Poetry review: StAnza Festival Online

This year’s StAnza programme threw up a whole host of highlights, some anticipated, some less-so, writes Susan Mansfield

Naomi Shihab Nye PIC: Ha Lam

Going to St Andrews in March has become a habit for poetry lovers – the clear spring light, the wind from the sea, the familiar venues. Not this year. While that vivid sense of place is sorely missed, Scotland’s international poetry festival – the last under director Eleanor Livingstone – has adapted well to the digital model, continuing many of the its regular features and adding new ones.

The impressive launch event brought together voices from around the world: Jane Frank in Brisbane, Naomi Shihab Nye in Texas, Maria Stepanova in Russia. If that event was a celebration of the scope of technology, Sunday’s tribute to Roddy Lumsden was a reminder that it can also create a community. While family, friends and poets remembered Roddy and his clever, playful writing, the chat box also buzzed with memories and tributes.

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One of the themes of StAnza this year is “Make it new,” but in a post-covid world which doesn’t quite feel ready to be made new, there was also a sense of drawing strength and consolation from the past. A special event celebrated Edwin Morgan, whose centenary this is, noting his legacy as a queer poet, albeit one who wrote about love with universal appeal. In his own reading, Edinburgh-based Russell Jones credited Morgan’s endlessly inventive work as the inspiration for his own science-fiction poems and poetry comics.

Raymond Antrobus PIC: Suki Dhanda

In a masterful lecture, Access All Areas, Jacqueline Saphra explored what it means to be a contemporary poet in “the palace of poetic tradition,” advocating not demolition of said palace, but moving in and making it one’s own. She set herself the task of writing a sonnet per day in lockdown, and found the structure of the form helped to contain the strangeness and anxiety of the period.

Always international in flavour, StAnza 2021 is marking the 30th anniversary of the break up of the Soviet Union with a rich strand of poets from former Eastern Bloc countries, including Polish writer Adam Jagajewski, Volha Hapeyeva from Belarus and the much anticipated return of Russia-born Ilya Kaminsky.

Young British poet Raymond Antrobus, who has won awards for his first collection The Perseverance, gave his reading from Oklahoma City where he had just survived a snow tornado. If his first collection was inspired by his Jamaican father, his forthcoming second book, All The Names Given, remembers his mother, a Hackney market trader, and grandfather, a preacher and poet.

Beamed from her home in South Texas, multi award-winning American poet Naomi Shihab Nye was a wise, perceptive voice, whether in her wry observations of life under lockdown or her quiet engagement with activism on behalf of her father’s country, Palestine. Engaging in serious topics with a light touch, she reminded us how poetry can quietly make things better, as it has for many people in the past year.

She was a StAnza highlight – if an anticipated one. And unanticipated? The pleasure of hearing poet and pamphlet publisher Helena Nelson read Ruth Pitter’s “The Rude Potato” – a gem of a comic poem from 1941. In the same way that comic actors rarely win Oscars, comic poets rarely win prizes, but Pitter’s verse was a joyful reminder of how both light verse and suggestively shaped vegetables can bring consolation in a troubled world.

StAnza continues until 14 March, and many of the readings will remain on the website until the end of March, see www.stanzapoetry.org

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