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Open Mic at StAnza 2011/photo: Long Nguyen

(This piece was originally published by The Scottish Review of Books, without the links.)

A Short Odyssey

An ex-pat reports on StAnza 2011

I grew up in Scotland and I’m a poetry buff, so it was about time I attended StAnza. Five years ago a reform of secondary school education in Demark made it easier for me to attend the event, as I was granted five days’ holiday a year whenever I chose. However, turbulence in my professional life (the reform wasn’t only about me being granted five days’ holiday) as well as in my personal life (I was forced out of my home of 16 years by an abusive neighbour) meant that I was preoccupied with other things. After StAnza 2010 was over, however, I was sent the programme by my sister, who lives just outside St. Andrews, and I took that as an invitation.

In the event, my Principal regards my attendance as being work-related, so in addition to my five days’ holiday he has granted me two days’ paid leave of absence. This means I can go over to Scotland the weekend before the event, attend it until it finishes on the Sunday evening, and catch a cheap flight back from Edinburgh on the Tuesday morning.

At Billund airport I run into a retired colleague of mine, English teacher Charlotte Nielsen, and her husband, Peter. I recently helped their son, Anders, with his first novel by translating some dialogue into Latin. A propitious omen.

I haven’t been Scotland for over eight years, so it’s exhilarating to be back. I catch up with some friends in Edinburgh then drive up to Dunkeld, where my dad lives. I haven’t seen him for seven years, and it’s great to see him again. Two days later I finally get to meet poet and writer, Kenneth Steven, whom I’ve been in contact with ever since I was here last. Then I drive over to my sister’s with my dad.

Although the events on the first evening of StAnza are free, I skip them. Partly because I won’t know a soul, but it’s also my first evening in St. Andrews, and I want to spend some time with my sister and her family, whom I haven’t seen for eight years.

Thursday 17th March

I have some difficulty parking and arrive a few minutes late at David Kinloch’s workshop, McTaggart’s Scottish Shorelines, where we will be responding to William McTaggart paintings. I take what I think is a seat, but it proves to be a chair where the seat can be folded up. Which it is. I fall to the floor. “That was quite an entry,” David Kinloch tells me. The Festival representative – the director, Eleanor Livingstone, herself – expresses great concern for my health. Luckily, I am unscathed.

McTaggart Workshop at StAnza 2011/Photo by Alice Pearson

We – about 18 of us – are introducing ourselves. Few of us profess to having done much ekphrasis before, so David introduces us to the concept. He emphasises the liberties that it can take, showing us, with a couple of examples from the contemporary Irish poet, Paul Durcan, how a political slant can be added that is absent in the original. We choose a McTaggart painting each, take some notes, and then voice some thoughts. Then we do 25 minutes of concentrated writing, after which we confer with our neighbour. My neighbour is Pat Borthwick, and she’s written a brilliant piece in which she’s compared the tilting sea to a tilted palette. My muse is apparently still on the shores of western Jutland. Before asking us to read what we’ve written (if we want to), David cautions us that it is rare that people produce anything close to a polished version in such a short time. He’s subsequently gobsmacked, not only when Pat reads her piece, but also when four other poets read pieces that are no less polished. I’m particularly impressed by Margaret Christie’s wry poem, which, following David’s angle of incorporating contemporary politics, reflects on how the painting has excluded the nuclear power station farther up the coast.

The first Poetry Café: Lunch & Verse at The Byre Studio Theatre is with Jo Bell. I’m looking forward to some lunch. I arrive ten minutes beforehand, but the vegetarian version’s no longer available. I go down to the bar and order an egg mayonnaise baguette. So, again, I arrive late. Eleanor must think I’m going to be trouble. But if that’s the case, she’s disguising it well. Jo Bell’s a lot of fun. A stand-up poet with a nice pace.

Smoking on a bench outside, I make the acquaintance of the kilt-clad “PoemCatcher”, Andrew Sam Newman.  He’s also wearing a scarf with the colours of the South-African flag. This Afro-Celt wanders the streets of festivals and events ‘begging’ for fresh poems to be written ‘on the fly’ with a specific theme related either to the event itself or to world events. Andrew started his poemcatching at last year’s StAnza. It was in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, and “Quake” was the theme he asked people to write about. He has now published ten books. This year his theme’s the upcoming Royal Wedding, St Andrews being where the couple met.

Next up for me is The Stanza Lecture by Robert Crawford: “Simonides and the War on Terror”. Serious stuff it might be, but Crawford’s presentation is far from dull. By illuminating the role of the poet in ancient times, he elegantly expresses a vision for the role of the contemporary poet.

I bow out for the day here, thus missing out on readings by Fiona Sampson and Yang Lian, as well as Jazz Night at StAnza.

Friday 18th March

Bob Holman is to be the MC at the StAnza Slam – New York Style tomorrow evening. Not quite my thing, I don’t think. But wanting to broaden my horizons, I have bought a ticket for his lunchtime spot at the Poetry Café. And even though they’ve run out of vegetarian food again, I’m very glad I did. Deceptively unassuming, a refined Bukowski, Bob Holman is both a professor and a poetry activist engaged in some powerful projects. One of these is “The Endangered Cento”, a poem stitched together, each line from a different source. When finished, “The Endangered Cento” will be 100 lines, each from a different endangered language. It is to have versions in mother tongues and English, in audio and as film. Bob Holman has himself travelled around the world to collect these specimens, and he shows us the video he has to date, which is interesting and touching in the extreme. The poem will have its premiere in the last two weeks of May as part of the UN’s Indigenous People’s Forum when it will be projected onto the building of the UN Headquarters, New York.

I then go to hear “Past and Present” with Marilyn Hacker talking about Muriel Rukeyser and Tom Petsinis talking about A. E. Housman. Hacker’s subject matter is rather dry – an objective survey of a politically active journalist turned poet – yet her gentle enthusiasm for her subject compensates for this. Indeed, it would seem that Rukeyser, who was mixing genres as early as 1938, was an overlooked innovator in modern poetry. In contrast, Tom Petsinis’ tribute to Housman is a deeply subjective one. A European removed to Australia at the age of six, Petsinis was 16 when he was directed to a copy of A Shropshire Lad. Its accessibility, its theme of a lost world, its vision of transience, and its sharp contrasts between youth and age, country and town made an indelible impression on the young man, who was beginning to be disillusioned with sport and was yearning for intellectual stimulus. One of the pieces he reads for us is “To an Athlete Dying Young”, which begins:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

I’m keen to secure a good seat for the Quiet Open Mic session at Zest Juicing and Coffee Bar, and I find PoemCatcher thawing out with similar intentions. After an hour in his presence I submit to the ‘pressure’ and compose a piece for him. Jim Carruth is the able MC at both of the day’s Open Mic sessions. I’ve brought along my copy of Grasshopper: The Poetry of M.A. Griffiths, which I’m keen to promote, and I read “The Pismire Oration”, simply for its quirky otherness. Later I realise I should have read the sonnet, “Phonophilia”, on the facing page instead as a reply to rather a nice piece called “Claustrophilia” by a poet called Matthew Griffiths. Although the event is free, the café serves rolls, butter and jam, and later on stovies, a traditional Scottish dish. There’s no vegetarian alternative, so Andrew and I share the extra roll.

The evening’s poetry reading in The Byre Auditorium begins with Paul Farley, who gives a good, solid performance, although I do finally find his delivery a little repetitive. I like his blank sonnet, “The Heron”, which “struggles/ into its wings then soars sunwards and throws/ its huge overcoat across the earth.” Then comes Marilyn Hacker, whose reading voice is admirably clear and crisp, yet still warm and colourful. Like others before me, I am particularly impressed by the dialogue she has with other poets in her  glose poems. Glose traditionally begins with a short passage of up to four lines called a cabeza or texte that is borrowed from a well-known poet or poem. Hacker has done her own translation of lines from international poets and uses them as cabezas. These lines then appear within the body of the poem. The sestina she reads is also a delight. In another poem I’m challenged by her phrase, “a short odyssey”. An interesting oxymoron.

It’s now time for the second (and final) Open Mic session, Risk a Verse, down in the bar area. A wider variety of English verse is difficult to imagine. The first reader raises the bar for Royal Wedding poems. Later on, Bob Holman reads “Night”:

Night put on its enormous hat
& started imitating me behind my back
I whirled around so quickly
I walked right out of there & kept walking

Night set out after me, calling
But I was so cool
I just kept on walking & walking
To this very day walking

At one point, the Iraqi poet, Adnan Al-Sayegh, reads one of his poems, and Jim Carruth reads a translation of it. And rather well too. Perhaps he’s been forewarned. Someone then reads a French piece, without a translation. I decide to recite my sonnet in memory of Maz (as Margaret Griffiths was popularly known), but there’s still a lot of noise coming from the signing/eating area upstairs, and I forget how the second quatrain begins. So I pick up Maz’s book that I’ve dropped to the floor and read one of her sonnets, “The Bateleur”, instead. “Nice recovery!” Andrew enthuses when I take my place at his feet. The final reader, Rab Wilson, silences the rabble upstairs by singing a Scots ballad that has everyone rapt. Then we start reading all over again. The atmosphere’s both relaxed and very intense. People are drinking words rather than beer. When I recite my tragicomic party piece, “The Dipsomaniac”, it’s met with little of the hilarity it usually garners in a convivial setting. I spot a couple of faces shining with glee, but for once the serious message is actually allowed to emerge. Afterwards I chat with a number of poets I’ve only previously known from the Internet, as well as a few more besides. Margaret Christie tells me she really liked Maz’s sonnet, so I lend her the book.

Saturday 19th March

The Byre Theatre more or less functions as StAnza’s headquarters for the duration, and there are often other festival-goers hanging out here. I turn up very early for the lunchtime poetry so I can bag a vegetarian lunch, but I make the mistake of drinking a coffee down in the bar first. There I see Tom Petsinis taking a seat by himself. No regrets, but once again I don’t get the lunch I’ve paid for. History teacher, Hugh McMillan, entertains us with an irreverent and hilarious recasting of Scottish history. Here’s how the third letter in “Three Letters to MacMhaolain Mor” (from a tenant, 1745-46) begins:

I am sorry to have missed you at Culloden
But I had an apex ticket and had to return
Or pay a heavy supplement.

Bizarre paradigm shifts inform many of his best pieces, as when the local tourist taunter ends up being “strangled by a National Trust hitman”.

After buying some books at the Poets Market, not least from the Roncadora and Red Squirrel Presses, I find a second-hand bookshop, Bouquiniste, at the eastern end of Market Street, where I buy three well-preserved, signed first editions by or about Brendan Kennelly for £15.

My next event begins with Helena Nelson reading her poetry. It’s a convincing, balanced performance. The centrepiece is her presentation and reading of “Putting Words in Your Mouth” from her latest collection, Plot and Counter-Plot. It boils down to the eight lines of a triolet, but she somehow manages to extend it to a ten-minute tour de force. Then it’s Durs Grünbein reading his poetry in German, with Don Paterson reading Michael Hoffman’s translations. When the Berlin Wall came down, Grünbein felt impelled to do all the travelling hitherto denied him. However, as the narrator of “Cosmopolite” concludes: “Travel is a foretaste of Hell.” The end of “The Misanthrope at Capri” makes me think of my dog:

                                                                       Once I’ve marked the enemy,
I expect someone will come along and get rid of him for me.
I meanwhile withdraw, grieving. Bloodshed upsets me.

This is serious, dramatic stuff. And it’s interesting to note the audience responding very positively to that. The translations are very good, but Paterson reads them too softly, and often lets the lines fade away, so it isn’t always possible to catch every word. I’m thinking Jim Carruth would have done a better job.

I then hurry off to Cafe Jannetta to support PoemCatcher in an unofficial event, which he concludes with a performance of his poem that dispels the urban myth about Scots having nothing on under their kilts. We don’t want insects biting us there.

The evening’s reading features Selima Hill and Philip Gross. With the Slam afterwards. But I’m elsewhere.

Sunday 20th March

Trying to repair some of the deficit incurred by not having taken an English degree in the UK, I go to hear Chris Jones talk about Modern Poets Reading Old English. We’re entertainingly introduced to the half-lines system and the alliterative nature of Old English verse with reference to The Exeter Book and Ezra Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer”, then shown the Old English heritage behind W.H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety”, Richard Wilbur’s “Junk”, and Borges’ “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf” and “Hengist Wants Men (A.D. 449)”. We also hear Chris Jones read his own poem, “Borges on the Wall” (PN Review, 2008), which describes an episode that occurred when Borges was visiting Alastair Reid in St. Andrews. We’re also shown how Seamus Heaney and Denise Levetov have treated the Caedmon legend, the non-poet who became one. And although we don’t hear him read it, we’re given a copy of Chris Jones’ poem, “Song of the Ruthwell Cross” (The Oxford Magazine, 2005).

I’m warned by someone before I go in to “The Lost Makar – Roull of Corstorphin: Music and Verse with Stewart Conn and John Sampson”. She tries to reassure me: “It’s probably been improved since I saw it in Edinburgh.” For her sake, I hope not. For me it represents the worst in academic trivia. Would that the Lost Makar had stayed that way!

The final reading of StAnza begins with Ciaran Carson. He doesn’t seem very well. At any rate his reading’s rather belaboured. Nor does he seem to be very well prepared. Hardly halfway through, he says he’ll read extracts from Until Before After just because Eleanor Livingstone has mentioned it in her presentation. And after every second extract he looks at his watch. I wish he’d read more of his poems based on the letters of the alphabet. They’re a bit like Christopher Gutkind’s wonderful letters-of-the-alphabet poems in Options (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2010). Rather these, Ciaran, please, than the dismal echoes of a husband’s anxiety for his sick wife. Finally it’s Douglas Dunn’s turn. I’m far too big a fan to note anything objectively. It’s a huge thrill to be hearing him reading for the first time. He reads a lot of new material, so I ask him afterwards whether he’ll soon have a collection out. “Yes,” he says, “but I’m stuck for a title.”

I barely hear the traditional music from Lurach afterwards as I’m busy chatting to a retired professor of Latin, Chris Carter. My last exchange is with Jim Carruth, who comes up to me as people are leaving. I can see he’s got some big news. “Douglas Dunn tells me you’re from Bridge of Weir!” he says. “That’s where I’m from! And still live there.” I know this but haven’t found an opportunity to bring it up with him. In a trice I’m transported back to Heathpark, my childhood home, on the crest of the curve on Bankend Road.

Monday 21st March

I drive my dad back to Dunkeld then drive down to Edinburgh. I meet up with a school friend I haven’t seen for 30 years on my way. Thanks to Facebook we’ve re-established contact. I hand back the car at Edinburgh airport and as the weather’s fine decide to walk out to the Travelodge, which the website says is 0.3 miles from the airport. One sweaty hour later I’m repeating what the website claims to the girl at the desk there. “It’s 0.3 miles from the end of the runway,” she tells me.

Later I take the bus into town. Bob Holman is performing in the Speakeasy of the Voodoo Rooms with UrBanter (performance poet, Anita Govan, and percussionist, Paul Mills). I arrive early, and Bob invites me into the inner circle. A great evening.

Tuesday 22nd March

On my way to the gate for the plane back to Denmark I drop in at a bookshop and find a copy of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park lying where it shouldn’t be. Ever since I started reading Auster about 10 years ago I have experienced odd coincidences in connection with him. I buy the book and read it on the plane. It’s a about a guy who breaks with his father for seven years.

Monday 28th March

I’ve been working on this report for a few days now, and I think “a short odyssey” is an apt epithet for my visit to Scotland.

Tuesday 29th March

I’ve finished Sunset Park
. In the final paragraph the guy, Miles Heller, finds himself thinking of the name, Homer, and remembers “the scene about Odysseus and Telemachus, father and son reunited after so many years, in the same way he and his father have been united.” A strange parallel to draw really, when it’s the son who’s been away travelling, and not the father. An extraordinary coincidence.

Sunday 3rd April

Reading Northwords Now online, I see a very positive review of Jim Carruth’s latest collection, Grace Notes. I go to purchase the book and find out the house Jim lives in is called Heathfield, and although Bridge of Weir has a population of around 5,000, and the two houses are at opposite ends of the town, his postal code has only one letter different to that of Heathpark’s. Also in the magazine are two “Butterfly Poems” by Jean Atkin, whom I met at StAnza. I’m reminded of how, while taking my leave of my father in Dunkeld, I caught sight of a peacock butterfly sunning itself on the tarmac, which I pointed out to my dad. He rings me in the evening, the first time we’ve chatted since after I arrived home.

(Tickets for StAnza 2012 have now gone on sale.)

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