StAnza: Scotland's International Poetry Festival Comes of Age

You might expect a piece on a poetry festival written by an award winning poet to be... well... poetic. Neu! Reekie! helmsman Michael Pedersen refuses to prune the flowers of his prose here in his lyrical look at StAnza blooming into adulthood.

Feature by Michael Pedersen | 27 Feb 2015

StAnza – you heard of it? I hope so. Poetry bod or not, it’s made its mark on the Scottish cultural scene for just shy of two decades. In fact, StAnza 2015 is the big 18th birthday – so a 'coming of age' show in some respects, and like most buoyant 18 year olds it’s full of juice and flaunting several lissome limbs. StAnza carries the tagline ‘Scotland’s International Poetry Festival’, its yolk in St Andrews with a little overspill to the surrounding areas. 2015 proffers a colourful carousel of more than 100 goings-on: films, exhibitions, installations, drama, music, tours, workshops and, of course, poetry readings (70 plus poets) – so many shows, in fact, they don’t all fit in the brochure.

A shame-faced statement of admission opens this feast of findings - the 2014 StAnza Poetry Festival marked my inaugural visit! I could offer up a veritable buffet of excuses - living in London and Cambodia; an irrational trepidation to visit Scottish towns without train stations; not owning a car; a wariness of golf - but even collectively they don't really cut it. Last year however, I not only attended but also performed and participated – a paragoning induction into the fold.

My primary reading slot was the brimful Border Crossing event with Hannah Lowe, who has since been crowned one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets 2014. I also contributed to the education arm of the festival by taking the stage, or rather a high school assembly hall, alongside Botswana Poet TJ Dema, presenting the well disciplined youth with a taste of the more performative aspects of poetry – and, to get them on my side, a hamper of adult concepts and mild profanities their teachers wouldn’t dare mutter, for fear of being reprimanded by the PTA. Both cuts of this poetry cake were a delight to serve.

Fast forward to 27 January and I’m at the StAnza 2015 programme launch at the National Library of Scotland. The launch event itself boasts an all-female line-up with one exception. Words from StAnza are given by Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone and Admin Assistant Annie Rutherford, with performances by Kirsty Law, Agnes Török and Christine De Luca – Edinburgh’s new(ish) Makar. The male exception to the line-up is Peter Mackay (originally from the Isle of Lewis), who reads his poems in both English and Gaelic. It’s a nice taster of the diversity of medium, style, language, cadence and degrees of thespiansim to be expected.

This 2015 programme is not short of recent prizewinners either – in Kei Miller, Liz Berry and Helen Mort, we have The Poetry Trust's Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection winner and two of the 2014 Forward Poetry prize winners - for Best Collection and Best First Collection. Helen and Kei alongside Mark Waldron and Heather Phillipson represent four of the 2014 PBS Next Generation Poets. And then there’s Simon Armitage – one of my favourite contemporary poets (being alive and very much aboot) and a well televised and championed chap. Double Upsy: Helen Mort and Liz Berry appear in an event together (Five O’Clock Verses) and Kei Miller appears alongside Simon Armitage (Poetry Centre Stage) in what promise to be two of the top picks of the whole festival (mine, that is). You can also get yourself into a masterclass with Simon Armitage if you act fast and fervently.

Responding to a prod on what makes StAnza such a stand-out poetry happening, Kei Miller remarked: "Years ago I was poet-in-residence for StAnza and it was then that I completely fell in love with it. There are two festivals in the world that I have all the time for – Calabash in Jamaica, and StAnza. Eleanor Livingstone has to be one of the most inventive and inspiring programmers in the poetry world." He continues, "I meet poets all over the world and as soon as you mention the name Eleanor they all sigh with love." We then chat about his pairing with Simon, to which Kei splashes out: "The best poets have a distinctive voice and that’s Simon, that’s why he appeals. I’m not sure why Eleanor paired us, but like I said, she never makes a wrong move as a programmer so even I’m excited to see what happens. When I was studying at MMU Simon was there though he didn’t teach me – but even then he was a figure to look up to… I see it as some measure of having ‘arrived’ to be reading with him. It’s a huge honour."

There’s a few starring names lassoed this year (likely after a few attempts) that’ll be making their debuts. Eleanor comments: "Sometimes it takes several years before the festival dates suit…but when it finally happens that’s always really satisfying. This year that includes Sinéad Morrissey, Carolyn Forche and Ian Duhig; and I’ve been hoping to bring over Ilya Kaminsky since 2010 when I first met him. So I’m very excited that they’re all on this year’s programme."

“It's been a bit of a dream to go there - just to go there, not even to read"
– Hollie McNish on StAnza

Liz Berry is among those making her debut too, noting "This is my first time at StAnza and I'm really looking forward to it as the festival has a great reputation for exciting and eclectic events. I'll be reading poems from Black Country that are full of enchantment, flight and jeth. There'll be wings, spellbound weddings, blackness and canal murder ballads. The poems are written with Black Country dialect so you'll hear about tranklements, bone-orchards, wammels and jack-squalors….I'll also be off to hear Kathryn Maris, Hollie McNish and Carolyn Jess-Cooke discuss motherhood and writing on Friday lunchtime. My first son Tom was born just a few months before Black Country was published so it's a topic that's been very much on my mind this year."

This Festival (like all the anointed) has themes – this year’s are Unfinished Business and An Archipelago of Poetry. Fountaining out the former is the opening night bash, Dylan Thomas’ Bedazzled: A Welshman in New York, feeding our penchant for the New York poetry scene in the 1950s. Find herein a chance to join Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg and E.E. Cummings incarnate on stage for a tipple and a confab – role-play and horseplay. The event mentioned above by Liz on Writing Motherhood, featuring Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Hollie McNish and Kathryn Maris, is a sublimely conceived showcase piece. Hollie said: "I have never been to Stanza before but it's been a bit of a dream to go there - just to go there, not even to read there. But this is great." Oh, and on the show: "…a total gem to be part of... touching on everything from the fact that you are just more bloody tired to all the creative ideas that flow from being a parent. It's ace."

The latter theme (AoP) gifts poets from islands around the world an opportunity to give their tuppence worth on that way of dwelling – Eleanor informs us: "We’ve invited a range of poets from islands around the world, from New Zealand, Jamaica, Sardinia, Mallorca, the Faroe Islands, also poets from Stockholm and Copenhagen, cities built on islands, to join the programme poets from Scottish islands; Lewis, Skye and Shetland." Perhaps shanties, the vagaries in weather and the bitter bite of the sea – tongues socked in sand, talk laced with salt? Folded into this strand, which caught my eye, is Shipwrecked House, a one-woman multimedia performance from the Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trévien – it’ll likely trigger your olfactory senses as she apparently wafts fragrance into the audience.

People have their own brand of poetry as they do their own brand of thinking (homage paid to Ted Hughes’ thoughts on thinking here). Some are more energetic about it, others strain the moment; some brains are battling, others at peace; some are scripting for public performance and some spilling secrets they never thought they would. Anyhow, whatever your favourite flavour of lexical treat, there’s no doubt something here to whet the appetite. St Andrews on the bus from Edinburgh or Glasgow is not so far at all and about a tenner - one of the best you’ll spend this year.

I'll wrap it up there. StAnza, I'm sorry I'm such a late arrival to your sensational poetry party – but I'll be back with a vengeance and (rest assured) aw in aboot it.

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StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival, runs from 4 - 8 March in and around St Andrews.