Tag Archives: St Andrews

My StAnza 2019 highlights

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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: The Lightfoot Letters

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We set off on Tuesday morning, with all the art work for the exhibition, ‘The Lightfoot Letters’, neatly stacked in the car. Wednesday morning was spent putting up the exhibition in the Preservation Trust Museum, assisted by the curator, Sam, who was a fantastic help. It took over four hours but we were very pleased with how it all looked. A lot of people came up to me during the week wanting to discuss the exhibition, which was lovely. It really was an amazing co-incidence that Maria Walker had purchased the letters long before she met me and we had both produced work on the family prior to starting to work together. As I said at the artists’ talk, in a sense both of us were collaborating with the letter writers as well as each other. Maria often used words from the letters as a title for a work, or included the words on the art. I referenced the letters a lot in the new poems I had written for the project, for example, in my poem about my grandmoher Ada Lightfoot, nee Woodward, whom I never met as she died in 1933, I synthesised details from her marvellous letters.

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We managed to hang these large versions of the letters, scanned and printed onto cloth, above the door lintel in the Preservation Trust, with sterling work from my husband scaling tall ladders to screw the battens in. One of my grandmother’s letters is on the right. The one on the left is from my grandfather, and includes the words about the hot pot supper he is attending: I will have to use a knife and fork but I would rather have a spoon’. He always liked his food, but was tall and slim all his life. Maria produced two stunning pieces inspired by his words; you can just see the spoons piece to the left of the doorway. 

Maria had not yet done any work on the theme of skating when we met, as one of her main research interests is women’s lives. But my dad wrote three letters to his older sister during this intense 3 month period when she was away from home, and in all of them he is obsessed with skating. I worked hard at a poem to do him justice, and Maria found it a good way in to produce several wonderful pieces about skating, culminating in the amazing hanging she made, which appears to be floating from a typewriter.

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Eleanor Livingstone, the Director of StAnza, suggested that my poem, ‘Father, Skating’ be displayed on a window in The Byre, as a trail to the exhbition. It’s the first time that the poem has not been in large vinyl letters in the actual exhibition, but there would not have been space in the actual upstairs room where everything else was shown, so this was an inspired idea. I am grateful to Anja Konig for noticing it as at that point I had not been up to the studio theatre, so I hadn’t actually spotted it. 

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It was gratifying to have pointed it out to Paul Muldoon as we were walking past it discussing his masterclass, though I did not of course mention the fact that I had submitted the poem to The New Yorker, with a disappointing result! It’s more important to me that people tell me they love this poem, and the main thing for me is that my dad skates on between the lines and is still 12 years old and carefree.

This was the first time the exhibition has been shown outside of Cheshire, and it is also the first time it has featured at a Poetry Festival. Maria and I will always be grateful to Eleanor for noticing the art and poetry collaboration in this way and inviting us. She is truly a director with a finger on the pulse of poetry. We would love it if other poetry festivals would take up the exhibition. We also offer an artists’ talk and workshops if required. And of course I love performing the poems in the sequence, which appear in my book Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012) and the chapbook The Lightfoot Letters, which also includes the text of some of the letters themselves (Erbacce 2011). Maria and I still dream that a big publisher will one day be interested in publishing a book of the letters, poems and artwork. The letters themselves are amazing social history and there is still a lot in them to be mined.

 

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StAnza 2014

I have never been to StAnza before and had been hoping to fit a visit in this year, so imagine my delight when I was actually invited to attend as a participant, an honour I had only previously dreamed of! Eleanor Livingstone, one of the directors, had seen information and artwork from The Lightfoot Letters exhibition, which was a collaboration between myself and textile artist Maria Walker.  The exhibition has been shown at The Brindley, Runcorn, Visual Arts Cheshire in Northwich (the kind and generous poet John Hegley came to the private view on that occasion) and Waterside at Sale. But StAnza is the first time it has been shown outside Cheshire.

The exhibition will take place throughout the duration of the festival at the Preservation Trust Museum, with the artists talk taking place on the Saturday afternoon. My poem ‘Father, Skating’ will be in the Byre, in vinyl letters (which I still think of as a form of magic), acting like a trailer for the exhibition.

So this week I am busy preparing for the festival, sorting out my itinerary (because I hope to immerse myself in poetry and attend as many events as possible) and making notes of where I need to be and when.I hope to turn up to open mics to join in, bump into lots of friends and drag them back to the holiday house for coffee/wine/supper. I’m going to Paul Muldoon’s masterclass and John Greening’s events. Normally the exhibition has been mounted for us, but for the first time I am going to be involved in the curation, which was the best logistical way to do it this time.

I know that StAnza is a wonderful festival. Everyone has told me how much fun I will have. I am really grateful to Eleanor’s keen eye and awareness of what is going on, even in distant Cheshire. The programme is very full with lots of variety and many wonderful poets. And yes, I’ve been warned to take lots of jumpers and woolies! Image

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