Tuesday, 10 March 2015

In praise of StAnza; Carolyn Forché in praise of the festival. Cleaning 100 baths. Eider ducks

Sunday, the last day: sunshine on bare branches and gulls’ wings, dark blue sea.  Blossom coming out in the Byre’s outer yard.  The sound of suitcases being wheeled over the bumpy thresholds of events.   

One nice thing about the end of festivals is that everyone can thank the people who made them happen…  Massive applause in the theatre after the final reading with Bill Manhire and Sinéad Morrissey (which deserves a word like ‘intimate’ but less clichéd); and flowers for director Eleanor Livingstone. Correction: these were not handed over by her predecessor Brian Johnstone, whose grand white twirly moustache had illuminated the venues, but by chair of StAnza trustees Colin Will whose bardic white beard had done the same. My apologies to both.    Brian Johnstone was sitting near me, but that doesn't explain it.

The staff and student volunteers were lovely: cheerful, friendly, calm, helpful and tactful (kind to latecomers!)  They projected a sense of enjoyment.  StAnza trustees were there in quiet support, chairing the events while modestly not introducing themselves.  I am very grateful to one of them for exercising judgement in favour of two or three of us who queued for non-existent returns at a certain door... 

St Andrews wynd
As for Eleanor...  She’d been working flat out, of course – sending pre-festival emails at all hours of the night.  One wouldn’t have guessed; she was such a welcoming host, appearing everywhere and with a word for everyone.  She’d commissioned me to blog about StAnza.  I felt guilty about taking any time when she had dozens of poets to deal with but she made it seem no bother.  StAnza treats its people well. 

Not long before the festival, having just read an email from Eleanor, I was cleaning the bathroom [worst domestic task]... thinking, Would I rather be doing this or in the final stages of directing a poetry festival?  The festival won.  But if I were in the last stages of directing the festival, which would I rather do?  Quite possibly cleaning the bath.  So I said this in my reply, and Eleanor said: “Most days at the moment I’d take cleaning a hundred baths over this.”  But then she went on to talk about the buzz in the StAnza office with full team and dozens of student volunteers, and how wonderful the book display looked in J&G Innes…

I’m on the train to London as I write this (Monday).  Until Newcastle, Carolyn Forché was on it too – in a post-StAnza glow, despite an ankle sprain from St Andrews cobbles and a broken suitcase wrapped papoose-like in brown sticky tape.  I asked her for StAnza impressions.  She said it was one of the most wonderful festivals she’d been to.  She and several others had felt they’d read their best, drawn out by an audience invisible in the dark auditorium but palpably listening and enjoying.  The quality of participants and audiences was high; the festival was very well organised, hospitable and serious, energetic and relaxed, with a lot of kindness.  She had great regard for Eleanor.  At the workshop she’d led, every poem was publishable [but who would not bring their best to her?] 

I didn’t ask her where she got the luminous blue shoe-laces that glowed during her reading.  Or many other things.  I got her excited about the train going over the river in Newcastle – only to find out that the view happens after the station, where she got off. 

Emergency poet by day..
At each StAnza event the chair reminded us to switch off our mobile phones and fill in the questionnaire: important for the future well-being of the festival, financial and otherwise.  I was hoping someone would ask us to fill in our phones and switch off the questionnaire...  Which I completed too late – in the bar after that final reading. So I left the box for further comments blank, being poetried out and half brain dead by then but alive enough to think, The blog’s for this. 

The festival’s sense of community was one best thing – the overlapping circles of connection, the friendliness and openness.  People were very supportive of StAnza. 

..and asleep
I loved the Byre Theatre as a venue, despite Alice Notley saying she couldn’t see the audience and looking a little concerned (after which they apparently lit us up a bit, though we didn’t notice).  The memorable readings would have been so anyway, but the theatre’s steeply raked space intensified that.  Carolyn Forché and Kei Miller have been named by just about everyone I’ve asked, What did you like best?  For their poetry and presence.  In their very different ways both have honey-and-lemon, charm-and-edge voices; they read with passion. 

Miller gets the best-dressed poet prize for his reading outfit: heather cords and matching cap, a waistcoat the silvery-black of some local sand and a shirt that dazzled white under the spotlights.  But the undressed-upness of some readers was good too – no festival dress code. 

Tapsalterie at the book fair
For me and some others Alice Notley’s reading and Round Table interview were memorable too – what are festivals for, if not to introduce audiences to writers they might find challenging and hard to access?  Eleanor Livingstone invited her after hearing her read in Berlin.  StAnza’s Round Table events with an audience of a dozen or so are kept small on purpose – and the festival has resisted what must be a temptation to make them inaccessibly expensive. 

Elsewhere, Ilya Kaminsky’s reading stood out – it’s great that small UK publisher Arc has taken him on and I hope he becomes a best seller for them.

Whose stall was this?
I liked the mid-afternoon programming of events that mixed poetry with spectacle and music.  The Different Trains performance and Claire Trévien’s Shipwrecked House were both highlights at the Byre. 

I liked the festival routine of starting the day with a Poetry Café Breakfast panel discussion in the comfortable and light Studio Theatre, and agreed with the various people who’d recommended Past & Present sessions – a mix of discussion and poems, and enthusiasm shared. 

Out of all the events I went to, only a handful didn’t engage me. 

Then there were the things I missed. Performance poet Toby Campion, talent-spotted by Eleanor at a slam.  Allison McVety’s reading – I’m enjoying her recent book Lighthouses.  Past & Present on the new Penguin Russian anthology; and on Scoto-Latin poets.  Writing Motherhood with Kathryn Maris and Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  I suppose annoying programme clashes indicate a good festival; so does the pang of hearing other people enthuse about an event.  I snatched 10 minutes at the book fair, only open for a few hours, but managed longer in the wonderful new Toppings bookshop.
Crail harbour

My main regret is the people I missed or spent too little time with, and the people I might have met but didn’t because I was too busy going to events and writing.  Next visit…

The last thing is the hardest to fit into a comments box.  Before StAnza I stayed in Crail further south on the Fife coast and explored the coast path.

I was walking in bright weather – the early March sun turning everything gold or blue or green – and through a very strong wind with snow in its teeth. There were small flocks of eider ducks everywhere, bobbing roundly on the waves.  The drakes are so handsome, a black-and-white geometric design contrasting with their curves and their delicate flushes of pink and pale green. Designer birds, perhaps by Yves St-Laurent.  Sometimes they rear half-out of
Eider ducks swim away politely
the water and puff out their pinkish chests.  The females, eclipsed but elegant in tweed, look mildly impressed.  When they’re swimming further out in choppy water, eiders crane their necks (nice to be able to use that word about a bird, however uncrane-like) and their silhouette changes. 

There were lots of wader birds. A thing about them is the way they sometimes stand statue-still on rocks or sand, all facing in the same direction as if posing for a soft furnishing design. Here it was grey/brown tweed redshanks (red legs and bill), black/white oyster-catchers (pink and orange) and tweed-patterned curlews (grey-green).  Cormorants stood in a line on rocks offshore, hanging their wings out to dry; gulls caught the sun in their wings. Turnstones pecked around the edges of things.  There were rust-headed widgeon and dark velvet scoter ducks.  And swimming close to shore in a rock-sheltered inlet was a male red-breasted merganser, a large slightly grebe-shaped drake with a striking black-and-white design and rusty breast against the steely blue water, and a mohican ruffle down the back of its dark green head.  I think there was a pair of them too, far out to sea. 

So I’ll remember StAnza for what it was like to listen to poems containing sea- and shore-scapes superimposed on the Fife coast-scape that was briefly my own and in my mind’s eye all week.  

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 www.justgiving.com/byleaveswegive. 

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.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

StAnza: Celan and the Holocaust and Different Trains; Shotover

It’s 7am on Sunday and I’m sitting in the conservatory of our cottage.  Overhead is a mackerel sky moving north quite fast and underlit by sun.  Sound effects are provided by a woodpigeon, sparrows, a dunnock, a crow, and the gulls on alarm snooze.  Beside me is a mug of tea and a large bowl of porridge with prunes, banana and goats’ milk yoghurt.  Time to write about yesterday; feeling pleased that I came back straight after Kei Miller’s reading and wrote it up last night.  I did make it back again  for part of the late night Poetry Slam – fun, with a great audience who cheered everyone on.

Yesterday was so rich… where to start?  With a festival coincidence.  Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky talked yesterday about Mark Strand and Paul Celan.  Kaminsky is a former student of Forché’s and they are clearly still close.  She read a few Celan poems for him, including ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), which Celan later repudiated.  One of the 20th century’s hardest-to-listen-to poems, beautifully read which made it harder.  The next event was a spell-binding performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains by the Viridian Quartet with a new text by Rob Mackenzie, read by Janette Ayachi and Andy Jackson.  I hadn’t heard Different Trains for many years and wanted it to go on forever.  Haunting; the rhythms of music changing with the words on the background recording soundtrack.  The quartet’s performance was all the more amazing as they often have to be out of time with each other.

Mackenzie’s text, which was read first, shared some of its haunting, fragmented, disjointed quality.  The text quoted Kenneth Koch’s poem ‘OneTrain May Hide Another’ which is apt for the Reich piece – Reich as a Jewish child went on long train journeys in the US when but for geography he could have been on another train, one leading to death.  The Mackenzie text was on a completely different theme: “perhaps a love poem or an end-of-love poem or both simultaneously”.  It used some of the words from the piece and also played around with travel security announcements and station names.  That sounds playful, but the effect was also serious and intense.  The two readers spoke in turn: the music then seemed to echo their part-dialogue, part-counterpoint. 

During Different Trains, which contains fractured recordings of station announcements, ‘Todesfuge’ was still circling through my head and I was remembering the New Jersey trains I took into New York the November before last.  Before going into a tunnel under the Hudson River the track crosses a desolate wetland /wasteland – beautiful during the day with the sun on reeds, birds and water and the NY skyline in the distance.  Coming back at night, there was nothing outside the windows but blackness.  I’d think: if the train stopped here and I had to get out, death by violence or drowning would surely follow in the polluted mud, and only the egrets would know where.  

Afterwards I felt I’d been in the theatre for hours – but wished it could have been for longer. 

Back to Ilya Kaminsky on Celan: language needs to be broken in order to wake it up.  Zbigniew Herbert said, poetry is to wake us up.  Kaminsky read part of Genesis chapter 1 – firmament etc – backwards, to wake us up.  Frontwards, we’re used to it so it becomes propaganda.  All great poets break language: look at the last line of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’.  Celan:

There was earth inside them
and they dug
they dug and they dug

Adorno retracted what he'd said about it being barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.  King Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ was written by Celan in Shakespeare’s head.   

I wish I’d heard more of what Kaminsky said – I was at the back and my ears took too long to adjust to his strong Russian accent.  He lived in Odessa until his mid teens.  He writes in English which makes his poems feel differently put-together rather than broken.  Perhaps it just means that unlike native speakers, he doesn’t have to do any breaking.

At his reading later on, Kaminsky provided hand-outs of ‘Musica Humana’, his extended elegy for Osip Mandelstam and one of the main pieces in Dancing in Odessa, his book from Arc.  His reading was incantatory, with big changes in tone and volume – part-Russian traditional, part-idiosyncratic individual bardic style. 

In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbour has binoculars
and he watches, dust settling on his lids.

Back to Forché on Strand, whom she described as “a poet of radical solitude and protean selfhood”.  He was born in Canada to French speakers and had a peripatetic childhood.  He was bullied at school initially for his thick French accent.  The first poem in English he tried to figure out was Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. 

Forché as a teenager wrote to Joseph Brodsky and sent him some poems.  To her surprise, a few weeks later three pencilled postcards arrived in the wrong order.  He advised her to read Strand. 

One of the pleasures of these Past & Present events is hearing poets read the works of the poet they love enough to present to us – including in this case ‘Keeping Things Whole’, a poem that continues to carry the memory and after-effects of my first reading of it.  It starts: 

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

Alice Notley and interviewer J L Williams had a both relaxed and intense discussion at a Round Table event.  The audience of around 15 sat on sofas in a university room that’s presumably used for seminars, with a view of grass, sky and bare branches.  Her reading the other night which I enjoyed so much had divided the audience, nearly all of whom had probably come new to her poetry: having a chance to hear her talk about it might have made the listening easier.  Here are a few of the things she said:

- She finds a different form for each book, it’s part of the process.  Sometimes she uses old forms but doesn’t tell people: recently Horace’s Odes, even though his metres are impossible in English.  [Well, close to impossible.]  William Carlos Williams’ ‘invisible’ variable feet. 

- She started out writing short stories, word by word, painfully slowly; moved into narrative poetry.  Likes Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare.

- “I am your mouth”, a quote from her reading – she wants to speak for others more than for herself. 

- “I consider sleeping to be part of my work time”.  She wakes up, processes her dreams, goes back to sleep.  She’s getting information.  No-one has satisfactorily explained dreaming.

- No-one had written about having small children; doing so, using accretive processes in the bits of time she had, was both scary and exciting and balanced out a severe post-natal depression.

- She was part of the second generation New York school who liked wit, wordplay, a brilliant surface for language, keeping things light.  Then people close to her started to die and it didn’t work any more.  People didn’t like her change in style but she knew she was right.

- She was close to Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman; Ted Berrigan (who was Notley’s husband) said they were a school but they didn’t know how to say this.  They did feel they were inventing a voice for women poets. 

- The only way to let many voices in is to be alone.

London’s climate change march was yesterday so at lunchtime we made an archipelago – see yesterday’s blog – with the St Andrews Transition Group, in solidarity with islands threatened by climate change. 

Kei Miller is turning into a star.  On the page, his poems are hugely enjoyable – such beautiful language – words, cadences, syntax etc, combined with content that’s both deeply serious and witty, always thought-provoking.  The poetic excellence is enhanced by his reading voice, the other-English sounds and the charm.  Such charm can catch audiences out – some people were beguiled into laughing at ‘Shotover’, one of the place-name poems from The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.  It moves from the word-play of Château Vert being corrupted to Shotover, to the with-hindsight explanation for the revised name: escaped slaves got shot over that ground.  I think Miller got back with a gentle dig in a spiel a poem or two later, but I may have imagined that.  His reading went down as much a storm as Forché’s yesterday. 

I’ll write about yesterday’s islands café breakfast tomorrow.  Now I need to post this before going to today’s translation café breakfast…

Check out the StAnza blog here.