I guess you’d need to pace yourself if you were the kind of person who gets invited to all the literary festivals to do readings, workshops, masterclasses and panels. Every day there are stimulating events, a constant melee of people to meet, and a mountain of food and alcohol to consume to all hours. It must become routine if you travel from one to another every week or two, and you’d need a strategy to survive. I know one reader at StAnza said that he got frustrated flying into festivals, reading and signing, and then flying out again only a few hours later. But the alternative would mean hardly seeing his family and friends and probably becoming massively overweight and alcoholic.
So, there is at least one advantage of not being a habitual invitee on the festival circuit, or that’s what I tell myself. When I make my annual Spring pilgrimage to StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, I can have a good time knowing that normal life will resume a few days later with its customary vengeance. I made it to bed by 1am on the Friday evening, but I saw 2am on both the Saturday and Sunday. StAnza has a justified reputation as the ‘friendly festival’ and it is this buzz which makes it special, even if it seems rather less buzzy at 7.15am in a B&B with light streaming through the pale curtains.
My highlights were:
a) a panel event about the relationship between poetry and history, which might not sound immediately gripping, but the panel (Anna Woodford, Kevin Young, Hugh McMillan and Anna Robinson) got a great discussion going on the fluid relationship between truth and lies, imagination and history, witness and satire – all themes which are central to my own second collection-in-progress, so I was listening carefully.
b) Selima Hill and Philip Gross – Philip Gross read well. He has great ability to develop ideas and images throughout a poem and keep it interesting and surprising without resorting to absurdity or bizarre tangents (some poets do absurdity and tangents well, of course, but I guess it’s become no more than a technique for others). I felt his introductions were too long and covered matters best left to the poems themselves, but it was still a fine reading. Selima Hill polarised people. I am definitely a fan. Her poetry is entirely singular and so was her reading – from the four and a half minutes of awkward shuffling about preceding her first words, to the constant refrain of “I just want to go home” every few poems (my interpretation of this was that in a way she did and in another way she actually didn’t, but saying it was a help to her – all to do with Asperger Syndrome), to the idiot heckler who tried to derail her halfway through (and didn’t succeed), she crafted an experience as astonishingly weird as her poems. As someone remarked to me afterwards, “Whatever people thought of that reading, they’re all talking about it and will never forget it.” No doubt about that!
c) Helena Nelson & Durs Grunbein – Nell read very well, poems mainly from her new collection Plot and Counter-Plot. If people had only heard her read the light verse from her pamphlets before, some of these poems would have come as a surprise. Then came Grunbein, one of Germany’s top poets, with translations by Michael Hofmann (from Ashes for Breakfast) read by Don Paterson. It’s really good stuff and it was great to hear the sound of the poems in the original German, even though I don’t speak the language.
d) Antonella Anedda & Carrie Etter – I thought Italian poet, Antonella Anedda, was terrific and I traded one of her books (in Italian) for my own collection (she laughed when she saw my poem featuring Berlusconi). I might try to translate some of her poems, just for fun in the first instance to see how they turn out. I hadn’t met Carrie before despite ‘knowing’ her online for a while, but I wasn’t surprised that her reading was lively and diverse – she read from The Tethers and from Diving for Starters. What was interesting is that these poems, on the page, seem to come from different ends of the poetic spectrum, but they fused together for the reading so that it wasn’t always obvious which book she was reading from.
e) The Poets Market – I was on the Magma stall for four hours on the Saturday afternoon. I met loads of people and sold a decent number of copies of the magazine. I also managed to have a quick look at some of the other stalls. There were few quiet moments, which was all to the good and the time shot by.
f) Kevin Williamson – Kevin recited/performed poems which Robert Burns had written anonymously or had been lost from his official writings for one reason or another. They were often political and, with Kevin’s delivery, sounded highly contemporary. He may be doing a complete show of these at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year and I’d recommend going along.