Renga City

Tuesday 18 May 2021, 13:51

A guest blog post by Bill Herbert, of the Dundee Renga -- who StAnza collaborated with in February to create a crowd-sourced renga.

1. Jo (How it all began)

i. The circumstances

The Dundee renga has been going for a year noo, and recently we teamed up with StAnza to extend the idea to a wider (world-wider!) constituency, so this seemed like an opportune moment to reflect on what exactly we have done. Beginning with what, exactly, is the Dundee renga? Well, what it has become is a group-generated collaborative poem based on the old Japanese form, generating twenty brief verses a month and involving around thirty writers from Dundee and thereaboots, posted online for aa tae see at the Gude & Godlie Ballatis website, here.

I like projects that appear to arrive on a whim from nowhere, which are content to use the materials immediately to hand - the punk equivalent of the old Hollywood musicals trope of ‘let’s do the show right here!’ I suspect my affection comes more from the way this feeling of randomness resembles the internal spark of inspiration, but occurs socially, as if already a collaboration. If such projects take off, it feels like this moment partakes of the idea of synchronicity, the apparently meaningful coincidence, after which, hopefully, we can all take pleasure in the way they go on to generate actual meaning.

That’s how most of my collaborative projects have kicked off, from random encounters with future co-editors or co-translators to the political poetry blog, New Boots and Pantisocracies, which arose from a few (terrible) puns exchanged online with Andy Ching, linking Ian Dury with Coleridge and leading to six years of postings so far.

Similarly, a couple of Dundee-based haiku written and posted online by the academic, local history librarian, and folklore guru, Erin Farley, led to us wondering if a geographically-fixed renga could be generated by building an email group and asking them to write a verse a day for twenty days every month. (Yes. It could.)

ii. Background

I first took part in a renga sometime in the late 90s/early 00s when Alec Finlay led a day-long session in the Baltic in Newcastle. I then led another session in 2003 at his invitation as the kyaku, or guest poet, who writes the hokku, or opening verse, when we all met in the (reconstruction of the) Centurion’s House in Arbeia, the Roman fort which sits just across the Tyne from me in South Shields. I remember Eck plugging a kettle into an anachronistic power point to make a pot of sencha, just as he had in the Baltic, but with a somewhat different feel. That renga formed part of a chain written along Hadrian’s Wall, published as Writing on the Wall. My opener was

That gull could be cloud,
Lowry, a legionary:
its wing refuses.


I also remember being delighted that we managed to fit in a line of Virgil from Book 9 of The Aeneid as copied out (wrongly) by an unknown Roman child* and found at the fort at Vindolanda: ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata per urbem’ -- the next lines make it clear that this is a tragic passage about a death in battle: ‘nuntia Fama ruit matrisque adlabitur auris/Euryali…’. (ll. 473–475, rendered in Dryden’s translation as: ‘Soon hasty fame thro' the sad city bears/The mournful message to the mother's ears.’) This was of course in the same year as the invasion of Iraq.

It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that the renga is capable of capturing complex layers of histories and cultures in just this way, the surrounding immediacies and keen observations of several individual minds, and turning them into a singular something, simultaneously capturing and enacting a quality I have come to focus on more and more over the twenty odd years since my first renga: ephemerality.

By that long Greek polysyllable, I’m gesturing at the universe of meanings the Japanese poets contained in terms like okashi (delight), aware (perception of transience), sabi (impersonal loneliness), or karumi (lightness) -- each of which would require a separate article to articulate. But I only mean that, in Larkin’s phrase, ‘Days are where we live’.

A newspaper is ephemeral -- in Greek it is, literally, εφημερίδα, ‘for a day’ - but as a way of approaching the day they represent, newspapers provide a unique combination of major and minor news, cultural summation and trivia, cartoons and games. Indeed, as Erin Farley has admirably discussed, for many years they contained poetry, often (and not only in Dundee) of a politically radical nature. We might read them from cover to cover, keeping clippings of everything that interests us, or we might not. Then the next day we might buy another one, or we might not.

Renga are a sort of newspaper of the soul, but not in the sense of the individual soul - rather, in their attention to both the inner and the outer, to phenomena and epiphenomena, and their grasp of the transformative impact of imagery or vocabulary, they capture the metaphysics of a social territory or milieu or, as here, a city. Whether they report on it or embody it is another question (see part 2).

Read parts two (Ha) and three (Kyū) of Bill Herbert's article will be published on Bill blog.

*But note a possible, less innocent reading here from Peter Kruschwitz.

Categories: News

Remembering Brian Johnstone

Saturday 8 May 2021, 21:25

Brian Johnstone, photo by Al Buntin

(c) Al Buntin

We have learned with much sadness of the death this week of Brian Johnstone. He was one of StAnza’s founders and a major figure in this organisation’s history, as well as being an acclaimed poet in his own right, recognised internationally through his readings overseas and translations of his poetry.

Brian was already well known in Scottish poetry circles for his own writing and as an events organiser when he helped deliver the first StAnza festival in St Andrews in 1998. As festival director from 2000 to 2010 he led StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, from its modest beginnings to recognition as a leading international festival and a major fixture on the Scottish cultural calendar. After he stepped down from this role in 2010 to concentrate on his own writing, he continued to support and encourage StAnza, serving as a Consultant from 2010 until 2013 and remaining a StAnza member until his death. In 2015, in recognition of his contribution to the organisation, he was appointed Honorary President. StAnza owes Brian a huge debt and he is remembered with fondness and gratitude by those at StAnza who worked with him from 1997 until 2020.

Anna Crowe was another of StAnza’s co-founders. She recalls what a pleasure and privilege it was for her to work alongside Brian and Gavin Bowd to plan a new Scottish poetry festival.

“From the very beginning Brian, who had a lot of experience in organising poetry readings, had ambitious hopes for what has become StAnza (the cunningly-spelled title was his idea, as was the logo). I was keen to make the festival international in scope, and Brian had the vision and energy to see how this could be achieved. He quickly saw that it would be crucial to the festival’s success to involve the new Byre Theatre built in 2001, and to make it our hub, and he used his gifts of persuasion to convince the theatre management of this new idea, namely that poetry would in fact bring big audiences. Following advice to make the festival independent of the University, we were able to attract our own funding, and Brian had a tremendous gift for persuading people to back StAnza. This was because he believed in it so strongly and funders recognised that commitment and were brought on board. Brian was a man of great generosity and human warmth, with a gift for making friends. With his artist wife, Jean, he welcomed many visiting poets to their house in the Fife countryside. He was a dedicated poet with a distinctive voice and passion for memorialising what others might overlook. His interest in music and art led him into fruitful collaboration. Brian will always be remembered as the man who made StAnza happen.”

Drew Clegg, one of StAnza's trustees, has known Brian from their student days and recalls Brian’s early experience organising events:

“When he was an undergraduate Brian was Entertainments Convenor at the university and in that role he brought Pink Floyd to St Andrews. Back then you might have seen the Floyd in London at the Roundhouse or in Paris or Berlin but St Andrews? Brian charmed them and they came and in that youthful moment we can see the quintessential Brian Johnstone. You aim high. You do the best you can do. You fetch the finest poets and artists in the contemporary world out of their usual metropolitan haunts and persuade them to come to Scotland, to the kingdom of Fife, to St Andrews. One among those ‘ finest poets ‘ is himself. He owns a reputation that will grow and grow that he might say with the wee stammering Roman poet Horace ‘Non omnis moriar’ – I’m not all dead. And poetry was but one of Brian’s superbly honed skills. He was a first rate photographer and the detail in his poems, little things caught in a rare light, things most of us would never even notice, is a consequence of the countless creative hours he spent behind the lens. He had been a primary school teacher and by a wonderful example of contingency two of the nurses who cared for him latterly had been in his class. They told how he had been an inspirational figure in their schooldays. All of us who were privileged to know him will not be surprised to hear that said of Brian. The man remains a marvel.

“After a long illness borne with grace he’s gone but has left us with such memories, such poems to read again and again, and of course StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, an enduring legacy for those of us still here and innumerable generations yet to come. Non omnis moriar indeed!"

Brian and Jean JohnstoneEleanor Livingstone worked with Brian as Artistic Director and from 2010 as his successor as Festival Director. Brian’s wide knowledge of poetry, his commitment to StAnza and his ambition for it were the inspiration for her own involvement. He devoted huge amounts of time and energy to the festival and this enthusiasm was catching. His love of music and visual art shaped the inclusion of cross-arts element at the festival which became one of its unique features. Eleanor found him an excellent mentor.

“I learned so much from Brian that was essential in my various roles. I was fortunate in inheriting the relationships he had established – with funders and partners, with venues and the many businesses whose cooperation underpinned the festival’s success – and the procedures and processes he had designed and initiated. It was instructive and rewarding to work with him; he approached the challenges and choices which we encountered with flexibility and insight. And it was also fun – Brian was always great company. By encouraging my involvement with StAnza, Brian gave me an opportunity which changed my life. I will always be grateful for his generous and unfailing support up to and including for this year’s festival, even as his health was failing.”

Robyn Marsack speaks on behalf of StAnza’s Board of Trustees.

“Brian continued to be a genial presence at the Festival after handing over to Eleanor, putting his experience and his vast knowledge of poets and poetry at StAnza's disposal. Free of his director's responsibilities, he was glad to focus on his own work – in prose, poetry and musical collaborations – and indeed launched a new collection in April, The Marks on the Map, when dozens of friends were gathered online to celebrate the occasion. He will be greatly missed, but his hospitable spirit and devotion to poetry will live on in StAnza.”

We offer our deepest sympathy to Jean and Brian’s family and many friends in their loss: 'Always the bough is breaking / heavy with fruit or snow.'


Categories: News

Poetry Map of Scotland: poem no. 393

Wednesday 31 March 2021, 19:19

On Gillies Hill

More than familiar ties
attract me to this crag.
Ancestral voices drag me back.
I face far more
than four encompassed points
from this high wooded cliff.


The chequered spaces of the farmed carse
stretch south, snaked through
by ribboned windings of the Forth;
and, to the north,
flows to the feet of far, known mountain peaks:
Ben Vorlich, Ben Venue, Ben Ledi.

Remnants of small volcanoes -
fire and brimstone -
heap the river plain, now here, now there,
with leafy, ancient evidence:
Craigforth, the Wallace Monument, King's Park.

Brown velvet moorland, sewn with sheep,
slopes up towards the west.
Dark eastern ramparts of the Ochil Hills
protect the downward glaciated line
of Castle Rock and town.


Memory looks down
whenever I come home to this known ledge.
It walks each time along the ridge,
stalks soft across the upland heathered fields,
marches away, beyond the silhouetted blue horizoned edge
of the child's vision;
watches, in the deep doved woods, the wee girl -
drowned in lipstick, high heels, Sunday hat -
listens to her tap-dance singing
on the big stage stone,
to an audience of trees;
lies, easeful, in the yellow grain below,
with the first sharp sweetnesses
of love,
all through a long, slow,
summer afternoon.


But there's a deeper tune.
Chords resound far, far beneath
self-generated echoes.

Sheathed in the earth, the woven fabric
is stretched paper-thin.
Within the second of an eyelid opening, closing,
the outward skin drops, layer by layer,
exposing more, and more.

High, ritual platforms, lashed among the pines,
flash on an atavistic, primal wing,
sway once upon the wind and disappear.

Time slips, uncertain, falls:
races, without hour, or day or year,
calls along channels present, future, past,
and fades in the soundless corridors of space.

In this place, life maps - charts of souls -
are, in the end, mere fragments
in the vast depository
of the old world's age;
its story, leafed and bound,
rolled up within the rib bones
of this stone hill vault,
page on unending page.

Irene Paterson Fletcher

View our full map of Scotland in Poems as it grows »

For instructions on how to submit your own poems, click here

All poems from our Poetry Map of Scotland  are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced otherwise without the poet's permission.

Categories: Poetry Map

Poetry Map of Scotland: poem no. 392

Tuesday 30 March 2021, 16:14

Five Bar Gate

Diane tried to make it from the countryside
Got to the Valley rather late
Everyone was up on the YMCA floor
Dancing to the five bar gate.

Jimmy got lost near the Novar Bar
Stood there drinking very late.
He wanted to dance but he hadn’t the key
To get into the five bar gate.

Sitting in the street near the city sewers
Talking ‘bout you with my mate
We knew you were away with another boy
Dancing to the five bar gate.

John Worling

Author’s Note: If I’d grown up in the Mississippi Delta I’d have grown up with 8 bar blues, but I grew up in Kirkcaldy.

View our full map of Scotland in Poems as it grows »

For instructions on how to submit your own poems, click here

All poems from our Poetry Map of Scotland  are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced otherwise without the poet's permission.

Categories: Poetry Map

Poetry Map of Scotland: poem no. 391

Monday 29 March 2021, 17:29

The Dweller and the Guest

There is no wildlife here, he says.
It is a barren landscape.
A word he has carried
from a distant classroom
along with crevasse,
moraine, erratic.

I turn to the mountains
with a stranger’s eyes,
beseeching a display.
But the cloud is moody, low and grey.
Our beloved Cairngorms
are not on form today.

Are the ptarmigan shy among the rocks?
Have the snow hare melded into moss?
The song of the ring ouzel,
conspicuous in silence.
No snow bunting, no dotterel,
no lime-spattered lichen.

My guest takes pity on me.
We have deer on our city lawns,
he confides. Rabbits, foxes,
badgers, voles. Then he goes
in search of carrot cake
and bacon rolls.

Alone now with the chairlift.
Dormant towers looming
from the mist. The snow plough,
fences, discarded wire. Somehow,
this abandoned playground
had made of me a liar.

But then the Shelter Stone leaned
a roar into the deep of A’an,
where shadows of Macdui rose
to take the soul and shape
of one grey man. And when
the Coires’ shoulders shook
alive, an angry avalanche
of rock came vaulting down.
I called back my guest. Too late.
He had already left for town.

Karen Hodgson Pryce

View our full map of Scotland in Poems as it grows »

For instructions on how to submit your own poems, click here

All poems from our Poetry Map of Scotland  are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced otherwise without the poet's permission.

Categories: Poetry Map

A Call for StAnza Trustees

Friday 26 March 2021, 11:50

StAnza, Scotland’s unique international poetry festival, is looking for new members to join the Board of Trustees. Having delivered a very successful online festival this year, StAnza is at an exciting time in its development, entering a changed and challenging arts environment under its new Festival Director, Lucy Burnett.

We are aiming for inclusivity, richness of experience and diversity to ensure a StAnza Board of Trustees that reflects the diversity of contemporary society. We would expect applicants to have an active interest in poetry, whether as writers or readers.

With the retirement of several Trustees, we are looking for particular skills to refresh the Board’s range:

  • experience of and interest in the digital environment, especially as a ‘digital native’
  • experience of developing equalities, diversity and inclusion action
  • experience of fundraising
  • dealing with environmental issues in an arts context.

And we are looking to fill two posts:

  • Vice-Chair – with a view to taking over as Chair in 2022
  • Shadow Treasurer – again with a view to taking on this post in 2022.

The Board meets 4/5 times a year, generally alternating between St Andrews and Edinburgh, although currently meeting by Zoom. It is chaired by Dr Robyn Marsack, who would welcome inquiries from those interested in joining the Board. Full information is available in the Trustees’ pack, available here.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Categories: News
Subscribe to StAnza Poetry Festival Blog