Thursday was a morning of frost and brilliant sunshine, just right for a drive through Fife. I arrived by twelve and checked in to receive my participants’ pack – a simple process made so much easier by the helpfulness of the volunteers who do most of the day to day chores of such a complicated event. I know some people have not found their experience quite so seamless, but the efforts of the staff to sort out and rectify mistakes were noteworthy. Director Eleanor Livingstone very properly gets a lot of recognition for her organising ability, but one of the most significant achievements of StAnza is the large team of helpers, so well- trained and efficient and kindly who steward events, collect the ubiquitous questionnaires, sell tickets, meet people, answer questions and generally make things easy.
I was at several events – the Poetry Cafe where Stephen Watts and Katherine McMahon gave excellent spoken word performances, the Past and Present Event where Neil McLennan talked about the upcoming celebration of war poets Sassoon and Owen in Edinburgh and Alice Oswald discussed translating Homer. I may have more to say about this later – I am picking up trends and themes as I go, and language and communication is one emerging strand. Then I was lucky enough to find a space for the Five O’Clock Verses, readings by AB Jackson and Catalan poet Joan Magarit, whose work was movingly translated by StAnza’s own Anna Crowe, and to hear a discussion about international poetry festivals. And finally, the unmissable Centre Stage event with Robert Crawford and Alice Oswald.
I will review some events in more detail as we go on, but today I’d like to give a flavour of the StAnza experience as a whole. I’ve been to other festivals and enjoyed them, but StAnza is unique. First of all, the organisation and attention to detail is amazing. There is always someone there to help if you find yourself at a loss, and this should not be underestimated. Secondly, events are concentrated over a small area, which means that it is possible to go to many things, not just the big highlights. Ticket prices are reasonable too, so you don’t get so much of people coming for the big things – they come to several events, go to the exhibitions, hang about and meet people. The generosity of allowing participants to get into any event that isn’t sold out means that StAnza is very much a poets’ festival; you can easily discover a lot of different styles and techniques and genres that may be new to you without risking bankruptcy, and because you’re all hanging about, you get to meet lots of other poets, and the conversations become as valuable as some of the events ——
And this means that many Scottish poets come every year, and stay, providing a core of continuity, and a feeling of stability and tradition. And also one of the unexpected but fun things about the big events. As soon as booking opens, we book our individual tickets, and then we wait to see who we will find ourselves sitting with – it’s like the kind of folk dance where two circles move in opposite directions, leaving you to do the next set with a random partner. Yesterday I found myself with one friend on my left, another two places along on the right, several in the row in front and two more in the bar.
And the highlight of Thursday – well two of them. The first was the beautiful slow burn of Joan Magarit’s reading. And the second was walking into the Byre through the South Court at seven o’clock. They have a sound system there so you can hear poets reading. But this time there were two thrushes singing against each other in the twilight. Wonderful!