I had wanted to go to StAnza for a long time, but there was very often a clash with schools work around World Book Day, for example in 2013, I was away working in Cornwall for a fortnight, doing some outreach work for Falmouth University and a primary school day in Saltash for Able Writers, the scheme dreamed up by Brian Moses.
In 2014, my first time at the festival, I was booked to take up The Lightfoot Letters exhibition of my poetry and Maria Walker’s art, which was shown in the Preservation Trust. Because we had to mount the exhibition, with the help of one of their curators, we went up for the full duration and I was able to attend workshops with John Greening and Brian Turner.
I was not expecting to know so many people and to feel among friends. But now I know that StAnza is one of the friendliest festivals. This is partly because the Scottish poets are very welcoming and partly because the hang out for everyone is The Byre, where many of the events take place. It’s a place where one can find oneself bumping into poetry friends and publishers, making new friends or casually striking up a conversation with one of the headline poets. No-one has any airs and graces, there is a sense of all of us engaged together in the serious game of writing, and trying to learn from each other.
2017 was my third time, and it will not be my last. Eleanor Livingstone and the committee set fascinating themes every year and invite poets from all over the world, giving the festival a really global buzz, bringing people together into a shared world with poetry at its heart. There is poetry in the street, in gardens and museums, all shared in imaginative ways like sound installations and exhibitions, all free to enjoy.
This year I particularly enjoyed the Katherine Towers poems at The Preservation Trust, and had to go and buy the book straight away, because I love herbs and natural remedies. There were also wonderful poems in the garden, displayed in lot of imaginative ways using natural materials.
Because of work commitments (the life of a jobbing poet always seems crammed), we couldn’t arrive until Friday, after staying at a friend’s house en route at the halfway point. There were events I would have liked to have attended on Friday but I contented myself with evening ones in case the journey took longer than anticipated. Instead, we spent some time looking at the exhibitions before going to the evening reading, with Jacques Darras and Kathleen Jamie. I particularly relished the French poems, which we listened to first in the original, wonderfully performed, and then translations were read with clarity and precision by Claudia Daventry. Afterwards I was brave and read two poems at ‘Risk a Verse’, which had always seemed a little scary, because the Byre is full of people talking, whereas I am more accustomed to rapt concentration at readings. But Andy Jackson did a great job of hosting it, making everyone feel valued.
Some of the events I’d have loved to attend sold out very quickly, so I make a mental note to be better organised next year. Saturday’s highlights were the ever-buzzing Poetry Market, where I had some great conversations with poets and publishers too numerous to mention by name. Unfortunately, we missed the launch of New Boots and Pantisocraties, because of an emergency at our digs but caught the Imprisoned Poets Reading with Scottish Pen, which was moving and fired me up to join the English one. The empty chair to represent writers in prison really brought the message home. I particularly loved hearing Patience Agbabi read.
The Saturday night reading, with Sarah Howe and Jackie Kay, was such a delight and a real highlight for me. Howe told us some of the stories behind her poems, and gave an enchanting reading, and Kay is always so warm, funny and loving. I caught her as she was leaving, as I just happened to be standing by the exit, having come downstairs, and she grabbed hold of my hand as I was saying how much I loved the reading. Myself and a poet friend had been sitting in the studio live screening and it was so nice that she referred to us and included us.
After that, we went to the slam, mostly to support friends like Sally Evans and Jill Abram who were competing. I have to be honest and say slams are not my thing. I hated the panto as a kid because of all the shouting, and I don’t like slams for the same reason. But some of the poems were very good, and thought-provoking. I’d personally prefer a slam where the audience made a poetry noise instead of screaming, but I suppose I am alone in preferring mmmmms to woowoowoos at the top of voices.
Sunday morning was the masterclass with Sarah Howe. It is like being at a critique group where other people’s poems are being dissected, so one can relax and listen and learn, unless one wants to chip in – there were people with roving microphones – but I preferred to glean nuggets from the discussion for my own consumption later.
We had to hit the road after that event, but I had had some wonderful conversations with so many poets, from booked guests to attendees, that I fell asleep in the car on the way home, tired but happy, as my husband drove. Huge congratulations to the whole team and every poet who took part, for another marvellous festival, a poetry party that lasts and lasts, and keeps one going for months.
Roll on StAnza 2018.