Some of you long-distance readers may wonder what the heck we're all on about when we write about StAnza all the time...has our finger slipped...why the big A? Well, StAnza is Scotland's biggest annual poetry festival (there are plenty of other literature festivals but StAnza is the only poetry-centred festival of this size here) and it takes place in St Andrews in Fife, hence the name. St Andrews is best-known worldwide for golf and for its picturesque old university I suppose...and I wonder, as I type this, who came up with the name StAnza for this festival (obvious once you see it but clever all the same) – anyone know? We moved to Scotland in 2002 and I've been going to the festival every year since 2004 - although usually just for one or two of its four or five days (partly because it's always a pretty intense experience in one way or another). St Andrews is only an hour down the coast from here but even so about every other year I go for an overnight stay and we make it a whole family trip. The others take advantage of St Andrews' attractions (things like the cinema and the bigger bookshops – neither of which we have in Montrose) and I go deep into Poetry World...for a few hours at least.
Over the years I have got better at choosing events that I might actually be interested in and that I might be able to enjoy/learn from (I have made a few wrong decisions over the years...nobody's fault but my own...). I know by now that my tastes and methods are not exactly typical of poetry folk/the StAnza crowd so I have to make sure I don't just end up in lots very unsuitable situations. I have, for example, learnt these things:
1. I know that I really don't like the main Byre theatre venue and don't relax there (I won't bore you with all the various weird personal reasons but let's just say every poet has their oddities...some wear bizarre outfits, some grow comedy beards, some may well be more aloof than alive, some have the social graces of a spoilt shitzu...but me, I get uncomfortable in various different crowds and spaces... and some more than others...it's a long story...).
2. I also know that, on the whole, the masterclass business is not for me but that I have had good experiences at workshops at StAnza and at other smaller group activities there.
3. I know not to try to go to too many events in one day... or to too many close together time-wise. It seems like a good idea but your brain will fry (well, mine will anyway).
4. I know the whole experience is a bit more enjoyable now that I know a few more people 'in and around Scottish poetry' because generally speaking I am a sociable person and I like people. I can do sitting on my own and knowing no-one quite happily if I'm interested in something but if I don't have to...then that's much better!
5. I also know that if I have got stuff to flog at the not-famous-poets-flogging-stuff event (previously the Poetry Pamphlet Fair, this year the Poets' Market) that it is best to share a stall if you can (for many, many reasons). Few of us really want to be at the NFPFS in a way (oh come on, who wouldn't take a spot at the Saturday night main event if offered?) but there we are - till the gods (or maybe faber and faber) see fit to drag us from obscurity - and so whilst we're at it we may as well manage to get a toilet break and pop over the room to say "hi" to that bloke we spoke to last year who seemed quite nice and had a poem in such-and-such that we quite liked. But I digress...
This year it was an overnight stay year for me so despite the stinking cold that had been working its way through the family, Small Girl, Mark, in-house Mother and I set off on the Friday morning. It's only once a year, StAnza, and it was only a cold.
We left the haar in Angus, thank goodness, and arrived at St Andrews in much-appreciated sunshine. I had to set off straightaway for my first poetry event – a reading at the Byre Studio under the lunchtime 'Poetry Cabaret' banner (although I notice that the poets chosen for this slot this year were, on the whole, considerably more from what some might call the literary camp than in previous years). In actual fact the original choice for this spot, as I have mentioned previously, had cancelled and Kevin Cadwallender was her replacement. I have to say I'm really glad Sophie Hannah couldn't make it (as long as the reason wasn't something medical or miserable) as I'm really, really glad I got to see and hear Kevin this weekend. I suppose it's no huge surprise really...he's from roughly the same part of the world as me (NE England), he writes poetry not a million miles away from mine (some humour, lots of modern references, plenty of freedom and irreverence, lots of trying stuff out...) and he is most definitely not what-the-hell-are you-on-about-man-academic-poetry and yet most definitely very-clever-and-philosophical-poetry at the same time. I liked his 45 minutes hugely and could have stayed put for much more. When he read his poem about face-painting I could have gone home right then having had an unforgettable time. Kevin assures me that this poem will be in a book of his that Colin Will's Calder Wood Press will put out soon and that's definitely one to watch out for. I have to say though that on the subject of his incredibly long Darlek impression...I'm with the doctor on that one (don't be doing that one too often, Kevin, it sounds really painful!). It was nice to bump into Claire Askew at this event too (and meet the Boy she writes about quite regularly...who is a man, obviously, and a very nice one). I saw the aforementioned Mr Will too as well as an Aberdeen-based poet I like very much called Judith Taylor and my friends Maggie and Ian from Oathlaw Pottery and Gallery near Forfar (some of the only people at StAnza who, as far as I know, are not poets...they should get a special non-poet pass or something and money off their tickets!). They've been big supporters of mine, Maggie and Ian, and so if you're passing up or down the A90...pop in and visit their lovely gallery. Buy a jug...some earrings...a painting!
But look - more digressing! Originally I had intended just a one day visit to StAnza this year so after this great start I'm afraid I didn't go the sound poetry or a reading or even the StAnza lecture. I do really like the lectures on the whole (I loved the Neil Astley one in 2005) but the title didn't grab me this year and you can read them online anyway (I was reading 07's and 08's just the other day - both fascinating). Instead I went back to blow my nose a lot and to see In-house Mother (not really doing so well of late) and to check her into her hotel room. By 2.30pm Mark and Small Girl were at the Aquarium looking at clownfish and watching seals get fed, Mother was ensconced with sea view and newspaper and I felt just completely full of cold so I lay down for ten minutes in my hotel room. Sometimes a quiet ten minutes is a marvellous thing. The rest of the afternoon was then spent in Waterstones, charity shops and on the beach running up and down the dunes at the far end (with Mark and SG – not just on my own...). We met Swiss there too (and his t – charming woman, great taste in poetry...) and so got to put more faces to blog names. It's weird meeting blog friends in the flesh (especially ones who don't show photos online)...you can't help but have an expected image in your head...you never get it right either!
After that we had a really enjoyable posh family tea (we're an odd family unit by anyone's standards but we do have our moments...) and then Mark and I made it out into the night for a drink with the pride of Dumfries Hughs McMillan and Bryden. Some people were heading for the Open Mic at the Byre but I had never intended to go to that this year (I've been doing quite a lot of reading out and about elsewhere and it's on late and I had the cold...so many reasons not to go...) so although some others were going...Mark and I went back to the hotel to cough ourselves to sleep. The Hughs (or Shugs, as they prefer) drank a fair bit longer into the night, so I believe. They are so totally hardcore.
Then it was Saturday morning and back to business! Come on, it is a poetry festival...time for some bloody poetry...
My first Saturday event was the Poetry Breakfast on the theme 'can we view song lyrics as poetry?' and I was in a bit of sweat about this one, I will admit it. It is so my area, as the saying goes (have you seen what my book is called, have you, HAVE YOU?) and because of this I was almost quivering with dread that they would GET IT ALL WRONG on the panel and that I might have to actually commit the first StAnza murder (that I know of anyway). But you know...it wasn't like that at all...they were really all quite reasonable...and open-minded and OK so I did not have to kill anybody (quite a relief...I had no weapon or planned exit for a start).
My worst fear had been that the whole room would turn into one big, self-satisfied pat on the back for poetry and one big nasty boot in the backside for song lyrics with lots of “it just doesn't work on the page”s and more than a sprinkling of “well for heaven's sake we can't be expected to take that seriously as literature”s (there was a tiny bit of that but nothing unfair or stupid). I was even sitting right by the door in case I just couldn't stand it and had to run out screaming “Nooooo – it's all so wrong!” but luckily for the people I was sitting with (the knew-I-would-love-her-and-I-did Marion McCready who blogs as Sorlil and Shug McM) I did not have to call attention to us in this ridiculous and noisy fashion. And why? Simply because there was little in the event that I really disagreed with (and I wasn't disappointed...there is quite enough conflict in life...no, I was really, really relieved!). The event was opened by Roddy Lumsden who I haven't known that much about up to now in all honesty. I know he's Scottish but lives in that place called England, I have read a few of his poems in an anthology and seen him commenting on blogs and forums and things but that's about it. Mainly I have noted that he is a favourite poet with some people that I disagree with on just about everything (hi Rob!) but it just goes to show...you can't judge a poet by their fan club because I really liked a lot of what he said in this discussion. He spoke total sense in his introduction and said something along the lines of “if someone writes a song, it's a song, if someone writes a poem, it's a poem” (I'm not promising that is an exact quote...I was only half note-taking...he'll probably come and have me arrested or something now...). Before I go let me tell you though that he talked of “cousin-borrowing” between songs and poems too and it was all just so right. Yes, yes, yes...I nearly whooped from the back...I loved it!
After Lumsden, Canadian poet Stephen Scobie took up the role of fervent Dylan/Cohen fan (well, someone had to). I had feared these two names might dominate the discussion to the detriment of any other songwriter and to this end I had planned to count how many times each of them was mentioned during the proceedings (a bit anorak I know – we all have our trainspotting moments). In the end it wasn't really like that at all (thank goodness) but just in case you're wondering Dylan got 16 to Cohen's 9...though Scobie did play some Cohen too so that might make it more like a draw. (Also mentioned were Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos...and a few others to come).
After Scobie Italian academic, translator and poet Marco Fazzini (think big John Cooper Clarke hair) spoke total sense and brought in a wider, calmer, not-half-so-English-language outlook. Then poet/songwriter/perfomer Martin Newell was funny and interesting and mentioned perhaps a not hugely well-known English songwriter and perfomer Jake Thackray (Mike Harding plays him regularly on the Radio 2 folk show) and talked of the nonsense of keeping poetry, comedy and song separate (as if they were “unionised”). Next one of the UK's Premiership poets Simon Armitage (who I'd never heard speak before besides on Mike Radcliffe's radio show) then walked straight into my heart as he talked of his “no-brow” approach to culture - “anything'll do me”, he said calmly in that right on the edge of Yorkshire accent (as in that he'll consider anything...not that he likes everything...) and “I never cared if it's Chaucer or the Sex Pistols”. Now that's what I call music to my ears (47). Examples of Armitage's favourite songwriters were Morrissey and The Streets' Mike Skinner (who he called “risky”). He talked of seeing poems and songs as if on a Venn diagram and that made sense to me too (I didn't agree with every word he said or anything but I liked an awful lot of it just the same). He said “poetry is the art of concentration...you have to concentrate to read it and to write it” and he talked a lot about the differences between the writing styles and contents of the two interlinked artforms.
After Armitage, novelist Ian Rankin (who must be a great laid-back after dinner speaker) rambled gently and amiably about his years listening to Pink Floyd and then his years as a punk without really saying very much at all. He mentioned the band Elbow too...who I have still not got to grips with particularly. It was interesting to watch Rankin who is hugely successful of course and no doubt wealthier than anyone else on the festival bill. He was just so relaxed and...having such a nice time...and I wondered...are poets just always neurotic/prickly/nervous-looking/mad as trees or does being at a poetry festival in a small town surrounded by other poets picking over your every word make it ten times worse? I just wondered...I might be way off...and don't forget I have no real interest in sanity personally.
There wasn't a huge amount of debate at this event and no audience participation at all (just as well...I probably would have said something bizarre...) but there was an interesting bit where Fazzini picked up something Armitage had said about poetry not being really meant for performance any more. Fazzini said this was not the case everywhere in the world and talked of some African poets who only perform their work and yet whose performances are as powerful and significant as any written word. This seemed to send Armitage on a slightly different tack and he talked of “a future where poetry becomes more like song...more like what it was originally” and at this point I practically had to strap myself to the chair and take a vow of silence so as not to stand up and shout “More about the song, Simon, more about the song!” from the back (not that he would like my poems...he probably wouldn't as I'm sure I do all the things he talked of "never allowing his students to do in a poem"...)! Blissfully unaware of such possible disturbances however, Armitage continued that he felt poetry had lost some of its “zing...through print culture” and talked of how he had been so moved by Ted Hughes' performance/readings of his poems when he was young (he mentions that quite a lot – it obviously was a huge influence). “Once you'd heard him read,” he said, “you could not go back to the book.” Surprised? I was. It was great. And don't get me wrong...I like books (Lumsden referred to poetry books as “necessary evils”...fairly accurate in many ways).
The event was finished by Martin Newell with a rather out-of-place song about whiskey and women (it was St Andrews and 11 in the morning...more like croissants and crosswords...but anyway...). As he sang he reminded me rather unfortunately of Bill Nighy in the film 'Still Crazy'. Still I liked Newell...quite a lot (mad as several trees though of course...possibly a whole forest).
After this I set off through the mean streets of St Andrews (Sloane male students still wear stripey shirts! Sloane girl students still make me want to ram their stupid thousand pound sunglasses down their stupid throats! Oxbridge flashback attack...now I remember why I was driven to drugs!) and made my way to the 'intimate reading' with Simon Armitage. You may remember I had been reading some Armitage of late (here) and hadn't really come to anything like any opinions on anything in it...I didn't love it, didn't hate it, I just wasn't quite sure what I made of it at all. I loved this event though, am really glad I chose it and now consider myself a thorough Armitage fan! It was a small group and a friendly one and Armitage read almost entirely from his translation of the 14th Century Middle English poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. He seemed clearly relieved to be doing this and I suspect that, to an extent, he's quite weary of reading his own completely original poems and being interrogated about himself and his own personal thoughts and life (he does a lot of readings and appearances, he's one of the UK's most well-known poets currently). He came to life talking about Gawain though and although it's not something I know much about I really, really enjoyed the session and particularly relished listening to his enthusiasm for and experiences with the project (I could have been a translator once, a long time ago so for many reasons I am interested in the subject). I'm sure most of the group felt the same and I don't know what his Friday night main-slot-show was like but this 'intimate' event was a really mesmerising 45 minutes in a lovely sunny room with some civilised, inquisitive people. It made me see partly why Armitage has done so well (because he really has) - he loves his work (particularly this project, I think) and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious. Sometimes after poetry readings I feel confused or wild or frustrated or a bit annoyed or even downright angry but after this session I felt calm and rejuvenated! I think maybe even he enjoyed it too. I saw him smile. Who knows...maybe there was even zing...
After this I grabbed a rubbish sandwich from somewhere (I couldn't taste it being so full of the cold anyway) and then met up with my home team briefly. Small Girl was off to the Carol Ann Duffy kids show with her Grandma in the afternoon (Grandma loved it...SG prefers stories and would rather have gone to the cinema to see another film about dogs...still, it's character forming...). Grandma was also off to the Ian Rankin in conversation event (which she seemed quite happy with...she fell asleep though I bet...she's 84...nods off a lot). I, on the other hand, went off to the Poets' Market in the Town Hall where I shared a small table with the Shugs (well, Bryden mainly...McMillan and Mark went to watch rugby...oh and didn't England win?). By market time I was pretty worn out in truth (what with the dread and the relief and the rejuvenation and everything...) but it was still well worth going – some sales, some lovely folk, some chat with people whose poems I've liked somewhere along the way, more offline words exchanged with Claire and Sorlil and other blogging poets. Shug B and I were squeezed between the lovely Tessa Ransford and the women from Magma magazine who had chocolates so all in all it was a pleasant afternoon. Then at 5 pm we packed up and got the hell out of there – back to the dog (and dogsitter Jo) and to the house and to the rest of everything. And so now I'm worn out and it's over for another year but I am looking forward to everyone else's StAnza 09 tales with something quite like bated breath. So get on with them, the rest of you!
Lots of love (and I'm going back to lie down again now)