Archive | March, 2011

Meet StAnza’s festival blogger

16 Mar

StAnza is about to take off! The final preparations are being made at the Byre Theatre for this evening’s launch and the first of the festival events. In just a few hours, the theatre will be filled with poetry, music and the lively mix of poets, artists, and poetry fans that makes the festival such a unique and convivial experience. BBC Scotland’s Tom Morton will be the special guest at our 5.30 launch and will introduce some of the poets: our first ever Gaelic Poet-in-Residence Maoilios Caimbeul, USA poet Kevin Young and Australia’s Lidija Simkute.

Covering StAnza happenings will be our guest blogger Peggy Hughes (above left), who works at the Scottish Poetry Library, arguably one of the hippest literary libraries in the world – and they do a mean afternoon tea, too. Peggy will be casting a keen and highly amused eye over what goes on at StAnza – she’s going to cover a variety of events and snatch some micro-interviews with Stanza poets and people at the festival. And there’ll be a section about books: books  we couldn’t put down; books to recommend; ‘a book I couldn’t finish’; books people wish were back in print and  opinions about e-books.

Experience the best of festival via the StAnza Blog over the next few days and tell us what you think. We will also be active on Twitter, Flickr and on Facebook.

Carrie Etter on the need to create poetry communities

15 Mar

Our guest blogger, poet Carrie Etter, started her writing career through communities of poets in her native USA. What does she expect to find on her visit to Scotland?

Over the years, I’ve been a member of a number of poetry communities, but for the sake of space I’ll just talk about my first few. Growing up in Normal, Illinois, I found my first such community when at the local university I took an adult education class, ‘Women Writing Women’s Lives’. I was fifteen and the youngest present by ten years. Eight from the class, including myself, stayed together for several years, continuing to workshop fiction, poetry, and memoir, and giving readings as a group around Illinois; we called ourselves Womanwriter.

As few in the group were avidly pursuing poetry, I think it was that much more important I found another community through the literary magazines I discovered in the university library. I started noticing recurring names and turning directly to poets I particularly liked, and when I began publishing my own poems, I felt increasingly part of a community of the page and periodical and think that’s partly why I have such a great affection for “little” magazines.

Moving to Los Angeles at 19, I found a vast community of poets that roved from reading to reading across the city—indeed, across several counties! Soon I learned that one could go to a reading every night of the week, and to try to bring it all together in those pre-internet days, I founded Out Loud: The Monthly of Los Angeles Area Poetry Events, a newsletter that began with 200 photocopies and myself the only person involved, and ended five years later with 3000 printed copies a month and a volunteer staff of 18. Financially I was barely getting by, but I had the best of times.

In Venice, California, on the western edge of L.A., Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center continues to thrive, and those involved in its full, varied schedule include many I knew twenty years ago. Fortunately Facebook helps me keep in touch with some of them, and I hope someday to return and read there, a homecoming I’ve fantasized about perhaps once too often.

Coming to StAnza for the first time, I’ve been curious about the Scottish poetry community, so I wrote to some Scottish poets I know for insight. Scotland’s answer to Beyond Baroque appears to be the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. As J.L. Williams remarks, “The SPL is an amazing resource in so many ways – the collection, the people who work there, the events they put on.  It’s really a hub for poetry in Edinburgh, and feels so vibrant and alive.” Poetry series also provide a useful meeting place as well as the opportunity to hear a mix of local and visiting writers; Poetry At… and Shore Poets in Edinburgh and St Mungo’s Mirrorball in Glasgow were recommended by a number of poets for their welcoming and supportive atmosphere.

Those surveyed pointed out two main weaknesses in the Scottish poetry community. One lies with publishing, in terms of few poetry presses and lack of attention to poetry by Scottish newspapers. As Robert Crawford writes, “Scotland has no big poetry publisher, and the poetry ‘infrastructure’ of London probably has a scale and range that’s not really matched here.” On the matter of range, the second weakness is the lack of support for “other” or “experimental” poetries; there’s no Scottish magazine that publishes it to any extent, no reading series devoted to it. Sadly, one established “experimental” poet felt there was no place for his work in Scotland. I hope, though, that this is beginning to change. Rob A. Mackenzie, organizer of the Poetry At… series, is becoming known for a catholic taste and hosting an interesting range of poets, and I was heartened when StAnza welcomed my giving a talk on American “experimental” poet Barbara Guest.

I am eagerly looking forward to my time at StAnza and am grateful to its organizers for the opportunity to become acquainted firsthand with the Scottish poetry community. I’d be glad for others’ thoughts, in person at the festival and here online, to improve my knowledge and understanding of it.

Carrie’s talk on Barbara Guest is at the Town Hall on Saturday 19th at 2.15pm. She will be reading at St John’s Undercroft on Sunday 20th at 11.30am. Details at

A Gruffalo, a cave baby? – StAnza’s inspirational children’s poets take the imagination off road

14 Mar

StAnza’s children’s programme features two writers who are household names thanks to their writing for children and young people. Both of them have made poetry, appealing and entertaining: as the budding poets in their audiences will attest.

Julia Donaldson (left) is most famous for The Gruffalo, which has delighted generations of children and has been a big hit on BBC television. She has written poetry books, novels and songs for children of all ages, which she talks about in this interview at the Scottish Book Trust. For StAnza, Julia and her husband will be performing Wriggle & Roar, (Saturday 19th) at the Byre Theatre, a fun filled hour of poetry and song for children aged 4+ and featuring some of her favourite characters. Afterwards, Julia will be signing copies of her latest book, Cave Baby.

Philip Gross is a prize-winning poet, whose collection The Water Table won the T S Eliot Prize. But he is immensely proud of his poetry, plays and fiction for young people. ‘I feel quite fierce about that,’ he told Scotsman writer Susan Mansfield in an interview last week. ‘If I’m writing anything that an adult reader would feel short-changed by or patronised by then I shouldn’t be doing it to young people either.’ Philip started writing when his own children were growing up and his writing matched their ages. His latest book, The Storm Garden, is a novel for teenagers. Philip’s show Off the Road to Everywhere, for children aged 8+ is at on Sunday 18th at the Town Hall in St Andrews. During it he will be presenting prizes to the winners of the StAnza Poetry Competition for young people during the show. The winning poems will be on display at the Byre Theatre.

Click here for more details about the Children’s Programme.

Read Philip Gross’s full Scotsman interview here.

Join the conversation at StAnza: talks and debates

13 Mar

A Poetry Breakfast panel gets going at StAnza 2010

StAnza is well known for its lively, energetic atmosphere, for the buzz that it creates around the poetry. This is due as much to its discussion and conversation strands as to the performances and readings. By turns celebratory and controversial, these talks influence the way we think about poetry. It’s a conversation that festival goers carry on long after the festival itself is over.

The StAnza Lectures have a history of their own: of creating conversations on often controversial topics that spill over into the press and the blogosphere.  On Friday 18th, Robert Crawford brings ancient poetry bang up to date with his lecture: ‘Simonides and the War on Terror’. The Greek poet was famous for his commemorations of those who fell in battle and Crawford looks at contemporary concerns for the casualties of terrorism – civilian and military.

The festival themes and other topics get mulled over during the Poetry Breakfast series brings together poets, critics and academics – experts in their fields. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reminds us that this is arguably one of the most influential literary texts in English. Poet (and Poetry Review editor) Fiona Sampson joins in the discussion on Friday 18th.  On Saturday 19th the Timepiece theme gets ticking again with the help of poets Hugh McMillan and newcomer Anna Woodford among others. As with all the Breakfasts, the audience get their say too, over the coffee and pastries.

It is often (too often) said that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Sunday’s Poetry Breakfast may well turn that notion on its head: Gaelic poet Kevin MacNeil is presenting some new translations especially commissioned by StAnza, and he will be joined in discussion by Don Paterson (who has major versions of Machado and Rilke under his belt) and Australian poets Tom Petsinis, Lidija Šimkutė, of Greek and  Lithuanian extraction, respectively. That’s a lot of languages in the mix!

Elsewhere, there’s the chance to explore the true  stories behind the great poetry. Edwin Morgan’s biographer, James McGonigal will be in conversation about the much mourned Makar. He will be talking to Robyn Marsack of the Scottish Poetry Library, which holds the Edwin Morgan Archive.  And poet Gawain Douglas will be offering an alternative view of his great uncle Lord Alfred Douglas – Oscar Wilde’s lover – as part of his own family history.

There’s more about the talks at And you can keep the conversations going afterwards via blogs and Twitter (@stanzapoetry).

Shooting ten portraits of poets in a day inspired me!

11 Mar

StAnza’s Artist-in-Residence this year is the photographer Dan Philips. Here he explains how how his project came about and why the photographer’s interaction with the sitter is so important.

It was about this time last year that I first became aware of StAnza. Having photographed the previous Director Brian Johnstone, in his home, I became intrigued and so spent a day in the company of the poets last year.

And it inspired me. Shooting ten portraits in a day it struck me how this kind of photography – more than any other – is about developing relationships. Your sitter can either collaborate with you, co-operate, enjoy the process and suggest ideas, or they can resist against it, be uncommunicative, or simply feel pushed for time. And the irony is that the latter can be as productive for pictures as the former. One of my best images from last year was of Linton Kwesi Johnson in his dressing room before his performance. He’d agreed earlier in the day, but the shoot being mere minutes before him going on stage, he was obviously pushed for time. I think the tension shows in his face and I love the picture.

So my residency is about bringing this relationship to the fore. After shooting each portrait I’ll ask each sitter to perform an ‘intervention’ on the printed image. I’ll give them some pens and what they do is up to them. They can ‘respect’ the image, or they can mock it.

And with StAnza being so clued up online those that can only visit for a day or two will be able to see the continued works on the StAnza Flickr stream, on Twitter, and on this blog.

You can see some of Dan’s previous work, including the portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson, here.

Poetry on the menu: enjoy fine food and verses at StAnza

10 Mar

Festival going has many attendant pleasures; meeting new people and enjoying the bustling atmosphere is as much fun as experiencing the events. StAnza has become famous for the buzz it creates around its hub venue, the Byre Theatre, with its Bistro and bars and elsewhere in St Andrews, as our Photo Gallery for 2010 shows. Festivalgoers often find themselves talking to the poets they’ve just heard, in the bar afterwards, and people will mingle and chat over coffee and drinks between events.

Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, was keen to develop this convivial element of StAnza. ‘Food and drink have always been integral to the festival, from the hospitality offered to performers to informal drinks and meals at our venues,’ she says. ‘We wanted to make attending the festival a wholly rounded experience for our visitors.’ The result is a wider range of foodie treats with a distinctly Scottish flavour, from pies, preserves and cheeses, to fruit wines and chocolates.

This year you can happily eat and drink your way round StAnza, thanks to its series of Poetry Café events: tuck in to free coffee and pastries at the breakfast discussions, enjoy a pie and a drink (and more) with the lunchtime poetry performances or try the snacks at the evening events. In St Andrews, there’s a poetry tasting session at ice cream parlour Jannetta’s and Scottish nibbles will be served at the open mic in Zest Café and Juicing Bar. For ideas on how to fit in the food around the verses, take a look at our itineraries. You can also get involved in our shop window competition, which has a restaurant meal for two as the prize.

Poets of course have always had plenty to say on the subject of food and drink. Robert Burns, as we know, praised haggis and neeps and ‘halesome parritch’ too. The poet Hafez who is subject of one of our art exhibitions had a thing or two to say about wine (he did come from Shiraz after all). And today’s poets are just as keen. Just listen to StAnza poet Kevin Young’s memories of family cooking in the American South!

Do you have a favourite poem celebrating food and drink? Or know a few appetising lines? Let us know!

Poetry and genealogy, or how I learned to stop worrying and celebrate my grannie

9 Mar

Guest blogger Claire Askew explains how the women in her family have chronicled their own histories and inspired her poetry – especially her storytelling grandmother.

One of the themes of this year’s StAnza is Timepiece, or “the dynamic between verse and the recorded and unrecorded past.”  It seems fitting, then, that this year will see my StAnza performance debut (in previous years I’ve been too shy even to step up to the Open Mic), as I am somewhat obsessed with exploring the past, and mostly the unrecorded past, in the poems I write.

I come from a large, eccentric, mongrel family, which is predominantly northern English/southern Scottish.  On my mother’s side, I’m directly related to the infamous border Armstrongs; on my father’s side there’s a whole mix of old Lakeland tribes, with a few wild cards (including a mysterious Romany gypsy) thrown in for good measure.

My family is dominated by its women.  There are an awful lot of us – my mother has three sisters, I am one of two girls and have countless female cousins – and that’s just the past two generations.  However, the women in my family also tend to be storytellers: carriers for gossip, anecdote, morality and myth.  We’re all obsessed with genealogy and love nothing better than sitting around, telling and re-telling old stories we’ve all heard a thousand times before.  And apparently, we’ve been like this for decades.

It seems women of my family are throwbacks to a bygone era of predominantly oral culture, when fireside storytelling – almost always a female activity – was the primary means of keeping the memory of relatives alive.  Take my maternal grandmother, for example – a hard-nosed, determined Northern woman who smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and always told you exactly what she thought of you.  She was one hell of a handful, and no one in the family had a relationship with her that wasn’t painfully complicated.  However, she knew how to spin a good story, and after she died a few years ago, she immediately started becoming one – woven inextricably into the latest chapter of family mythology.  She appears again and again in my work.  Sometimes she’s quite obviously at the forefront of things – it’s her talking, taking control as she so often did.  Sometimes I’m talking to her, or about her – sometimes the jokes are at her expense.  Sometimes she’s just there on the periphery, chucking in one of her infamous sayings to colour a stanza or two: “you’ve been brought up in a bottle and seen nowt but cork!” For me, family history isn’t just inescapable – it’s a goldmine of great material I’d be nuts to ignore.

Claire Askew will be reading at StAnza’s New Poets’ Showcase at 12.45pm, The Town Hall, St Andrews on Friday 18 March. There’s more about Claire and her grandmother here.

(Photo by Alastair Cook)

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