StAnza: The poetry festival that almost never happened

SOMETIMES life throws you a curve-ball laced with irony. The organisers of the StAnza Poetry Festival had just printed their programme for 2013, with “legacy and place” as a central theme, when their flagship venue, The Byre Theatre, went into receivership. Overnight, and with next to no warning, the festival found itself displaced, and with a legacy of challenges not of its own making.

Yet when this year’s StAnza ended on Sunday, director Eleanor Livingstone could rightly proclaim it had been “a festival to remember – and one that looked at one point as though it might not happen”. That it did happen, and that it was organised so smoothly that many visiting artists were unaware of the behind-the-scenes drama in finding alternative venues, was due to the sterling efforts of Livingstone and her team.

When it opened its doors on Wednesday last week, StAnza delivered as strong and varied a programme as ever. Despite – or arguably because of – the cold weather, audience numbers were actually up. What they saw was a celebration of poetry in all its forms: poems read and performed, written on walls, projected on ceilings; poems in Scots, Gaelic, Welsh, Romanian, Catalan; poems from places as different as Newfoundland and Transylvania; poems set to music, turned into art or theatre, or sung (by John Hegley) with a ukelele.

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It was a programme packed with prizewinners, makars and laureates, no fewer than three last Thursday alone. Edinburgh makar Ron Butlin was the first, giving us his take on his “place”, Scotland’s capital described with a fond but incisive eye. Then, in the evening, Scots makar Liz Lochhead shared the bill with Gillian Clarke, the national poet of Wales, two strong women at the height of their poetic powers.

Clarke delivered the annual StAnza Lecture on The Gododdin, affirming (even ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations rugby match) the kinship between Scotland and Wales. Though written in Welsh, the place of The Gododdin is Scotland: the language was spoken throughout lowland Britain until the Middle Ages, so the poem “belongs equally” to both countries.

Clarke’s latest book, Ice, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, as was the first collection by English poet Sean Borodale. His “place” is less geographically specific, but distinctly rural, domestic, in which subjects such as bee-keeping and jam-making become unsettling, visceral when filtered through his intricate mesh of words.

Few poets write better about place than Andrew Greig, yet as he told Catherine Lockerbie in a fascinating event on Saturday, he doesn’t write as a naturalist, inspired directly by what he sees in front of him. Instead, some distancing process is involved, so inspiration might come instead from a sense of yearning that arises because of what time has subsequently taken away. Thus his poetry can recall the tidal swimming pools of Fife as fluently and fluidly as his prose can memorialise his golf-playing, father. Whatever the truth about a fonder heart, in Greig’s case absence definitely makes the pen write sharper. Yet there’s far more to his poetry than absence or nostalgia alone: indeed, as a reading from his enchanting new work Found At Sea revealed – it’s about a “mini-odyssey” with a friend to a now uninhabited island off Orkney – perhaps the real key to his work is a meditative middle-aged joie de vivre.

Nature writing of a more direct kind was the subject of the best of the Poetry Café Breakfast discussions, which put eco-poetry under the spotlight. As Andrew Foster put it, “Writing about place is a way of feeling at home in it.” Why is there eco-poetry but no eco-novel? the panel was asked. Er, there is, said poet Mandy Haggith. “I’ve just written one,” (Bear Witness, Saraband, 25 April).

As well as a strong Welsh contingent – among them Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Deryn Rees Jones and Samantha Wynne Rhydderch – there was a strong European flavour. George Szirtes, who came to the UK from Hungary as a refugee in the 1950s, brought us a sense of wider connection, both in his own work and in presenting the work of other European poets, including the excellent Romanian poet Robert Serban.

Is there a distinct European poetics? Perhaps that discussion has no conclusion, but there is much of interest to find along the way. Meanwhile, North American was strongly represented too, by Canadian poets Ken Babstock and Erin Moure, and the marvellous Mark Doty, the first American to win the TS Eliot Prize. From Singapore, Alvin Pang proved that even poetry written in the cultural mash-up language of Singlish (Malay, Chinese and sing-song English) had immense verve and humour.

All of which brings us on to the performance poets. Jacob Sam-La Rose had just flown in from a gig in Chicago, and from his opening poem, which asked the audience to signal if they shared his dreams, dominated the stage. It’s not hard either to predict great things for Luke Wright, not least when he is tearing up the stage with his “Drunken Train” routine. Luke Kennard, though, was an absolute revelation. He’ll probably hate being described as a “performance” poet – his work has won and been shortlisted for major awards and he is an academic who teaches creative writing at Birmingham university – but his performance persona is of a quietly manic Hugh Grant. He may insist that he’s not really posh (“I’m lower middle-class really: I just listened to a lot of Famous Five audio tapes”) but he could certainly fool us, and his “Wolf” poems – in which he is verbally torn apart by a class-conscious alter ego – had us howling with laughter. Someone should give this man a Radio 4 contract immediately.

It is appropriate that a festival such as StAnza looks outwards, but the nature of poetry is to look inwards too. As Ron Butlin reminded us, next year’s independence referendum prompts reflections on who we are as a nation. He spoke of it with optimism, as did Christopher Whyte, voicing (in Gaelic) a poem which is both a celebration of male love and a hope for a future of greater inclusiveness.

This year’s StAnza bowed out, though, with another Scottish poet at the height of his powers. Robin Robertson is always a powerful reader of his own work, but flu left him sounding, he said, “more sepulchral than necessary”. The other way of putting that is “more intense than ever”, each whispered word in his readings from his new collection, Hill of Doors, as fought for and absorbing as this year’s festival itself.