I’ve put off my review of this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival because, with all the current weirdness, I figured it might be good to hear about past events during a time of festive dearth. Well, that’s my excuse, although the truth is that there is so much to say about StAnza, even though I was only there for a day.

I was hoping to be there in spirit at the start of the day, since the early event, Breakfast at the Poetry Café, was due to be live-streamed. Sadly I couldn’t get the link to work – I later discovered I had clicked in the wrong place! So I had breakfast at home without poetry and headed for the train. My choice of which day to visit StAnza is predicated by the weather forecast, as I don’t fancy cycling from Leuchars, the nearest station to St Andrew’s, in the rain.

Thankfully there was only a squally drizzle on the way there (and back) and in fact one of the installations this required the use of a rather useful device. Berlin Umbrella was a collaboration between Stephanie Green and Sonja Heyer comprising an exhibition and a ‘sound walk’ with specially adapted umbrellas.

I sat on a bench with my (late) lunch and listened to aqueous soundscapes, accompanying poetry by Stephanie Green, transporting me somewhere beyond drizzly St Andrews, even, the sewers and surfaces of Berlin’s water systems and the folklore and difficult history of Berlin. An innovative and inspiring piece of work; I wish I could go back and listen again – even in the rain.

StAnza is fizzing and popping with poetry, from the moment you arrive, to the last train home. When I picked up my tickets at The Byre, there was a costumed performance drawing to a close in the upstairs bar. I quickly said hello to an old friend, but had to dash before finding out more, as I was heading to the first of two book-launches on my agenda: TheoArtistry and Tapsalteerie’s pamphlet, The Song: Poems of Biblical Theophany.

This was another experimental collaboration project, between the ‘Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts’ and StAnza. Six poets were given a passage from the Hebrew Bible, then matched with a theologian to create a ‘theophany’ in verse. The result was an inspiring range of styles, from challenging to lyrical, provocative to anarchic.

After the reading, I took a quick glance around the Poetry Market: tables smothered with the usual array of pamphlets and small-press publications. Again with a live performance in the background – this time, of traditional music.

The second book-launch of my day was Andrew Greig’s Later that Day. Poems about New Zealand and Orkney, both places with plenty of coastline, touched on the themes of this year’s Festival: Due North, and Coast Lines. This was a gentle, intimate reading, tucked away in J & G Innes bookshop. Greig modestly admitted that, even after twenty books, for a poet it is the physical presence of a book in hand, saying the words with people: that is the end-piece.

Meet the Artist

Before I get onto the three main performances I attended, I should mention a fascinating ‘Meet the Artist’ event, in which Robyn Marsack spoke about her ambitious piece of work, editing Fifty Fifty – Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters. This selection of letters giving an insight into publishing over the past 50 years.

Ransacking a colossal archive (in part decimated by the Manchester IRA bomb in ’96) Marsack told of the early, cut-and-paste days of working for the press, and the many changes over the years. As she pointed out, poets as performers have improved over the years, and Festivals are useful for selling books. What has altered is the speed, detail, and length of correspondence: email has changed cultural exchange for good. Or rather, for bad.

Past & Present

Something you are guaranteed at StAnza is that you will come across poets you’ve never heard of. At ‘Past & Present’ Ian Crockatt and Agnes Scott Langeland not only introduced us to poets they had translated, but also to an extraordinarily rich variety of language and form.

Crockatt’s translations were of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson and Egill Skallagrimsson, ancient Norse poets whose use of language and Nordic sagas provided some extraordinary word-coining, or ‘kennings’ as they were described. Crockatt not only emulated the fiendishly complex syllabic forms of the poems, but also bravely read them in their original language.

Scott Langeland likewise translated the poems of Stein Mehren, publishing each side by side to show similarities of shape and language. While their poets were separated by nearly 900 years, both translators aimed to render the same sense of musicality. As Walter Benjamin said, translations bring something to the text. At this event, the past was given a renewed present.

Five O’Clock Verses

Contrast was the flavour of the ‘Five O’Clock Verses’ event – at least in style of performance, although both poets were, in their own way, ground-breaking. Jay Bernard’s interdisciplinary style led to a mesmerising performance, fusing readings, recitations, and hauntingly-sung punctuations. Bernard’s collection, Surge explored the tragic events of the 1981 New Cross fire; work that was given extra poignancy by the Grenfell disaster.

Galician poet Yolanda Castaño brought a change of tone, while also exploring issues of background and ethnicity, and the exchange of languages. “Talking in other languages is like wearing burrowed clothes,” said Castaño: “Sometimes the problem is not what is said, but what is not said.” Starting with a poem about tea (it was five o’clock!) and ending with a poem personifying her faithful Ford Focus, this was a highly entertaining performance.

Poetry Centre Stage

The final event of my day was ‘Poetry Centre Stage’ – a double-bill of award-winning poets in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre. Starting with the second performer first: Mimi Khalvati read a selection from her most recent collection, Afterwardness (Carcanet, 2019.) Khalvati warned us that sonnets only take a minute to read, “So I’ll have to witter on – and I’m not that funny.”

The advantage is that, by this point in the day, the audience is pretty relaxed, but Khalvati was rather funny, and her musings on mis-remembered memories were as playful as thought-provoking:

Where do memories hide? the pine trees sing. In language of course, the four pathways reply….

Then sing, the pathways answer, sigh and sing

She also made amusing reference to the first poet of the evening, D.A. Powell, who gave the captioning and BSL team a run for their money by changing the order of his poems (“It’s okay – I’m on it,” shouted Annie Rutherford from the control room) and challenging Rachel Amey to use sign-language for Christ’s foreskin! (– luckily, Rachel had been forewarned.) Powell’s slightly dead-pan but deliberate delivery was contrasted with entertaining introductions.

There was a wide range of subject and mood, and while apologising for the ‘less-cheery stuff,’ Powell thanked the audience for being ‘easily excitable.’ As well as speaking about growing up queer in small-town California, we also heard about present threats, ridiculing the announcements on British trains about ‘suspicious packages’ which are rarely a risk. Pointing out the ‘See it, say it, sorted’ slogan, Powell, retorted “If you see something, just see it.” He went on: “The threat is the threat – what happens to the earth when you leave it the fuck alone?”

This comment struck me as I came to write this review during Corona lock-down. I bet having to leave the world alone for a while will produce plenty of poetry. I’m glad I made it to StAnza, even for just a day, as it will have been the last Festival for some time. Meanwhile, I would recommend dipping into their website, and discovering some of the amazing artists who performed this year.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Virasami