StAnza 2018 Review

I would have liked to have gone to St Andrews for the whole period of StAnza, but this wasn’t possible because of my lecturing work, however, we set off very early on Friday morning with the aim of arriving in time for Martin Figura’s show Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine. We stumbled into the welcoming atmosphere of The Byre in time to get tickets, check into our accommodation and dash back for the show. Even my ‘not-into-poetry husband enjoyed it. Figura puts his heart and soul into everything he does, and his wicked sense of humour leavens any darker material. The set is very appealing to anyone who lived through the latter part of the 20th century, and the script is a rich mixture of poems and commentary. The real star of the show is Martin’s daughter Amy, whose life is a source of wonder to him, and to the audience, because she lives things so fully, getting involved with her favourite cartoon characters, and with her wonderful way of language, like calling the cinema screen a ‘big video’.

I had to miss some great events to eat and unpack at the rented flat, but I did manage t get a ticket for Poetry Centre Stage. Pippa Little gave a delightfully tender reading, taking us through several of her collections in a beautifully sequenced order. Her voice is lovely to listen to. Mark Ford was a contrast, in that his muscular style presented his surreal narratives in an entertaining way, but his body of work was less my cup of tea than Pippa’s, whose work I already knew.

The ‘Risk a Verse’ slot afterwards was brilliantly hosted by Andy Jackson, and a good range of poets performed their work against the background of people having fun, though the mike helped us cope with that. I read my #MeToo poem, which I felt was important, as copies of the book were on sale at the festival, and I had heard that the launch the night before had been so popular not everyone had got in!

My first thing on Saturday was an early visit to the legendary Poetry Market, where  one is sure to bump into friends and part with cash. The Red Squirrel stall was the first one in, and £20 left my purse with rapidity, as I wanted Elizabeth Rimmer’s Haggards  and Brian Johnstone’s Juke Box Jeopardy, continued the theme of music from the latter part f the 20th century, after Dr Zeeman’s.   I’d enjoyed Anne Pia’s poem the night before so I bought her book, and met Eileen Pun, finding we had a passion for book-making in common.

There were many great events I would have liked to have gone to on Saturday, but I’d left my ticket purchasing till we arrived, so that  limited my options. There were tickets left for the Don Paterson / Marie-Elsa Bragg conversation so I went into that and made a few notes, as it was an interesting topic, on the borders between poetry and prose.

My next event was the book launch of the W.S Graham anthology, which I had meant to submit to but forgot, so I did the next best thing and bought a copy. This was a lovely relaxed event. It was good to see Douglas Dunn again, and Rachel Boast read a Graham poem which was new to me, so beautifully, and a few other contributors got up and read theirs too. Vahni Capildeo read hers, and we had a brief chat afterwards. I have not yet had time to read the book, but it will be a joy to come I am sure.

Poetry Centre stage on Saturday night was something I had been looking forward to. William Letford presented us with poems from an apocalyptic imagined narrative of diary and poems, which was highly original, but the real highlight for me was Liz Lochhead in the second half. She was every bit as passionate and funny and entertaining as she was all those years ago when I first met her. Liz  encouraged me when I was a young poet, telling me I was a ‘born poet’ and I ‘had’ to publish. This was like someone who knew what she was talking about giving me ‘permission’, and it made all the difference to me. To my utter amazement and joy, she remembered me right away, and we had a lovely chat after she’d done all her book signing. I promised her a copy of my latest book, and made good on that the next day.

I decided not to attend the slam, because although the quality is high and I wanted to support friends who were in it, I find it very hard to cope with the audience noise, which is why I normally avoid slams. So it was an early night for me on Saturday.

I have been to the masterclass every time I have been to StAnza, because it’s fascinating. Gillian Allnutt chaired it calmly with many good insights, but perhaps there could have been a little more on where the poems were less successful. A few of us got into a little huddle afterwards to continue the discussion, which was fascinating, as we all made similar points about what we would have liked to have said had there been time.

There was time for a quick lunch at Zest cafe before going to hear Polly Atkin and Gerry Loose. I’d been looking forward to Polly’s reading (she was writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library this year, as myself and Katrina Naomi were in the past), and I’d bought Polly’s collection from her in person at StAnza 2017. As well as some great stuff from her books, she read a new poem imagining a bear in the library at Gladstone’s, inspired by the snow just after we left after spending the weekend there while she was nearing the end of her residency. Polly has a wonderful rich voice to listen to, which makes hearing her an aural pleasure, and her poems are just as rich, and sometimes strange and funny, too.

StAnza was starting to approach its last few events and I felt sad to think it was passing by so fast. I’d agreed to go and hear Gillian Allnutt with Liz Lochhead, so we sat together for the reading and then parted. I hope to keep in touch with her and I hope she thinks my poetry has developed over the years from those shy little poems she enthused about in my first book back in 1988.

After cooking a meal at the flat to avoid the Mother’s Day revellers, we both set off to the Festival Finale, which had excellent music and put us all in the party mood, though many friends had had to go by then, there were still plenty to chat to. StAnza is such a friendly festival, no-one stands on ceremony and I had some great chats with lots of poetry friends such as Linda Goulden, Sally Evans, Colin Will, Helen Ivory and Martin Figura, Sheilas Wakefield and Templeton, though only fleetingly in both cases, Brian Johnstone and Jean, Michael Augustin and Sujata Bhatt,  and many others already mentioned. I also made new friends or met Facebook friends in the flesh for the first time.

StAnza is a truly international festival with a very Scottish home. Having the Byre as a focus brings people together and the very air seems filled with the passion for poetry that brings us there. It’s massively inclusive and welcoming. This was my fourth time and I think I enjoyed it the most, because now I feel relaxed and at home, no longer shy.

Thank you so much to Eleanor Livingstone and the rest of the team, the polite and friendly volunteers and everyone involved. Hope you see you all again next year!



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Ten Ways to Keep Depression At Bay

Yesterday I posted about the Please Hear What I’m Not Saying Anthology for MIND. I have been medicated three times for depression, and I absolutely needed it each time. They were all work-related. Now I work for myself, much of that stress is relieved. I find the medication numbs me so I cannot write poetry, and writing poetry is essential to my well-being. So for myself, I have rejected medication.

So how do I stave off depression? Caveat: these work for me but may not work for you, and the battle is often with the dreadful lethargy that is one of the main symptoms of depression, and that stops one doing anything. I find it helps to spot the signs and take evasive action while the energy to do so is still around.

  1. Take some time every day to go outdoors, even if it’s just a stroll round the garden, a walk to the shops or in the park, or ten minutes on a bench outside with a blanket and a flask of tea.
  2. Set some small achieveable goals every day. Simple things like getting a shower, getting dressed, making the bed. Then at the end of the day, when you feel another wasted day has gone by, you can remind yourself of these small accomplishments.
  3. Take exercise, because that increases seratonin in the brain. Can a friend pick you up and take you swimming, is there somewhere nearby where you can walk or run? Try an exercise video at home, from YouTube, or do some gentle yoga. Salute to the Sun is a great way to start the day. Or put a good track on and have a 5 minute dance-athon. You might feel so good you want to carry on longer.
  4. Housework is one of the things that can seem overwhelming, and like self-care, often goes by the board. But if you can choose a daily goal of tidying or cleaning one small thing, like the sink area, or clearing a surface, it really lifts the mood.
  5. Take Vitamin D.
  6. Although junk food is very tempting, such as chocolate for a quick lift, try to eat nourishing foods, plenty of fruit and veg, and if possible, keep away from ready meals.
  7. Spend some time with a pet or small child. Animals and small humans live in the present and are fun to be around.
  8. I find crafting really helps me. If I have some knitting on the go, or some hand sewing, I can sit down to do it, and even if I only do a little, it feels like an accomplishment and gives me a reason to look forward. I don’t do jigsaws anymore, but they can achieve the same thing.
  9. Do something nice for someone else. Even if it’s just an email, a phone call, a small gift, a genuine compliment, it will make you feel better that you have brightened someone else’s day.
  10. Read poetry. A poem can only take a minute to read, and a lifetime to remember. Poetry is a consolation. Poetry tells you you are not alone.



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Please Hear What I’m Not Saying


Mental health is a massive problem in our society, and prevents some people from enjoying their life and coping with the stresses of the modern world, which can be a pressurised and noisy  place. We are constantly bombarded with things we ought to buy, things we ought to be doing and the demands of full time work with insufficient leisure and family time. Some people who know me might be aware that I suffer from depression from time to time. I also have anxiety, indeed the two often go together. I am fortunate that these are relatively mild, and I have developed strategies to overcome them when I feel they are starting to dominate. I am very confident in some areas of my life, but I am also a highly sensitive person, and things can affect me for years. For example, my anxiety around travel alone at night stems from an experience when I was only 17, and coming back from a theatre trip by train.

I don’t very often write about my struggles, but occasionally a few poems do make themselves known and insist on being written. When Isabelle Kenyon asked for poems on mental health for a new anthology she was compiling, I sent her three poems on the topic and was delighted when she wanted to include them all.  Mental health is an important part of well-being, and problems can strike anyone at any time: it does not discriminate. I decided to send the poems because we all need to talk about mental illness. It should not be a taboo subject. It is not a sign of weakness. It can be a sign of bearing too much for too long in silence. It is an illness like any other, but one which is neglected and under-funded. The book is a charity anthology for MIND, and all profits go to that organisation. So in buying the book, you will be learning, helping, and reading some vert accessible and honest poems too. I don’t want to single any one poet out, but I have been reading my copy and I can see there is something here for everyone.

Isabelle has structured the book in sections, and it represents a journey through pain and the recognition of difficulties, to a more positive ending where solutions are being found, help is sought and given and some sunshine asserts itself. It is not a depressing read, but a fascinating one.It covers a wide range of experiences and there is plenty of light and shade. There are well known poets included alongside the more obscure.

It is a lovely thick book, with plenty of white space around the poems. It feels good in the hand and is easy to flick through and dip into. It is available on Amazon for £10.99 post free.





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The Poetry Police

There has been something of a controversy recently in the poetry goldfish bowl. I don’t want to get into the McNish versus Watts debate, because I can see both sides, but from a range of comments on the offending article in P.N.Review, an interesting discussion has been going on about what the ‘rules’ or conventions of poetry are. There are people who feel only poems which rhyme can be called poems. Others extol the virtues of punctuation, learning about scansion and metre, and being well versed in the reading of poetry by other people. This is the debate that constantly rumbles on. What IS poetry?

A poem is not defined by the toolbox it uses. A different poem by the same poet might be conventional, with rhyming, scanning quatrains, or it might be loose, open field, intertexual, or anything at all. For my money, I let the poem get involved in its own form. If it wants to be a sonnet, who I am to deny the poem what it needs. A good poem is far more than the tools it chooses.

My avant garde poetry friends tell me they are fed up with their school of poetry being seen as ‘not proper poetry’. It is true that prizes and awards often go to poets who have come down the more conventional route or write within the tradition. There is a plurality of poetries but some are definitely more in favour with the grander publishers and the prize culture. Performance poems vary from stonkingly brilliant to barely disguised rants or stand up, with different skill levels, and performance counts more than the words on the page. Poets are at different stages of the skill. I for one constantly seek to develop and improve my practice.

It’s been good to see some poets break through these establishment barriers. Poets like Pam Ayres are followed by Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest, and now Rupi Kaur, into the popularity charts, not because they are approved of by the literary establishment, but because the public, READERS, want to buy their books. Pam Ayres was on the telly, and McNish and Tempest have also broken through the glass ceiling because they get out there and get attention for the work, often using social media. Getting exposure for the work leads to finding a good publisher, who then makes lots of money from these big sellers. What doesn’t happen, but should, is that more poetry should be published by these presses, who can afford to take a risk, but instead it falls to the work of the small presses to fill that gap. Book chain stores like Waterstones still have dreadfully thin poetry sections despite the clear evidence that poetry DOES sell, provided the public get to hear about the poet through TV or other media.

For me, there is room for McNish (who does a lot for poetry) and for Watts, who herself as a book with Carcanet. Lots of people are writing poetry these days. If only they all read it too! It is a pity that the media are only really interested in poetry either as adverts or when controversy is stirred up. Really, it’s like a quarrel in the kitchen about the right way to bake a cake. If the result tastes good, it doesn’t matter how it’s made.

Eat a poem a day.






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To Frances

How lovely to see this article, written in France, about The Lightfoot Letters.


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”                                       “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

  « Dites-moi, je vous prie, de quel côté faut-il me diriger ? »                                               « Cela dépend beaucoup de l’endroit où vous voulez aller, » dit le Chat.


Alice au pays des merveilles, Lewis Carroll

Maria Walker cherchait au hasard, sans véritable idée précise, des matériaux pour ses créations dans une boutique d’Antiquité du Cheshire..Quel chemin allait-elle prendre? Ce jour-là, c’était en 2006, elle n’était pas en quête de tissu mais souhaitait trouver quelque chose comme des vieux papiers ou des timbres…

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January 20, 2018 · 2:32 pm

The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

I am not the only one who thinks like this.

Angela Topping

There has been discussion about what a poet is and whether one can confer the title on oneself. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I…

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Nothing but Rain


Edward Thomas joined up to fight of his own free will. He was just starting to come into his own as a poet when he was killed. This poem of mine refers to two of his poems, ‘Rain’ and ‘Words’, two poems I have loved for years.

In this poem, from The Five Petals of Elderflower, I have wishes for him but for every other person killed in war. World War One, like all wars, was indiscriminate in its killing: ‘poets and painters and musicians,
labourers and farm hands, thinkers and doers’ all perished, along with those killed by their own side who had become too traumatised to fight, conscientious objectors, who deserve to be admired for taking a stand, but who also suffered from poor treatment and even imprisonment in many cases.

The great war deprived me of three great uncles. Two were killed in France: Nicholas Lawler and Frederick Coyne, and James Lawler survived the war but died in his 50s as a result of bad health caused by being gassed. He walked with a stick and only had sight in one eye. As a child growing up it never occurred to me why I only had great aunts.

I was moved to see Nicholas Lawler’s name on the Theipval monument, but next time I go on a battlefields tour I hope to find Frederick’s grave. Nicholas’ body was never found.

This poem is for all of them.


Nothing but Rain

The window pane is streaked and spotted.
The beech hedge offers little comfort to birds.
Water puddles in the road, car headlamps sheen.
The bird feeder bobs on the almond branches.

Edward Thomas wrote about rain like this,
that drenched and seeped through fustian uniform.
He sheltered in a shed and heard rain drum
on the corrugated iron room, in such despair

as he’d been able to assuage by tramping
fields and woods where he lived in England.
No such warmth for him now, days or weeks
away from death, in a war that wasted

poets and painters and musicians,
labourers and farm hands, thinkers and doers
as trenches filled with mud and blood.
Even the weather was against them.

Rain is still as wet, and drips into poems
like this one, but each one after his
calls out in fellow feeling, as if his Rain
and ours is the same, as if shelter would come

and safety, and warmth and life, like mine
by this coal fire, time for his English words,
to flock into his mind with feathery lines,
so he could once more sing of birds.

Angela Topping



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