StAnza festival really does poetry justice

ST ANDREWS visit can cure verse adverse, writes Louise Robertson.

StAnza Festival director Eleanor Livingstone. Picture: Neil Doig

‘Scotland’s most chilled out festival.” “What an incredible event…” “I was blown away by the atmosphere.” “…a blockbuster, must-see festival.” “…fresh and interesting line-ups every year.” One of the great pleasures on the planet.”

This is just a tiny selection of some of the reviews and incredibly positive words used to describe one of Scotland’s leading festivals which took place last month. You might be surprised to find that the festival in question is StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. Yes, that’s right a festival dedicated to poetry.

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Poetry is a funny one, the very mention of poetry, poems or poets provokes reactions which are generally at polar opposites of each other with not much in the middle. For some poetry is just dull, plain and simple – it’s boring. But is it? Can you make such a sweeping statement about an art form? Of course not and if you think poetry is dull you must have missed the recent poetry revolution. Poets are incredibly talented people who come from all walks of life, write about everything and anything and can turn words into a full blown, mesmerising performance. Poetry is performance art and some of it is really pretty awesome.

So when exactly did poetry become so cool? I’m not just talking about a few days every March when StAnza turns a peaceful Fife coastal town into a hotbed of literary talent, literally buzzing with thousands of poetry diehards ready to party like it’s 1999… or something along those lines, I’m talking about everywhere. Take Lara Lee for example. Lara Lee has been wowing millions of viewers week after week as she stormed her way into Team Tom’s final three in The Voice. Who would have thought a spoken word poet would make it to the last twelve and the live shows in something as mainstream as the BBC’s primetime Saturday night reality show. See what I mean, poetry really is cool. 

Another poet who epitomises “cool” and simply oozes style is Hollie McNish. Winner of the Arts Foundation Spoken Word award and one of the headline acts at StAnza this year, Hollie is a performance poet and singer who straddles both the literary world and the pop scene and has appeared at venues such as Glastonbury and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Not only is Hollie gorgeous and chic and funny she writes poems about poo and stinky wee and sweaty feet inspired by her five-year-old daughter’s questions, hardly highbrow subjects for those who think poetry is beyond them. She is also incredibly clever and engaging and just someone you can’t help but like.

While poetry enjoys a revival that is making it more accessible and appealing to mainstream audiences someone has to take the credit for this image makeover. I guess it may as well be me, not me personally obviously but StAnza, and StAnza teams past and present who have created a winning formula by taking something as humble the spoken word and injected it with so much passion and vibrancy you have a festival up there with some of the best in the world. 

StAnza 2015 was the festival’s 18th year and what a cracker it turned out to be. One of this year’s highlights had to be the utterly gorgeous Kei Millar. Who knew poets could be so handsome? Not only did Kei perform to a sell-out audience, filling each and every one of the 216 seats in the Byre Theatre, his performance was live-streamed to another venue such was demand to hear him perform. Another highlight was the festival’s opening night show which saw the Byre transformed into a bohemian 1950s New York bar to depict the life of Dylan Thomas – definitely the rock’n’roll of the poetry world. And opening this year’s festival was Clive Russell, star of international hit TV show Game of Thrones who proved – in the words of the Courier – that “Tough men read poetry.”

But Stanza isn’t just about the cool side of poetry, it’s about poetry and the spoken word in its entirety and while this article has focused on the lighter side of the festival we can’t forget the literary greats such as Bill Manhire, Carolyn Forché, Simon Armitage, Alice Notley, Sinéad Morrissey, Ian Duhig and many, many more who make StAnza a truly wonderful festival.

StAnza is much more than just poetry. But don’t just take my word for it! Put the first weekend in March 2016 in your diary and head along to St Andrews to see what all the fuss is about. The StAnza team will be delighted to welcome you and show you a little piece of our world.

• Louise Robertson is press and media manager for Stanza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival.