Monday 9 March 2015

StAnza: Island poets

Sometimes the readings almost not gone to are all the more rewarding for that.  This applied to the event with Ian Stephen (Isle of Lewis) and Anna Cristina Serra (Sardinia).  Two very different island voices, soft Hebridean Scottish and Sardinian, which sounds like a buzzy Spanish/Italian mix but is apparently not understood by either.  They read in St John’s Undercroft, which is shaped like the upturned hull of a stone boat.  From Stephen’s Shiant Isles to Serra’s north wind like a headscarfed woman waving a handkerchief. 

Stephen’s books appear rarely and are hard to find – he didn’t have any on sale.  If he were an English poet, that might be problematic.  But being Scottish he’s in the Scottish Poetry Library’s wonderful archive: see here for a handful of his poems.  The SPL is currently doing an appeal for necessary expansion and community work.  You can text LEAF70 £5 to 70070 or donate online at 

Back to Saturday and the breakfast discussion panel of four island-born poets: Christine de Luca (Shetland), Kei Miller (Jamaica), Bill Manhire (New Zealand) and Kim Simonsen (Faroes).  [Would it be possible to stage a poetry event with one poet living in or close to name in the shipping forecast?] 

Festival director Eleanor Livingstone chaired the event.  She told us she’d dropped her mobile phone into her bedside glass of water the previous night.  Perhaps her subconscious was saying: It doesn’t matter any more, we’re halfway through and it’s going really well….

I’m going to do this in notes, so you can skim through and pause on anything that catches you. 

- These poets had all left their islands for some kind of larger mainland, apart from Manhire.  Some poets move the other way: Sheenagh Pugh and Jen Hadfield to Shetland, for example. 

- Growing up on an island must be like an extended goodbye because you know you’re likely to leave? (Eleanor Livingstone).  Writing is a huge compensation for the grief of having left (Christine de Luca).  Also for the guilt: writing in the Shetlandic dialect and working in schools.  She keeps Shetland close, the mixed view of sea and land she used to have is still in her mind and poems.

- Jamaica has 100 islands, and Kei Miller has only just found that out.   How islanders imagine sea: it both connects and separates them from the next piece of land.  Caribbeanness was a London invention of the 1950s, when migrants from different islands finally spoke and formed a wider identity.  The Caribbean used to be somewhere people went to or got taken to: Europeans, Africans.  Now it’s somewhere people leave.  Kingston is London, inadequately imagined; the landscape resists.  Brixton is Kingston inadequately imagined… 

- Invercargill, Bill Manhire’s birthplace at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island: “the last lamp-post in the world”.  Every street is named after a Scottish river – imagine Scottish 19th century immigrants walking along the Tay and into the Tweed, unable to go back to whichever river they knew because it was too far. 

- In the Faroes, everyone has a sea view.  As an ex-islander, Simonsen encounters geographical and cultural prejudice: people tend to assume he should be hanging off a cliff hunting seabirds rather than being a Copenhagen-based academic specialising in 19th century cultural nationalism.  He went back to the Faroes recently after 20 years: a weird experience.   

- The image projected upon Faroese and any islanders affects how they see themselves.  Rustic island Utopias go back to Odysseus.  The North used to be a place of monsters and danger but from around 1800 travellers began to visit.  This affected the locals: how to paint the landscape, for example?  The way German romantics did it, of course.  Literature and art were used to elevate the Faroes but Simonsen’s generation isn’t interested – it feels like mind control.  Memory becomes political.  

- A different way of looking at islands is that they have created their own centre of culture and development – rather than being the periphery to cities’ cultural hubs. 

- “Only the sea can greet and sing at the same time”.  (From a Christina de Luca poem; ‘greet’ means to cry.)

- Caribbean poets all live under Walcott’s shadow. Of course his poems are full of sea and it’s everywhere in the view from his house in Trinidad.  Miller isn’t a sea writer, for him it’s the mountains of Jamaica’s interior.  There are more urgent things to write about in Jamaica, other metaphors than the sea.  Haitian saying: “Beyond the mountains are more mountains”.  

- Islands under threat: when a king wave hits Tuvalu, it now washes across the whole island, rather than going up the beach and back down.

- “I live at the edge of the universe like everyone else” (Manhire). 

- Various New Zealand literary magazines have had land or sea in their title.  But one of the best known now is called Sport.  Result: a lot of disappointed people.   

I’ll post once more about StAnza after I’ve got home.


  1. Dear Fiona

    Safe journey home. My wife broke her smartphone the other day. For her birthday (next week) I have bought her a brand new one. Unfortunately this rules out any contributions to poetry's good causes for the time being. I have long been fascinated by islands but don't think that I would like to live on one. Too many people would know exactly what you were up to. It's bad enough living in a Welsh village!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. [Would it be possible to stage a poetry event with one poet living in or close to name in the shipping forecast?] "

    Faeroes is in the shipping forecast...

    1. Yes Sheenagh, that is what made me think of it! Having Shetland (which isn't in the names but is present, so to speak) and Faroes in the same short list of poets. Finding a poet from Bailey might be a challenge, but why not?

    2. ...and perhaps you'd like to host it?

    3. Well, Ian Stephen told me he'd actually landed on Rockall - almost beyond doubt the only poet to have done that!

    4. Perfect! Thank you Brian. This idea is beginning to get its sea legs.

  3. On the other hand the participants could always toast each other with Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur. . . .And Sheenagh would be a wonderful host.

    1. Neat, and a possible sponsor too! I have an occasional weakness for Bailey's especially as an ice cream sauce.

      There's an anthology in here somewhere.

  4. Sheenagh would be a terrible host, because she can't organise anything. But it would be very interesting to see if one could find a poet from Utsire.

    1. Host and organiser don't have to be the same person of course. Norwegian poets needed for Utsire, Danish for Fisher, etc. As for Viking and suchlike: maybe poet of rather than poet from - people who fish or otherwise voyage there.