The inspiring StAnza Poetry festival

NO MAN is an island, as John Donne wrote in a poem, of course. No poet is an island either, though there is something island-like about them, each one distinct, each voice unique. This becomes particularly apparent when they congregate together, as at the StAnza Poetry Festival this week in St Andrews.

Glyn Maxwell, whose StAnza Lecture  about the stanza itself  was funny, profound and personal. Picture: Contributed

One of the themes of the festival this year is “An Archipelago of Poetry”, and it quickly became clear just how much good poetry touches on and is inspired by islands. The first reading of the festival, a Border Crossings event on Thursday morning, illustrated this powerfully by evoking two islands thousands of miles apart both geographically and culturally.

Shara McCallum left Jamaica when she was nine to live first in the USA and now in the UK, but the voices and stories of the island of her birth continue to course through her poetry, from the mythical Calypso speaking in Caribbean patois to the stories of her own maternal grandmother.

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“I always have to go to the edge of things,” McCallum said. In particular, she seeks out the edges of water, describing how, on arriving in St Andrews, she headed straight out to walk on the West Sands. This, too, is a tendency of poets, to look for borders and edges, and find the sharpness of inspiration there.

The island of South Uist could hardly be more different from Jamaica in texture, climate and colours, yet there was an evident harmony between McCallum’s work and that of fellow reader Henry Marsh. Though Marsh is not a native of the Hebrides, South Uist is where he started writing, after meeting a local bard, and its landscapes are deeply embedded in his work.

Marsh’s other great interest is history, and his poems mix the history and myths of the island with its contemporary life, so that the legend of a buried Celtic princess becomes as real as the man fixing his tractor, singing in Gaelic while he works.

Welsh poet Sheenagh Pugh said she was unable to write about landscape for its own sake until she moved to Shetland, where she now lives. Since then, her work has undergone a transformation as the particular light and weather of the Northern Isles has come to permeate her poems.

Short-sightedness, Pugh says, means that she “sees everything slightly differently – not a bad thing for a poet”. So, if a pile of bin bags down the street becomes, for a moment, a group of grazing capybara, why shouldn’t it be one? Like Marsh, she shares an interest in “the cobwebbed corners of history”, and in the way in which figures on the edge of things provide a new perspective, from Dr Johnson’s cat and Lord Cardigan’s horse, to the British wife of a Roman soldier garrisoned in South Shields.

The transformation which takes place when a familiar concept is revealed in a new light is one of the marvels of poetry. Poet and academic Glyn Maxwell took this a step further by shining that unexpected light on poetry itself. Invited to give the StAnza Lecture, he quickly announced that his topic would be the poetic stanza.

Far from a dry dissection of the poetic craft, his lecture was funny, profound and personal, beginning with a masterful dissection of the nursery rhyme “Who killed cock robin?” – “English literature’s first, and arguably worst, whodunit”. For all its failings, however, it was one of the first works in which Maxwell experienced the stanza, the peculiar magic created when words are grouped in a certain way which is part of the spell of poetry.

He wove into into his provocation works by some of the greats – George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold – and a discussion of the importance of white space, of the silence which surrounds a poem and brings an energy of its own. Which brings us to one of the great beauties of StAnza, the way the festival allows us to encounter the work of world-class poets, dead or alive, and introduces audiences to important poets of today, from Anglo-American Anne Stevenson, with memories of Norman MacCaig and a succinct take on radicalised Islam, to Maxwell himself, whose own work is so funny and approachable it frequently belies its own cleverness.

He shared the first Poetry Centre Stage event with leading American poet Alice Notley, a multi-award winner and Pulitzer finalist. She read with a thrumming energy both from new unpublished work and from her long poem “Negativity’s Kiss”, “a noir poem with characters, story, violence, cops, everything we like about the crime novel except the tedium of detail”. Again, they could scarcely be more different, a reminder of how various poetry is, how each poetic voice is as unique as an island.

• The StAnza Poetry Festival is on at various venues in St Andrews until Sunday,