Whenever I go to StAnza poetry festival, I am left with a mixture of envy and regret. The envy is simple: I am jealous of the poets who are performing at one of the best festivals there is – for poetry-lovers at least.

But there are plenty of opportunities to participate, whether in the Poetry Slam, various open-mic or competition events, or workshops. The regret part is in that I never get to see as much as I’d like to – partly because there is so much to see so this is a mere snapshot of the festival.

The other factor is the location: St Andrews is a weird place to get to from Edinburgh. I usually get a train to the nearest station – Leuchars – then cycle the five miles into town.

For this reason, I decide which day to attend based on the weather. Since Friday looked like the least rainy day of the five-day Festival, I happened to go on International Women’s Day. A happy coincidence.

My first regret is that I didn’t book a place on the morning workshop with Jacqueline Saphra, Containing Chaos; the sonnet and its enduring attractions – though I didn’t realise the significance until later in the day. I arrived after lunchtime, and began with a Past & Present event; two contemporary poets sharing old favourites.

Emma Jones gave an interesting talk on Christina Rossetti, focusing on Goblin Market which, while well-known, is also very long, so a great deal of time was spent in an attempt to precis the story.

Then Menna Elfyn, spoke about the Welsh poet Eluned Phillips, a fascinating maverick poet whose work I was glad to have been introduced to. Menna Elfyn was also a new discovery to me – not a source of regret.

Later, I tossed a coin between Imprisoned Poets and Poems Aloud. The latter, a competition for the best recitation of a published poem, won the toss. Besides a handful of interesting poems performed by students of St Andrews, I saw another poet new to me.

While the judges deliberated on the winner, Caroline Teague showed the students how to really perform. The prize went to student Jenna Schmidt who’d read a poem by Christine de Luca in a convincing and compelling Shetland dialect. Sometimes I wish other performance-poets would recite the work of other writers… I feel they would learn a lot.

Photo courtesy of James Barlow Photography

Another coin-toss – between a Quiet Open Mic and Poetry in Conversation – fell in favour of International Women’s Day: a taste of Glasgow Women’s Library’s ‘Story Café’ led by Nadine Aisha Jassat.

This was a mixture of presentation, recitation, with guest reader,
Zein Sa’dedin, and audience participation, which was both food for thought and, at some points (due to some spirited conversation) a little tough to chew. But who said poets and poetry are easily-digestible, even in posh St Andrews.

My final event was the Poetry Centre Stage, with Menna Elfyn and Jacqueline Saphra. Elfyn seemed to have the same Welsh spark as her forbear, Eluned Phillips. Her performance was thought-provoking, entertaining, and thoroughly bi-lingual – even though, as she said, Welsh is the only language you learn in order to speak to fewer people!

Before her came the main source of my regret: not attending the workshop on sonnets. Jacqueline Saphra’s performance was in two parts that contrasted sharply. With biting humour and candid biography, Saphra lulled the audience into a comfortable rapport. But if art is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, this poet proved her worth as a true artist.

The highly accessible and humorous work over, we were then introduced a sequence of sonnets based on photography by or about Lee Miller, performed in front of a backdrop of the photos in question. I’ll admit that my personality-type is prone to envy, and since much of my own performance-work combines words and pictures, I had to chase away that green-eyed monster as I watched a multi-media performance very similar to one of my own.

However, while I’ve written a fair few sonnets in my time, I have much to learn. As each poem dovetailed into the next, and each picture racked up the tension, the audience became increasingly rapt, until the fifteenth sonnet – composed of the final lines of the preceding fourteen – left us stunned as the poet quietly departed from the stage.

In the interval, I dashed down to the foyer of The Byre Theatre and bought a copy of A Bargain with the Light – Poems after Lee Miller just in case there wouldn’t be time at the end of the evening. One last regret: that I didn’t get to speak with Jacqueline Saphra before I had to peddle back into the black-batted night to Leuchars and catch the last train home.

Maybe another regret: that I only ever get to attend this great festival for half a day. If you have friends who live in St Andrews, be sure to cultivate them before March 2020.

Photo courtesy of David Vallis Photography.

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