Tag Archives: Menna Elfyn

My StAnza 2019 highlights


One highlight happened in advance. This year I was invited to write a commissioned poem to be part of the visual installation which loops in the Byre throughout the festival. Commissions are always a fun challenge because they take a poet out of their comfort zone. Postcards were made too, so it was lovely that people could take copies home, in a kind of ‘collect the set’ game.

This was my fifth StAnza, and I’ve got to the stage now where I have actually made friends there and look forward to seeing them again, as well as the raft of friends from the Scottish poetry scene and beyond, that I mostly made at Sally Evans’ wonderful Poetry Scotland weekends at Callander, now finished but huge fun while they lasted. It’s always tricky for me to get to anything in March, because it’s a peak time for the lectures I do for Sovereign, and World Book Day is during the same period. These days I mark the dates in my diary and try to keep them available. It’s become a fixture.

I would have liked to have arrived sooner, as I missed many good things, such as Emma Jones on Christina Rossetti – ironic because I’d spent weeks preparing a lecture on Rossetti myself which I delivered on 6th in Manchester. I sadly missed Fiona Moore’s 5 O’Clock Verses as well as Sally Evans’ ‘Border Crossings’ reading. But I did arrive in time for some real delights. As soon as we had unpacked, I darted to The Byre to get tickets for the Centre Stage Readings for Friday and Saturday, and a few other things I was worried would sell out. Sadly my health made me miss far too much of Sunday, including the never-before-missed masterclass. However, I will focus on the events I did manage.

For me this year at StAnza, the female poets were my highlights. That’s partly down to what I could attend, but mostly down to the fact they were all stellar in different ways. Jacqueline Saphra is a clear and warm reader, with succinct commentaries where needed. The first part of her reading she shared poems from her earlier collections, which reminded me all over again why I enjoy her witty and inventive poems. Then she read her entire sequence of poems about Lee Miller, with photographs shown on the big screen. It was fascinating; one of those readings you come out of feeling you’ve learned something and been moved by it. I’d heard Menna Elfyn first at StAnza five years ago, when I was new to her work, so I simply had to see her again. She writes such glowing poems, but she gives us the joy of hearing them in Welsh first, and she switches between Welsh and English unexpectedly, so it helps the non-Welsh speaker stay tuned. Welsh is such a poetic language and by, does she know how to pull the harp strings of it. Her poems about Aberfan were particularly striking. I was only a little older than those children, and I can remember the shock of it happening, and how a village was robbed in one mud-slide of the voices of children ringing in their streets, and a vanished generation.

I had the pleasure of hearing Saphra again the next day, paired with Caroline Bird, on their favourite poets, in a delightful event at the town hall, just before the poets’ market got underway. Saphra on Edna St Vincent Millay and Bird on James Tate: what a happy thing to hear these two enthuse and read some favourite poems.  The Poets’ Market was its usual unmissable flurry of chat about poetry, greeting old friends, gathering an alternative book hoard and pop up events.

I’d heard the delightful Liz Berry before, so I knew I had to get a ticket for 5 O’Clock verses. She’s an enchanting and engaging reader, and she charmed me once again with her dialect lexical choices. I could dwell on phrases like ‘tranklement cabinets’ which chink so winsomely on the ear. But make no mistake, her poetry is tough, and she read poems about some difficult experiences, as well as a lush poem about men making love to each other in the bushes in a local park, which was full of zest for the physical.  Another poem that struck me was about how lonely it can be to just be with one’s baby all day, without adult contact. I’ve been there.

Revived by fish and chips with a dram, I went to hear Caroline Bird. I became very drawn to Caroline’s energy when I was on an Arvon course she tutored, on which she, alongside David Morley took the participants to places they never knew they could write of, painful places in our pasts. She bounded on stage, fresh as a morning rose, and greeted us with “‘ello”, full of enthusiasm as she always is. Caroline’s work is surreal and pursues metaphorical truth. She tends to recite rather than read, so her uncompromising gaze arrested the audience, and the reading went by in a flash.

The only event I managed on Sunday was one I was determined to attend. I had never heard Imtiaz Dharker read before and I was excited to have the joy of an hour of her work delivered personally. Her poetry reaches out; it’s people-centric. Her poem about the boys she crushed on turning into authors she loved is a hymn to libraries too. I can’t remember the title but I must track it down and get the book it’s in. If anyone knows the title, let me know in the comments.

That wasn’t quite the end of StAnza 2019 for me. The next day I had a reading in a primary school, as part of the festival’s outreach programme into the local community. There is so much enthusiasm for poetry in Scotland. I was booked for an hour but ended up doing an extra 20 minutes because I arrived early and they showed me straight in. It was great to be able to chat with the very engaged pupils in between poems, and one girl even noticed I was wearing a dress with a print of books on shelves, because I love reading so much.

We had four more nights in Scotland, post-StAnza, which gave me a chance to rest and sort out my health, helped by a lovely doctor in Blairgowrie who gave me an emergency appointment.  So let me also heap praise on the NHS in Scotland!

Already looking to block off some time for StAnza 2020. If you have never been, give it a go. It’s for poetry lovers everywhere, not just for people who write the stuff. And St Andrews is such a lovely part of a beautiful country.


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StAnza 2014: My highlights

I went to StAnza this year for the first time, invited up with the poetry and art exhibition, ‘The Lightfoot Letters’, in which I had collaborated with the wonderful Maria Walker. I went with no idea what to expect, except from what poet friends had told me about it: that it was friendly and celebratory. I’d have loved to have gone to the full day workshops with Jacob Polley and Vickie Feaver, which were leading up to it, but with other commitments and the need to mount the exhibition on our first day, it wasn’t possible. So my first event was the launch in the Byre. It was great to immediately find the redoubtable Sally Evans, who was with Colin Will and someone I didn’t know. She showed me where to hang my coat up and where the free wine was (she knows me so well). The launch was excellent: Eleanor Livingstone made a welcome speech which did its job perfectly, and we listened to some short performances. The soprano Angharad Rowlands, who sang exquisitely in Welsh, and the gentle-voiced Louis de Bernieres read us some of his poems. I hadn’t known poems were his first love. Afterwards I persuaded my husband to come to see Rime with me, which turned out to be incredbible, as young people performed heart-stopping acrobatics to portray the tale of the Ancient Mariner in a new way. I particularly liked the folk singing within this show. I think it is touring now so catch it if you can.


On Thursday 6th March, I attended a workshop with Brian Turner, American war poet, which I had booked in advance, as workshops are limited places and do tend to be sold out quickly. Brian was excellent, sharing the techniques used to write about war in a range of ways, and inviting us to try them out on a topic of our choice, after looking at poems which deployed them well. I really wish I’d been able to attend his reading in the evening, when he was sharing a stage with David Constantine (whose work I have liked for a very long time), but we were both exhausted and took a night off.

The next day I went to the Poetry Scotland showcase, with four terrific readers, two of which I had heard before and wanted more, and two new discoveries: Giuseppe Bartoli and Nikki Magennis. It was great to bump into Red Squirrel poet and friend, Elizabeth Rimmer, and indeed StAnza is a glorious meeting place of poets, greetings and hellos filled every venue. Katrina Naomi and Tim Ridley’s artist talk was interesting – I loved the way Tim had become more serious in his responses to his partner’s work, while Katrina’s poems became more playful, and I particularly liked her crocodile poem alongside Tim’s superbly sinister drawing. I read a poem at The Quiet Open Mic at Zest juicing bar, which was very ably run by Jim Carruth. The standard was high but it managed to be a relaxed event. It was great later on to hear John Burnside but such a pity I missed Tishani Doshi, who was reportedly brilliant. I’d hoped to read at the late night open mic but once again I was all out of stamina.


Saturday was a very full on day, and each day that passed I was more and more at home. The day began with a great workshop with John Greening (whom I had wanted to meet for ages as we have both written books for Greenwich Exchange). Again I got the start of several potentially good poems. I do think it’s important to go away from a poetry festival with some new work started. After soup in The Byre (where yummy food was served all week), I had a great time at the Poets Market, bumping into lots of friends including Pat Borthwick, Sheila Wakefield, Colin Will, and finally getting to meet Gerry Cambridge. Had a great natter with him about Norman MacCaig, swapping memories, and I bought a back copy of The Dark Horse with Gerry’s article on MacCaig, the old charmer. I bought lots of books – couldn’t help myself – to add to the three I got from JG Innes on the first day.

There were several great events on in the afternoon, but I had to go and deliver my artist talk at the exhibition, which was great fun. I have a couple of videos from that which I will post at a later date. I’d decided not to try to get into the Carol Ann Duffy reading because I had it had sold out, but there was live streaming in the Byre, had I but realised. I have heard our poet laureate read many times over the years, so I thought I’d let others have the chance. I did go to the Slam though, later on, but was so tired I only stayed for the first round. Great to see Sally owning the stage and the other performers were terrific too – the judges had a very tough time. I’d never been to a slam before.

Sunday was in many ways my best day because I was so relaxed after the artist talk  and had met lots more friends by then, and felt I’d been going to StAnza for years. Paul Muldoon’s masterclass was brilliant. It was interesting to discuss the poems chosen, and he asked probing questions of the audience, but the best part was at the start when he spoke about poetry, saying many things which I deeply feel and agree with. There was no soup left in The Byre, so we had lunch at the Chinese before I dashed off to read a poem about Scotland in the Poetry Tour of Scotland event in the studio theatre. This was hosted by Colin Will (who gave me a warm introduction, and Andy Jackson (of Split Screen fame), and featured an interactive map of Scotland and some really excellent poems by a range of Scotland’s best. I missed Stephen Raw’s events but had several looks at his inspiring exhibition and a chat with him about his process.

Later on Sunday night I went to support friend David Costello who was reading a poem at the launch of Poetry in Protest. I sat next to Paul Muldoon and had a private word with him about his excellent masterclass. Menna Elfyn was the first reader on the main stage for the closing night and she was nothing short of magical. I could have listened to her all night, in both Welsh and English, and her voice is so melodious, her words so right. Paul Muldoon took things slowly and I honestly felt like I was sitting at his kitchen table in Ireland, just soaking up his words and gorgeous accent. He even read some early stuff which I had been familar with for years – ‘Why Brownlee Left’ with one of the best line breaks ever, and ‘Anseo’, before moving on to newer poems. His chat between was both assured and modest. The festival closing party after that was just great, chatting, dancing (I didn’t but liked watching), getting a private look at some of Jean Johnstone’s artist books, meeting even more poets, and the sorrow that it was all over.

It’s just one of the best poetry experiences I ever had. It was buzzing. Poetry was on everyone’s lips. Image

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