StAnza 2016 Diary – Friday 4 March

Full Disclosure: I am writing this post and tomorrow’s post as part of my role writing for StAnza (it’s a paid post, £150 plus expenses) – so while I’ve got a pretty free hand to write in whatever way I feel works best, I’ve agreed that if I found anything egregiously bad I would politely refrain from mentioning it. So yep, this is as close as I’ll ever get to a sponsored post, but one I’ve no big qualms about writing. I’ve been coming to StAnza since I moved to Scotland seven years ago, it has a special place in my heart and it’s really cool to be working with them.


Day 1 – 10.30am Jo Bell: 52 Ways of Writing a Poem

Mini disclosure: Jo’s a pal and in this context I’d feel weird referring to her as ‘Bell’.

Jo Bell’s wildly successful writing group 52 was recognised by Sabotage Reviews last year for the vital work it did in nurturing a fully functioning community of practice. The group provided space and support for (six hundred!) new writers to explore their ideas and share them with a caring and receptive audience – a kind of empowering first contact that many folk might take for granted. This motivating spirit of generosity characterised this morning’s workshop, which ran in a warm, bright, airy room on the top floor of St Andrews’ Public Library.

Jo agreed (cheers Jo!) to let me sit in on as an active participant, and damned if I didn’t actually write a few word-clusters that in flattering light might look like poems (wee 5-7-5 things, but it felt good anyway). Jo’s first assertion – no apologising, no self-deprication – set the tone for the morning; it’s not a place to show off to the person next to you, it’s a time to be mindful about your own work and to write the best piece that you’re capable of. Simple stuff, but surprisingly effective, and by the end of the two-hour session the creative meats in my brain were tingling merrily. Here’s the one I wrote in response to the prompt ‘Write to a part of your body’, to my slightly rubbish right eye:

green eye, stay with me
you keep things in perspective
ho ho. seriously


1pm Kirsten Luckins: Poetry Café

Kirsten (pronounced in the Nordic fashion) Luckins is the Northern programme co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes and a performance poet. (#overheardatStAnza: ‘she says she’s a performance poet but her words are great!’) The Poetry Café shows include a (mac & cheese or scotch, both noms) pie and a pint, and combined with the big comfy chairs in the Byre Studio theatre was a perfect decompressor after a couple hours down the Emotion Mines.

Luckins was launching her first full-length collection, The Trouble With Compassion (Burning Eye), organised loosely around the poet’s Buddhism (‘buddhish’ in her own words), and accompanying principles of love and empathy, WITH HILARIOUS CONSEQUENCES. So her opening piece, ‘Inkless’, has the poet’s persona seething in the mire of writer’s block while some other poets (a handle delivered with steadily increasing bile) ‘sort of hollowed myself out and let [the words] pass through’; ‘I am merely one such flailing wave’.

‘In Which the poet attempts to apply the compassion technique…’ (the actual title is longer but I cannot recall it) sees the poet at a yoga retreat in the Highlands with a woman ‘from London’ – where ‘from London’ means ‘extremely irritating’, acc. Luckins – who ‘out of all of us here, just, really needs this?’, who phones home at the earliest convenience to report There’s nothing here! The poem’s target isn’t a wild affront to poetry audience sensibilities, but the poem’s refrain – ‘may she be happy, may she be well, may she be free from suffering’ – is an important and challenging little twist. The theatre was properly stowed and there was a pretty sizeable line at the author signing queue.

2.15pm: Valerie Laws and Aase Berg: Border Crossings

Crime-fiction writer and poet Valerie Laws kicked off the Border Crossings show with a neat series of poems on anatomy and death, ‘how the body responds in extreme conditions’, interwoven with poems about her personal life, including a pretty moving piece about her mother’s dementia resulting in a delusion that she was married to two identical men with the same name – that the poem emerges with a sense of ironic humour and fair steeliness in the face of some grim circumstances is impressive. Elsewhere is an exploration of Facebook profiles of people who have passed away – in these poems at least the profile survives its owner ‘like a horse whose jockey is long since gone’. The possibility that one might write on a dead loved one’s wall or tag them into conversations is a lovely metaphor for grief and remembrance; the off-hand disparagement of selfie culture felt a little off-topic in the context.

Aase Berg is a Swedish surrealist, and while I’ll defend the rights of anyone to say it’s difficult to keep a surrealist poetry reading engaging (particularly a surrealism as dense and meaningful as Berg’s), I still feel privileged to have heard her perform. There’s a rich undercurrent in the poems she read about troubling subterranean forces, in which ‘continental plates topple’, ‘one always holds the harpoon alone’, ‘in the shell runs the nerves’ thin ghost’, ‘unwhale of rubber rooms’. Berg introduced her most recent collection as concerning ‘horses, men & parasites’, which is all I need, really. Notable lines include: ‘we are legion. expect us always’, ‘we have always been good at very complicated love’, ‘birds are never free, they are in complete control’. I’m not going to pretend I understood every line, or that I recommend surrealism as a consistent diet any more than I’d recommend anecdotal realism as the same, but dang. It put a smile on my face and made a few folk uncomfortable. There’s a series of her poems here if you fancy a taster.

5pm: Anna Crowe, Michael Donhauser, Odile Kennel, Don Paterson: VERSschmuggel (verse smuggling)

In a packed-out Parliament Hall (to reiterate: this is a busy StAnza) was a real joy of an event, an English-, Gàidhlig- and German-language translation project called VERSschmuggel, in which six Scottish-based poets and six German-language poets – armed with little more than a bilingual dictionary, an intermediary translator and the threat of being locked in a room until they’d finished – produced an entire anthology of translations and versions, much of it utterly beautiful. About five minutes into the set between Anna Crowe and Odile Kennel I’d decided to buy the book, which isn’t officially out until May, so, smugness.

Crowe and Kennel’s poems were thoughtful, playful, stoic pieces, delving into deep time and natural resilience, which I’m a proper sucker for. ‘Mended Fence, Barra’ has a epigram from Donne’s ‘Essays in Divinity, which begins ‘Let no smalnesse retard thee if thou beest not a Cedar to help towards a palace […] yet thou art a shrub to shelter a lambe, or to feed a bird’. The poem itself is an exercise in close focus:

‘Purely utilitarian, this link-work
has a beauty that’s all pro tem, ad hoc,
with textures suggestive of the wider picture,
differences: a study in tensions’

Then there was the totally gorgeous nonsense poem ‘Bestial Questions’, which begins:

‘questions on animals
and animals on quest
for festering nests
of gestating cockroaches
hoaching, encroaching
on rockhopper penguins
grasshopping dingoes
that sing to the moon
crooning to spoonbills […]’

I defy you to not be charmed to the back teeth. Later was Don Paterson, performing with translations again from Kennel, as Michael Donhauser was absent with illness. Paterson spoke of long translating sessions that sprang to life on the discovery of a shared love for nihilistic self-loathing, and the assertion that ‘it’s in the syntax that you find the sophistication of the thought’. Donhauser’s poems are small and slight enough to maybe make them worth reading side by side with Paterson’s translation:

‘Vielleicht                                                                            Maybe
regnet es                                                                             the rain’s on
vielleicht                                                                              Maybe
warden es                                                                           there will be
Tage sein                                                                             days to come

Alles bleibt                                                                          all that stays
ist Schein                                                                             is guise
alles steigt                                                                           all that rises
ist licht                                                                                  is light
und erlischt                                                                        and goes out’

Keep your eyes on the Freight Books folks for more news on the anthology’s publication. It’s a wee bit great.

8pm Lemn Sissay and Don Paterson: Poetry Centre Stage

The final show of the day ran in the Byre Main theatre and was live streamed into the Byre’s Studio theatre, which is a cracking idea and, again, was relaxed, warm and full of good vibes. Sissay, who took the stage first, is an incredible performer, and managed to maintain a staggering level of energy, wit and good humour through an entire forty-five minute set, and that after some deeply tedious and weirdly hostile heckling from an old dude in the audience who really ought to get a lifetime ban. For the record, Sissay responded with more warmth and grace than when the same joker – unbelievably – tried it with Paterson.

Sissay’s set ran the span of his career, his earliest poem written at sixteen called ‘**** This’, in which the only audible words were non-swears. He began with an incredible, weird parable named ‘Morning Breaks’, which you can watch here in full. It’s a brave and impassioned poem, a real gift. Elsewhere are neat and intricate pieces like ‘Lost Key’, which riffs on matters of trust and good faith with barely a few phrases, ‘Architecture’ – ‘each wave wants to be tidal / each subtext wants to be a title’ – the beautifully economic ‘Sarcasm’, which as Sissay noted doesn’t work in text. This was my first encounter with him either performing or on the page, and it won’t be the last.

I’ve seen Paterson read so often that the poems are pretty close to earworms, particularly ‘Wave’ (‘I hit the beach and swept away the town’) and ‘To Dundee City Council’ (‘that fine country called the fuck away’), and I could make a fair dig at reciting his introductions, of which ‘A Powercut’ is a bit of a favourite. Both are great though, and it was a bit of a treat to see him read with some exploratory license, airing some new aphorisms – ‘I’d no more contribute to an anthology of aphorisms than crap in a communal latrine’; ‘a poet is someone in the aphorism business for the money’ – and a full reading of ‘Bathysphere’ from Rain, which I’d never heard aloud and had always baffled me slightly. It still baffles me slightly, but less so. There’s nothing like a bit of metaphysical horror to take you home, ‘leaving you with something to whistle’. Much as I’m instinctively suspicious of anyone who gets introduced as ‘surely Scotland’s finest ever poet, and that’s a crowded field’ (how could anyone live up to eternity?) Paterson’s a responsive and generous performer, maybe the best of his generation at making the words mean as much off the page as on.

I type this as tedious English students hoot and holler along North Street, as I lie deep in the warm embrace of a comfy bed in Hoppity House guesthouse (I am not making this up, there are three-foot cuddly rabbits in the hall and it is DELIGHTFUL). I will have pancakes in the morning and there is only the end of this sentence between us. A mañana, Saint Anza.

PS: Part two is here!