(Ed note: This is the final post about poets and poetry in Scotland. You can find all posts in the series here. We thank Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library (in Edinburgh), for so generously introducing us to these fine poets.)
The Australian publisher Ivor Indyk recently wrote a short essay for the Sydney Review of Books on the very different economies of poetry and prose. Along the way he had this to say about the experiences of poets at literary festivals:
Poets are treated as the poor cousins of the book world at writers’ festivals, put on first thing in the morning or later in the evening, when they can be processed in bulk.
Increasingly the answer to this problem – at least in the UK – is the festival dedicated solely to poetry. Sometimes this can be a one-off, as in London’s Poetry Parnassus, attached to the 2012 Olympics, but usually poetry festivals work best as annual events: in England, think Aldeburgh and Ledbury; in Scotland, think StAnza .
That capital A in StAnza gestures towards the festival’s location, St Andrews, a township on the coast about 50 miles north of Edinburgh. St Andrews is an ancient settlement – its cathedral, now a splendid ruin, was built in 1160 – and the modern town is a small town, not a mall town. The permanent population is about 17,000 residents, but this swells considerably with university students, golfers and tourists (“almost 1,000 years of looking after visitors” notes the town’s tourist portal).
St Andrews boasts Scotland’s oldest university, founded in 1413. The English Department there is well supplied with poets – John Burnside, Robert Crawford, Don Paterson, Jacob Polley and, until recently, Douglas Dunn – who make a fine complement to the annual festival. But the university is probably best known as the place where Kate and Wills first met. Royals trump golfers and poets every time.
For me, St Andrews has a personal dimension: it’s where my parents – New Zealand sailor and Scottish schoolteacher – honeymooned towards the end of the Second World War. For a while, I even believed I’d been conceived there.
StAnza itself is a magnificent creation. It started in a low-key way back in 1998, and now each year takes over the town for four or five days in the first week of March. The festival brings in major international figures – this year Caroline Forché, Alice Notley, Paul Durcan, Ilya Kaminsky – and schedules them alongside their UK equivalents: Simon Armitage, Ian Duhig, Glyn Maxwell, Kei Miller, Sinead Morrisey and others. In between there are a whole range of performers, participants and events: writers from Shetland and the Faroes, from Sardinia and New Zealand and Mallorca; poets showcasing journals such as Poetry London and The Wolf; slam poets; an annual lecture (this year from Glyn Maxwell); hands-on workshops with the festival poet in residence; a large public masterclass led by Simon Armitage, where emerging poets submit to being critiqued not only by Armitage but also both by members of a very large audience (the event, like most at StAnza, was sold out).
StAnza is a world of big names and big gestures, of centre-stage events, but also a world where amazing things take place in the nooks and crannies. There were panel sessions over breakfast: one on translations, one on poetry as unfinished business, one on poets and islands. I took part in this last one. It helps if you come from a country where one island is a waka (ocean-going canoe) and the other is a giant fish hauled to the surface by a trickster god who happens to be a passenger in the canoe. (I was born on the waka but live on the fish.)
Then there were small round-table sessions, where poets like Paul Durcan read and talked to a group of no more than 16 participants. (For obvious reasons – intimacy is on the table – these sold out faster than anything else.) There were “past and present” sessions, where for example Caroline Forché talked about Mark Strand and Ilya Kaminsky discussed Paul Celan. There was a busy poetry market – where small presses displayed and sold their wares: all the way from serious and significant publishers like the Mariscat Press to cottage-industry versions of Hallmark Cards. The amazing Scottish Poetry Library had a stall there, and was a presence throughout the festival.
The Emergency Poet was also on hand, ambulance and all, and happy to prescribe appropriate poems to festival-goers in need of therapy.
I suspect quite a few people might have needed the Emergency Poet’s services. StAnza is one of those festivals where the energy levels are high. The centre of town is buzzing with poets and poetry readers. Events are spread across a whole range of smaller venues, complementing the wonderful Byre Theatre where most of the poetry action takes place. In the Byre you can watch short poetry movies, check out installations and exhibitions, or find yourself accosted by strolling players.
You can also eat food or buy a drink in the Byre – hence these beer and coffee coasters.
It’s no wonder then that the plaudits roll in, from festival-goers and from the poets. Andrew Motion, ex UK poet laureate, calls StAnza “one of the most dynamic poetry festivals anywhere in the world”. Mark Strand described it as “a beautifully run festival. All those poets! All those good poems!” The late Alastair Reid used the phrase “generosity of spirit” when describing the festival, and that seems entirely just.
I’ve been to StAnza twice now (once in 2009, and again this year), and have had extraordinary pleasure from it both times. It’s a festival which has significant continuities, yet keeps coming up with surprises. I rather wish I’d been there in 2007 for the surprise that Alastair Reid sprang at the festival close. He read his famous poem “Scotland” to the assembled crowd, then declared that this would be the last time he would ever read it.
“Then,” notes the StAnza archive , “he set fire to it.”
New Zealand poet Bill Manhire was a participant at this year’s StAnza festival.