I could write pages about the poetry readings at StAnza, but I suspect you’d need to have been there for it to be interesting, so I’ll keep it as short as possible and pick out a few details.
Jen Hadfield and Polly Clark were very different from another in both poetry and delivery – JH’s poems are odd and her delivery engagingly hesitant, PC is more traditional and she reads confidently – but I enjoyed both very much. A great start to the festival for me.
I thought that two of the Eric Gregory Award (made to five or so UK poets under the age of 30 each year) winners were very good, but I probably shouldn’t mention names.
Michael Laskey managed to switch really well between humour and sadness in his set, sometimes combining both in the one poem.
I enjoyed hearing the three Russian poets (Elena Falinova, Alexandra Petrova, and Maria Galina) reading in Russian – one of them deadpan, one sounding mysterious and lyrical, one almost singing like a bird at times before switching to a lower, sadder key. The translations echoed the sound of the poems.
Jack Mapanje’s microphone didn’t work, but that didn’t affect the strength and dignity of his poems, many written through times of dictatorship in Malawi. He spent 3 years in prison for writing poetry and his poems were political, humane, and moving. Ron Butlin also didn’t shirk from writing on politics, making connections from Thatcher through to Blair, and his wit connected well with the audience.
George Szirtes gave an excellent reading – poems rooted in real human concerns, full of depth, and yet not so heavy that the power of the language and subject-matter didn’t come across in a reading. Ruth Padel began with a spellbinding, new, long poem on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which must have lasted about 10 minutes. A piece of sustained power. Her reading was dramatic and theatrical.
Mario Petrucci was brilliant. He was very good at communicating with his audience, and like Michael Laskey, could switch from humour into the very deepest sadness without it seeming like too great a leap. The poems felt honest and authentic, whether funny or sad.
Matt Harvey and John Hegley were both very funny, halfway between stand-up comedy and poetry. Harvey is the nice guy, the comedian who says “Please like me, audience,” and uses that as the launchpad for humour. Hegley acts the cantankerous misery-guts and gets his laughs from that. I thought Harvey had one of the funniest stand-up acts I’d seen in ages and his poetry was very, very clever. He deserves far more recognition.
83-year-old Mark Strand began by instructing us “Don’t mistake any my poems for autobiography. None of it is true. This first one is called Old Man Leaving the Party,” which sounded like an ironic double-bluff. The poems were surreal and clever, the reading deadpan. He was grumpy and monosyllabic afterwards, but maybe he was just tired. Alastair Reid’s poems were accessible but not shallow, evidence of a fully-lived life, and his reading was a great way to finish off a superb festival.
If any of the festival organisers read this – please invite me back. Anytime. I realise there will a long queue, but I will wait patiently.