Archive | March, 2011

StAnza stories: three young composers, three poems and a BBC broadcast

30 Mar

One of the StAnza ‘firsts’ this year – and there were several – was the premier of three new musical compositions, settings to three beautiful poems by the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean. The pieces were the winning entries in a competition held by StAnza along with the SCO and the University of St Andrews Music Centre. And they were performed for the first time on Sunday 20 March at StAnza, in the presence of the young composers, Matthew Oglesby, Elisabeth Cowe and Lliam Paterson (pictured left) and of Sorley MacLean’s daughter Ishbel. The musical settings were to MacLean’s own English translations of the poems, An Autumn Day’, ‘Under Sail’, ‘Dogs and Wolves’ and the Gaelic versions were read by Maoilios Caimbeul, the festival’s first ever Gaelic Poet-in-Residence.

The music was performed by the St Andrews Chamber Orchestra, with three guest soloists from the SCO (Alison Mitchell, Jane Atkins and Sharron Griffiths) and the soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers.

It was a unique occasion – and the BBC were there to record the music, to be broadcast tomorrow (Thursday 31 March) at 1.30pm on Radio nan Gaidheal. You will be able to listen again on i-player if you miss it live.

Here’s the link:



The party’s over…until next year…

21 Mar

Believe it or not, StAnza 2011 is over – bar some tidying up at the Byre Theatre, who have played host to the poetry and a’ that.

In a festival with the theme Timepiece, it’s ironic that the event itself is being transformed into memories: lines of poetry being recalled, pictures on Facebook pages and snapshots on people’s mobiles.

As Eleanor Livingstone (left) introduced the final centre stage reading last night, there was a big round of applause, for this was her first StAnza as Festival Director . But as this listener settled down to enjoy the poetry of the marvellous Ciaran Carson and Fife’s own world class poet, Douglas Dunn, it was with a sense of how precious these last moments of the festival were.

Luckily we can relive the experience thanks to our social media supremo Colin Fraser and his team, who recorded the readings, and to our team of photographers who have captured the festival’s atmosphere through some wonderful images. Check us out here, on Facebook and on Twitter as we post our memories. Perfect for those who couldn’t make it to StAnza this year and hate to miss out.

We were lucky in so many ways: the mercurial weather systems of St Andrews produced almost-warm sunshine and the nights were blessed by a beautiful full moon in clear skies – our overseas visitors saw the town and its surroundings at its best. A few of us soaked up the sunshine this morning outside    Zest cafe in South Street (future visitors take note – there are not many suntraps in this town), and chatted about the events we had enjoyed. As well the main events there are all the incidentals – Selima Hill deftly dealing with an unexpected heckler and Douglas Dunn taking not one but two graceful bows, after the longest ovation in StAnza’s history.  There was the moment, for me, backstage, when the sound of the SCO and St Andrews Chamber Orchestra (tuning up before their Sunday concert) came in waves up the stairwell from the Auditorium.  Lots more memories – more than one blog can hold.

I’m writing this in the Byre Theatre, where, as I said, we have been tidying up and packing up StAnza stuff for next year. Ah next year! Believe it or not, after a brief rest and a few meetings for post match analysis, the whole shebang gets into gear again as plans are hatched for 2012.

Thanks again to the gorgeous Peggy Hughes from the Scottish Poetry library for her brilliant festival blogging. Keep checking in for more news and clips from StAnza 2011.

Day 5: All over bar the dancing…

20 Mar

Photo by Jo Bell.

Day 5 in the StAnza house, and we can’t believe it’s almost over. It’s with a heavy heart that I write from Edinburgh, having to miss the StAnza festival finale for the first time in all my StAnzaing years on account of an early flight tomorrow morning; if you know this little Peggy, you will know that she is never usually the first to leave the party. But how better to feel a part of it – as I know that Ciaran Carson and Douglas Dunn will just be exiting the Byre Main Auditorium, after what I can only imagine was a dreamy event, just before the festival finale, with music from Gaelic band Lurach – than by signing off, for now, here. Oh don’t you worry: there are more pictures to upload (more spectacles, teapots, people, socks, moustaches, moustaches on socks…) and more gossips to unfold, audio for you to enjoy and poetry to share, but I’ll end here with a poem, shoved into my hands on the Byre stairs, by an ‘anonymous’ scribe:

There was a young man from Lochranza
Gave a poetry reading at StAnza
He had such a great time
He forgot how to rhyme
All in all it was quite a bonanza.

I’m not sure there was a young man from Lochranza; I certainly didn’t meet him. Nor was I aware that anyone forgot how to rhyme. But I can swear an oath that we partied hearty in the name of poetry! So here’s to director Eleanor, to her first year in post and a winning beginning, the StAnza volunteers, the fantastic Byre staff, a fleet of wonderful poets, and of course you the audiences for being part of 2011. Wha’s like us? I raise a toast across the Firth of Forth!

Day 4: by the light of the silv’ry Tay…

19 Mar

Scottish Poetry Library stall, packed with free postcards and more!

Sometimes I wish I could clone myself; or teleport at the very least. Especially today having managed to miss a litany of smashing events: Maoilios Caimbeul reading Sorley MacLean; Julia Donaldson‘s Children’s Show: Wriggle & Roar, attended by most of St Andrews infant population; Rab Wilson reading with Polly Atkin, and, alas!, the Showcase event with Sophie F. Baker, Stevie Ronnie, Degna Stone, Anna Woodford.

Excellent SPL and Forest Cafe volunteer Aiko sells Forest and Anon Poetry Magazine wares

Where have I been all day? I went to the Poetry Cafe for Breakfast – another wonderful StAnza first for me – to hear Hugh McMillan, Anna Robinson, Anna Woodford and Kevin Young, very warmly chaired by StAnza’s Ian Blyth, discuss poetry and history, the slave trade, the Holocaust, the Tudors and Braveheart. I hung around the Scottish Poetry Library stall, there to distribute with unbridled abandon poetry postcards and our Poetry Reader. And I managed to receive two lovely gifts from two lovely friends (does the English language have a finer one-liner than ‘I have a present for you’? and that happened twice in one day!), one old friend, one brand new: from the former, a hilariously dubious board game called Poetic Justice, which has already thrilled and inspired a gang of loitering poets; from the latter, two delicate and lovely birds. I tripped down memory lane by visiting St John’s Undercroft, where StAnza started for me as a student venue volunteer, many moons ago. And I spent a goodly half hour wandering and havering my way round the Poets’ Market, where I bought a badge, and some postcards, and a Gaelic Books Council linen bag, which I, already a bit of a linen bag-lady, needed like a hole in the head but who can resist a lovely bag bearing in green the legend Leuch Leabhar! (Read Books!)? I ate a chicken and leek pie. I aided and abetted the purchase of a fabulous summer dress. I chatted with Kona Macphee and Rab Wilson and brilliant StAnza committee members Alan Gay and Claire Easingwood. I confess I did squeeze in the final moments of the Ireland England rugby game. I fussed about not having something to be loud with for tonight’s slam (10pm, and moved to the Byre Auditorium!) – should I humbly ask to borrow Ciaran Carson’s tin whistle, or buy a triangle? Turns out PA to Director Eleanor Livingstone Sasha had the circle squared with a comedy hooter all along.

Bob Holman in a dwam by the banks of the Tay

But I demur. The real reason for my leave of absence was finding myself part of a special voyage featuring Bob Holman. I was hovering around the Byre foyer, when Bob hollered me over (and no-one hollas like Bob) to enquire about how he might get to the Tay Rail Bridge. For Bob is a die-hard fan of William Topaz McGonagall, writer of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, has been reading his work in the Bowery for years, and was spiritually compelled to pay homage by the banks of the bridge. So with great haste we set off! The taxi man at the rank on South Street said ‘It’ll be £50 for there and back but am no waitin’. The bus was considered but decided against, since it didn’t stop anywhere near the bridge, but merely passed it by. To my friend Jen and her wheels we turned, explained and she was quickly, irresistibly enlisted! So we three pounded towards Dundee, with Tay FM on the radio playing the likes of Elton John and Kiki Dee and the Kinks and the sun glistening! Bob was louder than ever with excitement as the bridge came into view and louder still in exultation when we stopped on the quayside. Bob read the poem, then, we debated issues such as girders and buttresses and a large family plus 3 dogs who were having a photo close to the action were joined for a snap by a jubilant Bob. So rather a different kind of poetry event, but perhaps we might call it an impromptu outreach event in Dundee? Or, to misremember Wordsworth, a sort of spot in time? Or simply one of those magical, surreal things that can happen on a shimmery day at StAnza.

Day 3: Yeah Yeah Yeah!

18 Mar

StAnza audiences like their poetry fresh. By Jay Bernard, StAnza Artist in Residence 2010.

The sun put her cloche on for us today and gazed blindingly upon our wee grey toon. Which isn’t to say the wind wouldn’t flail the face off you as you rounded a corner, but bright mercies! I’ve taken up position in the Byre Theatre to relate the happenings of the day; The Flaming Lips’ ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ has come on the stereo, there’s some delectable poetry art work on the big screen to my left and some old friends milling around somewhere behind me – lovely symbols of another stimulating day on the poetry blogging beat.

Today, I introduced the New Poets Showcase in the Council Chambers. The blurbiage, ladies and gentlemen:

For the first time the top poets from the creative writing programmes of the major Scottish universities, the University of St Andrews (Ellen Cranitch), the University of Edinburgh (Claire Askew) and the University of Glasgow (Billy Letford), will come together with a prize winning alumnus of the 2000 Foyles Young Poet of the Year award (then the Simon Elvin Young Poets of the Year Award) (Sarah Howe), now at Cambridge University.  Come and be entertained by the voices of the future.

I must say the StAnza showcases are among my very favourite, now annual, StAnza events, an opportunity to hear a diverse range of voices and verses in one sitting. This one showcased the poets coming through the sterling work of creative writing MLitts and MScs across the country, and of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award (Saturday’s showcase will celebrate New Writing North and StAnza’s firm connections in the north-east of England). A lovely mix, a big smiley audience, Sarah’s crocodile poem; Claire’s pamphlet burny hot off the Red Squirrel press; Ellen’s tender poetry for her late mother; Billy’s Burnsian rendering of a midge bite, a broad and impressive range.

While in the Byre foyer, after a tasty soup (foodie alert: tomato!) with StAnza press officer, the wonderful Annie Kelly, I was oxter-cogged by the Dumfries and Galloway mafia, in the form of Hugh Bryden and poet Jean Atkin to use my spare 15 minutes wisely and well, by repairing to the Preservation Trust Museum for a guided tour of Hugh’s Ronacadora exhibition, In Black and White! Sometimes one is simply in the right place at the right time! Deep joy, the sun streaming through the windows, Hugh explaining how the complex making of Jean’s book appeared to him a dream (Hugh: illustrator and publisher by day, seer by night…), of how he and Hugh McMillan, heading to London in 2010 for the Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlets, designed their Willow Pattern collaboration on the paper plate saved from a tea and toastie stop: when the muse strikes! Some pics, of Hugh and Jean and the fine work of Roncadora Press, below.

Today Bob Holman, (‘Poetry Czar’ and founder in 2002 of the Bowery Poetry Club in downtown Manhattan) and his fantastic spectacles rocked into town. He immediately went on the prowl for a kilt. Today I had a bottle of Coca Cola with a straw in it, an ice cream from Janetta’s Ice Cream Emporium, having dispatched the brave Jo Bell there for an impromptu performance to a snaking queue and played musical chairs at dinner, as we invited lone poets to break bread – or the Byre’s fab beef bourguignon – at our table. While dining, I got a tiny insight into the fascinating world of translation: did you know that the Welsh word for microwave is popty ping? And if you did, did you know it isn’t solely for onomatopoeic reasons, but that it literally translates as “the oven that goes ping”? Isn’t that marvellous? When words collide! Also marvellous, in a news just in kind of way, is the Belgian chocolate I’ve just consumed, a gift from Ghent and Krikri’s Helen and Jelle. I enjoyed today’s 5 O’Clock Verses with Tom Petsinis and Kevin Young, enjoyed talking about silence – awkward and comforting – with Rachael and Patricia, enjoyed my small stature fails to ignite the Byre electronic door, enjoyed many fine sightings of brogues, enjoyed a passing South Street chatette with my former tutor, the ineffable Douglas Dunn, who’s centre stage on Sunday evening at 8pm with Ciaran Carson, and enjoyed being part of five simultaneous conversations  – involving jogging, disco, J Alfred Prufrock, cupcakes and an imminent event – on the Byre couches; a skill only the hardened StAnza comer will have mastered…

I leave you in anticipation of tonight’s Risk A Verse (see what we did!) Open Mic, due to begin at 10.15pm (if you’re within running distance, come!), and more cheese, upon which a pack of students, here for the mic, have gleefully descended like seagulls on chips) and the dulcet tones of Tina Turner, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ blasting from the speakers… The beat goes on!

“the friendliest poetry festival”: day 2

17 Mar

It’s 7pm, I’m in the foyer of the Byre and there’s a pleasant surround sound buzz on all levels. We’re between acts – Brian Johnstone (right, putting the spec in spectacular… Spectacles: model’s own) and Natasha Trethewey read at the first 5 O’Clock Verses session in Parliament Hall, elegies for time past, and perfect for one of this year’s themes, ‘Timepieces’; Fiona Sampson and Yang Lian are about to share the Byre Auditorium stage, with Yang’s translator, Brian Holton, at 8pm. Thai green chicken curry has been consumed in between. I am sitting beside the Ryan Van Winkle; we are both en laptops while facing a wall with a constant pictorial loop of participants on it; imagine his surprise and my glee when this happened:

But what a day and what a lot of different poetries have come before this point! I’ve been involved with StAnza since I was a student here at St Andrews, latterly as former director Brian Johnstone’s PA, when my job was to man the phone, put out fires or rush to Leuchars train station to retrieve a mislaid poet: in short, this is the first year I’ve been able to pull up a pew and drink down some words! Today I dived right in with a Past and Present session in the Town Hall – my first! – with Kevin Young speaking about the late, great Lucille Clifton and Stuart Kelly on the poetry of the late, once-considered-great Sir Walter Scott. An illuminating session in which Kevin revealed his great respect for ‘Miss Lucille’s’ work and warmth – “I can’t think of very many poets I’d want to hear 73 poems by”, he said, of a recent event in which 73 of her poems occurred – and Stuart explained how Sir Walter’s poetry was once held in such repute that advertisers of the day aped the final lines of ‘Marmion’, notably to aid sales of moustache wax…

From the past to pies, glorious pies!, and a ridiculously lovely session with Jo Bell, who read poetry of friendships, ship ships, the boating life, and a few naughty ones for good measure. She also declared that she found StAnza to be the friendliest poetry festival, which is of course a lovely thing to hear. Did we seduce her with the pies? Or was it the bank of chocolates and strawberry tarts left out for everyone after her event? Either way, we acknowledge that traversing St Andrews during StAnza without bumping into someone keen to discuss poetry isn’t easy!

Then for something a little bit different… Krikri were first introduced to StAnza audiences as part of the Distant Voices Festival in November 2009, pushing the envelope with their soundscapes in Ghent while we watched from the Byre Theatre. This was the first time we’d seen them perform in the flesh, and I’m afraid their lively and engaged exploration of contemporary trends in performance, sound and visual poetry doesn’t really translate into words! Mind-wobbling, ear-bending stuff.

So it’s been a day of poetries, or multiple voices, of remembering the past and celebrating the present. We’ll be raising a glass to that – and St Patrick – tonight in the Byre Bar, where there’ll be a spot of lovely jazz too. Perhaps we’ll see you there…

Day 1: beginnings!

17 Mar

Before I take a step across the threshold into a curtain of fine St Andrews rain, towards another delightful day immersed in poetry, a cup of tea and an admiring glance over yesterday’s fine beginnings, begun in earnest at 5pm in the Byre Theatre.

A big jostly crowd of poets, poetry fans, guests and students were treated to a taster, ‘both figurative and literal’ in the words of Director Eleanor Livingstone, of this year’s programme: what with this year being Scotland: Land of Food and Drink, there’s a raft of excellent locally produced nosh to complement what’s always on the StAnza menu. The fine Cairn O’ Mhor wines doing the rounds (strawberry and bramble and elderflower, oh my!) were only the tip of the gastronomic iceberg; I solemnly declare to sample those cheeses and chocolates and pies for your vicarious pleasure.

Glasses charged, we heard a poem each from Emory-based Kevin Young, StAnza’s first ever Gaelic Poet in Residence, Maoilios Caimbeul, Lidija Šimkutė, gorgeous traditional music from the sickeningly talented Mairi and Steaphanaidh Chaimbeul, and an address to visiting poets on the perils of St Andrews from BBC Radio Scotland’s Tom Morton. Appetites finely whetted, we repaired for a big warm welcome to StAnza meal (salmon to start and chicken stuffed with haggis, if you foodies care to know!); this was a great chance to chat with the likes of Ghent based Jelle and Helen, aka Krikri, who’ll perform today at 2.15pm (a must see!) The disconcerting part of the meal for my myself and fellow diner Jim Carruth was being observed by Jay Bernard’s cartoon portrait of me from StAnza 2010.

Onward then to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert at the Younger Hall or the Golden Hour in the Byre bar, depending on your fancy (options!); I was introducing the Golden Hour and my friend and colleague at the Scottish Poetry Library, beard about town Ryan Van Winkle and it was a joyful occasion. Ryan opened with poems from his new collection Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. Then Billy Letford (I went from never having met Billy to being introduced to him 5 separate times) seduced the entire rapt room with his fine poetry from the rooftops and poetry of bird song, all read from memory. Singer songwriter Hailey Beavis never disappoints, with those swoonsome lyrics and that eargasmic voice, and the compulsive energy of the John Langam band, all folky and fiddles and klezma makes this non-dancing library worker want to shed her cardigan and dance.

And the wonderful thing about StAnza, that always sets it apart from other festivals, is the craic; the ending up in Aikman’s Cellar Bar with Jo Bell (also on later today at the Poetry Cabaret,1pm) and Billy and student volunteers havering on about Raymond Carver and hotel beds wider than boats and toasting St Patrick at midnight. So here’s to a fine beginning and four more days of the same potent stuff!

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