Tuesday 17 February 2015

StAnza Poetry Festival – from archipelagos to the Forth Plinth

Only a fortnight to StAnza.  I’m going, after being tempted for several years – by the programme, the location and the stories people bring back about having a thoroughly good time.  Soon after I committed myself to co-renting a cottage in St Andrews, festival director Eleanor Livingstone asked me to be blogger-in-residence.  So you can follow StAnza here, or at least one newcomer’s path through it.  
I’ve only ever been to poetry festivals in small places – Aldeburgh, Ledbury.  The StAnza programme’s map of St Andrews shows a cathedral and a castle; the venue list includes the town hall, a theatre, a church undercroft, a museum, the public library, the university library and two university quad(rangle)s.  So the festival becomes part of the fabric of the town.  It’s clearly very welcome there: when the theatre, the Byre, collapsed (financially) a couple of years ago just before StAnza, locals rallied round to offer alternative venues. 

All of StAnza takes place, I think, within sound of the sea – and some maybe within sight.

It’s hard to map a path through the five-day programme (4-8 March) without wanting to go in several directions at once.  One of the 2015 festival themes has been helpful.  An Archipelago of Poetry: that could be archipelago as collective noun for a poets’ gathering; the poetry collection as archipelago; festival venues dotted around the map; no man is an island; Britain and Ireland as the two giants among thousands…

Taking the theme literally and with a narrow definition of ‘island’, there will be an archipelago of island-born poets at StAnza, including several from Scottish islands.  From Jamaica (Kei Miller, Shara McCallum) to Shetland (Christine de Luca and Sheenagh Pugh) and the Faroes (Kim Simonsen); from New Zealand (Bill Manhire) to Sardinia (Anna Cristina Serra) to Lewis (Peter Mackay) and Skye (Ian Stephen).  That’s just some of them.

For anyone fascinated by islands: there’s a Poetry Café Breakfast on the Saturday where Simonsen, de Luca, Miller and Manhire “will discuss islands and writing over coffee and pastries”. 

Christine de Luca, currently Edinburgh Makar, writes in both English and Shetlandic which she describes as “a blend of Old Scots with much Norse influence”.  The language itself (to regular English ears) is slant and perhaps it’s this that allows her Shetlandic poems an immediacy and directness of approach.  Here’s the beginning of ‘Nae Aesy Mizzer’, from North End of Eden:

A polar projection changes foo we figure oot
wir world. Shetland isna banished tae a box
I da Moray Firt or left oot aa tagidder

– ta scale up da rest – but centre stage

‘mizzer’ = measure; ‘foo’ = how; ‘wir’ = our. 

This sent me straight back to another perspective on islands, English and maps – Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, one of the books I most enjoyed last year.  Perspectives, rather, in the dialogue between cartographer and rastaman. [Here’s a 15-minute gap while I looked through for a quote, wanting to stop on every page.]   This is part iv of that dialogue:

The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

The book won the Forward main prize last year.  Liz Berry whose Black Country won the first collection prize will also be at StAnza.  They are both exceptionally good readers.

The archipelago theme spills over from readings to music, film and art.  For example there’ll be an archipelago / installation of island poems “actual and virtual” at the Byre Theatre and around town, and a film about Shetlandic poet Robert Alan Jamieson.  Claire Trévien will perform her piece ‘The Shipwrecked House’ at the Byre.  Having read her collection of the same title, I’ll be intrigued to see what this is like.  Trévien is Anglo-Breton and the book is full of breached or subverted boundaries between land and sea.  From ‘The Shipwrecked House II’:

Now your voice falls like a coin to the ocean’s floor
and the house is dragged apart by the fractures
of your smiles – the thought of its absence echoes
unbelievably – our breath opens like a stiff drawer. 

Every British poetry festival needs an American glamour factor to draw us in and StAnza is lining up Alice Notley, Ilya Kaminsky and Carolyn Forché.  Each of these gets a main reading spot plus something else.  Forché and Kaminsky are meeting for an unmissable Past & Present discussion on Mark Strand and Paul Celan.  Notley has been writing in a wide variety of forms and styles both experimental and traditional since the 1960’s.  I first came across her in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets but am counting on StAnza to do that festival thing of helping readers find their way to unfamiliar work.  I’ve just got Grave of Light, her selected poems, out of the Poetry Library; leafing through, I found this.

        The chair you sit in an
illusion that a person can matter.
No person matters
unless humans choose a mattering style
so we choose it in various ways all over creation…

Alice Notley is being interviewed in the festival’s Round Table series, part of the point of which is that the audiences are very small so it’s sold out.  I’m hoping StAnza will podcast this.   

I’ve also got hold of Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa (published by Arc in the UK).  He lived in Odessa until his teens: different English again, then, and a reputation, easily confirmed on YouTube, as an amazing reader.  From ‘Praise’:

I was born in the city named after Odysseus
and I praise no nation –

to the rhythm of snow
an immigrant’s clumsy phrases fall into speech.

As for Carolyn Forché, she may be better known in the UK but she’s rarely seen – I was lucky enough to go to her Poetry Society lecture last year when she thrilled the already excited hall by reading us ‘The Colonel’. 

I haven’t even mentioned Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Durcan, Anne Stevenson, Kathryn Maris, Glyn Maxwell, Simon Armitage, Helen Mort, Ian Duhig, Heather Phillipson, Mark Waldron, Allison McVety and many others.

And anyone for The Forth Plinth?  5-minute slots can be booked…

Around half the festival events are free.  Yes, around half.  There’s a list of them here on the StAnza blog.  Prices are anyway very reasonable – many more things cost less than £5. 

Information is accessible too.  The online programme, here, is searchable, useful when it contains so much.  The StAnza website has extra details of events and performers.  It also has travel and accommodation pages.  A Dundee University website is posting reviews of some festival poets’ books. 

There’s still time to book – tickets are selling well but still available for most events, and of course the free events can just be walked into…

See you in Scotland.


  1. Looking forward to reading about it! I love Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky and the fact that I will not be there to hear them discuss Paul Celan is making me a bit gloomy.

    1. Thanks Clarissa. Yes, that should be a really good event. Maybe StAnza will podcast it, if there's enough demand.. it's the sort of thing that people attending might want to hear again, too.

  2. Dear Fiona

    I admire your dedication to the cause! I remember the StAnza festival of 2005 when Neil Astley sent some fur flying by not pulling his punches about his rival editors. This year's festival falls on my birthday but I won't be attending - particularly after Wales beat Scotland at rugby recently!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Glyn Maxwell takes what I think is the Neil Astley slot this year. So he has history to live up to.

  3. Dear Fiona

    With Aldeburgh, Ledbury and StAnza coming around as regularly as Christmas, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Poetry is in a state of perfect health. But some cursory digging will soon reveal that sales of contemporary British poetry are falling like lead. It would be very interesting to know how many recent British poetry volumes have ended up in land-fill or road-fill. (Sorry to strike a slightly sceptical note!)

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. Thanks Simon. I'd argue that book sales are just one part of the current scene (and they aren't all bad). Poetry is getting appreciated and distributed in a wider variety of ways now. Such as at thriving poetry festivals - which are a good place to sell books too!

  4. Dear Fiona

    I hope that you have a great time in St Andrews. Nobody deserves a break more than you do.

    Best wishes from Simon

    1. I'm not at all sure about that, Simon, but thanks anyway!