StAnza 2017 preview: Strong Words, Strange Times

Our poetry columnist provides a run-down on Scotland's international poetry festival, StAnza, featuring such luminaries as Costa Prize-winner Alice Oswald, T.S Eliot prize winner Sarah Howe and our Makar Jackie Kay

Article by Clare Mulley | 08 Feb 2017

Part of the natural pull of StAnza for so many is that it is programmed around one or more thoughtful and mentally stimulating main themes, so that the poets attending can all share a common direction of some sort when they prepare. This brings out the best in poetry, not only as a method of displaying the most stimulating visions and movements a language has to offer, but as the most succinct vehicle by which complex, often nigh-on inexplicable trains of thought and sensation may be mapped, and by which the instinctive thematic and social links between separate minds may be shown to their best advantage.

This year’s themes are ‘On the Road’ and ‘The Heights of Poetry,’ referring not only to travel and mountains, but also to the metaphorical journeys, heights and obstacles which poetry as an art form brings us up against. Considering the state of current affairs, and the emotionally draining events our world witnessed in 2016, these are frighteningly relevant themes. Furthermore, following last year’s success with an additional modern foreign language (MFL) theme – which culminated in a fantastic showcase with various poets reading translations of one another's works and contributed much to the atmosphere of generosity, mutual respect and warmth – this year’s language of choice is French.

At any other literary festival, this stew of focal points might seem un embarrass de richesses (staying true to theme) but something about the uniquely mixed nature of StAnza – a large festival, certainly, but consisting of a real hotch potch of smaller events spread across a wide area and through very different mediums – means all the various threads manage to work without it seeming overdone.

After what can only be described as a boom period for female poets, this year sees an encouraging number of high-flying women on the bill, from all styles and walks of life. Helen Mort is giving the first workshop, Lines of Ascent (28 Feb). Then, Costa Prize-winner Alice Oswald is making one of her rare appearances to feature in two double bills on the same day (2 Mar). In the first, Past and Present, with Neil McLennan, she offers her own spellbinding take on Homer. The second, Centre Stage with Robert Crawford, will undoubtedly be an utterly thrilling combination of reading voices.

Immigration is high on the agenda, not least the double-mindedness involved in loving your country but wanting to escape. In fact, To Love A Country and Be Forced To Leave is the name Patience Agbabi has given her headline workshop for the week (4 Mar). Her effortless marriage of the best of page and stage always ensures a memorable experience, and it will be exciting to see what she conjures up this time round.

Predictably, one of the other most eagerly anticipated events by far is the double bill of T.S Eliot prize winner Sarah Howe, author of Loop of Jade, and Makar Jackie Kay (4 Mar, from 8pm) – a duo whose voices have certainly been shaped by questioning and exploring their roots. For Howe, it will be a return to her roots in more ways than one, StAnza being the first major festival she performed at in 2011. Another big voice in the mix on 4 March is writer, film/theatre maker and vocal fizzbucket Paula Varjack, who will be MC-ing the slam (10.15pm), and whose recent YouTube riff on 'why you should never date an artist' still has lonely creatives crying tears of laughter into their bedtime mugs. 

John Agard’s verse and song extravaganza, Roll Over the Atlantic, a re-take on Christopher Columbus, looks set to be a great fun and a massive success on 1 March – definitely one for a group night out. The ‘Border Crossings’ events always prove a very popular choice, which will be led by a great variety of artists, including Maram Al-Massri, a Syrian-born poet whose work evokes the trauma of war experienced at a distance, and Paul Stephenson, whose latest collection The Days That Followed Paris responds to the November 2015 attacks and the resulting tension (both 2 Mar).

The Translation Showcase is not to be missed (4 Mar, 1pm), teaming up with the Scottish Poetry Library and Literature Across Frontiers/Literary Europe Live to hold a residential translation workshop, bringing together two Francophone and two Scottish poets who’ll work together to translate each other and produce new work.

Happily, the business of StAnza is not only to showcase but to encourage, and there are also plenty of events at which budding writers can glean new inspiration and get cracking, or else do something productive with work they have stored away. Top of the list for poets looking for pay is ‘Making a Living as a Poet’ with The Society of Authors (3 Mar).

StAnza runs from 1-5 Mar across venues in St Andrews. Tickets are now available. Simply email or call 01334 475000