Earlier this month St. Andrews held its 20th StAnza poetry festival. This year there was a particular focus on contemporary French poetry and on the poetry of heights, of walking and climbing mountains. The festival crowd was distinctly Scottish and European, or should I say Scottish, thus European?
Within 30 minutes of the opening reception on the Wednesday evening I had met poets from Germany, Poland and Sweden. I later got chatting to an Icelandic poet, Gudrun Hannesdottir, and a Macedonian poet called Mane, both first-timers at StAnza. It was a great opportunity to catch up with poets I had met on Arvons, the Sheffield Writing School, and from my former workshop group in London, especially Anne Ballard from Highgate Poets who recently swapped London for Edinburgh. I enjoyed talking with Tony Ward from the wonderful Arc publications about all his years of visiting poetry festivals across Europe, and also meeting Andrew Sclater, who has also recently published a pamphlet with Fife-based publisher HappenStance.
My reading was early on in the festival on Thursday afternoon. I read almost the entirety of ‘The Days that Followed Paris’ to a good-sized crowd in the Town Council Supper room. I was then followed by Maram Al-Masri, a Syrian poet who now lives in Paris. Our reading was one of many during the festival series ‘Border Crossings’ and described as ‘Poets reading work influenced by places they have left behind’.
Maram read beautifully in Arabic and Claudia Daventry read her poems translated to English. The reading was scheduled in parallel with a session with Alice Oswald talking about Homer and Neil McLennan on Wilfred Owen. As such, I was not expecting a huge crowd, but even so the room was almost full and it was great to have the support of poets Helena Nelson of HappenStance and D. A. Prince. I sold all the pamphlets that Nell had brought along and had some lovely conversations with audience members about the poems.
The highlights that day were hearing Catalan poet Joan Margarit read alongside A.B. Jackson, and then in the evening Robert Crawford and Alice Oswald. At almost 80, Joan Margarit is a retired architect and professor. Yet he managed to give a very physical reading of his poems, the Catalan language full of emotion, passion, frustration, with poems varying from the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War to the modern-day insult of young people wearing ripped jeans. His translator, Anna Crowe, who has worked on three of his books, and also translated other Catalan poets, read the English versions with a quieter, but complementary voice. His new book by Bloodaxe (2016) called ‘Love is a Place’ has perhaps the most beautiful cover of any book of poems, an image you want to step right into.
I had never heard Alice Oswald read before (many thanks to Claudia for giving me her ticket when she couldn’t make it) and was by no means disappointed. Her reading, or recital, rather, was mesmeric, particularly the amazing epic poem ‘Dunt‘. It was really insightful to hear Oswald’s introduction to the poem, about the time when she and her family decamped to her husband’s parents’ place in Gloucestershire and how she initially struggled in a place so far from the Dart, a place where the river was not full and ever present, but seemingly pathetic. How her visit to the local museum and the sight of a small porcelain figurine gave her a way in to the poem, how it made her understand the change of landscape, possibly even, the loss of a river.
Jacques Darras, a Picard poet from northern France gave a wonderful, and like Margarit – very physical performance of his poems, which involved a huge amount of sound play and journeying through words with real momentum. His final poem, which Claudia Daventry is now seeking to translate into English, was a real tour de force, and he was almost dancing as he performed it. Alas, as far as I’m aware, his poems have not been translated into English. In the second half of the reading Kathleen Jamie gave a relaxed, good-humoured reading full of humanity with fine poems drawing largely on the landscapes and wildlife of her Scottish upbringing.
Mr. Colombet, the Sommelier of Poetry, was also a fine addition to the festival, a French waiter circulating among the tables offering to read poems in French. Guests were invited to pick a poem from his menu and sit back and enjoy his fine French vowels. He read us many poems but I particularly enjoyed Boris Vian‘s ‘I don’t want to die’ (Je voudrais pas crever).
It was fantastic to catch up with Patience Agbabi on the Friday night. She was my mentor when I was on the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme back in 2013/14 and I hadn’t see her since. She gave a mesmeric performance of poems from Telling Tales, taking on the persona of many of the characters she created in her 21st century homage to Chaucer. Like Alice Oswald, how she manages to memorise and recite the poems, of which many monologues, is incredible. She read after Jim Carruth, former poet laureate of Glasgow, who read an excellent rhyming poem – almost a slam – on the subject of fermenting grass!
In the afternoon, I went behind the scenes of the theatre to do a short interview with Suzannah Evans about my poetry, and to record a few poems she had picked out which play particularly with sound. The may be an interview forthcoming in New Welsh Review.
I really enjoyed hearing Sarah Howe and Jackie Kay read together. Sarah was introduced by Annie Rutherford who mentioned that the hashtag #Derangedpoetess had originated at StAnza a year or two ago in protest at the remarks made in Private Eye around Sarah winning the T. S. Eliot prize. Sarah went on to give a very poised and controlled reading that brought the poems from her award-winning book, Loop of Jade, to life, which riffs on Borges as a vehicle to structure a central section. I had met Sarah in London but not heard her read from the book, nor had I considered the extent of the gender politics and politics of China at play, and so it made me reconsider the poems, which I shall go back to on the page. Great also to hear her brilliant pickerel poem since I know the Cambridge pub well.
Jackie Kay had the audience listening out of the palm of her hand. She announced to us that her elderly parents were in the audience and this gave the reading a special touch, knowing that they had travelled to StAnza to see Jackie read as the recently appointed Scottish Makar. Jackie gave us some hilarious anecdotes about her trips around Scotland to read her poems and the way in which people had been engaging with her. She recalled the moment in the car when Nicola Sturgeon rang to ask her if she would take up the position, again with much humour and also humility. And a wonderful tale of seeing one of her poems up in the local shop and laminated, and her parents saying ‘So Carol Ann gets to be Poet Laureate and you get to be Poet Laminate!’. She read a great selection of poems, including the new piece she read at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and a poem written originally as a satire on Farage, which, she acknowledged, with all that has happened since in the wake of Trump and Brexit, didn’t seem that funny anymore.
The festival ended for me with a wonderful, impromptu drink with poets at a local pub, and a chance to catch up with Kim Moore, Jill Abram (who is running the exciting new Stablemates reading series at Waterstones Piccadilly) and Jo Bell, who I had not seen in several years. I had no clue that she was now famous on TV with the Nationwide adverts and we actually walked by one on South Street and felt compelled to take a photo.
I left early for a full day’s train travel home, having not seen lots of poets I wanted to see: Thomas A. Clark (read his wonderful ‘Yellow and Blue’ recently), Vahni Capildeo (not yet heard her read) and Vicki Feaver (at least I sat next to Vicki in one of the main readings and had a chat). I also didn’t get to Roderick Manson’s afternoon workshop in the end (I hope it went well despite the rain). By the end, I was exhausted, over-stimuated, well-and-truly poetried out and would ideally have had a fortnight to recover, to read, to write, to correspond with the new people I met, to process all that I’d heard.
I am extremely grateful to the festival director Eleanor Livingstone, and the Festival programmer, Annie Rutherford, for giving me the chance to read and also for taking such good care of the practicalities: taxis, accommodation and catering – so very generous to be given lunch and dinner vouchers for a couple of days I was there. It was only my second StAnza but what I really liked this year, as opposed to last – perhaps to do with changes in the theatre restaurant – was that the Byre really felt like a hub, a focal point where I could dine with friends. So I was there most of the time when not at a reading. I shall almost definitely go to the festival next year.
You can read the official StAnza blog here.