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.
Having taken a break from my poetry group to join a choir, I jumped back in on Thursday. The Wyverns meet up every month to give each other feedback on our latest work. In my absence, they’d acquired a new member and set up a Twitter account.
The great strength of the group is the freedom to write in your own style. One member tends towards long and thin poems; another usually has a political undertone; a third normally writes no more than ten lines. I aim to produce something original for each meeting.
This month, one of our suggested prompts was ‘memory’. I received positive feedback from the piece, with one commenting that it had more impact when read aloud instead of on the page, although it wasn’t specifically written for either page or stage.
Speaking of performance poetry, however, I had the opportunity to watch the Scottish Slam Championship in Glasgow yesterday. The participants are all winners of other slams that took place around the country over the last twelve months.
Unlike a rap battle, as seen in the film 8 Mile, these performers don’t go head to head. Instead, they’re each allowed to perform two pieces for up to three minutes apiece in front of a panel of judges. The three who score the most combined points for their poems – four if there’s a tie – then perform another one. The best one of those is invited to the Poetry World Series in Paris.
Robin Cairns is the perennial host of the Scottish Slam, this year introducing more than a dozen contenders covering all manner of subjects, including mental health, feminism, self-worth and many stations in between. Each was so strong so that a clear winner wasn’t evident to me; however, the judges awarded most points to Calum Rodger, so he’ll be heading to France in May.
One of the other poets that particularly inspired me was Gray Crosbie, who talked about struggling to find a gender-neutral barber. I already had a poem with a related theme, but I’d left it aside months ago as it wasn’t working out as I intended.
As I sat on the bus home, I rewrote it in around an hour, and this time I’m much happier with the result.
On Saturday, I made my annual trip to StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. And what better way to start than Breakfast at the Poetry Café with a pastry and a panel of four poets, namely Sara Hirsch, Jan Baeke, Esther Mijers and Luke Pell. They talked about the inclusion or exclusion of the self in their work, with an extensive discussion on pronouns.
I then moved on to the 12 Showcase, featuring some of the women who collaborate and respond to each others’ poetry via a shared Google document. Dispensing with introductions or explanations, they formed an almost hypnotic chain of verse full of back references and tangents, infused with their individual styles.
Past & Present saw Oli Hazzard speaking about John Ashbery, then W.N. Herbert speaking about W.S. Graham. It’s often difficult to know what to leave out when speaking about a prolific figure, but in their respective 25 minutes, each poet gave a broad sense of their subjects to the packed audience.
StAnza’s theme this year was Going Dutch, ‘shining a spotlight on the poetry of Flanders and the Netherlands in Dutch and Frisian.’ There were Dutch poets peppered throughout the event, but Five O’Clock Verses was the first time I’d heard anyone speak Frisian, the language most closely related to English.
When Tsead Bruinja performed in the language, I was reminded of a childhood memory. In Scotland, there used to be five minutes of Gaelic news shown every evening, and I’d be able to pick out borrowed words such as helicopter. In Bruinja’s case, the most outstanding term was double-D, referring to the bra size. Although he set a high standard, Tara Bergin was able to match it with her absurdist poetry, all delivered in English.
Poetry Centre Stage is held in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre and is always a must-see. I’ve heard a lot about William Letford, but I don’t recall seeing him before. Half of his 40-minute set was devoted to a story cycle about a family who go to live in the forest. It sounded a lot like prose, but it was written in a wonderfully poetic manner. I left before Liz Lochhead’s appearance because I wanted to prepare for my personal highlight.
The StAnza Slam gives two and a half minutes to 12 participants, all eager to impress a panel of judges. Four of them would then progress to a second knockout round, with three minutes allowed.
I’m pleased to report that I managed to enter the second round with a piece called Sir Madam that’s proved popular at previous events. However, Jo Gilbert deservedly walked away with the prize after a poem about cake.
Although slam competitions are by nature competitive, they tend not to be ego-driven – at least in my experience – and I think that’s great.
For the last decade or so, StAnza has complemented the Dundee Literary Festival, which has traditionally been held in October. While StAnza appears to be stable, there might not be a Dundee event this year as we’ve normally been given news by now. If it doesn’t happen, Dundee writers might just have to pull together and hold an unofficial one of our own.
I also like to participate as often as I can, and I’m always happy to give advice to those who want to do the same. I’ve updated my guide from 2016, and I stress that it is only a subjective guide, not a textbook.
Talk with the organisers about what’s required
Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to: how long you’ll be asked to speak for, what type of content is required, whether you’ll be given an introduction, where you should wait before you’re called up, and whether any fee is payable.
If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.
Think about your own structure and running order
The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own time so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:
Give name and say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
Tell obesity clinic anecdote
Read out And an Onion One Too
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
You’re happy to sign copies
Read out The Crust of the Matter.
Note that the thanks isn’t placed at the very end. This structure means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head.
Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise
Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take from the piece.
If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising, either take it out of your set or work on it until no apology is necessary.
Read out loud and time your words
The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?
When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.
Don’t forget to use a stopwatch so your words fit within the agreed timeslot.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig
I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier.
One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Keep going through the cock-ups
Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody keeps chatting during the show. A performer has no control over these factors.
The audience will normally forget the problem if you ignore it and keep going. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who dries up and leaves the stage or screams at noisy attendees. However, if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly or say Thank you, whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and so on.
Ultimately, a good performance can increase your fan base and help sell more work.