StAnza 2010 - Kei Miller interview
As StAnza gets ready for its 13th annual event, Poet in Residence Kei Miller tells Suzanne Black why it’s much more than just another book festival
In the historic surroundings of St Andrews resides one of the most interesting events in the literary calendar. The unassuming programme for StAnza sets out the expected author events, the star names like Seamus Heaney, the technique-polishing workshops and an enigmatic yet inclusive theme (Myths & Legends), but as Kei Miller, who features in this year’s programme points out, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. ‘A lot of what makes it so special happens outside of the readings with people hanging out, which is what a good festival should be’.
As StAnza’s Poet in Residence, Miller will have plenty of time to savour the atmosphere, being sequestered to the site for the five-day festival’s duration. For him, what sets StAnza apart is that ‘they’re not trying to be a book festival; they’re trying to be a literature festival.’ Explaining further, he describes the benefits of moving away from publication schedules and bestseller lists. ‘The thing with a book festival is it means that whoever has a book out this year are always picked so the list of readers is tied to whoever is current, and that can mean all kind of things. Writers can end up writing books to get invited to certain festivals just to keep current.’
StAnza even goes a step further and places a prohibition on readers returning within five years to avoid the same faces cropping up which, as Miller says, ‘forces you to keep on looking for new people’. This fostering of new talent is a feature of both Miller’s teaching work at Glasgow University and the workshops strand of the programme. The most intriguing-sounding of which is Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (which means ‘the fear of long words, if you can believe it’) and during which Miller will explore the rhythmic possibilities of words of differing lengths.
As it happens, Miller does also have a forthcoming poetry collection, A Light Song of Light due to be published in July. The new book deals with the recent economic recession, family tragedy and ‘how in the midst of all of this darkness can you write a poem that is a song of light?’ This balance of positive and negative forces and the struggle to understand and manage them is where his work crosses over with the festival’s theme. ‘The poems do all kind of strange things but the parts that explore darkness often playfully explore different creatures that you imagine inhabit the night. A lot of those are mythical creatures, some of them from my own background in the Caribbean. And singing this “song of light” does that same thing where it tries to become mythical.’
In Brian Johnstone’s final year as director, before handing over to Eleanor Livingstone, the portion of the programme devoted to his Director’s Cut will unite old memories with hopes for the future. Similarly, the Myths & Legends seam displays the intersection between new voices and old truths and is a chance to visit an invigorated festival in an ancient town playing host to new writers in the pursuit of one of the oldest pastimes.
StAnza runs from Wed 17—Sun 21 Mar at various venues in St Andrews. Kei Miller appears at The Byre Theatre, Wed 17 Mar; The Town Hall and Parliament Hall, Fri 19 Mar; Public Library Meeting Room, Sat 20 Mar. For full programme of events, see www.stanzapoetry.org