Opinion: StAnza 2016 shows poetry and politics are necessary bedfellows
Rebecca Monks looks at how the festival uses the arts to explore wider political issues, from refugees to the imprisonment of writers
It's almost 7pm on a Saturday evening at the Byre Theatre, and instead of spilling into the bar to take advantage of whatever offer on house wine is running that weekend, crowds are forming in the venue's foyer. There, a group of people are tearing apart pages from an anthology entitled Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Taking Refuge. But don't be fooled - this isn't an act of protest. It's a show of support.
As pages from the book are passed around the crowd, poet Steven J Fowler explains that this is a collective reading, where participants are handed a poem from the anthology and encouraged to read it aloud until they reach the end, with everybody in the room speaking in unison. Steven informs the crowd that the point is to create a cacophony of support: a mix of voices, speaking together about a pertinent issue we are all aware of at the moment: the refugee situation in Europe.
StAnza's festival director Eleanor Livingstone explains that she was inspired to programme this event after seeing Steven do something similar in Berlin. She tells me later that the reading happened because 'the refugee situation is something that is so in front of all of us at the moment that it seemed relevant.' Speaking about the event, Steven tells me that 'this [reading] was so beautiful because there's a real metaphor in what we are doing here' - and that is the idea of speaking together: creating a louder, communal voice for shared experiences, in which we 'who won the postcode lottery' voice our support for those who were not as fortunate.
Immediately after the collective reading, many of those who had filled the foyer with their voices and thoughts on the subject headed upstairs to an event being held by Scottish PEN. There, acclaimed poets Andrew McMillan and Jo Shapcott were reading work by Ashraf Fayadh: an imprisoned writer in Saudi Arabia facing an eight year sentence and 800 lashes. As Scottish PEN's Brian Johnstone explains, the purpose of the event is to keep Fayadh's words and struggle in our minds, and the effect was incredibly profound. There we were, listening without fear to the words of a man who only wants to be free to share them himself.
I left The Byre that night even more confident in something I have long known: that poetry is a powerful way to communicate complex political ideas. Both of these events were so much more than poetry readings. They were ways to open up discussion and thought, and to encourage people to engage with essential issues on a personal level.
After the collective reading, people did not simply hand back their page of the anthology and leave – they stayed to discuss and debate problems and potential solutions for refugees. After the Imprisoned Poets reading, not everyone filtered back down to the foyer. Many stayed behind to sign their name to a postcard requesting Fayadh's freedom, some stayed to ask for more information on joining PEN, and some remained to ask further questions about the writer and how his imprisonment came to be.
John F Kennedy once said, 'if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.' If StAnza taught me anything this weekend, it's that poets these days knows politics very well indeed, and the more we use language to help us understand it, then the better this world will be.
Rebecca Monks is a researcher and writer at The List. She regularly performs her own poetry and spoken word around Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Monks