This year’s StAnza Poetry Festival started for me before Aurélia Lassaque sang in Occitan at the launch in the Byre, before I crossed the Forth on an auspiciously bright first morning of March. It may even have started a few years ago, in exhibition venues around the town where poetry was combined with visual art, and I thought how it would be fantastic for Words on Canvas to do that. WoC are an ekphrastic group formed at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2008, who also respond to exhibitions by working artists, give readings and produce pamphlets.
Forward to the winter of 2016-17, and we started responding to linocuts by last year’s artist in residence Hilke MacIntyre as jpegs of them were emailed to us. In mid-Feb we sent fourteen new poems back to festival director Eleanor Livingstone, who combined them with their corresponding images (big shout-out to Eleanor here: it’s not like she doesn’t have enough to do two weeks before her festival starts). When I arrived in Fife on the 1st, StAnza’s printers had turned them into rather lovely 30cm sq foam boards. Local WoC member Susan Grant and I hung them in the room above the Public Library that is used for the StAnza workshops. Then I checked into my favourite B and B, quiet by the Kinness Burn, where the owner keeps his own hens – my marker for good holiday accommodation when not staying in a town.
The weather was stunning. Before going off to my first booked event on Thursday I bought a selection of participants’ books from the StAnza bookseller JG Innes, before stocks ran low – I was too late to get everything I wanted last year – and sat in the sun for a couple of hours, sheltered from a still-cold wind in a south-facing nook in the harbour wall, watching the tide come in.
And then into the flow of words. I’ve already gushed on Facebook, in my own post and on others’ feeds, about how Paul Stephenson gave a masterclass in the delivery of a poetry set, reading from his Happenstance pamphlet about living in Paris during the November 2015 attacks. How I thrilled to the sounds of Occitan, Catalan, Arabic and French (that my friend Tessa Berring was one of the four poets on a four-day residency devoted to translating each other’s work between English, French and Occitan, added another layer of interest). How Joan Margarit, Robert Crawford, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie played to the strengths of their voices, personalities and material. How Jacque Darras’s homage in sound to Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture was one of the best examples of ekphrasis I’ve been privileged to experience. How stimulating I found the mix of poetry and themed discussion (& coffee!) in the breakfast panels on this year’s themes: the Heights of Poetry, and On The Road. And more.
The first time I attended StAnza I was struck by how it was like a mix of a Hebridean holiday and being back at university: you bump into the same people everywhere and you made new friends quickly. This year, most of the members of the two peer crit groups I belong to in Edinburgh where around at some point, as well as regulars from the Scottish poetry scene and guests from many parts of Europe and beyond – more of a joy than ever in this post-brexit vote year. Before taking your seat in the Byre auditorium, you can greet familiar faces on all four sides of you.
On Friday this sense of community was augmented by the arrival of the remaining members of WoC, who had made a very early start, from the Borders and East Lothian as well as Edinburgh. If they were tired by the time our Meet the Artist event started at 3.45pm in the Library, they didn’t show it. We’d hung the Sightlines boards randomly, because, after a bit of experimentation with grouping and ordering, we thought they looked best that way. The reading proceeded thematically, however, in the spirit of On the Road, beginning with poems inspired by Hilke’s townscape (the one that’s on the front cover of the brochure), moving into a café scene, progressing to The Byre, and concluding – with sound and shape poems – with our responses to Hilke’s response to last year’s Jazz evening.
There’s a lot going on at StAnza, and you have to make difficult choices, so I had been a bit worried that the 11 of us might outnumber our audience, but we didn’t. They asked interested questions that enabled us to open up about our process, how we use artworks – or sometimes a small detail from them – to trigger a linguistic response. This could form a kind of poetic commentary on the image or be a ‘translation’ – a poetic equivalent – of it; or it could send the writer on a geographical or historical path or other associative journey well beyond it, or into personal memory. I’d become very familiar with this set of fourteen poems, as we considered constraints such as readability on a wall, and made decisions about fonts. Voiced by their authors, they took on fresh life. Like Hilke’s linocuts, they sang.