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.
Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.
I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.
As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.
One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.
That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.
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.
On Saturday, I attended the Scottish Slam Championships for the first time. At this event, poetry slam champions from around Scotland compete to be crowned the first among their peers. Before we move into the details of the evening, what is slam poetry?
Ross McFarlane, who performed at the event, outlined the idea in an article from 2015:
Based on different criteria depending on the slam itself, poets are expected to, in one way or another, perform their poetry to be judged by the audience as a whole or a panel of onlookers (sometimes experts and sometimes not). While it might be the case that a lot of slams have more in common than just this description, it would be pretty safe to say that any event with this format could be considered a slam.
This particular Championship is run under Glasgow Rules:
The running order of the performers is determined by names drawn from a hat.
In round one, the performers each have 3 minutes to perform a poem in front of a panel of judges. The running order is then reversed and each performs a second poem.
In the second and final round, the three highest-scoring poets each duke it out with a third poem until a winner is declared.
The photo isn’t from this night, but it is royalty-free. Here are the photos from the night. [Photo by Charlyfoxtrott4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)]So what type of material can the audience expect to hear? While there’s no fixed theme, don’t expect to hear nature or Shakespearean poetry, except in a satirical context. You’re more likely to learn about the political landscape, LGBT issues, religion, and of course the self. It’s not uncommon to hear swearing either. I attended to support Angela Strachan who performed a hilarious satire on the appeal of Aldi, and A.R. Crow who reflected upon the death of George Michael.
I also happened to meet a university friend attending her first-ever slam, and what an introduction it was. It’s sometimes possible to guess who the finalists might be, but the performances were so strong that the field was wide open, even at the end of the first round. The host Robin Cairns kept the night running smoothly, trading the occasional strong insult with some of the poets.
For a few years now, I’ve been going to the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On Saturday, I was invited to compete in the Slam, hosted by Paula Varjack. Although I’d applied some time ago, I was only told that week I’d been granted a place.
There are a few simple rules:
The running order is drawn from a hat.
In round one, everyone is allowed to read a poem for up to two minutes. You’ll be stopped if you run over.
In round two, after the interval, the top four scorers from round one are given 2½ minutes each to read another poem.
The 2017 Slam Champion is crowned.
The first poem was always going to be Crossing the Road, published last year; it’s punchy and takes less than a minute to perform. The strength of this Slam is that there’s no ‘house style’, so the contenders spoke on subjects as diverse as ageing, love, insomnia and contemporary politics. Just about everyone put in a sterling performance, including the other first-timers, and I thought I made a good job of mine.
The exact number of points given by the judges were not revealed, but five people progressed to round 2 because two contenders had scored exactly the same, none of which where me. The ultimate victor was Kevin Mclean, who goes on to compete in the Scottish Slam.
I’m not disheartened by my placing. I’m accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, but not with a competitive element. So what I want to do now is sharpen my skills even more by studying what other poets do and how they appeal to the audience.
Elsewhere at the festival, I witnessed excellent performances from Jackie Kay and Sarah Howe, and I chatted to the latter for a while. I also bought Paula Varjack’s book, and filmed performances from poets inspired by looking around St Andrews.
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.
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.