the festival will certainly feel very familiar to those attending: in St Andrews, with the Byre as our key hub, retaining the popular event strands... And many of my ‘new’ programmes are actually extensions of work which we’ve already undertaken already for many years, albeit on a more local level. I’m also very attentive to maintaining StAnza’s sense of community and playfulness. I might have ‘big ideas’, but underpinning this is a commitment to being friendly, inclusive and welcoming. Only yesterday me and my colleague were discussing a festival 'cake pass', entitling attendees to a slice of cake every day of the festival, which has been rather trending on twitter. Apparently the StAnza community approves!


DP – Definitely put me down for a cake pass. Two cake passes ... Have you considered just twanging the poetry and making it a festival of cake? There’s a lot to get excited about there – I hope you can pull it all off … A practical question – how can folk get involved, both in the run-up to the festival and during StAnza itself? Do you have any plans to involve St Andrews students and staff? I always felt this was a slightly underutilised resource, and that Stanza was very well positioned as a town-and-gown intersection. I certainly wished we could have done more on the University side.


LB – Fantastic. Who knew that my new post was actually a cypher for a bakery franchise?!


How to get involved? If you’re a poet, and you think your writing offers something interesting to our festival focus, then we’d love to hear from you! (Apologies about not releasing the theme earlier. It had been my intention, but I’ve had *ahem* a rather busy summer learning the ropes!) If you love poetry – well, you simply have to come to the festival for fear of missing out! If you hate poetry – come to the festival, and be open to us convincing you!


StAnza is also hugely reliant on volunteers – I can’t overstate their value to the festival (and indeed how much I value them personally). A key moment in my own development as a poet was meeting Ali Smith while volunteering as a bus conductor at a literary festival in York. She was subsequently really supportive, and I know that many StAnza volunteers have equally found the festival a crucial stepping-stone in their work as a poet, or in the arts industry. To date, our key voluntary roles have involved our board of trustees, a committee of long-term volunteers who assist with programming and festival development, and a team of volunteers who help out during the festival itself. I’m particularly keen to extend our year-round volunteering opportunities – and yes, this offers particular potential to those at St Andrews University. We’ve had lots of amazing student volunteers over the years, and we’ve recently recruited another one (Lauren) who is already doing amazing work in spreading the word. StAnza as the hyphens between town-and-gown? I’d like that. I’m also planning on organising our first ever volunteer day next summer, to both recognise voluntary efforts, and offer training and support.


If you’d like to volunteer – please do get in touch and let us know what interests you, and we’ll try and find a role to suit. We’re as keen to support our volunteer’s own development as we are in extending our own capacity.


DP – Of course there’s probably a higher ratio of practitioners to punters at poetry festivals than at any other kind of festival, so there’s always great interest in the workshop / meet the author / masterclass side of things. Is this something you’re keen to develop?


LB – That’s an interesting point – you’ve got me thinking of examples to prove you wrong, but I’m struggling! Of course, it’s well-known that more people write poetry than read it, so the above follows. Again, rather than introducing more such events (there are already a significant number), I’m keen to look at what opportunities there are for people to participate right across the festival. The notion of the festival being dynamic, and an intervention, requires that people feel like they have a voice in things, no matter whether they are Simon Armitage or a first-time poetry festival attendee. Yet I don’t want every event to become a discussion panel either…


I’m planning to look at every event strand in turn and to ask what stake the audience has in it, and how they can engage in a more-than-passive manner. To provide one small example, I intend to encourage those poets reading at the festival to engage with the festival focus in their between-poem chat – to speak of their own poetics, and their own take on narrative and storytelling (in this year’s case). My aim is that by encouraging discussion and debate about poetics in this way, those audience members who are practitioners will be encouraged to ask similar questions about their own work, and to discuss these ideas in the informal but equally important sessions over a bowl of soup at lunch!


I should add here that there’s going to be nothing about the festival which enforces or makes you feel obliged to take part. If you want to sit quietly and watch some poetry, and then slink off to think about it on your own on the harbour walls, then that’s fine too – I’ve just had shivers go down my spine in memory of enforced group activities at Guide camp!


DP – Are there any international festivals you particularly admire, Lucy – and if so, what new ideas or approaches might you want to import? Are there certain festivals with whom you’d like to deepen ties or share events?


LB – Ooooo, great question. And one where I need to answer humbly, and respond that my knowledge of overseas poetry festivals, at this point in time, is actually fairly limited. The opportunity to find out more about them, and to actively participate in the network of European Poetry Festival organisers is one of the things I’m particularly excited about. I know that I have lots to learn!


DP – It’s clearly going to be a while before everything is fully in-person, but maybe the age of the simultaneous online event is here to stay – how do you feel about this? One senses the likes of the Edinburgh International Book Festival will incorporate this permanently into its programming – might StAnza go down the same route? If you do, are there any new opportunities for poetry there?


LB – Yes, for sure. I fully envisage StAnza 2022 as a hybrid event. I think it would probably be daft not to go down this route, especially following StAnza doing so well in a virtual format last year (we won the Saboteur Award for Best UK Literature Festival). But I think the challenge is going to be finding the right balance, and timing it right. I sense (perhaps I’m only speaking for myself) a bit of zoom fatigue at the mo; but we are also not yet in a place where confidence to attend live events has returned. Yet I’m certain that, in time, this will settle down, and it’s great to see the Edinburgh International Book Festival really taking the lead in this regard. We’ve already learnt a lot from watching how they’ve gone about it.


The opportunities of a hybrid festival are numerous. It will enable us to programme poets who we would never have been able to otherwise, and in a much more environmental way! StAnza doesn’t have enough budget to pay for international travel, so in the past we have taken advantage of poets already being in the UK / on tour, or those poets who have received the support of their embassy / national institute. Now when it comes to programming? I feel like a cookie monster with a big jar of…Oh dear, I’m back to the topic of cake again, aren’t I? In terms of opportunities for poetry, the online platform provides fabulous opportunities for different national poetry traditions to cross-pollinate. Even within an English-speaking context, the US has such a different tradition to the UK, before we even begin to explore traditions in other languages, and traditions within traditions. It’s a great chance to shake things up a bit – to be both challenged by other ways of going about things, while also perhaps forging traditions across boundaries. Personally speaking, as someone who has been influenced more by American writers than British ones, I’m really excited to see what happens now.


Of course, there are also benefits in terms of audience numbers and range. At StAnza 2021 we had attendees from the world over, and in 2022 we plan to offer a digital ticket which will continue to enable us to attract international audiences, while we hope to export our StAnza Stravaiging showreel overseas (perhaps to Canada and New Zealand in the first instance). Yet this isn’t just about getting more people through the virtual door, and selling more tickets. It’s also about enabling more people to engage in an international community of poetry and poets, including those who might not otherwise be able to attend for reasons of geography (including Scottish geography), financial means or disability.


DP – If I can ask a more personal question – of course you’re also a poet and photographer, with a strong interest in landscape; what do you see the job (and maybe the notoriously seductive light of the Fife coast) bringing to your own practice? Or are you as terrified that it might stop your own writing dead in its tracks as I’d be?


LB – Haha, hilarious! For sure, this is something I considered at some length when offered the job. And yes, I do think that this role will slow my writing output. But, having had four books published in the last 8 years with Carcanet, Guillemot and Knives Forks & Spoons presses, I’m comfortable with that. Don’t us poetry tutors always bang on about the importance of reading? I’m honestly fascinated to see how the additional poetry reading and listening that I’ll inevitably do as part of this role will change my own practice. I’ve got my own poetry preferences, as we all do. Yet I’m committed to the fullest range of poetry programming for StAnza, to encompass the entire (increasingly kaleidoscopic) range of the form. So I’ll inevitably have my prejudices challenged – and I say, bring it on!


Perhaps it’s also been a good thing that, thus far, I’ve had another project on the go to which I’m committed (I received significant public funding for it) called Scree. This project has ensured that, no matter how big the StAnza workload might be, I have had to maintain my own poetry and photography practice. This said, there have been times this year where there’s been so much going on in my head with two big parallel projects that I felt like bits of it were falling off! (fear not, I’ve since built scaffolding). My own next big writing project is actually likely to be prose, interestingly enough – a book about a fateful year I spent potato farming in Spain. Perhaps that’s healthy, in order to get my head out of the poetry zone. And photography / Fife light? Funnily enough, I spent an intense three days up in St Andrews the other week doing a recce of venues, plus lots of meetings. I optimistically packed my pro camera kit in my bag on day 1, imagining that I’d get a few moments to frame some images of the sea. Suffice to say, the camera (all 15kg of it) stayed in my campervan on days 2 and 3! But I’ve already pencilled in heading back up to St Andrews on some suitably atmospheric day to take photos for our new website-in-progress, and can’t wait to be seduced by it, as of course I continue to be by StAnza, over the coming years.