Brian’s last StAndza

June 9, 2010

After a decade at the helm, Brian Johnstone, Festival Director of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, officially stepped down on 31 May. He has handed over to the new Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, StAnza’s Artistic Director.

Brian Johnstone is a co-founder of StAnza, which started life in 1998 as a fairly small annual gathering of poets and poetry lovers in the Fife town of St Andrews. During his time as Festival Director, he has overseen StAnza’s astonishing growth both in audience numbers and in reputation. The festival is now a highlight of the busy arts calendar in Scotland and the UK, and regularly draws audiences from the rest of Europe and America. Last year, StAnza was short-listed for a VisitScotland Scottish Thistle Award, in recognition of its impact during Homecoming Year.

In previous years, Brian has brought a range of major American poets to the festival, commissioned art works from leading Scottish artists, featured both past and present Poet Laureates, and has brought to StAnza poets from over 40 countries. The last five years have seen sustained increases in attendances – 11,000 at this year’s festival – and StAnza has become a byword for excellence and hospitality.

Brian Johnstone said: ‘While I’m looking forward to having more time to pursue my own creative interests, I will also enjoy seeing how StAnza develops and grows, as I’m sure it will, under its new Festival Director. It’s been a privilege to develop such a major event and I’m delighted to be able to hand it on to such a dedicated successor. It’s going to be great – just you wait and see!’

On taking up her new role, Eleanor said: ‘During the last five years, working with Brian and our wonderful team has been a rewarding experience, and I’m looking forward with enthusiasm to the challenge of leading StAnza into the future. With so much great poetry available, so many exciting possibilities for future festivals and new types of poetry encounters and engagements, I’m sure StAnza can continue to expand and develop with our focus firmly on creativity and excellence.’

‘It’s been a privilege to develop such a major event and I am happy to hand over a festival of which we can all be justly proud,’ added Brian Johnstone. ‘Without the immense commitment and support of all our members and volunteers, StAnza could simply not have functioned.  And without their sharing my vision for StAnza I would not have been able to achieve what I – in truth we – have achieved in making StAnza all that it is today.’

I’m not the only staffer here at the library to have had my first sip from the cup of poetry at StAnza while a student at St Andrews and some of us SPL folk make an annual pilgrimage for the festival – you can read our StAnza blogs here and listen to the StAnza podcasts here. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Brian all the very best with the next adventure – which includes readings from his own collection The Book of Belongings (Arc), upcoming at the Borders Book Festival and beyond – and Eleanor continued success in her new role. Here’s to 2011!

Annie’s StAnza

March 24, 2010

When your events are so popular that you have to find extra space to accommodate more of the audience, you know you are getting something right. StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival is now in its thirteenth year and festival, held at the Byre Theatre and venues in St Andrews from 17-21 March, was a sell-out; most notably the events with Seamus Heaney and Linton Kwesi Johnson, which, to give more people a chance to enjoy them, were relayed on a screen in the Studio Theatre upstairs from the Byre Theatre’s main auditorium.

The atmosphere throughout the weekend was one of exuberant celebration, starting with the St Patrick’s Day launch on Wednesday night with poetry from Matthew Sweeney and Moya Cannon and music from the graceful Galway trio Dordán. All this was just a prelude to the Irish focus of the first two days of the festival, with poets Anne-Marie Fyfe, Colette Bryce, Dennis O’ Driscoll, whose droll wit and satirical edge makes him surely the Dave Allen of Irish poetry – and of course Seamus Heaney. Returning to the festival for the first time since 1999, this poetic legend delighted audiences, festival staff and just about everyone he met with his warmth, humour, eloquence and the power of his poetry. In terms of the latter, he is gives us a sense, perhaps, of the poetic gift of imbas forosnai, which Grevel Lindop referred to in Friday’s StAnza Lecture, Myth, Magic and the Future of Poetry, itself a response to StAnza’s theme, Myth & Legend. More legendary poetry was to come in the shape of the great Linton Kwesi Johnson, who appeared alongside the amazingly talented John Akpata, who admitted that headlining with the ‘father of dub poetry’ was ‘the biggest night of his life’.

A festival is more than the sum of its line-up. At StAnza there is a special alchemy that is created by myriad encounters and opportunities to be creative. Stroll through the Byre Theatre on Saturday and you found a buzz and energy that is unsurpassed elsewhere: people moving between events, or chatting over coffee or drinks. A festival is as much about the exchange of ideas, the inspiration – and the unexpected. This year StAnza acquired its own unofficial one man Fringe: Andrew Newman, a therapist from Edinburgh decided to support the cause of poetry and the Haiti Earthquake disaster appeal by becoming a ‘poem-catcher’. He asked passers-by in St Andrews to donate a short poem and on the first day, collected 58. By the following afternoon, he had 38 more. Some of the visiting poets were spotted writing poems for Andrew. The youngest person to donate one was a five-year-old boy. At last reckoning the number was in the hundreds. The plan, he hopes, is to compile them in book form and sell copies, the proceeds going to the Haiti appeal.

It’s a cliché to say ‘you had to be there’ in order to experience the magical atmosphere of poetry and partying that is StAnza. But you can catch some of the highlights by listening to our podcasts, visiting our Flickr pool and our website for photos and more news of (to misquote Heaney) the marvellous festival as we had known it.

Annie Kelly is the Press & Media Manager for StAnza

I am sitting in the foyer of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. The bistro is closed and the place is deserted. What a difference a day makes! Yesterday, at the same time, there were clouds of people drifting around, chattering about events, reading the papers, drinking coffee, waiting for Linda Marlowe’s excellent one woman show of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, buying the last few tickets for Don Paterson and Vicki Feaver’s sold out 8pm performance. Trio Verso were sound checking, chef was roasting a fine side of beef for the poets’ dinner and the bar staff were stocking up for the finale party. We toasted outgoing director Brian Johnstone and callooed Eleanor Livingstone, who’s carrying on the baton, and stamped our feet to the music of Dry Island Buffalo Jump, St Andrew’s premier band comprised of academics.

We’ll be putting some pictures up over the next few days and reflecting more upon some of the events we saw and the wonderful people we met – best laid schemes ganged aft agley in the tempting swirl of poetry and hordes of exciting conversations. In the meanwhile, do check out the photo blog, a StAnza first, created by the indefatigable Vero, and the StAnza flickr stream, which will continue to grow over the days to follow. The StAnza podcasts are all live and ready to fill your ears with the stuff you may have missed too.

We’re enjoying some glorious weather here in St Andrews, despite a brave wind, upending wheelie bins and scattering pigeons. Apparently it’s gusting in from Ireland, or so we’ve heard it said. It was doubly apt then, that winds of different kinds blew through Seamus Heaney’s sold out performance last night. There were winds fit for kites – the one in the old favourite ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’, a new one for his new granddaughter ‘wee Aibhín’. There was the ill wind that brought a stroke a few years ago, and the winds of change as he sampled new material from forthcoming collection Human Chain (out in September from Faber, ‘all being well’).

He opened the first act with readings from new work. He declared he was wracked with nerves. You wouldn’t have known. As well as tackling the difficult period after the stroke (in which he re-imagines his descent down the stairs to the waiting ambulance, passed from hand to hand, as the Biblical figure passed through a roof hole to the feet of Jesus; the silent journey in a speeding ambulance with his wife is evoked through Donne’s ‘The Extasie’ – their souls commingling above, their bodies mute). ‘Album’ contained five snapshots of his family life: his father, his own sons, his parents on their honeymoon (which he, unbidden, also attended). This was intensely powerful, moving stuff, performed with charm and humility, wearing its intellect lightly. There was Latin and the Bible, Dante and MacCaig, history, myth and strangeness all embroidered into one set in which each poem spoke to the next. And that was the first half.

In the second half, he read old favourites. He didn’t read ‘Digging’ (‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.’), though someone, he said, had inquired, feeling that particular one has had its fair share of renderings. He opted instead for three from the Clearances sequence, for his mother, on folding sheets, on the shift that occurred with her last breath. There was ‘The Strand at Loch Beg’, for his second cousin Colum McCartney, innocent victim of the Northern Irish Troubles. Each poem came with a tale, illumination, a way of looking at the things we’ve read before with a fresh eye.

Elsewhere in a very exciting StAnza Thursday, Luis Munoz and John Burnside read, followed by Anne-Marie Fyfe at the Parliament Hall 5 O’Clock Verses; Grevel Lindop delivered the StAnza lecture, entitled ‘Myth, Magic and the Future of Poetry‘. He’s been kind enough to pop it on his website so you can read it too. Angela McSeveney read over pies and pints at lunchtime and Italian poet Valerio Magrelli read alongside Glasgow’s own Hamish Whyte. I name but a few. Speaking of 5 O’Clock Verses, the next edition calls. Kei Miller and Tiffany Atkinson up next. Seamus Heaney is in conversation of Dennis O’Driscoll about Stepping Stones, Dennis’s biography of Heaney, ‘tells of his life as a poet, from writing on his childhood bedroom wall to winning the Nobel Prize’.

Hello, StAnza!

March 18, 2010

We’re in the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. Press and Media Manager Annie Kelly has let me hot desk (‘hot sofa’?) with her sexy MacBook to report on last night’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations, which went with a wonderful swing. We started on the Bushmill’s supplied by the Irish Consulate at a 5pm reception, before moving to the Byre for the exhibitions’ launch – there are several going on around town, and this year’s artist in residence, the fabulous Jay Barnard, will be capturing the mood throughout on paper.

After a Few Words on the exhibitions from directorial team Eleanor Livingstone and Brian Johnstone, and remembrances of Byre experiences past from David Bruce, son of late poet George, Cahal Dallat booted up the accordian to play a few airs, telling me afterwards that he’d made his choices based on ones that have links with poets. We enjoyed a medley that included ‘Sally Gardens’ and ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ among others. Delightful. Poet in residence for 2010, Kei Miller read a great poem about light, Anne-Marie Fyfe‘s pondered what it would be like to live in a house she sees from the train, and there were words from the Irish contingent through Minister for Health John Moloney, from sponsors Pagan Osborne and from the University’s Principal and Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson.

The first event! With the excellently shod Donegal man Matthew Sweeney and Galway based Moya Cannon! As John Moloney said in his speech, the Irish know how to party. Thus a very good beginning to an exciting weekend…

Missed yourself? Pop the kettle on and settle back, because with the StAnza podcasts, in the almost words of Aerosmith, you don’t have to miss a thing…

Tomorrow the StAnza Poetry Festival action begins! A few of us SPL folk will be decamping to Scotland’s East Neuk of Fife to take the poetic airs, and, as we did last year, will be blogging and snapping some moments of note. So stay tuned and spread the word – even if you can’t be there in person, you’ll be able to stay in the loop here, over at our Facebook page, with us on Twitter, StAnzaPoetry on Twitter and with the StAnza podcasts. We’ll have a wee info stall in the foyer of the Byre Theatre, so do pop over and say hello!

Hardeep is your love

March 22, 2009

Just seen Hardeep Singh Kohli in conversation with Alastair Moffat. Siobhan Redmond had to pull out but the StAnza machine ground into action and snagged Hardeep, and beautifully entertaining he was too. The conversation broadly concerned itself with Scottishness and coming home, with Hardeep’s favourite poems woven in between. He read and talked about John M Caie’s  ‘The Puddock‘, Burns’ ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues‘, and Milton’s ‘On His Blindness‘. His fourth baffled the hardcore poetry-going StAnza audience – The Everthere, a song by Mercury prize-winning Elbow’s Guy Garvey, reckoned by Hardeep to be a poet of our times; it turns out our Robyn has her finger well and truly on the pulse – they’re already on her iPod!

His thoughts on poetry’s inherent orality, his inspiring schoolteacher Mr Ronnie Renton and the fact that Tam O’Shanter gave him nightmares (‘and only a really good poem can do that’) were refreshing and personable, and he revealed that Twitter has turned him into a poet: haiku for our times?

The poetry of Alastair Moffat’s face was dwelt upon briefly, and quite rightly – he proved to be a lovely co-conversationalist. Their chat wittily embraced other territory, including Hardeep’s penchant for corduory, the loneliness of the goalkeeper (his role in St Matthew’s ‘world-beating under 11 football team’) and his top ten favourite dishes featuring pork belly.

The mood is still high in the Byre Theatre; we’ve bidden farewell to many of this year’s participants (Jenny Bornholdt’s skirt safely stowed, to my disappointment), but there are still plenty of folk around, attending Martin Newell‘s bracingly lovely evening, and Peter Porter and Helen Dunmore for our last poetry centre stage reading. Keep an ear/eye out for our last festival podcast – a lovely mash up of last day interviews and soundbites. Tonight’s the party with Heeliegoleerie promises to be a right knees-up…