Ear to the Ground: A Survey of StAnza 2016
by Tristram Fane Saunders
One morning in February 2015, I woke to find a plea for help in my email inbox. St Andrews’s English department were in need of assistance. StAnza was coming, and in just a few days they’d have a homeless poet on their hands.
I replied, volunteered a spare sofa-bed, and so was introduced to the poet – John Dennison, an exceptionally gifted writer (and St Andrews graduate) who’d flown from New Zealand to read at the festival. He shared his recommendations, and proved the perfect guide to what is now – and will remain – the one fixed date in my annual calendar.
This week, I found myself in Dennison’s shoes – an alumnus back in town for StAnza, relying on the generosity of any student with a bed, couch or horizontal surface to spare. On the usual night-bus from London to St Andrews (with the usual, regrettable, change-over in Dundee), I was reminded of the first time I made the journey, eager to begin at the university; on both occasions, what drew me here was poetry.
St Andrews takes poetry seriously. Perhaps it comes from living so near the coast, constantly within earshot of the measure of the ocean. In a town with three fine bookshops (and one Waterstones), poetry is never in short supply. Stumble into the gents’ bathroom in the basement of Aikmans’ pub, and you’ll find a lyric by the poet Richard Osmond scrawled on the wall. This being St Andrews, even the graffiti comes with a Latin tag and footnotes.
In recent months Don Paterson has been curating The School of Night, a never-ending poetry festival at Topping & Co. Jenny Bernstein, a bookseller at Topping’s, tells me their St Andrews branch is the only place where poets draw a larger crowd than crime-fiction authors – no matter how small the event, or how little-known the poet.
At StAnza, this effect is magnified. The festival-goers are enthusiastic and unpretentious, willing to have a punt on events that might lie outside their usual interests. The thrill of discovery is part of the appeal. One of this week’s buzziest readings, which packed out the festival’s second-largest venue, was an hour-long seminar on German translation. I’d never read a single German poem, but – like many in the audience – that was the reason I had come.
For American writer and undertaker Thomas Lynch, this open-mindedness is at the heart of the festival. In the states, he sometimes finds himself pigeonholed for his forays into formalism. “I’m a guy who writes villanelles and embalms bodies,” he says. “Back home, that’s like being a proctologist with a side in root canal.” But at StAnza, he’s a festival headliner.
It’s a wilfully eclectic line-up. Most readings are double-bills, pairing together writers with as little in common as possible. The best of these are the ‘Past and Present’ events, where two poets sing the praises of their long-dead favourites. Anne Stokes gave a fascinating, moving account of the life and work of the German poet Sarah Kirsch, before Brian Johnstone offered a personal take on American verse’s greatest disappearing act, Weldon Kees.
Across the weekend, I heard everything from the ear-to-the-ground nature poetry of Kintyre’s Angus Martin (who claimed to be at StAnza for “the free soup”), to the work of young abstract modernist SJ Fowler. During a breakfast panel-discussion, Fowler was pleased by the crowd’s attentiveness. “I love you so much that I’ve killed one of my books for you,” he said, ripping up his latest paperback and handing pages to the audience, before asking them to help create a “mass reading”, an intentionally unlistenable wave of noise.
It was odd, but not out of keeping with the rest of the week. In its 18th year, StAnza is still looking to ‘make it new,’ embracing new media with live web-streams of events. Between readings, visitors could take in a sound installation, plaster themselves with temporary StAnza tattoos, or even take part in a “quantum poetry” piece inspired by Valerie Laws’s Quantum Sheep.
If one grew tired of being a sheep, there was always the option of hanging out with one of the festival’s many visual artists; poet Harry Man, collage- and print-maker Lucy Jones, Dadaist Twitter-bard Clive Birney (a self-styled Tristan Tzara for the 21st century), or poet-perfumer Rebecca Sharp – who, as it happened, read the first poem of the festival, a tightly-knit piece which drew her audience back through the centuries to the Scotland of James IV and his doctor, John Damian.
Damian once attempted to prove he could fly by leaping from the ramparts of Stirling Castle. His humiliating plummet inspired a vicious satire by the court bard William Dunbar, but Sharp offered another take on his descent, finding something beautiful in her fellow alchemist’s ambition.
I didn’t get the chance to sample Sharp’s perfumes. They would have been wasted on me anyway; no longer acclimatised to Fife’s haar, each time I head north of the border my sinuses freeze up in protest. Her poetry, on the other hand, was excellent.
StAnza is, as the flyers and banners will remind you, Scotland’s international poetry festival. One open mic-night featured poems in at least three languages. Several events crossed linguistic barriers, beginning with the first big show, a collaboration between Shetland poet Christine De Luca and jazz ensemble Karma. I’ve never been a fan of DeLuca’s verse, but she’s a consummate performer. The two Italian students I had come with were spellbound. They didn’t understand a single word of the poetry, they explained, and they thought it was magnificent.
This year’s festival also showed a refreshing openness to new kinds of performance poetry, a form that is more relevant now than it has been for decades; poems by Kate Tempest and George The Poet get airtime on BBC Radio 1. At StAnza, the lunchtime slot has become the designated home for the slammers and ranters. Punters lured in by the promise of a free beer and a pie can hear some talented performers, not least Loud Poets, an Edinburgh-Glasgow collective represented at StAnza by Kevin Mclean and Katie Ailes Mclean, who had some excellent material, but Ailes had the stand-out poem: ‘Outwith’, a portrait of her time as an American in Scotland, absorbing new Scots words into her vocabulary – a feeling that would have struck a chord with more than one St Andrews student.
to say that will say all
that is unsaid, that I may
be done with it
– Angus Martin, ‘Always Boats and Men’
The best moments at StAnza were free and unticketed – chance encounters, and conversations in pubs and cafes. I caught up with Dave Coates, an Edinburgh student whose razor-sharp reviews have made him one of the leading voices in British poetry criticism (even though he illustrates them with stickmen drawn on MS Paint). I emailed back and forth with the American poet Dana Gioia, halfway round the globe but still speaking at StAnza, Skyping in for a Sunday morning panel-talk. I finally went for a pint with Stuart Sanderson, a poet I’ve admired for ages but – despite sharing a publisher – never had the chance to meet until now.
The moments that mattered were the events that took place between the events: dropping in on the dress-rehearsal for The Silent Woman, a labour of love by PhD student and hardcore Jonsonite Peter Sutton; reading the script for the short film Samantha Evans is making about Allen Ginsberg for her coursework; hearing another student, Alexandra Julienne, reading her ten-part prose poem about America’s highways. The real headliners were the students. Many of them will graduate in just a few months. But perhaps, next March, a few will find themselves back on the night bus to St Andrews, hungry for poetry and in need of a sofa to sleep on.
Tristram Fane Saunders is a journalist, poet and director living in London. His work has appeared in The Telegraph, The London Magazine and Radio Times, and he has performed his poetry at festivals including Latitude, Brainchild and StAnza. He graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Creative Writing in November 2015.