Sightlines at StAnza

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.

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A wall from the Sightlines exhibition

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.

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Jean Taylor’s poem responding to linocut of St Andrews streetscape by Hilke MacIntyre

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.

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Meet the Artist reading & discussion for Sightlines

 

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Cafés scenes: poem by Moira Scott, linocut by Hilke MacIntyre

mad march and invisible colours: could spring be far behind?

The closing lines of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and a reflection that the poet didn’t live in Scotland and wasn’t factoring in climate change, formed an accompaniment to many of my March wanderings: to Fife for  StAnza; to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  for a workshop on creative writing for undergraduates in English and journalism from Napier University; to Glasgow for a two-day training event; into the snowy hills, wafting my walking poles around like ski sticks. The month-long cold snap was ushered in at StAnza, where I  facilitated a workshop called ‘Different Viewpoints’ on the first morning. Sponsored by Lapidus Scotland, this undertook to examine through practical exercises the relationships between ‘personal’ or ‘therapeutic’ and ‘creative’ writing, and between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ stimuli. Against the backdrop of, and engaging closely with, an exhibition of poems and paintings about liminal spaces entitled Unmapped, the participants created poems that beautifully wove together personal experience, memory and present-moment response to real and imagined places.

Back in Edinburgh, facilitating a session for undergraduates, rather than the ‘adults’ I usually work with, set me thinking further about ekphrasis, or the use of visual art to inspire writing, and how and why we teach it. When the BP  Portrait exhibition was up earlier in the year, in the winter proper, I took to  reading Michael Longley in front of a wonderful portrait of the poet, The Dailects of Silence, by Colin Davidson  At the close of his most recent collection A Hundred Doors, Longley has an elegy, ‘White Farmhouse’, which concludes with a line that cites Marcel Duchamp’s claim   ‘titles are invisible colours’. Are they? I need to ponder some more, but titles (if not artist statements and gallery glosses) can be of abiding interest to those with a textual background who are looking at pictures. What are we to make, for example, of Ben Nicholson’s habit of supplementing a matter-of-fact dating or stating of medium with a descriptor, as in June 1961 (Green Goblet and Blue Square), or Painted Relief (Plover’s Egg Blue)?

Words on Canvas were invited to write in response to paintings in the Royal Scottish Painters in Watercolour (RSW) annual exhibition. There were 252 works in the exhibition, and our deadline was just a week after we first got to see them. I had a couple of hours in the gallery beforehand, en route to the Portrait Gallery to have a look at Rousseau and Hume prior the Napier session. I quickly saw the work I wanted to write about, Gordon Mitchell’s Lasting Impressions, a painting of a sun lounger  against a sun-baked wall whose cracked plaster revealed the shapes of human silhouettes. I was reminded first of  the second paragraph of  The Wasteland, the lines about aridity, broken images and shadows, that lead up to ‘I will show you in fear a handful of dust’; and then, more optimistically, of a standing joke about the cost of hiring a sun lounger on the cote d’azur from last year’s summer holiday. Fine, but on Monday morning fifteen other writers (minus a couple I bumped into in the gallery who were already hard at work) would need to choose from the remaining 251. The usual WoC format is a Gallery tour, covering just  four or five works, followed by a writing critique session a fortnight later.  Feeling under some pressure, I started to jot down the titles of works that attracted me for one reason or another. Then I took up the catalogue, and noted down titles that themselves appealed (invisible colours if you like). Bingo, eureka, etcetera. Rousseau, Hume. On Monday I asked those writers who hadn’t already seen the exhibition and selected a work initially to choose a title that appealed, and write to that before seeing the picture to which it pertained. Then we paired up and did some writing exercises in front of the paintings, and a week later we had a pamphlet of stories and poems, and were ready to attend a reception where we were introduced to the painters of the works we’d selected. ‘Have you met your artist yet?’, we’d ask as we encountered each other circulating the exhibition, glasses of fizz in hand. Several writers reported uncanny correspondences between their thought processes and those of their painter-partner.  Gordon Mitchell told me his sun lounger was located near St Tropez. I had it not terribly far away, on the Cap d’Antibes, but then I don’t suppose it’d have been in Copenhagen or Anstruther.

Meanwhile, the South Side Writers concluded their term on fruit & veg with an attempt to break out of the tradition and make an original,  contemporary statement on the subject, accompanied by a very tasty and refreshing fruit salad. Mine felt very modernist, nearly a century past its sell-by date.

In Glasgow just before Easter I did the two-day training for Living Life To The Full (LLTTF). This is a CBT-based programme designed to be delivered in eight sessions in non-clinical settings, by professionals from different fields who season the basic template with their own personality, experience and knowledge. The target client or user is the individual with mild to moderate depression or anxiety, maybe near the bottom of a long waiting list for treatment,  but it could, I think, be really useful for helping anyone to problem-solve their way around the various obstacles they inevitably encounter. Writer’s block, relationship tensions, builders who don’t turn up. Well, maybe not the latter: it doesn’t promise miracles. The programme was on the periphery of my radar untilLapidus Scotland members were invited to learn more about it at a Bibliotherapy seminar at the National Library of Scotland in February. We heard some pretty inspiring presentations, by Drs Ann Wales, whose job title, Programme Director for Knowledge Management, doesn’t quite convey the extent of her humanity and intellectual curiosity; and Chris Williams, founder of LLTTF. Later we took part in  sessions which could be loosely categorised as either  ‘creative’ (poetry, storytelling, journalling) or ‘scientific’ (concerned with the transmission of knowledge and information).

After this I felt fairly sure that my place when working in healthcare settings was firmly in the creative camp, but I was curious to learn more about this method dedicated to transmitting health information (according to a social, rather than medical, model) in simplicity and clarity  in order to help individuals make positive changes in their lives. I signed up for the training. It turned out to be a truly inspiring couple of days. After an accelerated trip through the components of the programme, we were divided into small groups, with the task of preparing a small chunk of it to deliver to the rest. Oh no, I thought. I’m too tired. I haven’t slept properly the last few nights. I assimilate information slowly, with much reflection and walking around: I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t want to look a numptie in front of esteemed Lapidus colleagues, or the lovely people from other fields I’ve only just met. Luckily, the extrovert part of me that enjoys a bit of a performance kicked in. I had fun, and, I hope, communicated my points effectively. More than that, hearing the others’ presentations really helped to reinforce everything we’d  learned in a short space of time, and I left with a sense of the possibilities that this new tool might afford.

Now that April’s here – and yes, I would like to pop down to England, though my guess is that the spring isn’t much more advanced there this time – I’ve paced along the plateau of  Capelaw Hill and been to a stimulating workshop on poetry and place with Australian poet Mark Tredinnick at the Scottish Poetry Library. At the end of a UK tour where he too has written of ‘the winter / that did not want to end’, he appeared less tired than I, much closer to home. In an open-plan learning type format,  he interspersed his  own observations about the poetry of place with dialogue with the attendees about their approaches to the matter. The moment when  Mark asked me who I was reading at the moment – rather than when faced with delivering part of a LLTTF module at short notice after little sleep – was the one chosen for me to go blank. Michael Longley?  The many writers from and writing about these islands and beyond whom I encountered at StAnza? In truth I’d been thinking most recently about  influences further back in the tradition: the Anglo-Saxon poets, Wordsworth, Hopkins, sundry Modernisits, as well as relishing the challenge of how on earth, in the air or by the water  to make it new myself, now. I could have talked about some or all of these – or about prose writings on place by the likes of  Kathleen Jamie and Robert McFarlane; or innovations other Scottish writers and artists are making – some of them in a  global context. Or I could have engaged more with some of  the many things that resonated for me in the others’ words that afternoon . . . but eloquence had well and truly taken leave of me. It may take some sun and more visible colours to power up my brain again.

stanza 13: legacy and place

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Photo: Stephanie Green

StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews, Scotland, 6-10 March 2013

One of the festival themes was ‘Legacy & Place’.

It was like a Hebridean holiday: you bumped the same people several times a day. Andrew the drystane-dyker poet; Enid who wrote so movingly in your workshop; Annie the young journalist; Rebecca whose poems graced the walls of the room used for workshops,  complementing paintings of the peripheral made by her collaborator Anna. People you knew from Edinburgh; Canadian writers you just met for the first time; cheerful StAnza staff.

Weather enclosed and defamiliarised the Fife town and seemed to intensify and brew the creative and social activity.  The wynd where  I took shelter  from the landfall of an Orcadian wind suddenly felt like a Stromness pend, and was filled with kent faces. I was happily disorientated. When the visibility improved a little on Saturday, I walked along The Scores to the West Sands to ground and assimilate the many wonderful words I’d heard over the previous three days, from the voices of Gillian Clarke, George Szirtes, Ken Babstock, Chris Whyte, Erin Moure, Mark Doty, Jean Atkin and more. Offshore, in parallel, waves broke endlessly, uniformly, companionably from the still-near horizon. Up at the cathedral, I stepped over the remnants of low walls and was reminded of the cloistral ruins on the tidal island of Birsay, and every bit as cut off from the quotidian. The wind intensified; drove in a tide of Shetland vowels. Time to return to the warmth of StAnza’s replacement hub, the Town Hall, made resplendent with words, sounds, images and tactile textual objects, to see  the collaboration between Fife poets and Shetland craft makers, Farlin. Time to hear Walt Whitman and Marina Tsvetaeva echoing down the generations and across continents.

It wasn’t  unexpected that, meteorologically enabled or not, sounds and other senses from  the northern and western isles  found their way along the wind and waves and into my experience of the venues in St Andrews. It did however come as a surprise to me to be taken back to the Lake District. When Gillian Clarke spoke of childhood fear as a foundation for poetry in her compelling exploration of  Brythonic verse and the Welsh alliterative pattern cynghanedd,  she cited Heaney’s testament to the pervading power of early terrors.   I was reminded of Wordsworth’s assertion near the beginning of The Prelude that he was ‘fostered alike by beauty and by fear’, before embarking on his incomparable blank verse catalogue of childhood adventures and misdemeanours. When Erin Moure, in a dynamic workshop on revision, commented that ‘language can do more than we know’, I searched my memory for the source of his line ‘we feel that we are greater than we know’. And then Jean Atkin, appearing with Zoe Skoulding in the highly atmospheric vaulted undercroft at St John’s, read her poem about the old coffin path that connects Ambleside and Grasmere. I was back in my graduate school days, trying to impress American delegates at the Wordsworth Summer Conference whilst walking that same path on a visit to Rydal Mount, the Wordsworths’ home between 1813 and 1850. Or  earnestly studying early MS. drafts towards The Prelude at Dove Cottage, but waiting for the weather to clear so I could climb Helvellyn (a Cumbric place-name, incidentally, closely related to Brythonic). My supervisor was the late Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust, who tended to be there, rather than doing his day job across the pennines at Newcastle University. Since that time, the Trust, like the universities, has recognised the benefits of welcoming creatives alongside academics. Time to pay a return visit, perhaps.

But for now, thank you, Eleanor Livingstone and all the StAnza team and participants.