6.30PM: Festival & Exhibitions Launch, Byre Bar
(Words & photography: Lottie Garton)
The atmosphere in the Byre Theatre was electric as a crowd waited, wine in hand, for the official launch of this year’s StAnza poetry festival.
Festival director Eleanor Livingstone congratulated StAnza on reaching its 18th annual event, which this year includes over 100 exhibitions, with participants travelling from as far as New Zealand to take part.
As an introduction to this year’s talent, there were a few sneak previews of upcoming events, with poets Shara McCullum, Glyn Maxwell and Sheenagh Pugh giving us captivating performances of their work, a mix of thought-provoking and entertaining words, followed by the brilliant a capella folk of Kirsty Law.
Finally, there was a much-anticipated guest appearance from Clive Russell (pictured above), currently starring in Game of Thrones as Brynden Tully. A Fife boy through and through, Russell had much to say about golf, before waxing lyrical about StAnza itself: “There is nothing more delightful or life-affirming than a week spent with poets and artists”.
9:10PM: The Flatcaps (pictured above) wow the Byre with their distinctive style of international folk-rock, including new settings of songs by Robert Burns. It’s The Bard, folks, but not as we know him. (Photography: Terry Lee)
9.45PM: The Inklight Poets, Byre Bar
(Words: Jo Boon, Photography: Terry Lee)
Walk with me through the Byre, down the steps and into the café. Here we have Inklight, St Andrews’ most talented group of student poets. Chocolate cake in hand, I was ready to sit back and enjoy the work of our town’s younger creative-types.
Ed Martin (pictured above) was our host for the evening, keeping the crowd’s enthusiasm up and introducing the stars of the show. First up were the winners of The Saint’s poetry competition: Alexandra Julienne and Michael Grieve. We moved from Alexandra’s work about remembrance and abusive relationships to Michael’s take on primary-school poetry and the ‘Sentinelese’, a tribe who refuse contact with the outside world. The night was nothing if not an emotional roller- coaster.
Alexandra Koronkai-Kiss was next with an accomplished cycle of three love-poems – particuarly impressive, as English is not her native language. Before the interval we closed with Ed, who sent us away to buy more drinks with tears of laughter in our eyes.
Back from the break, we had Kara Killeen’s words on relationships and Tristram Fane Saunders’ memorable sonnets. They passed over to Hannah Raymond-Cox, who won the first St Andrews poetry slam of the year. It was not hard to see why, with her powerful words on anxiety, good food, and Google’s predictive search function (surprisingly insightful!). Sammy Evans sent us away with some snappy lines that perfectly captured a moment’s experience. Cake consumed and poems enjoyed, I went home very satisfied.
11.30AM: Scottish poet Henry Marsh (pictured below) reads from his work as part of StAnza’s ‘Border Crossings’ series (Photography: Terry Lee)
“And song? Here and there
we catch it, transposed from white
shell sand – that drizzle
of the dead – and tangle in its stink of decay”
From ‘At South Lochboisdale’, Henry Marsh
1PM: Poetry Café with Agnes Török and Toby Campion, Byre Studio
(Words & Photography: Alexandra Julienne)
An audience in the Byre’s studio were treated to a tasty hour of poetry, snacks, and beer. Two poets well-known on the performance circuit, Agnes Török (pictured above) and Toby Campion, shared their poems, which included a challenge to write about love using food prompts: pie, wine, thyme, jelly, cottage cheese, udon noodles… all these tastes were turned into poems, inspiring reflections on family acceptance and loss. Agnes noted the festival’s theme, ‘An Archipelago of Poetry’, and emphasized her obsession with origins, specifically her relationship with bilingualism and her mother’s views on sexuality and feminism. In one poem, she says of her mother: “I never remember you crying, but I want to see it now.” Toby’s performance swirled back and forth across the hysterically funny and the deeply personal. A crowd favourite was a poem spoken completely in East-Midlands Train announcements, urging the crowd always to remember that there is a “landslide in the Chesterfield area.” In another poem dealing with semantics, Toby notes the futility of “hammering the words over the same old cracks.” That certainly wasn’t the case with these two poets. A yummy and inspiring lunchtime had by all. I wish my meals could always be accompanied by the spoken word.
2.15PM: Kim Moore and John Dennison, Town Hall
(Words: Lauren Charlton, Photography: Terry Lee)
Two poets still very much at the beginning of their careers, Kim Moore and John Dennison (pictured above) offered up a pertinent and beautifully ordinary snapshot of real life in this Border Crossings event.
Setting the scene for an energetic and almost synesthetic reading, Cumbrian Kim Moore opened with ‘The Wolf’, before a laughing apology for not being entirely sure what it’s about. Centred mainly around narrative events, her poems paint lucid scenes before the audience and skip from amusement to sorrow in a single line. “Barrow should employ me as a tourist promoter”, she announced, after concluding the humorous (yet troubled) ‘Train Journey, Barrow to Sheffield’. More sobering, but also more impassioned, was a sequence on domestic violence taken from her upcoming book The Art of Falling, in which the poet begs her body to recognise “the dog”.
With themes ranging from spiritualist Churches to trumpet lessons, Moore’s was a hard act to follow, but New Zealand poet and St Andrews graduate John Dennison did exactly that. Reading mainly poems from his first book Otherwise, released earlier this year, Dennison invited the audience to mourn the death of Seamus Heaney with an unsent postcard, to consider climate change, and to admire the resemblance between an ampersand and the Madonna and child. His lyricism and evocative language offered a brutally honest perspective on life, leaving the audience anticipating his next publication with interest.
3.30PM: The StAnza Lecture – Glyn Maxwell on ‘The Stanza’, Town Hall
(Words: Michael Grieve)
Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin
… is the first verse of poetry Glyn Maxwell remembers, words that were bunched together and bounded by white space to create a little room for thinking in, a stanza. Today, in a slightly bigger room, in an altogether larger StAnza, Maxwell revealed his childhood frustration at the refrain of ‘Cock Robin’:
All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.
Of the thirteen animals mentioned in the song (a frustrated Maxwell notes), three are definitively not birds, and one, the ‘Bull’, is a finch in beef’s clothing. This talk of winged– and wingless–ness led into a reading of the sound of George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ – a reading that is markedly deficient, Maxwell argued, pointing to the often ignored sea of white threatening to erase the isthmus of text. He declares this space the ‘unpoem of God’ that saves the line from the ‘sickness and shame’ of humanity. He read the poem again, its sound and its silence, before doing the same for a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, suggesting that we should occasionally invert the colours of a poem to remind ourselves that the stanza is a glimmer of light fighting the encroaching darkness of space around it.
Via carol services and an abecedary of animals on the Ark, Maxwell brought us to ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘Dover Beach’ where irregularity of line and stanza length manipulates our awareness of argumentative or narrative turns. He reminded us of the book-signing that awaits us in heaven, where Anonymous sits at a desk and we stand at the back of a very long line, before telling us that the sparrow killed Cock Robin because his name rhymes with a weapon, and in the poetry business ‘that is a fair cop’. Maxwell’s lecture was less a charging argument than a quick flight through the stanzaic garden – he did tell us he wasn’t in the business of definite conclusions.
A quick Q &A revealed details of an untitled and largely unwritten book involving dead poets, made-up students, and a comatose, dead or otherwise waylaid Glyn Maxwell. The final announcement is that he is going to run in the May election – no, not that one. If Maxwell is elected as the new Oxford Professor of Poetry, and can ascend the hill to write fifteen Oxford lectures as playful as this, I’d be there (with Cock Robin’s link-carrying linnet) ‘in a minute’.
Writing Motherhood- Friday 6th March 11:30-12:30
(Words: Katrina Drayton, Image © Hollie McNish)
Poets Hollie McNish (pictured above) and Kathryn Maris joined poet/novelist Carolyn Jess-Cooke in reading extracts of their work for Cooke’s Writing Motherhood project, a series of events dedicated to exploring the impact of motherhood on the experience of the female writer.
Powerful, passionate and often very funny, the issues addressed in their poetry ranged from the external to the introspective as they dealt with the perception of maternity in our culture. McNish captured the hypocrisy of a climate in which breasts themselves are marketed as commodities in magazines and popular culture, but where breastfeeding in public is regarded as somehow shameful. Jess-Cooke gave a snapshot of the how overwhelming the medicalization of pregnancy can feel; Maris focused on the grating paradox that caring for a child means you are both lonely and yet never alone.
In purposefully moving away from the generalised concept of ‘parenthood’ to the specifics of motherhood, the lecture engendered a feeling of community and authenticity: the poets clearly struck a nerve with their audience, as was clear from the response when the floor was opened up to discussion. Particularly telling was Jess-Cooke’s assessment of the resistance from the marketing departments of publishing houses to represent ‘women’s issues’ (i.e. the domestic) as weighty subjects. Overall, we were left with the impression that what we need are more platforms like this for women’s writing to be heard and fewer pastel book covers with kittens on them.
3.30PM: The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien, Byre Theatre
(Words: Sophie Cadden, Image © Claire Trévien / StAnza)
Claire Trévien’s one-woman show is StAnza at its best. Seeing her poetry come to life was not only an impressive spectacle, but also bloody terrifying. Turning the Byre partly into an abandoned home full of memories and partly a shipwreck, the stage was covered with an array of sheets representing sails and cloths covering old furniture. Combined with the sound of a brewing storm, this created a haunting atmosphere that intensified throughout the performance.
After uncovering a tape recorder, Trévien set the scene with an introduction in French. Stalking the stage and revealing items one by one, she used these objects to transcend the boundaries of past and present. Switching from happiness to grief while reminiscing about her childhood, the poet remembers her grandmother whose ‘house is dragged apart by the fractures/of your smiles – the thought of its absence echoes.’ From this, she sets up a theme of the passing of time, which is what partly creates the sinister, apocalyptic atmosphere of the performance. As the physical and mental storm of Trévien’s world continues to intensify, it is impossible to ignore the disturbing message Trévien is trying to communicate about our modern world in poems such as ‘Communion’, with its ominous closing stanza:
Broken bottles, broke sky: red rain
heaves out of the cracked world.
I open my mouth for communion.
Trévien’s theatrical poems are a magnificent piece of modern art. The dark and troubling atmosphere created by this performance left an impression on me I will not soon forget.
10AM: Poetry Café for Breakfast: Archipelago, Byre Studio (with Kim Simonsen, Christine De Luca, Kei Miller and Bill Manhire)
(Words: Jo Boon)
Sacrificing my Sunday lie-in, I rushed to the Byre theatre to enjoy poetry over breakfast. Outside the studio I was greeted with Fisher and Donaldson pastries and much needed caffeine. The panel, hosted by festival organiser Eleanor Livingstone, featured a host of island writers: Faroe islander Kim Simonsen, Shetland poet Christine De Luca, Jamaica’s Kei Miller and New Zealand poet laureate Bill Manhire. The morning opened with thoughts on global warming, and how poetry and islands interact – both in terms of poets who leave their island origins and poets who seek the isolation offered by island-living.
As someone who loves the sea, I was intrigued by the idea that the ocean not only separates people but also connects them. The sea is often seen as protecting people and giving them a distinct sense of identity. It was suggested that islands in literature are often connected with nationalism. Reflecting on his Jamaican nationality, Miller suggested nationalism is always founded in nostalgia for life elsewhere: “A city like Kingston is always London insufficiently realised… Brixton is Kingston insufficiently realised.”
Bill Manhire summed up the discussion perfectly, quoting his most famous line: “I live at the edge of the universe / like everybody else.”
4PM: PRESERVED – ‘Meet the Artist’ exhibition/event, The Preservation Trust Museum
(Words: Izzy Turner, Photography: The Preseration Trust)
In an upstairs room of the Preservation Trust Museum, StAnza has created an exhibition perfectly capturing a harmony of poetry, art and nature. ‘PRESERVED: Between the image and the word’ features the artwork of Elaine Allison, Patricia Bray and Kyra Clegg, with poetry by Anna Crowe, all inspired by the collection in St Andrews’ Bell Pettigrew Museum of Natural History. The result blends Crowe’s lyrical poetry with the artists’ visual interpretations, juxtaposed with specimens from the Bell Pettigrew collection, showing just how the artists were inspired by the intricate natural phenomena. Each artist responded to the Pettigrew collection in their own unique way. Kyra Clegg took an interest in animal locomotion and flight, making a video piece combining the natural flight of birds with manmade flight and aircrafts, but also highlighting “their capacity for destruction.” Elaine Allison’s sculpture ‘Final Flight’ (pictured above) was also an unusual mixture of the natural and man-made – it’s not often that you see a deer skull with velvet antlers. But, as she told The Saint, her aim was to “bring back its youth,” giving it a new sense of life. As Allison puts it, “I wanted people to look closer and actually see things more” and this is entirely what the exhibition opened up – a chance to see nature, art and poetry in a new light.
5PM: Five O’Clock Verses with Ilya Kaminsky and Ian Duhig, Parliament Hall
(Words: Tania Tavares-Pinto)
“Linguistic incompetence,” Ian Duhig declares in his introduction, “that’s what I do well.” In this dual performance between the Irish-British Duhig and Ukrainian-born Russian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, there was, however, anything but. Kaminsky, fresh from publishing his newest volume of poems: Dancing in Chelsea, was a loud voice reverberating across the airy confines of Parliament Hall. The poet, with a thick Russian accent full of boyish charm, first read a verse of ‘Musica Humana: An Elegy for Osip Mandelstam’ in his native Russian tongue, setting the precedent for a performance that was at once tender and energetic, thoughtfully quiet in places and wildly eccentric in others – preserving the rhythm of a Russian folktale even whilst reading in English. Duhig, too, brought a sense of home through his performance, taking to his poetry with an easiness of speech and a relaxed posture – gliding seamlessly from recited lines of poetry to personal and witty anecdotes. Placing these two poets in one session is, perhaps, unusual given the dichotomy of their performance styles, but it was, in the end, entirely refreshing to encompass approaches to home, nostalgia and history in two readings that were as different as they were alike in energy and passion. “It was weird,” the gentleman beside me professed as we were leaving. “But delightfully weird!”
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
From ‘We Lived Happily During the War’, Ilya Kaminsky
8PM: Kei Miller & Simon Armitage, Byre Theatre
(Words: Tania Tavares-Pinto, Image © Kei Miller)
Kei Miller (above) was introduced as “the coolest guy in poetry”, and there’s no denying it. Miller, in his performance tonight, radiated an enviable charismatic air. Recounting tales of the infamous ‘Cartographer’ from The Cartographer Tries To Map a Way To Zion, Miller is quick and sharp, only occasionally glancing down at his text before fully engaging with his audience. He is attentive and expressive, flowing easily between the rhythmic colloquialisms of the Jamaican dialect to strikingly emotive poetry. “When victims live long enough,” he tells us, “they get their say in history.” Miller is not only elegantly articulate but also didactic. He transports his audience to Jamaica through his poetry, but also teaches us about its history – about a time where it was “no paradise; not yet.” He pauses considerately before reciting ‘In Which The Cartographer Asks for Directions’, looking up with a wry smile: “You’re not going to understand everything I’m going to say,” he warns us, “and that’s okay.” Miller’s bouts of fast-paced, heavily accented Jamaican vernacular, his easy approach to adopting the mannerisms of his characters made for an incredible verbal performance.
Armitage, too, has a wonderfully engaging style. He exudes unruffled mellowness. Tonight, he was undoubtedly compelling, slipping on his reading glasses before reading ‘Aviator’, the glint of the lenses only adding to the ambiance created by his smooth, quiet tone and his dry, almost casual wit. His humour, in both his engagement with the audience and in his written poetry, is captivating. He read eulogistic poems about his father (who is, he assures us, still “very much alive and kicking”), was full of accidental innuendo (“the art of pulling my own cracker is a craft I’ve mastered over the years”) and pondered over the sound of a bullet point. His rhetoric is wonderful, filled with extended metaphors that are brought to life with quiet vibrancy. Together, Miller and Armitage are performers that challenge and dismantle the stereotype of the serious and sombre poet. They are poignant and strikingly passionate, but also invariably funny, enticingly charming and entirely unreserved.
10.15PM: The Stanza Slam with Elvis McGonagall, Byre Theatre
This year’s StAnza slam was won by Kathryn Ailes, a postgraduate at the University of Strathclyde (pictured with MC Elvis McGonagall, below). Ailes impressed the audience with her gripping, confident reflections on her life and family. Current St Andrews student Hannah Raymond-Cox came a close second, with her funny and heart-wrenching takes on compulsive cooking and sex-ed. Fellow Andrean Ed Martin took fourth place with his biting parody of derivative ‘slam poems’, followed by an bacchanalian ode to K Cider (“You are 8.4% alcohol, and by now / I am surely 8.4% you”).
1PM: Poetry Café with Elvis McGonagall
INTERVIEW: TEN QUESTIONS WITH ELVIS MCGONAGALL
(Words: Samantha Evans)
After his sell-out show at The Byre, The Saint met the Perthshire poet for a quick Q&A…
In his dashing red tartan dinner jacket, Elvis Mcgonagall is the epitome of cool. Describing himself as a ‘stand-up poet, armchair revolutionary, and recumbent rocker’, Elvis was the 2006 World Slam Champion. Now, he performs all over the world (recently appearing in Hong Kong), and even has a sitcom on BBC Radio 4 (‘Elvis McGonagall Takes A Look On The Bright Side’).
1. How old were you when you started performing poetry?
How old? You cannae ask a gentleman his age. How old was I actually? I’ve reached the age when you genuinely have to stop and think how old you are. I did [the Cheltenham Festival poetry slam] in 2003, so that made me 42.
2. And what did you before that point?
Oh, I’ve done all sorts of things. Immediately before that, I was an actor, which just meant I was doing nothing. Waiting for the phone to ring. So the performance side of it was never an issue… but I found myself doing more and more of this, and the acting stuff not at all.
3. Besides ‘slam’, do you do other kinds of expression?
Well, I don’t really think of slam as a genre at all. I perform and do gigs. And occasionally I get asked to MC them…. It’s a good way, if you haven’t done much performing, to learn how to grab an audience quickly because you have so little time… as long as you don’t take them too seriously, because [slams] can be a bit arbitrary. It’s nice for an audience to see a large amount of poets at once. And if a poet is on who you don’t really like, there’ll be another along in a minute. You can’t lose.
4. So, if you don’t think of ‘slam’ as a genre, would you call your work ‘performance poetry’?
I call it ‘stand-up poetry’, because with performance poetry… people can use that in a pejorative sense, or be a bit scathing about it. I like stand-up poetry, that’s what it is really. I do stand-up material and poems. I don’t think of it as ‘slam’. You can have any amount of different styles of poetry within a slam. The danger is people think there is a specific style because that’s what will win, but different stuff appeals to different audiences. I guess that’s what Eddy Martin’s slam performance was making fun of [see ‘StAnza Slam’, above].
5. What do you think makes a good stand-up poetry performance?
I guess you have to engage an audience, hold an audience’s attention, and hopefully be entertaining, but if you can be thought provoking at the same time, that’s always good. If there’s a message that’s fine, but it doesn’t necessarily need one. I never liked stuff where you feel like you’re being lectured… Humour is a good way of getting your point across. People are more willing to listen to what it is.
6. Last night, you performed several haikus. How do you feel about the haiku form, or form in general in poetry?
Form is great because in some ways it’s easier writing if you give yourself a set of rules. If you have a form in mind it focuses your mind a bit. My haiku ones, they’re just daft, little throwaway poems… [but] form is good – you focus a bit more about what you want to say if you impose a form on yourself.
7. How is it performing at stand-up gigs?
You gotta be careful which stand-up comedy gig you do. There are some comedy clubs I wouldn’t touch with a large pole because I’d die on my arse… I wouldn’t be doing it for stag and hen parties, it wouldn’t work.
8. Where did you get your jacket?
This jacket was made by Mr. Pun Kee in Hong Kong in 1991, it’s about twenty-three, twenty-four years old… a testament to the man’s tailoring. He’s still there. I did a gig in Hong Kong last December, and Mr. Pun Kee is still there making stuff and it doesn’t look as if he’s aged one day. I’d love him to make another one of these because it’s really old now… it’s been abused, shoved into bags at sweaty venues, and it’s still just about holding together.
9. What’s your writing process?
I totally lack any discipline. Deadlines are always good. I don’t have a pattern to it. I find it easier to write at home – I find it quite hard traveling. Walking is really good for getting ideas and doing things in your head… I’m disorganized.
10. Do you have any advice for students looking down this path?
If you want to do poetry and get up and perform it, just see as many good poets as you can: you’ll get inspired by different bits of different people. Go and see as many as you can. And write.
8PM: Sinead Morrissey and Bill Manhire, Byre Theatre
(Words: Amanda Merritt, Photography: The Saint)
At StAnza’s final event, festival director Eleanor Livingstone walked onstage holding a carrot, wedged into the top of gin bottle (offering the audience both a literal and a metaphorical ‘carrot’ for entering StAnza’s prize draw). As enticing as the opportunity was to win £50 in book tokens, it was Livingston’s introduction of Sinead Morrissey that sold me. Sunday night was this Belfast poet laureate’s first ever performance at StAnza and something not to have missed.
Her numerous awards and distinctions include, but are not limited to: The Patrick Kavanagh Award, First Prize in the UK National Poetry Competition and last year’s T.S. Eliot Prize for her most recent collection, Parallax. The bar had certainly been set high.
The sheer percussive power of Morrissey’s language was astounding. ‘Genetics’, the most visually clear conceit of the evening, artfully exemplified Morrissey’s lyric range: the suppleness of the narrative, which wove in and out of digression like an unravelling scarf, and her rhythmic attention to the alliterative and sonic qualities present in the language. However, one might argue that flexing so many poetic muscles at once made some moments in her poetry a bit too angular and stripped.
The themes and topics she addressed ran the gamut from a humorous account of a communist Christmas party in ‘The Party Bazar’ to the horrifically detailed account of an abortion in ‘Fair Music’, each time acknowledging the inspiration behind her work.
Bill Manhire, New Zealand’s inaugural poet Laureate and four-time winner of the New Zealand book award, followed with a slightly shaky and nervous start, filling the first half hour with tonally heavy poetry. The incantatory horror of ‘Hotel Emergencies’ seemed to permeate the atmosphere of every subsequent poem, even those, such as ‘The Distance Between Bodies’, where simple detail evoked beautifully lyric images. However, the second half of the hour was rescued by more lighthearted, humorous verse, including Manhire’s found poems ‘The Visitor’s Book’ and ‘Two Literals’. Whether darkly observant or whimsical and wry, the content of his poetry was well matched to the rhythm of performance, filling the auditorium with music.