This article has been written with the support of StAnza. Find out more.
StAnza 2020: 'Poems can act as talismans, protective spells that can be learned by heart and carried around always'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 24 January 2020
Top: Matthew Caley, (credit: Iris Hobson-Mazur), Alex Finlay (credit: Tom Mannion) / middle: Suzannah V. Evans / bottom: Nancy Campbell (credit: Annie Schlechter), Jim Crumley
We speak to some poets appearing at this year's StAnza about poetry and activism, the climate emergency and the power of poetry to stimulate change
With their innate ability to observe and scrutinise the world around us, poets are well-versed in holding a mirror up to society, responding accordingly to key issues in their own works. As we veer further into the climate crisis, writers are increasingly using their poetry and prose to draw attention to the ecological crisis, helping others engage with the threat of climate breakdown and how it's reshaping our very existence.
Continuing to bring together internationally celebrated poets and emerging performers, Scotland's international poetry festival StAnza (Wed 4–Sun 8 Mar) offers the perfect forum to raise awareness and understanding of this global threat through its many events, installations and exhibitions. With 'Coast Lines' being one of this year's main themes, we caught up with a handful of poets taking part in the festival to find out how they're influenced by our coasts, seas and rivers and to get their thoughts on the connection between climate activism and poetry.
On taking part in StAnza 2020 and why it remains such a vital festival in the Scottish cultural calendar
Suzannah V. Evans: I'm delighted to be part of StAnza this year. I've been helping out at the festival since I was an undergraduate, and it has always been one of my favourite times of the year – marking the end of long Scottish winters, heralding in brighter spring days. I particularly love that the festival has a different language focus each year. The international nature of the festival is a cause for celebration – it builds bridges between people, cultures, and languages at a time when, politically, it can feel like these connections are being lost.
Jim Crumley: StAnza is a shining light that reflects great credit on St Andrews and Scotland. Given that I am essentially a full-time nature writer working in prose and a part-time poet scattering my poems through the narrative whenever I feel the need to be riskier with language, it's an honour to be involved, particularly with the emphasis on climate change in this year's festival.
Nancy Campbell: I grew up in the Borders, but other than the Edinburgh Festival this summer, I have had few opportunities to give readings in Scotland. So it is a homecoming for me, as well as a chance to be part of one of Scotland's most exciting festivals and meet writers from all over the world.
On poetry's enduring power within society, both for poets and readers
Suzannah V. Evans: I think poetry, like other kinds of literature, helps to build empathy: it immerses us in lives, stories, and words which are not our own. Poetry in particular, with its very heightened attention to language, sound and pattern, and its sometimes complex or unusual syntax, makes us think differently; or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's a different kind of thought, or way of thinking. It can shake us out of old thought patterns, or help us to see something in an entirely new light. For poets themselves, I think poems can act as talismans, protective spells that can be learned by heart and carried around always.
Alex Finlay: Poetry and art can seek to represent experiences which culture obscures and, in doing so, offer the complexity of experience. The poem depends on and extends the different meanings that words contain, which is a characteristic that suggests generalised opinions flatten reality. That doesn't mean poetry has power, it does mean it can elude the simplifications of power.
Jim Crumley: It is up to poets to be proactive both in terms of making new work and getting it out there. There's no point writing for the bottom drawer. The power that poetry can wield is directly proportional to the number of people who can be persuaded to listen and buy it and read it. That responsibility is ours.
Nancy Campbell: The present state of the world shows that we urgently need to imagine a new way of being, and while poets can't directly make policy, they can certainly be part of a drive to imagine – and communicate – better or alternative futures.
Matthew Caley: In our current cultural moment the arts are being enlisted to embody all kinds of ideal notions of equality and to espouse causes, when in actuality on the horizontal, economic plane, equality is getting worse. Some young people probably think that's what poetry is. There's nothing wrong with this if the work produced retains its imaginative and aesthetic scope. But if in espousing a cause the polemic overreaches the imaginative scope, then you get bad art, which helps neither art nor the cause.
On whether poetry and climate activism can go hand in hand
Suzannah V. Evans: Poetry can play an important role in articulating this grief, in reaching outside the facts and figures to a more human, felt understanding of the crisis. In addition to this, poetry can be a powerful tool in terms of reconnecting us with the natural environment; in naming things that might otherwise be forgotten, or overlooked.
Alex Finlay: My current interest is in the creative use of limit, reading across from disability to art, and then applying that to ecological issues. The kind of poetry that I'm engaged with is often characterised by the creative use of limits, just as people with disabilities often have to develop creative relationship to places. We face the challenge of choosing limits in terms of resources – or forcing economic actors to do so – and, rather than just producing topic-based poems about ecology, I'm interested in the poem as a model that can be applied to society, encouraging us to adapt to limits.
Jim Crumley: Well, a poet can be an activist and an activist can be a poet, so to that extent, yes, they can go hand in hand. But they are very different jobs: one is essentially solitary and the other essentially collective. It's harder for the poet to be heard, hence the value of showpiece events like StAnza.
Nancy Campbell: Yes! Of course, it is important to communicate it in any way, from a placard to a long-form essay in The New York Times.
Matthew Caley: Between Shelley's idea that poets are 'unacknowledged legislators' and Auden's notion that 'poetry makes nothing happen' lies the elusive truth. Poetry affects people at a micro-level. Profoundly, sometimes, but at a micro-level. It provides a slanted stream of language as an alternative to the 24 hour official discourse. As Kafka said, art should 'take an axe to the frozen sea within us'. I guess we should try to do that whilst keeping the polar ice-caps frozen. There's many ways to put your shoulder to the wheel.
On interpreting StAnza's theme of 'Coast Lines' in their own works
Suzannah V. Evans: My writing always returns to the sea. Perhaps because I spent many years buffeted by sea winds and shrouded by haar in St Andrews, or perhaps because the sea is like a heartbeat, the most essential of all rhythms. Coastlines are also captivating, liminal spaces. I've written about objects that have been pulled from the sea and found along the shore in my poems, such as those that form the artist Eileen Agar's sculpture Marine Object, while other poems turn to marine creatures, underwater acoustics and rockpool discoveries.
Alex Finlay: I've written three books on renewable energy and culture and one of these, minnmouth, is a mapping of the sea and coast, exploring the meanings of place-names which describe skerries, tides, bays and mouths. I found that the names were a way to reveal and test whether the knowledge of the past that the names contain can be useful in adapting to marine renewables.
Jim Crumley: Coastlines have coursed through my work throughout more than thirty years as a nature writer. Whatever the nature of the landscape, the place where the edge of the land and the edge of the sea meet is incredibly fertile for a nature writer. It teems with birds, it coughs up otters and seals and dolphins and whales and it nourishes its own particular flora. And right now it is the front line of the climate crisis.
Nancy Campbell: I'm keen to document how coastlines are changing, and explore how this affects the communities living beside them. Writing these stories has taken me from living with hunters who work the shifting sea ice of Greenland's north-west coast in my book Disko Bay to a new book, Beachcombers, based on my childhood in Berwickshire.
Matthew Caley: Well, the latest book Trawlerman's Turquoise plays with a very conceptual idea of the sea and the coast. In a sci-fi parallel world, everywhere is a city. No one has ever seen the sea. But they get psychic glimpses of it – like a mirage – which they call 'trawlerman's turquoise'. The book contains many mentions of drain-covers and underground rivers in London – the Fleet, Bolo's Brook – they are all tributaries to the Thames which joins the sea. Imaginative networks that link rather than separate us.
On general hopes for the wider poetry scene and literary festivals in terms of action and resolution as we move further into the climate emergency
Matthew Caley: Any poetry festival – even one as good and engaged as StAnza – can only do so much; provide a space for the imagination to roam across these subjects and issues. A slant vision. Inspiration. But it's particularly well-placed to do that. StAnza has a beautiful, rugged coast on its doorstep. And a good deal of environmental research and marine biology being pursued at St Andrews University to draw on. And a long, poetic tradition, that includes politics. So it's well-placed to bring the science and the slant art together in unusual and stimulating ways.
Jim Crumley: I'm not sure action and resolution of the climate emergency is the job of poetry and literary festivals. But what they can do, and should do, is provide a platform and a mouthpiece where poets can articulate nature's case, and hopefully do it better than politics, using original and creative language that can persuade people to stop and think about what is happening. That is the poet's job.
StAnza: Scotland's International Poetry Festival, St Andrews, Wed 4–Sun 8 Mar.
StAnza: Scotland's Poetry Festival
The cleverly titled StAnza is a literary festival that focuses on verse. Joining the locals for readings, performances, slams, open mics, jazz, films, workshops and poetry-related art exhibitions, and installations are a host of local and international wordsmiths.