It has been 15 years since the inaugural StAnza festival was held in St Andrews.Since 1998, it has grown beyond even the most buoyant of expectations. It is now one of the top three poetry festivalsin the UK, and has no equal in the role it plays in both promoting Scottish poetry internationally and in bringing international poetry to Scotland. This year, the festival will run from 6 to 10 March and will draw an eye- watering 78 participants to town, many of whom make no claims to be poets. In fact, StAnza is proud to engage in a broader, more multifaceted approach to poetry.
In an interview with The Saint a representative for the festival pointed out that, as well as traditional poetry performances and discussions, the festival features “the biggest names in performance and spoken word, poetry related films, music and visual arts.” By way of example, the ‘Farlin’ exhibition located in the Town Hall in Queens Gardens features pairings of poets and craftmakers “[taking] part in creative dialogues primarily using contemporary digital communication.” Meanwhile, who wouldn’t be enticed by the ‘Poetry Cabaret’, involving St Andrews graduate Harry Giles with Rachel McCrum? Among the eclectic mix is also a performance by the University’s ‘Buchanan Scholarship Quartet’, featuring students Maebh Martin (violin), Mairi Warren (violin), Felix Kress (viola) and Andrew Duncan (cello).
Behind this diverse exploration of poetry, however, there is a common thread as the Spectator notes: StAnza “holds one thing at its core: the gently unfurled love for words that characterises Scotland’s renewed vision for poetry.” This year, this “love for words” has drawn figures like Mark Doty, Liz Lochhead and John Hegley to the festival. With them are a number of representatives of the University’s School of English, including Professors (and poets) John Burnside and Robert Crawford, Professor Rhiannon Purdie, and poet Jacob Polley. Meanwhile, one of the success stories of StAnza has been that of participant Rachael Boast who once volunteered as a student at the festival and has since gone on to win a number of awards for her first collection of poetry, including the prestigious Seamus Heaney Prize.
The StAnza festival will be spread over 21 venues in and around St Andrews. From the evocative Balmungo House on the outskirts of town, to ‘Zest Juicing and Coffee Shop’ on Market Street, the idiosyncrasies of the venues befit and complement those of the events located within them. Each performance, although being regularly repeated in the same venues, pulses with the vigour of being a fleeting and ephemeral experience. The festival “hub” once located so surely and comfortably in the (now doomed) Byre Theatre has moved to the Town Hall in Queens Gardens. Here it is expected that poets and poetry fans will co-mingle to the late night jazz or “open mic” events as they take in the “Victorian Gothic grandeur” of their new setting.
Were it not for the intimate symbiosis between the festival and its setting, StAnza would seem too big, and too important for a small town like St Andrews. But the marriage has been happy one and makes for a unique and vibrant spectacle every year as the ranks of poets file into town. As they settle in at the drinking holes, disused barns or under the hedgerows which will be their homes for the next four days, they will no doubt revel in the evocativeness of the town. And for the four days of StAnza this year the little town of St Andrews will again spark with their fevered and inspiring creative energy.