The annual StAnza Poetry Festival is the biggest international poetry festival in Scotland. With the aim to celebrate poetry, its organisers set relevant themes for their events and collaborate with artists from a wide range of countries. To discuss StAnza’s past and future, as well as their 21st festival in March 2018, Arts & Culture editor Laszlo Szegedi interviewed poet and Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone and Programme Co-ordinator Annie Rutherford.
Laszlo Szegedi: How would you describe StAnza’s history to a newcomer?
Eleanor Livingstone: Our festival this year was the 20th, and with the first one in 1998, next year will be our 20th year, and our 21st festival. (…)
Annie Rutherford: I believe StAnza was launched by three poets originally…
EL: Yes, the initial idea for StAnza came about when Gavin Bowd, who teaches in the French department, and Brian Johnstone, a local poet were at a poetry event in about 1997, and went to a pub after it and said “That was really good. What a pity there isn’t a poetry festival in St Andrews.” StAnza is actually the fourth poetry festival in St Andrews in the last fifty years. There was a gap in the mid-90s when there weren’t any, so after the event Gavin and Brian got in touch with Anna Crowe, a poet and translator based in St Andrews. They became the three founders of the festival. Gavin was involved for about three years, while Brian and Anna are now our honorary presidents, still around and still engaged with it. So it’s been going on for quite a while. I used to wonder why the other festivals did not keep on going, but then I realised it’s because it’s a lot of work. [laughs] It’s quite interesting, because when I’m someplace overseas, I sometimes get quite elderly poets who say to me “Oh yes, I came to your festival in 1970-something”, and I say “Not mine, actually!” There has been a tradition of poetry festivals in St Andrews for a long time, and a lot of strong connections between poetry and the town. We have done work in past festivals about poets from the 1600s who were students at the University.
LS: StAnza is frequently referred to as the only high-profile poetry event in Scotland. Is this true?
EL: It’s the only international poetry festival. There are quite a few projects we hear about, but then they disappear. You may find some in England, but there really is only a few that are truly big.
LS: You became Art Director in 2005 and Festival Director in 2010. Are there any specific challenges that you have to face on a yearly basis when organising the festival?
AR: Where do we start?
LS: It must be quite a lot.
EL: Yes, there are creative challenges, and logistic challenges. The main creative challenge is to keep the festival diverse and fresh. What you don’t want to do is become stale, repetitive, and predictable. The big challenge then is to challenge ourselves to come up with new ideas. This recurs on a yearly basis. In terms of logistics, trying to get funding always requires hard work. We do get lots of support that we’re very grateful for, but poetry has to work hard for that. It is also challenging to get the poets you want, sometimes people will criticize us, asking “Why haven’t you had so and so?”, and quite often those are poets we’ve desperately tried to get, but they’re just never available. In the case of some academics, since StAnza takes place on the same week every year, it’s always a very busy time, as it’s just before the spring break. If you’d like to have someone from, let’s say Cambridge, it’s likely that they have plenty of deadlines on their hands, and they can’t leave. So there are quite a few people who say “I wish I could come, but the timing is not right.” It also depends on where they are. There’s one poet who’s staying in the west coast of America, and we often check if she’s back but she isn’t. Sometimes it gets frustrating when people don’t know the background of why you don’t have specific poets. What else can we think of?
AR: There’s always the challenge of assembling a diverse lineup. We have a five-year rule: we don’t invite people back for the same thing for five years; if they do a reading, they can do a workshop the next year, but not a reading. Trying to fit the themes we have for that year and promote them Scotland-wide is certainly challenging. We sometimes have ideas that make us think, “That would be ambitious”, and poetry gives us this creative freedom to experiment. For a big festival, these would be hard to work on, but I think we’re somewhere in between, and we’re lucky for that.
EL: The themes are important for us. I think the themes we choose each year build a scaffold for the festival, and I believe it would be much harder to be original if we just started completely blank and thought “So who are we going to invite?” If you say, “We’re going to have these specific themes that we can focus on”, it’s much easier to organize the events. For next year, we’ve got borderlines and the self. We also have a language focus on three Dutch languages: Dutch, Flemish and Frisian. We’re also engaging with the year of young people. This is our scaffold. Of course, sometimes choosing the themes can be tricky and we can give ourselves some hard work. Last March one of the themes was mountains and heights, which was an interesting idea, but when we actually started thinking of poets who’d written about that, it became quite difficult. The best known poet in the UK who writes about mountains is Helen Mort, and we’d had her the year before. Whomever we asked about it said “Helen Mort”, and we thought “Why didn’t we come up with this last year when we had Helen?”
All in all, you want to have a scope to think. Sometimes the idea of inviting someone specific may sound good, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for the theme. We do look for some headliner poets but we don’t just want to have the biggest names. We also want poets at the beginning of their career, and we have a showcase for them. There are also a lot of established poets with plenty of good work but without massive recognition. We bring poets from overseas, who may be considered big names in their countries…
AR: But have absolutely no connection to English.
LS: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this matter. I myself am trying to put together a poetry event (obviously on a much smaller scale) for my society. I’m from Eastern Europe, and there’s so much poetry there that should be read by more, but doesn’t get recognised internationally and doesn’t get translated. When you search overseas, do you look for poets who haven’t been translated before? Is it possible to promote the work of poets whose language you don’t speak?
AR: You do research and choose the ones you think are good. You visit a lot of international festivals and you find poets whose work may or may not have been translated to English before; sometimes you just know that they’re good. Sometimes it’s our funders who make suggestions. I don’t think language is a barrier.
EL: Sometimes it happens that we invite someone and it turns out they’ve never been translated before or perhaps haven’t had enough work to dedicate a whole event to. There are multiple foundations who can support someone. Occasionally, if we’re really keen to feature someone for a project, we’ll arrange translations ourselves. We did that two years ago. There’s a big computer science department who worked on the digital reconstruction of ruins, and they did that with St Andrews Cathedral, you could walk through it. We decided to collaborate with them, and as the theme that year was architecture. We found a Danish poet, who’s also an architect, and commissioned him to write a poem responding to this, which he wrote in Danish. We then had to get someone to translate that, so we could add it as an accompanying feature to the digital reconstruction. Last March, we had a French language focus, and put up several translation workshops. Two French-speaking and two Scottish poets came with a facilitator, they were joined by various people to help with translations, and translated each other’s work over three days. On the final day, Saturday, they presented them, so that was an event for brand new translations.
LS: That’s quite impressive. Now I’d like to ask you about next year’s festival. You’ve mentioned the themes you’re building it on; what are the events that have already been planned and will surely be part of it?
EL: As part of Borderlines, we’ve got quite a few Irish poets from both sides of the Irish border. Our lecture this year will start with Sinéad Morrissey, who was the first poet laureate of Belfast, and is this year’s Forward Prize winner. We also have Tara Bergin from the South of Ireland, she’s shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot [Prize for Poetry]. They’re both very good readers. These are our headline events. We also have the Dutch poet laureate coming as part of the Dutch theme, Ester Naomi Perquin. There will be a couple of Dutch and Flemish performance poets, Andy Fierens and Maud Vanhauwaert, who are both very exciting performers. Maud is collaborating on an event with a poet from New Zealand, Hinemoana Baker, and another from Germany, and their work together is a quite interesting performance in three languages: German, Māori, and English. Hinemoana is also a musician, it’s all very exciting. This is the programme for Saturday; on Sunday, we will be doing a commemoration event for the centenary of the end of the First World War. We had a lot of war-related events in 2014, so for 2018 we’re having a German a performance adapted for us. It has war poetry from the time of the War from thirty-four different countries. We hope we can get young readers perform these in their original languages and provide an audio voiceover for the show. What else are we looking forward to?
AR: Many, many things. We have a fantastic performer scheduled for Thursday, Vanessa Kisuule. She does performances related to identity and politics, never in a clichéd or overdone way, she’s very good.
EL: We’ve got Ko Un from South Korea, who’s one of the leading poets of his generation.
AR: One of his books had a foreword by Allen Ginsberg.
EL: I believe he was shortlisted for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s a major figure. He also fits in the Borderlines framework: he was born in North Korea, was in prison for his writings for a while, now he’s based in South Korea. We tried to get him last year, but we couldn’t, so we’re happy to have him in 2018. We’ve also got Liz Lochhead, who’s always great…
AR: She will be doing a family-friendly event about poems that meant a lot to her as a child. For children, and for children at heart.
EL: William Letford will be reading with her, he worked as a roofer before he became a poet, so he has a quite unusual background. Some of his poetry is certainly written in a very colloquial Scots. We’ve also got Martin Figura with Dr. Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, his stage work is great. Novelist Marie-Elsa Bragg is also coming, she writes prose in a very poetic way; she will have a conversation with Don Patterson about the borders between poetry and poetic prose.
AR: We can keep going forever. [both laugh]
LS: What drove you to choose these specific themes for this year?
AR: Eleanor had these ideas before I started working with her.
EL: Borderlines is now very relevant and topical. In terms of the self, there’s always an issue in poetry about persona and masks, the eye of the poet. You can make assumptions that you rarely can in other art forms. When you read a novel written in the first person, you’re not going to assume that this all happened to the novelist. Same with a film. I believe people have become more interested in the self in the past few years because identity politics have become such a relevant issue.
AR: Also, identity politics play a huge role in slam poetry. Slam poets will very deliberately position the poem in the eye of the poet. While this can of course become problematic, it also has potential to become exciting and interesting.
EL: Also, for 2018, the Dutch city of Leeuwarden has been named the European Capital of Culture. Our approach goes way back to 2013 when they asked us if we’d be part of their bid. We only started the dedicated language focuses at the festival a couple years ago, because up until then we’d always had translated works, but we’d never had that kind of specificity in focus. The Berlin festivals, for example, have projects that team up German poets with poets from another country. In 2014, that was Scottish; it was part of the VERSschmuggel project, which literally means “verse smuggling”. They asked if we would be interested in having their anthology at StAnza. There were so many things that made us think “Why don’t we have a German language focus?” Somebody then approached us with the French, so we did that the year after, and now we’re doing Dutch.
LS: As my final question, I’d like to ask you about your thoughts on reading poetry. There’s so much to write about in the world and we get access to a very small amount. I study comparative literature yet I don’t feel like I read enough poetry. How do you think poetry could be popularised and given a wider access to?
AR: There’s been a lot on the news about Instapoets recently, and the quality of their work is not outstanding, but they get an immense audience. It makes me angry when people diss slam poetry or Instagram poetry, because it’s like “You know what? If that makes someone read and like poetry, then great.” A friend of mine never liked poetry until she stumbled upon a collection of love poems in my house while she was going through a hard time. You have to recognize that everyone needs to have their own door into poetry. I can’t force my own taste on anyone, I can shout about it, but not force it. This is something we try to do at StAnza: we bring poetry we love and some we don’t have the emotional connection with, but we know someone surely will. That’s important for children, as well, the process of discovery. If they want to read Batman, let them read Batman! Let them enjoy it, and let them develop their own taste. We’re going through an amazing time in poetry, when you find it in TV adverts, on social media, and I think the community should celebrate that.
EL: Festivals are particularly great because they offer you all kinds of ways to include poetry. People might come because they’re interested in films, they come because of the visual art; if it’s a stage performance, they come for the theatrical aspect…
AR: Or they come for the free food.
EL: Yes, they can come for the free food. [both laugh] As Annie says, once you get people coming, and they start paying attention, it doesn’t matter where they start as long as it gets them looking at more poetry. A festival like this makes poetry accessible to everyone. I always say you should forget the fear of not understanding of what you read; it’s not about understanding, it’s about feeling, and also enjoying what you grow to like. You get to see what challenges you and you can take away from it whatever you want. Quite often, people hesitate to come, and then when they leave, they tell us, “Oh, I had no idea it was going to be like this”; so yes, give them something to like and enjoy.
The 2018 StAnza Poetry Festival will take place in St Andrews between 7-11 March. The official programme schedule will be revealed on their website, www.stanzapoetry.org on 30 November, tickets go on sale in January.