When we, at the Edinburgh Literary Salon, took tentative steps into staging our monthly meetings (usually held in an upstairs room in a central Edinburgh bar) online, we didn’t realise what a task it would be. Choosing the best ‘virtual’ platform, attracting an audience, and being au fait enough with technology to cope with glitches: this was the very definition of ‘learning curve.’
StAnza was the last arts festival we attended in 2020 before the world locked down. It gave them a year to prepare for the possibility of holding online events in 2021. Audiences have got the hang of ‘zooming’ and given what we’ve all been though, people make allowances if things are silky-smooth.
Yet it must be said that StAnza has been ahead of this curve for some time, providing online content, finding ways of reaching out across the globe, and with ever-creative presentations. There’s something about poetry that allows, or even encourages innovation. There’s also something about the ethos of StAnza that embraces equality, diversity and inclusion. This year’s festival was destined to be different, but no less exciting and embracing than usual.
Our first delve into the programme was the YouTube channel where there was more than just a tease for the week to come. Besides the early rounds of the Poetry Slam, there were several amusing videos of StAnza volunteers pointing out that we’re spared the trek to St Andrews, dodging the rain while darting between events, and awkward conversations in the queues for the loos. All the same, that sense of excitement (and slightly silly humour) was there; a bitter-sweet reminder that we would miss the special ‘atmosphere’ the place brings to StAnza.
But as Jackie Kay once said, StAnza is a place called poetry. Poetry, in all its richness and variety, was on display in the Festival Launch Extravaganza. This was more-than just a taster of what was to come – it was a feast. We saw Courtney Conrad, Guest Poet at our January Salon (courtesy of StAnza) and another friend of the Literary Salon, Russell Jones – both had events we would want to drop into.
We were reminded of online exhibitions, plus illustrated poetry, music, and how translation and international elements are key to StAnza. Parallels, contrasts, and connections exist, and even though we’re in lockdown (“Bugger,” said Jane Longhurst from the 40th Parallel in Tasmania!) we are nonetheless a ‘virtual poetry community.’ Most important is that much is still available online to enjoy for the rest of March – we will certainly be re-visiting the virtual riches of 2021.
Another advantage of StAnza online is the option to dip into events during the working day, at breakfast, morning break, lunch-hour, or tea. On Monday lunchtime Marina Kazakova gave a fascinating talk on ‘symphonic poetry’, exploring the link between music, poetry, and film. At Meet the Artists on Wednesday we were treated to a diversity of tongues from our own isles, connecting the languages of Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Although internet connectivity provided challenges for some participants, this zoom-conversation led by Peter Mackay/Padraig MacAoidh fell together very well.
Poetry Centre Stage events often showcase contrasting poets and styles. On Wednesday, Polish poet Adam Zagajewski gave a no-frills reading that put his poetry in the spotlight. Conversely, Edinburgh’s Russell Jones pulled out all the stops, divulging poetry’s relation and place in sci-fi, and through comics, and illustration – all making this a varied and vibrant presentation. As Russell said, crossing genres seemed to fit with this year’s theme of crossing borders, finding new ways of reaching audiences.
Sticking with Edinburgh poets, while being transported to the Fife Coastal Path (and sometimes, beyond), the Thursday lunchtime Poetry Walk was led by Helen Boden. While locked down ‘beyond Edinburgh’ in her Pentlands home, Helen put together a selection of words and pictures that certainly whetted the walkers appetite for post-restriction days.
Earlier that morning, the Past & Present event was given by poets well-known to Edinburgh. Rob A Mackenzie’s deadpan performance of his own poetry hides an often wicked humour, and his presentation of the work of Miroslav Holub contained these elements, as well as a fascinating insight into a poet who deftly combined science, language, and darkly comic twists.
Helena Nelson’s contrasting delivery nevertheless demonstrated the importance of ‘light’ humour in poetry, shown through the (sometimes overlooked) verse of Ruth Pitter. With a glint in her eye, Helena kept us waiting right til the end before reciting Pitter’s cheeky poem, 'The Rude Potato'. One to re-watch before the end of March.
Friday Night ended our week at StAnza with Risk a Verse, the open-mic which not only ran very smoothly, ably hosted by Samuel Tongue, but featured some of our own December 2020 open-mic participants. While Zoom doesn’t quite hold the atmosphere of such an event (silent applause takes some getting used to) it was a lovely way to spend an evening tucked up on the sofa with a glass of wine, with still a whole weekend of events left to enjoy.
We’d like to thank Eleanor and Annie for their support of the Edinburgh Literary Salon. Our next meeting, on the 30th of March, features poetry, and storytelling, and as always is free to attend.