I went to the StAnza International Poetry Festival for the first time in 2006, commuting for a day or two and knowing hardly anyone there, but I enjoyed it and have been back every year since. I was back this year as a participant – reading on the Friday afternoon with U.S. poet and playwright, Dan O’Brien, and being on a panel discussing ideas of ‘home’ on the Saturday morning. I couldn’t get to St Andrews until Friday morning but stayed all the way till Monday morning.
I can’t review everything that happened. Well, I could, but I’d be trying your patience beyond limit. Instead, I want to hold up a few special moments, times of happiness however fleeting, memories I will carry around with me, inspiration, humour, joy, a blend of hope and loss the way memories always are.
1. Alexander Hutchison reads the words of David Jones from ‘In Parenthesis’, part of a ‘past and present’ session in which a living poet talks about a dead one. The poetry is astonishing. Jones surely must be one of the great 20th century poets but, like W.S. Graham, he seems to have been shunted off to the margins of the mainstream canon. I wonder why that is, how it can possibly be.
2. My own reading with Dan O’Brien shoots past. I hadn’t read at StAnza since 2007 and the hour disappears as if it were five minutes. Time is complex, relative and irrelevant.
3. Tanya Shirley and W.N. Herbert discuss the phenomenon, as described in one of Tanya’s poems, of men who get a sexual thrill from fat women sitting on them and squashing them. The exchange happens during the changeover from Tanya’s reading to WNH’s and is hilarious. Both readings are great too, the best double act of the festival.
4. Going back to my bed at around 1.15am, Saturday morning, when there is the possibility of continuing to drink and dance with an assembled company of poets until after 3am. I’m told it turned into an amazing night. So that is a special time I don’t get to experience, but I have my 10am panel the same morning and, for once, good sense wins out over ‘the moment’. Sometimes it has to and there will be other moments. Moments like wakening up and feeling alive the next morning.
5. The panel discussion is fascinating, each panelist bringing a unique perspective to the concept of ‘home’, although none of us are altogether clear on what home is. I had privately considered my own poems, ‘Horizontal’, (“our love remains where we move from// or move to, resistant to our hopeless/ DIY, our attempts to settle and stand”) and ‘Experience’ (“Every/ dose of reality// leaves the tang of absence. The moment/ I leave a place,// I taste it in the next bright thing: each capital/ city a mere simile// for others, each neon facade disguising the dark/ ache within...”). But I don’t mention them. The audience seem to enjoy the discussion and, if not, they at least enjoy the delicious coffee and croissants.
6. A wonderful 4-hour conversation over coffee and lunch in which all kinds of things began to fall into perspective regarding life and writing and poetry. Not on the StAnza programme, this ‘event’, but something of a festival fringe happening! Great festivals are more than events. Many true ‘events’ are beyond the reach of a catalogue.
7. Another inspired pairing: J.O. Morgan and Croatian poet, Tomica Bajsic. I refer you to Helena Nelson’s report, which I can’t better. It is a sensational reading. I really like the idea of pairing Scottish poets with those from other countries. It always makes for something varied and worked brilliantly every time.
8. Botswanan poet, TJ Dema, begins her Saturday night headline reading in the Byre with “Poems are bullshit/ unless they teach/ they serve absolutely no purpose/ unless they reach the audience they are written for/ unless they reach the ears they are meant for”. Whether that’s strictly true or not, I was glad to be among the ears.
9. Catching up with Gerry Cambridge, Sandy Hutchison, Ross Wilson and Marion McCready on the Saturday night in the Byre bar. Old friends, two of whom I see reasonably often, two not often enough. Plenty of laughter, a little gentle ribbing (mainly at my expense), and good local ale. Then we go hunting for another bar open till late and find The Criterion and more poets.
10. Gabeba Baderoon and Sheila Templeton read in the St John’s Undercroft. Both are very good. I am a card-carrying Scottish Calvinist and public displays of emotion (in a man, at least) are highly suspect. But I actually shed a few tears during one of Gabeba’s poems and that, seriously, never happens to me at poetry readings. I can’t say that any more though. I brush away the tears and glance round at poet/dancer Tishani Doshi sitting next to me, wondering if she has noticed, but she is also entranced, lost in the words, elsewhere. Where, of course, everything begins.
11. Yet another brilliant pairing: this time Katherine Kilalea’s subtle, beautifully connected and fractured poems with Brian Holton’s musical translations of Chinese poetry into Scots. Both fabulous readings.
12. Gabeba and I both want to see John Greening’s reading, but we have only 15 minutes to get from one venue to another and we are hungry. We order an egg mayonnaise baguette between us. In my rush I drop part of mine on the pavement. Ridiculously, I pick it up and stuff it into my mouth. We get to the reading on time and it is excellent. I don’t become ill later.
13. Gerry shows me screenshots he has taken of certain Facebook dialogues between rampantly egotistical poets (I will not divulge!) and I can hardly speak from laughing so much. Amazing we can laugh at such sadness, but what else can one do?
14. Nine of us talk and laugh over dinner in a restaurant. On the way, Tomica Bajsic and I discuss possible collaborations. Exciting stuff, as he is a fantastic poet. Something good is happening here. Good food, wine, new friends, what more could anyone ask for?
15. Menna Elfyn and Paul Muldoon – incredible readings in the Byre to finish off with.
16. But not quite finished. King Creosote are playing a live set afterwards. I try to copy Tishani’s dance moves but what she is doing is impossible and she’s not even having to try. I can almost hear my 11-year-old daughter’s voice in my head, “Dad, you can’t dance!”... But I am dancing.
17. Saying goodbye. The band have finished, the dancing is over. The bar aren’t even playing music through the speakers. It is the end. “It is finished!” The silence. The anti-climax. The euphoria and the sorrow.
18. I have an enjoyable breakfast with TJ. She is off to do poetry things in Copenhagen soon. She doesn’t like goodbyes but she is the last poet I see in St Andrew’s 2014. We don’t say goodbye though.
19. The train home. Books in my bag, not as many as I wish I could have bought. I have Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’, Tishani Doshi’s ‘Everything Begins Elsewhere’ and ‘Fountainville’ and Gabeba Baderoon’s ‘A Hundred Silences’ and ‘The Dream in the Next Body’. Tanya Shirley is going to send me her book, She Who Sleeps with Bones, by post. We carry something of people with us.
20. Not everything has to be shared. This isn't Facebook. Is this really a summary of a poetry festival? Or is it just that over three days and nights within a small blip in the universe, something happens and I go away feeling resolute and with a few changes in the offing. And I have poems fermenting that need to be written, and need to be written better than I think I am capable of. But I need to write them, exactly like that.