Poetry on the menu: enjoy fine food and verses at StAnza

Thursday 10 March 2011, 17:45

Festival going has many attendant pleasures; meeting new people and enjoying the bustling atmosphere is as much fun as experiencing the events. StAnza has become famous for the buzz it creates around its hub venue, the Byre Theatre, with its Bistro and bars and elsewhere in St Andrews, as our Photo Gallery for 2010 shows. Festivalgoers often find themselves talking to the poets they’ve just heard, in the bar afterwards, and people will mingle and chat over coffee and drinks between events.

Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, was keen to develop this convivial element of StAnza. ‘Food and drink have always been integral to the festival, from the hospitality offered to performers to informal drinks and meals at our venues,' she says. 'We wanted to make attending the festival a wholly rounded experience for our visitors.’ The result is a wider range of foodie treats with a distinctly Scottish flavour, from pies, preserves and cheeses, to fruit wines and chocolates.

This year you can happily eat and drink your way round StAnza, thanks to its series of Poetry Café events: tuck in to free coffee and pastries at the breakfast discussions, enjoy a pie and a drink (and more) with the lunchtime poetry performances or try the snacks at the evening events. In St Andrews, there’s a poetry tasting session at ice cream parlour Jannetta’s and Scottish nibbles will be served at the open mic in Zest Café and Juicing Bar. For ideas on how to fit in the food around the verses, take a look at our itineraries. You can also get involved in our shop window competition, which has a restaurant meal for two as the prize.

Poets of course have always had plenty to say on the subject of food and drink. Robert Burns, as we know, praised haggis and neeps and ‘halesome parritch’ too. The poet Hafez who is subject of one of our art exhibitions had a thing or two to say about wine (he did come from Shiraz after all). And today’s poets are just as keen. Just listen to StAnza poet Kevin Young’s memories of family cooking in the American South!

Do you have a favourite poem celebrating food and drink? Or know a few appetising lines? Let us know!

Categories: News

Poetry and genealogy, or how I learned to stop worrying and celebrate my grannie

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 15:27

Guest blogger Claire Askew explains how the women in her family have chronicled their own histories and inspired her poetry - especially her storytelling grandmother.

One of the themes of this year’s StAnza is Timepiece, or “the dynamic between verse and the recorded and unrecorded past.”  It seems fitting, then, that this year will see my StAnza performance debut (in previous years I’ve been too shy even to step up to the Open Mic), as I am somewhat obsessed with exploring the past, and mostly the unrecorded past, in the poems I write.

I come from a large, eccentric, mongrel family, which is predominantly northern English/southern Scottish.  On my mother’s side, I’m directly related to the infamous border Armstrongs; on my father’s side there’s a whole mix of old Lakeland tribes, with a few wild cards (including a mysterious Romany gypsy) thrown in for good measure.

My family is dominated by its women.  There are an awful lot of us – my mother has three sisters, I am one of two girls and have countless female cousins – and that’s just the past two generations.  However, the women in my family also tend to be storytellers: carriers for gossip, anecdote, morality and myth.  We’re all obsessed with genealogy and love nothing better than sitting around, telling and re-telling old stories we’ve all heard a thousand times before.  And apparently, we’ve been like this for decades.

It seems women of my family are throwbacks to a bygone era of predominantly oral culture, when fireside storytelling – almost always a female activity – was the primary means of keeping the memory of relatives alive.  Take my maternal grandmother, for example – a hard-nosed, determined Northern woman who smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and always told you exactly what she thought of you.  She was one hell of a handful, and no one in the family had a relationship with her that wasn’t painfully complicated.  However, she knew how to spin a good story, and after she died a few years ago, she immediately started becoming one – woven inextricably into the latest chapter of family mythology.  She appears again and again in my work.  Sometimes she’s quite obviously at the forefront of things – it’s her talking, taking control as she so often did.  Sometimes I’m talking to her, or about her – sometimes the jokes are at her expense.  Sometimes she’s just there on the periphery, chucking in one of her infamous sayings to colour a stanza or two: “you’ve been brought up in a bottle and seen nowt but cork!” For me, family history isn’t just inescapable – it’s a goldmine of great material I’d be nuts to ignore.

Claire Askew will be reading at StAnza’s New Poets’ Showcase at 12.45pm, The Town Hall, St Andrews on Friday 18 March. There’s more about Claire and her grandmother here.

(Photo by Alastair Cook)

Categories: News

Inside the verse: Kevin Williamson gets closer to Robert Burns

Tuesday 8 March 2011, 17:11

The second of our guest bloggers, poet Kevin Williamson, talks about how he got up close and personal with Robert Burns – through committing his verses to memory.

2011 is the International Year of Forests, the International Year of Chemistry, and the International Year of the Bat.  As someone who loves forests, takes an occasional interest in chemistry, and has nothing per se against bats, I wish them all well.

But I guess we’re meant to celebrate these things. 2009, for instance, was the International Year of Astronomy.  To “celebrate” I watched every episode of ‘The Sky at Night’.  Just as I did in 2008.  And most other years.  And why not.  Patrick Moore is a national treasure and his show steadfastly and gloriously refuses to dumb down.

2009, of course, was also the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth.  Like most Scots I love the poetry and songs of Burns so any excuse for a celebration of his life and work is fine with me.  But for that special year, for reasons that wouldn’t make sense if I tried to explain them here, I chose to engage with Burns on a more personal level.

Yes, I trotted along to some of the official events.  Yes, I read the excellent new biographies of The Bard by Robert Crawford and Patrick Scott Hogg.  And yes, but with a more furrowed brow, I ploughed through ‘Fickle Man’ - the thought-provoking collection of essays on Burns edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers.  But I wanted to get under the skin of the man in a way that was more personal than biography or critique permits.

So I chose to commit some of Burns’s poetry to memory.  One poem a fortnight to begin with.  This wasn’t easy.  I can barely remember, word for word, the vast majority of my own poetry. For numbers and dates and pointless trivia I’m a bit like Rain Man. But many years ago I was diagnosed with something supposedly on the same spectrum as dyslexia but related to processing sequences. (As friends and family will confirm don’t ask me for directions. Turn three corners and I’m lost.)

I’m aware of memory techniques that involve visualisation but applied to Burns’s poetry it seems sacrilege, akin to swinging a scythe through the wonderfully precise rhythms of the verse.  So I read through the poems slowly, committing them to my subconscious, word by word, couplet by couplet, verse by verse.  I would recite each poem aloud, dozens, a hundred times or more for the longer ones.  It was a most enjoyable experience. I’d recommend it.

Another enjoyable part of this process was working with the spaces between the syllables, experimenting with inflexion and tone.  The more I worked with each poem the more it revealed of itself, and of the author.  As I recited the words to deserted beaches, shower curtains and empty forests I kept thinking: “How would Burns have performed these pieces in public?”

I consider myself an old fashioned Scottish radical, a republican, and of the left, and the appeal of some of these poems is their radical and even subversive nature. Despite the risks such a venture would involve - in the political turbulence of the late 1780s and early 1790s - many of these poems were clearly written for performance.

I toyed mischievously with another thought: “If he was alive today, and immersed in 21st century poetry and radical politics, as I like to think he would have been, how would Robert Burns have performed his verse, if, say, he had been invited to an event like StAnza?”

I’ll try and answer some of these questions, as best as I can, when I present   ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ at StAnza on Sunday 20th March.

Categories: News

Poetry in the eye of the beholder: StAnza's visual art shows

Monday 7 March 2011, 16:27

StAnza boasts 12 exhibitions and installations by poets and artists, all of which explore the fruitful relationship between poetry and visual art. They are complemented by a series of poetry films, digital projections and photography, showcasing the talents of a new wave of poet/filmmakers. Here is a taster:

Steve Ronnie’s The Secret Love of Objects creates the hidden voices within old technology and one of his exhibits is on the cover of the StAnza brochure. Based near Newcastle, he is working on his first poetry collection and will be reading at StAnza as part of the New Writing North Showcase. Catriona Taylor’s  A Thousand Sails is a response to the landscapes of Sorley MacLean’s poetry. The artist trained at the Edinburgh College of Art after working for some years in the theatre.

Iranian born painter and printmaker, Jila Peacock’s Ten Poems of Hafez is a series of calligraphic shape poems, using words from the poetry of Hafez. Click here to view an extract of her film The Tongue of the Hidden (also showing at StAnza), also inspired by Hafez’s metaphysical verses.

StAnza has been showing selections of short poetry films for some years and the artform is growing more significant: this year’s crop includes work by Ronnie, Taylor, Alastair Cook, Martin Belk and Kenny Munro

Poetry takes on three dimensional forms too: the Poetry Society’s centenary knitted poem will be on display at the Town Hall, all 13 by 9 metres of it, and the project has inspired a smaller St Andrews version, a knitted haiku created by the town’s keen knitters that is also on display. Visitors are invited to pick up needles and wool and add a square. And the story behind Tagore’s Poetry Boat, painted by art students in Bengal, will be revealed by Kenny Munro at the St Andrews Public Library on Saturday 18th March.

The exhibitions are all free and to be found at the Byre Theatre, the Town Hall and the gem that is the Trust Museum in St Andrews. The artist Jean Johnstone, who organised the shows for StAnza, is leading a guided tour of them all on Saturday 18th at 3.30pm. A perfect way to appreciate a visual treat.

The Tagore Poetry Boat from Bengal

Categories: News

Timepiece: how some of StAnza’s poets are inspired by history

Friday 4 March 2011, 21:21

Natasha Tretheway (image © Matt Valentine)

StAnza’s theme, Timepiece, offers poets the chance to think about relationships to the past. As Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone puts it, ‘the history of nations and communities, as well as with individual histories and significant moments in poetry’s timeline.’

Significant moments are, in many ways, what poems are about and these moments can be personal and intimate, or of national and international importance. The line-up at StAnza reflects these preoccupations in subtle ways, combining  the Scottish perspective with an international outlook. Thus Scottish poet Tom Pow’s Dying Villages project explores the decline of communities of central and Eastern Europe and Rab Wilson’s new documentary film Finding the Seam returns us closer to home with the story of Fife coal-mining.

Also engaging with historical events are two poets from the USA. Natasha  Trethewey’s work explores her own personal history and the wider implications of living in the American South as in her poems ‘Myth’ ‘Providence’ and ‘Miscegenation’ which she reads here

Kevin Young who, like Trethewey, teaches at Emory University, Georgia  is inspired by African American music and the history of Black America, filtered through richly evoked family reminiscences, as in the poems, ‘Aunties’ and ‘Flash Flood Blues’ which he reads here

Returning to Europe, Dresden-born Durs

Grünbein was a witness to the changes brought about by German unification and the demise of the GDR – a place, he has said, where ‘the best refuge was a closed mouth’ – has informed his work. One of Germany’s most important poets, his poetry has recently been translated into English by Michael Hofmann in Ashes for Breakfast (2006), excerpts from which they both read here

Political, personal, comical, tragic or satirical, dwelling on significant moments or charting the flow of events, these are just some of  poets who will bring rich and rewarding experiences to audiences at StAnza from 16th March. Explore the programme and participants at

Categories: News

Out of the Poets' Ark: Matt Merritt on creativity and nature

Thursday 3 March 2011, 16:52

The first of our guest bloggers, poet Matt Merritt, takes StAnza's theme, The Poets' Ark, as the starting point of his discussion of poetry, nature and ecology.

A couple of years ago, a collection of poets, authors, visual artists, photographers and academics – led by writers Mark Cocker and Paul Jepson – huddled into an Oxford lecture theatre, for the first 'Birds, Nature and Creativity Symposium'.

The aim was to explore ways of building links – or maybe that’s rebuilding old links - between scientists, policy-makers, charities, NGOs and volunteers working at the dirty end of conservation, and artists inspired by the natural world, and the many threats it faces.

Not that it was advocating dryly didactic work, or trying to formulate some ‘party line’, but rather trying to understand how the great passion and concern for ecological issues among many artists (open any British poetry mag, and a significant proportion of the work will be in some way inspired by nature) might be harnessed to good effect, for small, grassroots projects as much as any one great cause.

A second, larger Symposium was held at the end of 2010, and the plan is to organise spin-off events round the country, on a regular basis.

I get the feeling that it’s an idea that’s found its time, in the poetry world, at least. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen Shearsman’s fine The Ground Aslant, an anthology of radical landscape poetry which aims to move beyond ‘literary tourism’, and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands, a distinctly poetic look at what they call our ‘true wilderness’.

Now, thanks to one of its chosen themes – The Poets’ Ark – StAnza 2011 is asking many of the same questions that the Symposium considered. Are poets in a unique position to both capture and analyse our complex relationship with nature? Can they communicate the many issues at stake at times when the message isn’t getting through from elsewhere?

If you’re a poet, or an artist of any sort, involved in StAnza 2011, or if any of the events you attend inspire you to consider ecological issues, or those questions, in a fresh light, I hope you’ll consider getting further involved.

There are more details at, or you can contact me through my blog, and I’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, enjoy the poetic menagerie about to be let loose around St Andrews.

Matt Merritt (

Matt will be reading at the Town Hall Supper Room on Thursday 17th March at 11.30am. Tickets available from the Byre Theatre Box Office 01334 475000

Categories: News
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