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.