Being There

In early March, the StAnza poetry festival takes place in St Andrews. I’ve been going for at least five years now. It’s an easy half-hour bus trip, although I’ve previously stayed over so I can go to late shows without worrying about missing the last ride home.

While it would be inaccurate to say there is a ‘house style’ of poetry, it does tend towards the contemplative and wistful, more Carol-Ann Duffy than Brian Bilston. In this relatively quiet town, save for the transient student population, it’s a mood that fits well.

In 2020, the in-person festival narrowly escaped cancellation, so the events were held in venues across town as normal, predominantly the Byre Theatre or the town hall. The challenge this year is to convey its essence through a screen for the first time.

The ones I’ve been to so far this year certainly fit what I expect to see from StAnza: these include the two-hour launch event, a meditation session, and a poets’ feedback group.

But what I enjoy most are the breakfast panel discussions where the audience is served with a pie and a cup of tea. On Sunday, I tried to recreate this at home, and it was somewhat successful:

A Twitter update showing a pie and other food on a plate, and an online event on a projector.

It’s not too late to grab many of the tickets. The festival is on all this week, and there are plenty available free of charge.

Line Breaks

Last week, I was at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews, where I’ve been going for around five years. Most of the events are centred around the Byre Theatre, where you can immerse yourself in verse for five days.

This year, I saw shows featuring: Tim Turnbull, my pal Angie Strachan, foreign-language verse, and even meditation. I also entered an open-mike and the Slam contest where the winner will go on to compete with other poets from around Scotland, and spent time reading and listening to the ambient displays around the Byre.

But it’s difficult to listen to a lot of poetry in quick succession. Having gone to StAnza for so long, I’ve learnt to leave some slack in my schedule.

On the Thursday and the Friday, I took a walk by the harbour and the beach to grab some fresh air and to reflect upon what had been said. I also took the opportunity to decide what I would read at the slam. And of course I visited the Topping & Company bookshop, where I was even served with tea, unasked.

I’ve currently no other literary festivals lined up for 2020, but I’ll definitely be going back to next year’s StAnza and taking a similar approach to structuring the days I visit.

Different Trains.

About four years ago, I started attending a creative writing group I’m still in today. The tutor gives a prompt and the job of the class members is to write a passage inspired by it. In one of the early sessions, we had a member who often wouldn’t write anything, but would instead describe what she would’ve written. I had a similar experience at the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews on Saturday.

I’d been meaning to attend this for some time, and this year I finally bought a ticket for Clive Russell (Coronation Street, Game of Thrones). My plan was to arrive around midday and buy tickets for other shows on an ad hoc basis. I queued at the Byre Theatre box office for a show about Alexander Pushkin and Russians in Paris, to be told that the tickets were now available only at the venue door. When I reached the, they had just sold out.

I decided instead to have lunch quickly, then see a 12pm show by a artist and a poet who had written a Ladybird-style book about St Andrews. An enjoyable 40 minutes as they described the challenges of being in two different cities but having to collaborate, but only the audience members attended.

After tea and a scone with one of my classmates who was working at the event, I headed to Musings@MUSA, which encouraged visitors to use the objects on display as inspiration for their own poetry. The first exhibit I saw was marked Seal of Approval and that phrase stayed with me. The 17-line poem I wrote was definitely inspired by elements in the exhibition, but ended up not being about the place.

Finally, time for Clive Russell. I queued up at the auditorium to be told it was, “At the top of the building.” I wasn’t sure how she knew this from looking at my ticket, as there were no obvious markings, but I moved upstairs to the top entrance and took my seat. We were treated to a duet poem written by Rock McKenzie, then the experimental Veridian String Quartet performing Different Trains by Steve Reich.

I made some notes in advance of the main event. The photograph below shows some of these.

image

When the house lights came up and there was no Clive Russell, I was puzzled. The man beside me said that venues for these two events had been swapped around. I slowly worked out that the first ticket checker had meant a completely different venue, while the second one should have paid attention to the show name on my ticket and not let me in. However, I was indeed in the venue printed on the ticket.

To compound the matter, I’d offered to review the events for Dundee University Review of the Arts, or DURA. If I were writing for The Guardian or suchlike, or I’d’ve been sacked on the spot. Fortunately, DURA’s contributors are volunteers, so I explained the situation to the editor in question and it was no big deal. She even gave my classmate and me a lift home in the evening.

I still enjoyed the day, and I’m tempted to go back next year. I’ve learnt nothing is a waste of time if you can take from it a good anecdote or a free pen.