A Saturday with the bards at StAnza 2020
Yolanda Castaño / credit: Dmitri Kotjuh
We asked poet and editor Louise Peterkin to report back on a weekend packed with events and readings at Scotland's leading poetry festival
Even on the dreichest of days, St Andrews is a ridiculously scenic place to be. Nipping between venues in the rain, I passed through a backdrop of stonework and church bells, a market in the town centre selling Arbroath Smokies and a regal sounding 'Pheasant Burger'. This was Saturday and I was attending StAnza, the long-running poetry festival which takes place in the town each March, and is renowned for its diverse events programme and welcoming poets from all over the world to read.
I had arrived the night before and headed to the Byre Theatre for Poetry Centre Stage, a classy double bill. Michael Longley's distinguished career earned him a palpable sense of anticipation from the audience. His gentle, authoritative delivery befitted his poems which are romantic and subtly political. Poet and humanitarian Carolyn Forché compellingly detailed the circumstances that led up to her documenting the El Salvador Civil War in her work. Her poem about a boatman providing safe passage for immigrants left me with a lump in my throat.
Saturday started memorably – a Round Table with American poet D.A. Powell in the plush Green Room at St Leonards. This event was a rare and wonderful opportunity to be part of an intimate audience of only 12 people. Powell discussed formative influences on his writing and the power of poetry to transcend time in its resonances and messages. He was also hilarious. Not many poets casually namecheck the 80s girl group Bananarama alongside references to Whitman and Virgil!
One of the overarching themes of StAnza this year was Due North, with many of the events focusing on Nordic and Gaelic language. At that afternoon's Past and Present event, Ian Crockatt and Agnes Scott Langeland read their translations of works from the old Norse of several Viking Age poets. This event was informative and the poems were surprisingly fun – often outlandishly boastful as well as lyrical. The event was also next door to a book fair and I enjoyed browsing through tables of poetry pamphlets and journals.
Five O'clock Verses at Parliament hall featured poets Jay Bernard and Yolanda Castaño. Bernard read poems from their acclaimed first collection, Surge, which archives crucial events in black history, particularly the 1981 tragedy of the New Cross Fire. They are one of the most powerful readers I have listened to, delivering an incendiary recital punctuated by hypnotic singing. Galician poet Castaño explored ideas of language, dialect and identity in her assured, playful poetry. I really enjoyed the homage to her beloved Ford Focus, which transports her around to poetry festivals.
Saturday evening's Poetry Centre Stage featured D.A. Powell and Mimi Khalvati. A double dose of Powell was a real treat. He is skilled at shifting tone effortlessly – from laugh out loud observations to unflinching and deeply affecting mediations about love and sexuality. Khalvati warned the audience that 'she wasn't particularly funny', but she was! And charming. She read her new collection of finely crafted, accessible sonnets, which covered a range of subjects including a particularly poignant one about her daughter losing her eyesight.
The evening was rounded off with drink and a catch up in the Byre bar, getting the lowdown on events I missed. That's the thing about StAnza – it is so jam-packed you can't possibly see everything that you would like to. But what I did see was memorable, exciting and often uplifting. Can't wait 'till the next one!
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.