Poetry Review: StAnza 2009

IT WAS about halfway through the final day of StAnza 2009 that someone compared the festival to T in the Park. And while poetry is not quite the new rock'n'roll, year on year StAnza feels more like a festival.

There's a festival buzz about the Byre Theatre, with poets from around the world shooting the breeze, while students recite verses to anyone who'll listen. And there's a confidence about the way in which StAnza embraces poetry in all its colours: poetry in translation; poetry on the walls; poetry in theatre, and in performance (the StAnza Slam in the Byre's Studio Theatre sold out so quickly that it was moved into the main space).

Breakfast discussions tackled contentious issues, while late-night events and lunchtime cabarets celebrated the spoken word. World slam champion Elvis McGonagall took on the issues of the day – from fat-cat bankers to peace-envoy prime ministers – while making his audience laugh so much they could barely eat their macaroni pies.

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And there were those who are not poets, though Ian Rankin did admit that he once tried to write the Cardenden version of The Waste Land. Describing himself as a "poet manqu", he described the epiphany which turned him against poetry as a career: Freshers Week, Edinburgh University, 1978, when he saw Ron Butlin selling books from a satchel in a student union bar, "and I thought if I wanted to be a full-time writer, I'd better choose a different form".

Both he and Hardeep Singh Kohli were converts to poetry in their teens, and Singh Kohli said he had recently returned to it, both reading it and writing it. He waxed lyrical about the poetic potential of Twitter: could it be that the poets of the future will be tweeting haiku to each other?

It was a questioner in the audience at Singh Kohli's event who described poetry as "tilting the mirror": showing us the familiar in a new way. We saw so much of life reflected at this year's StAnza, from Barack Obama's inauguration to the war on terror, from the train timetables of Southern France to the coffee shops of Huddersfield, from the theory of antimatter to the matter of Peter Pan's shadow. All reflected, and yet all seen afresh.

Then there's the way in which New Zealand's Jenny Bornholdt gently wove together the simple things of life and the profound: the building of a garden shed, the loss of a parent, the illness of a child. And the way in which Alan Gillies conjured the voice of a young female soldier in Basra, with ballsy brashness and lingering sadness.

There was a proliferation of sonnets – from Gillies and Patience Agbabi, Carol Ann Duffy and Elvis McGonagall ("Shall I compare thee to the Dog and Duck?") – and villanelles a-plenty, and Julia Copus's form which she has called the "specula", a poem like a palindrome, in which the second half mirrors the first. Agbabi was so impressed that she decided to write one herself, so we heard that too.

The festival ended on a note of affirmation, with Helen Dunmore's poem Glad of These Times, which reminded us, briefly, how lucky we are. Glad of these days in March when the sun shone and the rich spectrum of poetry in this country made a little town in Scotland feel like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.