StAnza 2014: Q&A with Eleanor Livingstone, Festival Director

As the 2014 festival of poetry begins, StAnza director Eleanor Livingstone talks exclusively to The Skinny about the festivals themes, its future, and the debate over 'page versus stage'

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 05 Mar 2014
  • Eleanor Livingstone, StAnza Festival Director

As this year's StAnza Festival begins, we follow up our feature taking a look at this year's highlights with a series of exclusive Q&As with the performers, writers and organisers of Scotland's only international festival of poetry. We begin with our full interview with Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone, who talks candidly about the festival's themes, the 'page versus stage' debate, the way StAnza is funded, and her memories of over ten years celebrating poetry in St. Adrews. 

This year's themes at StAnza involve an examination of the 'Commonwealth of poetry' and a new look at poetry inspired by or about war, including some events that look at the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. When you book poets for StAnza, to what extent do you look for people who can engage with these themes?
I don't by and large say to poets when I book them that I'm booking them to fit a certain theme. In some ways I prefer that to an extent at least a good number of the poets are unaware of the themes, so that they don't necessarily tailor what they do. Often, you get interesting things that arise organically out of what has been constructed – sometimes people fit a theme, but they have no idea that they do. They don't realise that's why they were invited.

As part of our Homecoming theme, which connects with the idea of the Commonwealth of Poetry, one of the issues is the idea of 'home,' which is such a big part of the Homecoming celebrations – this idea of 'what does home mean?' I've been inviting poets who I'm calling 'new' Scots and 'travelling' Scots. Some of the poets I have invited are poets who came to Scotland and settled here, others, like Rob Mackenzie, have lived elsewhere and then come back to Scotland.

The 'war poetry' strand has a wide focus – I've been very clear that we are not celebrating the 100th anniversary of the First World War. What we're doing is marking the fact that this is the centenary by recognising thelegacy of the War Poets from that era. That has been one of the most influential bodies of poetry  in contemporary times – lots of people who engage with poetry in no other way will leave school with some connection to the war poetry that they've read. They might not know any other poetry, but they'll know Wilfred Owen. So part of it was thinking about that legacy.

About 4 or 5 years ago I had a meeting with the late Gavin Wallace, who was one of the people in charge of literature for Creative Scotland. He said to me, 'You've absolutely got to do something about First World War Poetry in 2014.' Alas, Gavin's not here to see it, but that's been in my head ever since, that we would do something to recognise the legacy of war poetry. But we've taken it much further than that. I always see the festival as generating dialogues; and sometimes these are not the dialogues that I expected. Things might start in one event, and then be picked up and echo through another. What I wanted this dialogue to start with was by looking at war poetry as a way of recording experiences of war as a very accessible but also a very concise way of being able to create a historical record of these experiences.

Not everybody on this year's programme who is engaging with this theme actually went to war – some are conscientious objectors. But that is still an engagement with what is happening while the world is at war. One of the poets coming is Dan O'Brien, whose book and play, which has just opened down in England, War Reporter, is looking at that from a different perspective – not inside, recording it, but looking in, from the outside. So we've started from the First World War, and expanded it to look at poetry as a record of what happens during periods of war. We've gone back as far as the medieval Battle of Maldon; we've got J.O. Morgan, whose new book is a re-engagement with the medieval poem about that battle, all the way up to S.M. Steele, from Canada, who went to Afghanistan as a war artist. We have a Croatian poet, Tomica Bajsić, who was involved in the Balkan conflict, we've got Brian Turner, an American poet who was in the US Army in Iraq.

I don't want anyone to think it's all just doom and gloom - there is a lot of variety. Even Sophia Walker, the performance poet – I invited her in part because I saw her show, and she fits in two ways – she fits the idea of 'what does home mean' because she has lived in so many different places, but her piece about Uganda, where she experienced the civil war, is also very powerful. So we're looking at poetry as this amazing tool for giving us some kind of memorable record of these experiences. We're not in any sense trying to make it celebratory - most people would acknowledge that when you say 'war poetry,' almost alway you;re really talking about anti-war poetry. It's unusual to come across poetry celebrating war nowadays, although there's a conversation to be had about how that changed during the First World War. Reactions to the war changed through people reading the poetry of that era.

The notion of a difference between so-called 'page poets' and 'performance poets - or 'page versus stage' - is one that StAnza seems to want to engage with, and perhaps help to break down barriers. Where do you stand on this - do you think 'page versus stage' is a useful concept?
I start from the basis that the word 'poetry' is a bit misleading - it's a bit like saying 'music' or 'visual art.' It's just so plural and multiple, such a wide spectrum. A single word really doesn't cover it. If people say to me 'I'm not really into poetry,' I always ask 'What kind of poetry are you not into?' I think it would be extremely difficult to find somebody who would say they were not into music of any kind, or visual art of any kind. People have their own preferences.

I think poetry ought to be the same, but people often shut themselves off. They encounter one kind of poetry and base their opinions on that, and have no idea of poetry's true diversity. So we try to engage with all of the 'poetries' if you like. I like the word poetry – we also use the term 'spoken word.' It covers everything. But what about sound poetry? Or filmpoems? There are no words in those. Poetry is a broad enough term, it covers everything. We try to make the festival as broad as possible.

The page versus stage thing is actually a grey area – an awful lot of the poets who are known as performers have some kind of engagemennt with poetry on the page as well, and I definitely think that what makes a poetry festival special is that every poet who reads their work is giving a performance. It's not the same as someone reading from a work of prose. A poem on a page is a performance - it's performing on the page for the reader. That is why listening to poetry is so engrossing, because it is a performance. It's not a clear line, it's a moving field. We want to try and get everything in that field represented.

If you imagine poetry literally as a playing field - on one side there are the academic, page-focused poets, and at the other side you have the purer performance-driven poets. Looking at the other axis, you've got conventional, traditional, formal poetry at one side, and at the other side you've got very experimental, extreme poetry... I feel that all poets, wherever they are on that playing field, no matter what they are doing; to be tugging at these boundaries is to interact with the ball. Whatever else is happening on the field affects you, and affects your work. You'll be influenced by that. If everything becomes more experimental, then even at the formal, mainstream end, you will be being influnced as well.

Some of it I expect people will hate. But the thing that often surprises me is that I can bring in some poetry from continental Europe, and I'll be wondering if people will actually get it, and everybody loves it and it's packed out! Festivals give an amazing opportunity for engagement and interaction, compared to single performances.

You're bringing back novelist Louis deBernieres this year to read from his first poetry collection - how does it feel to have him back after 10 years, and as a poet this time?
We had Louis at the festival 10 years ago. It was my first festival with StAnza, I had breakfast with him on the Sunday, and I remember thinking 'Wow! I just joined the StAnza committee and had breakfast with Louis deBernieres!' At that point we had him attending as a novelist who had a great love of poetry, and he did an 'In Conversation' event – we often have non-poets coming in to talk about their love of poetry, like Ian Rankin and so on.

During the event, he admitted that he did write poetry himself, and was convinced to read one or two. So we are absolutely delighted that ten years on, he has publuished his first collection of poetry - it really feels like a lovely circle coming round, to have him coming back as a published poet. We always say we like to feature poets at every stage in their career - it is as important to have new voices as it is to have the big headliners. So it's lovely to have someone who is both a big headliner, but also in poetry terms, a new voice. That makes for a really interesting event. 

You posted a statement in the run-up to this year's StAnza Festival indicating there may be some threats to the funding of the festival in future. Can you expand on this a little?
It's a slightly convoluted story, and some people have not got the correct angle on it. We're fine for this year – that's all in place. It's been clear for a while that there are going to have to be all sorts of cuts. The proposal is that the funding for strategic events, which funds Fife's culture festivals, is going to be cut by about a third. It's staged – they'll take so much off in the first year, so much off in the second, and so on. It's not a fixed amount – over three years, it will amount to about a third less than there is at the moment.

There's a twist to it - because StAnza takes place between January and March, and the council's financial year runs from April to March, but this is the year of Homecoming Scotland. A lot of Fife council is involved in the homecoming programme. That had to be planned well in advance, so Fife Council had to make their budget allocations for the festivals and events taking place this calendar year quite a while ago. So our budgets for 2014 were from the 2013/2014 financial pot, whereas the festivals taking place between April and December got their funding from the 2014/2015 pot. So when these cuts were announced, the effect was that the whole budget for 2014/2015 has already been offered to the festivals taking place in the remainder of this year. This means there is nothing for the festivals which take place from January to March, which includes the Jazz Festival, the Snowdrop Festival, and StAnza.

I don't think all of the counsellors understand this - they're saying that across the board, no-one has been singled out. However, all of the agitating I and others have been doing has had some effect – there's been another council meeting, and the suggestion is that they are going to find some money to at least give something. It won't be as much as we would get under the proposed cuts long term, it will be a token amount, but it won't be as bad as nothing – the message that nothing sends to other funders is pretty dire. People uinderstand that everybody is facing cuts, but to try and explain why in this particular year we're getting nothing would be very difficult.

As to what will happen to all the Fife festivals in the long term, we'll just have to wait and see what happens. I have had very supportive messages from councillors all across Fife, and many of them have committed to pushing this point when it comes to the debate. It's all about how the cuts are apportioned - with more than a third coming off, that is more than other places are losing. 

Do you think local and national authorities understand fully the way in which the so-called 'cultural capital' generated by events like StAnza works? 
There's a huge misunderstanding about this – in some areas, the profit in cultural tourism is well understood, and there you'll find it being promoted, and as much being made of it as possible. It's an idea that perhaps takes a while to reach all parts. One of the issues is whether the councillors who are in favour of these cuts realise whether its not just a case of providing support in order to put on events for locals, but that this is cultural tourism, and that we are bringing in massively more to Fife – purely in financial terms, even if you forget all the cultural, social and prestige benefits – than we take out. Not just StAnza, all the cultural festivals – they bring in a fantastic amount more than Fife invests in them.

It's a new concept, I think, to be trying to put over. The old understanding of this issue was that the arts were a thing you spent money on without expecting to get money back out of it. That's maybe the mentality that some people still approach the issue with. Statistics show that about £6 million came into Fife from visitors last year due to the arts – it's an enormous part of the Fife budget. For the sake of saving the single thousands of pounds invested in the cultural festivals in Fife – and they all match that, many times over - the cuts just are not worth making. That's an indication that if the local authority funds you, you can then match that, and bring investment into Fife.

StAnza Festival runs from 5-9 March at various venues throughout St. Andrews. For a run-down of the events, workshops and performances at StAnza 2014, have a look at the full programme on the StAnza website.The Skinny has more exclusive interviews with poets and performers coming this week