Poetry review: StAnza festival, various venues, St Andrews

Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey described "I" as "the most dangerous and dynamic word at a poet's disposal."
Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey described "I" as "the most dangerous and dynamic word at a poet's disposal."
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“We didn’t choose the themes for this year’s festival in response to topical events,” said StAnza director Eleanor Livingstone. “Topical events overtook the themes.” Yet, intentional or not, the two themes of this year’s StAnza – “borderlines” and “the self” – speak directly to our present times, culturally and politically.

“Border Crossings” has been an event strand at StAnza for as long as anyone can remember, and 21 years after it was founded, Scotland’s international poetry festival is crossing as many borders as ever, hosting not only some of the best poets from the UK, but distinguished guests from Ireland, China and the Low Countries, including Dutch poet laureate Ester Naomi Perquin.

In the Brexit era, our awareness of borders is heightened, and with it an urgent desire to affirm what still unites us. Perquin, Dutch poet Thomas Mohlmann and Northern Irish poet Miriam Gamble were among those who addressed the subject of new and troubling borders, between the UK and Europe, between two halves of Ireland and between us and our neighbours, particularly those of other nationalities. Meanwhile Daljit Nagra, whose parents were Sikh Punjabi immigrants to Britain, explores in his most recent collection, The British Museum, problematic ideas of Britishness and minorities.

Yet borderlands can also be a creative places. Physicist and poet Iggy McGovern explored the hinterland between poetry and science, Julie Johnstone and Flemish writer and artist Lies Van Gasse probed the divisions between poetry and visual art, and novelist and Anglican priest Marie-Elsa Bragg entered into a rich and rambling discussion with poet Don Paterson, ostensibly about the boundaries between poetry and prose, but ranging much more widely across writing, the spiritual and the nature of inspiration.

The subject of “the self” is equally timely. In the age of social media, the sharing of our selves has never been so ubiquitous.In an illuminating lecture on “Persona, trauma and authenticity in contemporary poetry”, the award-winning Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey spoke of her own ambivalence about the personal voice in poetry, describing “I” as “the most dangerous and dynamic word at a poet’s disposal”.

She spoke of her sense of distaste at Sylvia Plath’s “ravenous” self-expression, in which everything in the world around her is appropriated to express her own emotions, and praised contemporary poet Denise Riley who, in A Part Song, wrote about her grief for her son while successfully negotiating a path among the pitfalls of personal writing.

At a breakfast discussion, spoken-word artist Sara Hirsch – who later gave a warm and engaging lunchtime performance – described how she had learned how to use the personal in her work, treading a line between authenticity and protecting herself from intrusive questions.

But the power of a personal story was more than affirmed in a fascinating event in which Brian Johnstone, the former director of StAnza, and Italo-Scot Anne Pia discussed their memoirs. Johnstone’s book, Double Exposure, tells the story of the family secrets which emerged after the deaths of his parents, while Pia, in A Language of My Choosing, has dug into the story of her Italian family’s hidden past.

Throughout the festival, poets negotiated the personal in a range of ways. Sometimes, it would come to the fore: in Liz Lochhead’s elegy for her mother, William Letford’s poem for his cousin’s wedding, Will Harris’ poem about his father’s illness. But these were mediated by considerable craft: not splurges of emotion but, first and foremost, good, well-crafted poems.

Meanwhile, others played games with the idea of self. Jacob Polley’s blistering fourth collection Jackself, which won the coveted T S Eliot Prize in 2016, is a series of fictional poems about a character who is nonetheless called “Jack Self”. Mark Ford began his compelling reading from his soon-to-be-published collection, Enter Fleeing, by saying: “These poems are all true. I don’t make things up. Well, not much…”

Michael Symmons Roberts has invented a city, much in the way that Polley has invented a character: Mancunia, a part-real, part-mythic version of Manchester, while Dublin poet Tara Bergin spoke of her surprise and enjoyment in discovering she could invent characters. As the writer Katharine Mansfield once said: “True to oneself! Which self?”

It has been a festival of poetry at its best – diverse, surprising, contemporary – by writers at the height of their powers. Up and coming talent William Letford – now working on an intriguing new collection set in post-apocalyptic Scotland – shared a bill with Scots makar Liz Lochhead, who read work old and new, between them representing a spectrum of poetry in authentic Scottish voices. It has been a festival which demonstrates that poetry is – to steal a line from Rachael Boast, another of the festival’s highlights – “the power of speech at its most extraordinary”.