Stanza 2016 Diary – Saturday 5 March

Full Disclosure: Part two of a two-part series on being at StAnza poetry festival. Still a paid gig, all of yesterday’s caveats apply.

10am: Aase Berg, Clare Best, SJ Fowler, Andrew McMillan, Justin Stephenson: Poetry Breakfast

As I sit down to write this on the mezzanine in the Byre, a poem translated by my pal Jessica Johannesson Gaitán has appeared projected on the far wall. Sometimes wee particles of unexpected joy hurl themselves at you and your heart is glad. Hey Jess! Your poem is wonderful. It’s called ‘Cathedral 2.0’, about a computer recreation of St Andrews cathedral, and has lines like ‘a tissue sustained by professionalised gaming-aesthetics’; ‘There are no stars upon my linen / or on the inside of my eyelids’.

After a morning’s formalities of tea and introductions, the Saturday morning panel was themed around the body in poetry. McMillan, whose book physical won the Guardian First Book Award (AND MY HEART), opened proceedings by introducing a few of the book’s guiding lights: Thom Gunn, whose candidness inspired him as a young reader, his free discussion of love, baths, and the AIDS crisis; Sharon Olds, who seemed to give permission to a confessional openness; and the Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley, bringing his daily factory shiftwork to the realm of poetry. Later, McMillan would speak about the politics of telling other people’s stories – an electrician whose granddaughter had died, and four days later was back at work – arguing that his duty as a poet was to bear witness: ‘the only way to go is to be totally sincere’. It’s this sincerity that marks McMillan’s work, and his questions about whether a straight male poet could have ‘gotten away’ with his poems about women’s lives and sexuality (‘Leda to her daughters’, ‘the things men take’) does raise important questions about who the reader ‘permits’ to speak for whom, and why.

Clare Best’s poetry about her mastectomy – breast cancer has affected every woman in her family, and Best took the decision to have the operation voluntarily – was similarly frank and clear-eyed about making choices about one’s own body, about taking control before control is taken away. Aase Berg, who performed yesterday, complimented this idea in a book on her pregnancy, ‘Transfer Fat’; she talked about how women writing on pregnancy are expected to ‘be the warm mother’, even though in reality she did not feel in control of her own body: ‘nature is not a Disney film, it is a Werner Herzog film’. She extended a similar critique to readerly expectations of poetry, that there is a Disneyfied, narcissistic approach to reading, that ‘you go out into the woods and meet a totem animal, a nice deer who likes you’. Poetry has the power to resist a self-centred, comfortable culture, the power to be unlikeable.

Stephenson played his video interpretation of Canadian poet bpNichol’s work, a neat, twisty poem about the process of writing and interpretation, how the physical tools of writing become part of the writing’s meaning: ‘this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically the page is a window. it is not.’ Fowler made the very fine point that poetry culture tends to lean altogether too heavily on the idea of the individual genius producing ‘golden nuggets’ from the void. A lot of Fowler’s work comes in facilitating collaboration, and his project today involved tearing up a copy of his own collection and distributing its pages among the audience, who, on cue, read all pages at once; the resulting wall of voices was a neat metaphor for breaking hierarchies. In practice, it was pretty apt, as the audible individuals were the ones who just kept talking long enough. Mulling this over, one notes that one routinely just keeps talking longer than one should. Hm.

The panel concluded with Berg and McMillan’s valuable thoughts about exploitation in poetry – a tendency to beautify or poeticise suffering or other people’s stories. Berg’s collection Hackers features on the cover a photo of a Dutch sex worker; Berg questioned her own motivation – the poet described the image as ‘a Trojan horse’ for the collection to do its work, and recognised the complicated politics of exploiting others’ bodies or acts of witness to one’s own artistic benefit.

1pm: Em Strang, Samuel Tongue, Briget Khursheed, Lindsay McGregor: New Writers Showcase

Anna Crowe’s remarkably effective patiently-smiling-while-audience-settles-down brought the Council Chamber to order for readings from four recent winners of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. Em Strang, whose first full collection, Bird Woman, is coming out this year with Shearsman, read a long poem, a nightmarey folk tale full of fire and horses and cries in a language that might have been Scandanavian(?), entirely from memory. It left an Atmosphere in the room unlike anything I’ve seen at the festival thus far. ‘It isn’t our land but it’s all we need. It stood up to the night for a long time.’

Samuel Tongue is the poetry editor at the Glasgow Review of Books and read short lyric poems on language, the materiality of words (the poem ‘Alef-Bet’ analyses how the physical shape of letters affects what they do, ‘alef’ being ‘a stag head already tracking thought’), science and faith. One proposed the ‘extended phenotype’ (the theory that the environment a creature alters may be considered part of its DNA, cf beaver dams) for humans might be the ‘unplumbed lavatory’ left in the street. Tongue’s poems were thoughtful, generous and precise.

Briget Khursheed’s poems also paid close attention to scientific research and the natural world, with a poem for John Smith, the builder for a large part of Walter Scott’s Abottsford estate, admiring the craftwork of the windows into ‘The Little Gothic Orangery’ he had made, insisting ‘but I had nothing to do with the oranges’. Another observes otters and stoats in their natural habitats, ‘maybe dancing, maybe charming a rabbit’, ‘writhing rodent maps’. A poem about the exact moment Khursheed’s father died, with the line ‘heather so perfect it might hide Tunnocks wrappers’ is witty and heartbreaking.

Finally, Lindsay McGregor explored her new collection The Weepers, a historical group of paid mourners (‘rent-a-crowd’). The book concerns the scattering of her partner’s ashes, and ranges from medieval saints plucking out their eyes to escape unwanted courtship (‘she’ll cure the vision of anyone who asks / she is a lesson to us all’) to the life and times of the fairly monstrous Duke of Sutherland, one of the key perpetrators of the Highland Clearances and a firm believer in the efficacy of steam for just about any problem you could think of, but primarily lazy peasants. A poem on scattering ashes under a frozen lake to be eaten by fish is particulary powerful: ‘I let them / feed, then, fishing deep, I net them. / We must eat.’

2.15pm Martyn Crucefix on The Daodejing and Pascale Petit on Tomas Tranströmer Past and Present

Minidisclosure: I’ve met Petit a couple of times.

The Daodejing is a fifth or sixth century BCE document from China, reportly containing all the wisdom of a single librarian from the royal court, who wrote it all down at the behest of a gatekeeper on his way out into the wilderness; as Crucefix notes, that’s probably just a nice story. What’s certain is its concern with effective statecraft, with wisdom extremely tempting to transfer to the present day, as Harry Giles did with his minimalist Orcadian versions in Tonguit. Crucefix’s own versions turn the ‘sage’ or ‘wise teacher’ character into a woman, on the grounds that the text recurrently insists that good government uses ‘female’ power, ‘rising up from below’; this seems an odd and slightly distracting decision, not least given the text’s own advice to refrain from interference while exercising power. But Crucefix’s general interpretation is extremely valuable, insisting on the theory that those who desire power are worst equipped to wield it, ‘those who delight in the sword delight in its function’; he has clearly made an extensive study of the Daodejing and he seemed completely in his element guiding a tour through its ideas.

Petit’s talk on Tomas Tranströmer was a real pleasure, a thoughtful, incisive and evidently delighted close read of some of her favourite poems. Starting with his name, which in Swedish (I’m guessing with some creative license?) goes something like ‘tran (crane, as in the bird)’ ‘stromer (fast-flowing river)’; Petit took this as an aspect of the poet’s habitual birds-eye views and rapid changes of direction. Starting with his first published poem, ‘Prelude’, ‘waking up is a parachute jump from dreams’, Petit follows his ‘filmic’ zoom in/pan out techniques, the way Tranströmer renders abstract ideas in the comprehensibly immediate physical and sensory world.

Also key to Tranströmer’s work is his love of music, particularly Schubert – his poem ‘Schubertiana’ Petit named as a masterwork. Here, he explores the idea that from a particular point in New York one can look at the homes of eight million people; the city is framed as galaxy, and ‘within this galaxy coffee cups are pushed across the counter’; ‘plants have thoughts’, ‘I know that somewhere in those rooms Schubert is being played, and it is more important than anything else’. In ‘Allegro’, ‘I raise my Hayden flag… we do not surrender but want peace’. Among the technical artistry is an engaged and grounded political mind, a value system that considers coffee cups and music, the small pieces of ‘the vast machinery of a vital organism’ as important as the organism itself.

5pm: Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan: Five O’Clock Verses

Minidisclosure: I’ve previously reviewed both poets, and have had brief twitter chats with McMillan.

It’s been a couple of years since I first read Bright Travellers, Benson’s first collection. I hardly recognised those same poems, and hearing them read so passionately, and at such an intense emotional frequency, did that thing that I pretty much considered an industry cliché – it made them sound like new poems. The honesty and openness of ‘Love Letters to Vincent’ [Van Gogh], which could easily seem silly, workshoppy – imagine you are in a frustrating and emotionally unviable relationship with a historical figure – are in Benson’s hands totally convincing, viscerally affecting. There is powerful, wrenching emotional reality to these scenes, the Great Artist’s simultaneous dependency and disgust on the narrator, the narrator’s pity and desire, the nostalgia for the better person subject to ‘a vertiginous dark which is never done with you, old pal’ and the self-hatred for their own weakness, ‘and I let you in, and I let you in, and I let you in’. It was something special.

McMillan’s work carries a similar emotional maturity, often hidden behind the absurdity of the poems’ surface action; ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ (introduced as ‘If you’ve ever wondered what has happened to 21st century masculinity, watch men try to talk to each other in the gym. It’s like awkward ballet’) in particular benefitted from a live reading, the little ridiculous twists in each line getting properly drawn out: ‘they have turned water … into protein shakes’. The couple of new poems on show were also beautiful: ‘Fraternal’ has the poet watching his nephew looking after his new baby sister: ‘he is pretending to parent her… this is how we learn the basic wants of people… the body is needful, it must be undressed’. ‘Curtain’ is a brief and disarmingly candid account of a failed sexual encounter backstage, which ends with the speaker with his cock out, bowing deeply. It’s probably coincidental, but this poem came shortly after McMillan shared some of his less appreciative reviews; a recurring idea was keeping one’s feet on the ground. In any case, the reading was one of the best I’ve ever seen at StAnza, two hugely talented and confident poets giving everything for the audience. More of this sort of thing.


8pm Nora Gomringer: Poetry Centre Stage

Every time I’ve been at StAnza there’s been some cool sound or noise poetry event, but this was the first time I’ve seen it in pride of place in one of the main event slots. Gomringer is considered a leading German-language poet (acc to Annie Rutherford, who provided a bilingual introduction), and alongside jazz drummer Philip Schultz did a little bit to expand some ideas about what poetry can do, what it looks like, and how many squeaky dog toys may be employed in its creation. Gomringer and Schultz introduced their double act as taking the words of others (including the poet’s father, Eugen Gomringer), and reproducing them in new formats. The pair had a huge amount of energy and bounced off each other beautifully; Gomringer has a huge amount of stage presence and charisma, Schultz’s creative use of unusual percussion props its own kind of physical comedy.

Gomringer’s opening piece was a sound poem that involved play with the component sounds of the word ‘perfection’ (and kind of broke the ice by permitting some weird noises and silly faces). Other highlights included Dorothy Parker’s ‘Frustration’ (‘If I had a shiny gun…’) as performed by a nightclub singer; a performance based around the I Ching, one of the oldest written Chinese texts, including a really sharp bit of silent sound poetry (I guess you’d have to have been there); an autobiographical piece called ‘Family Thing’ in which the poet imagines herself a sister, instead of her seven brothers: ‘if my mother is the mother of invention then invention is my sister, my sister is… invention’. The set closed with a cute piece on being asked to babysit a dog that only speaks English and being given a book’s worth of instructions called ‘How to Love Dog’.

At this point the Fife transport system dictated I must head for the hills, having consumed far in excess of one’s poetry RDA. I know this is a paid gig and superlatives are expected, but it’s a true fact that I’ve never seen crowds like it at StAnza, and paid or not I’ll be coming back next year.

[PS: apologies to everyone I didn’t get a proper chat with on account of running around headless.]

Andrew McMillan – physical

Full Disclosure: Saw McMillan read at the Forward Prize, this is my first time reading his work. Aware of several prize wins/nominations.

Review: To get it out of the way, one of the most infuriatingly shitty reviews I read in all of 2015, was by Gregory Woods in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of PN Review (full text hastily but legibly screengrabbed here). Woods begins by comparing McMillan’s stylish and purposeful use of Yorkshire English to illiteracy, before suggesting it could only have been a result of mistakes by both poet and editor; concerns about non-standard English comprise about half his word count. Woods’ next argument, that McMillan is not being a gay poet correctly (his deployment of homophobic binaries on the topic is baffling, particularly given his academic career as a professor of LGBT studies) is utterly meaningless as critique and seems designed to cause personal hurt. Woods also belongs to the school of thought that the ‘new generation’ (whatever that means) has been ‘rendered half-mute by new taboos’ (whatever those might be). The review is close-minded, vindictive and barely literary; much like other critics of his generation, Woods cannot bring himself to consider McMillan’s ideas worth engaging on their own terms, nor can he abide the thought that someone might want to do things differently to himself. Regarding his pithy parting shot, if Woods had access to a half decent dictionary surely he would know that the singular ‘biceps’ is also perfectly acceptable; it’s this kind of monolithic thinking about minor details at the expense of the bigger picture that leaves his review intellectually bankrupt. As a lifelong member of a half-mute generation, unbelievable horseshit like this can get in the fucking sea.


physical is McMillan’s first full collection, and includes the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, which was published as a pamphlet by Red Squirrel Press in 2013. The book clocks in at around 45 pages, a handful of which feature section titles and epigrams; it simultaneously feels ruthlessly efficient and deeply invested in the importance of white space on the page. It’s tempting to read this editorial approach as commensurate with the poems’ attitude to the body; ‘Jacob with the angel’ pointedly talks about its protagonists in terms of their physical fitness:

‘no soft parts of stomachs           no inch of them hung loose
like old sacking from the muscle’

I don’t think this is uncomplicated praise for the flawlessness of strength or bodily aesthetics, however, particularly not alongside a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’, of which more later. Here, the inability of either Jacob or the angel to give way, to permit weakness or vulnerability, fades into the allegorical reading of the second stanza, in which Jacob ‘is beating on himself’, bruised and already forgetful: ‘on waking / he isn’t sure if he has dreamt it’. The poem seems to be characterised as much by the unfulfilling aftermath as the rational-thought-transcending act (and even that is framed as happening ‘the way the weather / or the stock market happens’ – which is to say, I think, as a result of intensely complex, but strangely desire-less or agency-less systems). The resolution to remain anonymous in the first stanza –

‘because names would add a history
and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone
is something out of time’

– leads directly to Jacob’s closing request ‘for ink to be brought / he says writing something down keeps it alive’. It’s very much up for debate whether memorialising is a good thing, however; certainly it flies in the face of the first stanza’s argument for preserving the one-off, no-strings sanctity of their meeting.

3 JP

‘Jacob with the angel’ establishes an important point of friction in the collection. Throughout its lyrical moments of intimacy – or, more often, physically proximate solitude – there is a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures. Numerous individual pieces, (‘screen’, ‘Saturday night’, ‘if it wasn’t for the nights’, the excoriatingly sad ‘a gift’) even in their beautifully articulated understandings of emotional and physical exchange, seem to have at their heart a desire to explain themselves, even to apologise. The poems’ action remains just at the edge of focus, as the poem attempts to recreate the conditions in which their protagonists’ decisions start to make sense. McMillan’s speaker (though the book indicates autobiography, I’m not entirely comfortable just taking it for granted) presents the poems’ lovers unsparingly, often pitifully; in ‘screen’, the speaker watches his lover watch porn, because ‘I knew / that you would end up loving me too / much I thought you needed other idols’. What makes these pieces powerful, makes them so heartbreakingly comprehensible, is their willingness to demonstrate the speaker’s own culpability without reaching for self-defensive explanations. Though the poems seem to stand at a clinical remove from their often extremely vulnerable subjects, there is little space for romanticism; the first instinct of ‘Jacob and the angel’ is to take it ‘literally’ before ‘allegorically’, and it is in the allegory that the true mint is betrayed.

At the centre of the collection is the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, in which the lyric essays elsewhere in the collection are allowed a degree of freedom to roam, the book’s emotional reservations or compromises (‘love / is giving everything too easily / then staying to try and claw it back’) put into a slightly broader social context. It’s partly a coming of age piece, characterised by a kind of earnest, brash curiosity that wants to transform its immediate surroundings (‘town as a dialogueheavy scene from a Ken Loach film’), and find in Thom Gunn’s poems an alternative reality, a counterweight to the outside world where graffiti reads ‘pits close / we still sink / into them’. The sequence is also pleasingly unconvinced about the essential otherness of the poet, as either paragon of higher thought or necessarily removed from their community:

‘station walkhome           man in the doorway
of The Mount looking up              g night luv
theory       the moon isn’t just for poets’

While ‘protest of the physical’ by its nature asks the reader to engage with some throwaway or slightly rambly thought-processing, it’s a welcome, rangy departure from the densely woven lyrics elsewhere in the book, and has a few of its best lines: ‘theory     we’ve confused happiness / with someone being able to say our name to us’. It may feel a little younger (whatever that means) in its occasional dreaminess or unironic hero-worship, but that element of embattled optimism carved out of a place that ‘carried // young men and women […] / as long as it could but       spinebroken / had to let them go’, is a valuable addition physical‘s emotional register.


Elsewhere, there’s something productively dissonant about the poems’ sure-footed, almost stately composure and the turmoil it conveys; after a close read or two, it was this apparently unbridgeable gap that started causing some serious heartsickness. The poems that arc towards closeness and understanding are notable in their relative absence. One such piece, ‘yoga’, starts off from a point of fairly conventional scepticism:

‘we are told to tell our bodies that they are beautiful
we are told not to pass judgement
on where the breath may fall’

The prefix ‘we are told’ acts as a kind of buffer while allowing the teacher’s message to pass on regardless, a kind of double bluff before the poem fully absorbs it: ‘it needs trust in the strengthofbody / of another to support your own’. At the conclusion, a full awareness and acceptance of both being a body and being subject to that body’s needs results in a deeply peaceful moment in the middle of a thoroughly unsettled collection:

‘I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful        sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing    where the breath may fall’

This, I think, connects to the heart of the book’s ongoing discussion of masculinity, specifically a socially conventional masculinity that physical clearly views as toxic and harmful, both to the individual and those around him. Several poems deal directly with male identity politics that demand its adherents remain not only destructive but downright stunted. The aforementioned men weeping in the gym are cartoonish and childlike:

‘their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts     they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit’

The gesture, however, is at least to some degree self-directed; the very next piece is ‘strongman’, in which the speaker bench-presses his homophobic nephew and asks ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ McMillan seems perfectly aware that the beautiful, muscular bodies that appear throughout the collection (and on the book’s cover) are subject to similar social norms; both ‘choke’ and ‘Leda to her daughters’ address directly a connection between physical beauty and physical violence. The failure of the men in the gym to accept ‘the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger’ identifies – much as in ‘yoga’ – that relatively little strength (physical or figurative) is needed to stay a safe distance from those you love, that it is far easier to push one’s emotional immaturity away than to confront it.


Both ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ and ‘strongman’ play out masculinity’s failure to accommodate self-questioning or even self-love; despite the ostensible comedy in these scenes, physical makes it absolutely clear that this failure has very real victims. ‘Leda to her daughters’ is a sad, angry piece that renders clearly the neediness and violent thoughtlessness that accompanies the masculinity defined elsewhere in the book. The poem suggests that the myth’s most mundane aspect is

‘to pretend he didn’t understand

to think my outstretched hand might be an offering of food

daughter       to think that I would feed him’

Here, the act of wilful ignorance – an echo of ‘swearing […] that the words they mutter as they lift / are meaningless’ from ‘the men in the gym are weeping’ – is directly connected to the sexual abuse of the myth. The poem’s plain speech locates it in the absolutely contemporary, and the use of persona (one of very few in physical) allows the possibility that the speaker of the other poems might be more easily located as the thoughtless aggressor; as mentioned, physical is all too aware of its own capacity to harm. It’s uncompromising and sometimes angry in its expression, and like elsewhere in the book, its emotional frankness is what gives it such force. The photograph on the front cover, which first appears beautiful and alluring, the model’s fingers pushing fulsomely into his own side, starts to appear self-defensive and vulnerable, and a lot less sexy. It’s rare enough for a male poet to spend so much energy on such deep self-criticism, and in McMillan’s hands it becomes something uncommonly powerful.

tl;dr: physical is a complex and deeply human book, with some of the finest and most clear-eyed poems about love and personal-level power dynamics I’ve read in a long time.

Further Reading: Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian

Richard Scott in Ambit

Martyn Crucefix on his blog

Interview in the Yorkshire Post

McMillan on Thom Gunn in The Guardian

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