Poetry festivals and fish suppers go together in my mind. At Callander there is the wonderful Oran Mhor, and at StAnza there is the Tail End, where the queue winds around the shop and out the door, and the chips are crisp and the fish white and pearlescent inside its perfectly cooked batter. Stalking about St Andrews eating a fish supper, even in the dark and the rain, is the perfect way to get your breath back between events and checking out the bookshops.
I looked in both Waterstones and Innes Books on Friday, noting the inviting heaps of books by all the poets taking part in the Festival, sampling and choosing a short-list to buy on Saturday morning. Imagine my horror, to return and find great gaps in the display, and, with two days to go, half the books on my short list sold out! Actually I am secretly delighted about this. If poetry is selling out at festivals there can’t be too much wrong with the world! I did buy Rachel Boast’s Sidereal and the last copy of Kerry Hardies Selected Poems – what a discovery that turned out to be! – and hit up the Poet’s Market for the Red Squirrel Split Screen anthology and the new Happenstance pamphlets. These will have to have a post to themselves later in the week, otherwise they will get lost in the shuffle.
I went to seven events in the end, having booked five in advance, and adding two Border Crossings when I knew I would have the time to get to them. Highlights were Jane McKie’s reading, the Filmpoem event and Matt Hollis’ talk on Edward Thomas. Having been severely disappointed by a talk at Aye Write on George Mackay Brown, I can only say that Matt Hollis showed how to do do it – the background to the book, the argument of the book, the process of writing it, the personalities of the poets, and above all, the poetry, all got their due, and both interviewer and subject seemed at ease and engaged with the subject and the audience. But really, there wasn’t a duff note in the two days I was there.
Of course the scheduled events are only part of the StAnza experience. Poetry is a small town, and the festivals are our passagiata, so there was much meeting up with friends and making new ones, catching up with the news, comparing books purchased and poets heard, sharing old passions and new ideas. There was poetry in film and on stone, poems in response to photographs, and even poems on biscuits (delicious!). There was the Murmur Line, sound poems which spoke out of bushes as you passed, and poems to welcome you as you arrived at the bus station or the train station at Leuchars.
There was the Byre Theatre, a beautifully designed building, full of graceful curves and corners where you can set up a base camp and see who comes in to chat. You could tell how successful everything was, because of how much of a hammering the facilities were getting, and yet neither the toilets or the bar seemed to wilt under the strain.
This year, however, I have been mostly impressed by the organisation behind the whole enterprise. Everything went smoothly, calmly, and in a friendly and comfortable manner. Mistakes were ironed out within minutes and without fuss, and there seemed to be an army of cheerful and knowledgeable helpers whenever you might want them. And this, I think, must be down to the meticulous and indefatigable Eleanor Livingstone, who didn’t seem to stand still for the whole festival, but never looked flustered or out of temper. She is the still point at the heart of Stanza, and of course
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Thank you to Eleanor and to everyone who made this StAnza such a joy.