What a privilege to be invited to take part in StAnza 2016, the 19th annual poetry festival in St Andrews. Heartfelt thanks to Eleanor Livingstone and to all the members of the team who every year organise and programme this outstanding festival. StAnza extends such a warm welcome to everyone who attends – it really is a celebration of poetry, in its many magical forms.
This year’s festival themes were City Lines and Body of Poetry. They’re related of course. Cities are intensely physical as well as imaginative places – this was nicely probed in Friday’s Poetry Breakfast and the two themes were in low-key dialogue throughout the festival.
My own interests include place and body, so I felt at home. I really enjoyed taking part in the Poetry Breakfast on Saturday on the theme of Body of Poetry (on the panel with Aase Berg, SJ Fowler, Andrew McMillan, Justin Stephenson, with Eleanor Livingstone as our expert chair) and then I was delighted to read in the beautiful St John’s Undercroft on Sunday morning. It was a special pleasure to meet and read with Meg Bateman whose fine book Transparencies I recently reviewed for Magma.
Body is a big short word. It has multiple meanings that we encounter all the time – as corpse, wholeness, frame, material, majority, aggregate, collection, matter, substance – and many many more. These make the word ‘body’ seem commonplace and normal. But the miracle of body is that of everyday life itself. And the things bodies can be, can do, can become, can inspire, the ways they carry and transpose and express meaning, are literally endless.
I attended quite a few of the events I’d wanted to go to, but others clashed and there were difficult decisions to make. Sometimes I needed a half hour break just when something I’d planned to go to was starting. So I ended up – of course – a little frustrated by not being able to go to everything! A good festival experience is about serendipity and the moment though, as life is.
I was excited by Thomas Lynch’s wonderful lecture, by his fluent movement between matters of life and death, his insistence on the physical and spiritual importance of poetry in our thinking about life and death. I was bowled over by the beautifully embodied performances of Katie Ailes and Kevin Mclean. I was moved by the three way exhibition (The Potter, the Painter and the Poet) at the Preservation Trust Museum which celebrated the work of the late Elizabeth Burns in collaboration with potter Paul Tebble and painter Anne Gilchrist. I was thrilled to hear Lemn Sissay’s totally electrifying set, Tracey Herd reading her dark poems, Jane Yolen in conversation with Judith Taylor (I liked Jane’s notion that the tighter compression of language in the poem makes it a more robust cage for the wild animals of strong emotional content).
Other highlights for me: Fiona Benson’s and Andrew McMillan’s joint reading, their work and their voices standing well together – two such dignified and talented poets; how sobering, later that evening, to hear McMillan’s voice again, this time reading poems by the imprisoned Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh (Jo Shapcott was also reading from his work) reminding us of the precious and fragile gift of free speech; a screening of the intensely memorable film – so rooted in ideas of body – by Justin Stephenson about the work of bpNichol, followed by a lively conversation between Stephenson and SJ Fowler; finally, the powerful double bill of Pascale Petit and Sean O’Brien on Sunday night – what an affecting finale to the festival.
Looking back over the programme now, I’ve a sense of having attended a grand feast (and Thomas Lynch reminded us, in the Festival Lecture, that Auden said ‘Art [poetry] is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead’) where course after course was presented and shared and all the time good conversation happened around and over the food. The sense of nourishment continues, and will – I have a store of memories of readings, images, performances and conversations, a notebook full of notes, a stack of new books to read. Plenty to savour and digest. I give thanks.