We’ve made plans. We’ve remade plans, and then we’ve remade those plans, and then we’ve made other plans for when those ones capsize. But we’re ready—ready for March, for the future, for everything the next three-quarters of this year will throw at us!
For now, let’s start things off with an update from co-capitano Kevin Williamson. Esa Aldegheri will follow with some of our engagement plans and info on Open Book’s ‘Morgan Month’, and then, our highlight, drum roll please…
An extensive and exclusive interview with Eleanor Livingstone and Annie Rutherford of StAnza (yes, that’s Scotland’s International Poetry Festival in St Andrews) on their upcoming festival!
Admit it. You’re desperate to scroll. So scroll on, Macduff.
March Festival Update
When we named this festival Push the Boat Out, we had in mind a metaphorical voyage into uncharted waters, from the sunny calms of an Edinburgh shoreline out onto the high seas. There’s rarely plain sailing with any venture, especially on this scale, but what we didn’t expect was to run into a full blow storm as soon as we left the harbour!
But here we are, over a year late, getting blown around a wee bit, then surging forward, tacking and jibing, afts to the board, splicing the mainbrace, three sheets to the wind. And I think that’s me pretty much exhausted all my nautical terminology.
Sailing aside, the different strands of this festival are coming together nicely. Despite the lockdown we’ve had a good explore round Summerhall this month to map out the spaces, generate new ideas, see what’s possible. You tend to find the best festivals are built around the spaces they occupy rather than squeezed into them.
We’re getting closer by the day to our first Big Reveal and all I can say at this stage is that there won’t be many poetry festivals like this one. Seriously. Edinburgh will know about it. Say no more.
It’s been challenging working out what will be Covid-resistant and what will be Covid-malleable but we’re pretty confident that we’ll have physical audiences in October, even if masks or some form of low-key social distancing is still in place. We’ve built resilient and imaginative layers to this festival. We think you’ll enjoy exploring them and will, hopefully, be surprised at what you see and hear.
One of the things we’ll be working on this month will be the Blog section of our zingy website. The first Blog piece to go up this year will be an essay of mine which explores Seamus Heaney’s thoughts on Robert Burns. Burns isnae just for the 25th of January.
Finally, our regular crew has been joined by some brilliant QMU students in the Arts, Festival & Cultural Management MA. One of the QMU students, Julia Sorensen, is pulling together this very newsletter. Julia is the current Poet Laureate of St Albert in Canada. Her poem, Vivid Dreaming, published in this St Albert’s Gazette profile piece and which she reads here mixes oceanic themes with the current pandemic and seems a pretty good fit for Push The Boat Out.
Big welcome aboard to all the QMU-ers!
What in the world of Edwin Morgan?
Ahoy! An update on how our sustainability and community engagement plans are faring as we move towards springtime. The wonderful team at Open Book are celebrating ‘Morgan Month’ in March, where their groups across Scotland explore writing by or inspired by Edwin. In light of our partnership plans, they have chosen to focus especially on ‘Push the Boat Out’! We can’t wait to see what reactions the groups will have to this theme, and what poems they might create themselves to then be shared during our festival in October.
To make things even more interesting, Open Book groups will be responding to Morgan’s great poem alongside amazing sea-photos taken by Edinburgh photographer Mike Guest. Mike used to travel widely for his work, but when lockdown kept him in Edinburgh, he decided to focus his attention on what was near him: throughout January he took a photo of the sea every morning at dawn, and the results are stunning.
We are also plotting exciting things with our partners at Whale Arts and with primary and secondary schools – stay tuned for more about this soon!
Introducing: StAnza 2021
Interview by Julia Sorensen
Can you describe StAnza’s ethos this year in three words?
Eleanor: It might be easiest to sum it up in the three words of our theme, I don’t know if Annie is thinking the same. The theme is “make it new,” both in terms of us using the opportunity and the chance to do different things because it’s all online—things we couldn’t have done in the same way for a in-person festival. We’re making it new that way, but also we’re working out how to take a lot of the popular, familiar elements of StAnza, which I think for a lot of our regular audiences will hope for, and transfer them into an online format. So we’re making what would carry over new, and then we’re introducing different things.
Annie: I’m hopeless at three-word prompts, but I think I’d say, “cross-arts, communal, and digital.” We’ve always been a festival with poetry at its core, but working with a number of different genres, with music, film poems, and visual arts that intersect with poetry is actually quite exciting when going digital because we’re doing things like poetry games for the first time, and little interactive digital installations. We want to both keep what people love about StAnza and make sure that that is really very much still at the heart of the festival, but we don’t want to just take something analog and plunk it into a digital format. We want to really play with this and see what the possibilities are. And that’s been really exciting.
One of the big things that people love about StAnza is the connections between events, and being able to chat to folk when you come out of the theatre. We’re a very non-hierarchical festival normally, so poets and audience members and volunteers are all mingling in the same spaces and that’s really magical. We’ve got a number of collaborative poetry projects going on where anyone can get involved and either send in their own poetry or be part of creating a group poem. We also have a number of festival café socials via Zoom, some of which are just sort of morning coffee chats and others of which are after our main events in the evening so that people can come out of the virtual theatre and still have a conversation about what they saw and what they enjoyed about it. That was really important to us from the beginning, for us to at least somehow have that communal element, even when people aren’t together.
What events excite you the most about this year’s festival? Why?
Eleanor: One of the things I’ve been getting so much out of already is the WindowSwap project because that engages with where we are globally, where we are this year, in this pandemic, and this lockdown. It picks up the kind of context in which we’re living and in which poets are writing, and it does so in a really warm and engaged way. I was inspired by the wonderful app called WindowSwap, who I’ve been in touch with and they’re happy for us to use the name and want to see the poems, and what the app is, is people are invited to upload short videos of the view from their window. If you go on the app, you can just hop from window to window around the world and see, while so many people are in lockdown, the view they have. What we’ve done for our WindowSwap project is we’ve invited twelve poets from around the world to send us a photograph of the view from their window, and we’ve paired them up and swapped them so that they then write a poem responding to the view from the window they’re sent. And the poems as they’ve been coming—we have them all now—they just, really… it’s one of these things we get while Annie and I are busy, frantic with all the admin, and when one of them comes in, we both kind of go, ‘ah’, and it just gives us that pause.
Annie: I really love our Poets at Home event. We had the idea of well, everyone is filming at home anyway, so why don’t we sort of try and take advantage of this and ask people to show us their bookshelves or their desk, show us their writing set up and how it influences their writing process? We have four poets doing it, and one of them has very much done that, which is great. She has a hammock. We get to see her lying in her hammock and it’s just very chill. One of them Caroline Bird who talks us through the different faces she pulls while she’s writing poetry, which is just really delightful. And then Will Harris and Ella Frears have actually taken it in a completely unexpected direction and have made these really beautiful, short, very artistic kind of films about their writing process and their creativity process. It was really lovely just seeing where they ran with it, and I think because it was slightly different, it wasn’t just a ‘read us a poem for a few minutes’ thing; people really had fun with it.
I’m excited about our lecture as well, I think mainly because I get to watch the lecture for once. Normally the lecture happens, and I’m running around like mad, and afterward everyone else comes out and talks about how interesting it was. But now I’ve seen it twice! Jacqueline Saphra, who is a fantastic poet, talks about form and revelation and how recognising the way in which poetic tradition is often talked about is as this very white, male canonical tradition, and how to approach that if you’re not a white straight man with a certain amount of privilege. She’s really really looking at how very different writers engage with form and how that is also political. So it’s just a really interesting way of considering the politics of poetry. And she’s a fantastic speaker.
More of a big-picture question: As you’re gearing up in anticipation and stress, can you name a couple things that you’re grateful for?
Eleanor: Getting glimpses of readings. Annie’s been carrying most of the load of the technical processing the videos, but she’s been sending me things and saying, ‘you must watch this’. So I’ve been getting these glimpses, and that really does help. It is always very useful when you’re working to just keep being reminded about the poetry, and that’s what it’s about. Being brought back, that always helps.
Annie: We were one of the last festivals last year who were able to take place, and we’ve had a lot of messages over the year of people just saying how much that nourished them in the lockdown that then came. That’s been really special, to know that it was so important to people and that the poetry, and again the sense of community, has been something that people have carried with them. I think in a way that was somehow, sort of a talisman, and does carry through to this festival and how people think about it.
Eleanor: One other thing I might say: I do keep reminding myself about how no matter how difficult things get that I’m very lucky to be living where I’ve got the sea. Last year I was very lucky to have the garden, but now we’re near the beach and so I’m able to walk on the beach. We have two poets who have adapted our poetry walks. Earlier on when people were more optimistic about what situation we would be in by March, we had hoped that we would be able to have some more outdoor in-person events, so the two poets we’re working with on the poetry walk have been amazingly flexible and understanding about our uncertainty. To begin with, we would email them saying, ‘we’re not really sure what we can suggest, but we just want you to agree you’ll do something, or maybe do two things, something online in case, and then something live’. It became clear we weren’t going to be able to do it live, so we’ve adapted these, and I think walks have been important for everyone, so I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to have beach walks we’re bringing to the festival so that everybody can get a bit of appreciation of the joys of being able to walk on the beach.
Annie: The recorded walks really sound like the second-best thing, but I’m putting them together at the moment, and particularly one of them, the poet really goes, ‘okay, we’re standing here now, and we’re looking out over there’. She really talks through where you are and what you can see in between reading poems that fit with that scenery, and there’s a slideshow of photos that goes along with that. You really do sink into it. I guess we’ve all become so used to armchair travelling, so maybe it’s a little bit more something for these times, but it actually is really really lovely.
Can you each give me a poet and/or one of their poems that’s been speaking to you recently?
Annie: I am really excited about Ilya Kaminksy who will be reading at the festival. Ilya read at either the first or second StAnza festival I worked at, and this is my seventh festival. He had a book out last year with Faber called Deaf Republic, and it’s very political. There’s one poem that was shared a lot over 2020 which is called ‘We Lived Happily during the War’ and it’s kind of that thing of living your every day life and kind of just getting on with things even though everything is terrible. And recognising that maybe that’s not what we should be doing, so we do need to engage more and we do need to be aware of what’s going on even if it’s not immediately affecting our own lives, not so much with the pandemic but all of the political news over the last year. I think particularly with the 2021 festival emphasis, the former Eastern Bloc and with the demonstrations in Russia and in Belarus at the moment, and the anti-abortion laws in Poland… there are a lot of things to be concerned about, to put it mildly, and I do have to keep coming back to those lines:
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Eleanor: I’m gonna opt for Naomi Shihab Nye who’s a poet that I’ve wanted to get to StAnza for many years. I heard her read once a long time ago and she lives in San Antonio, but she’s not connected to a university in a way that would enable her to get travel grants and so on, so it just has seemed very difficult [to get her to StAnza]. That’s one of the wonderful things about an online festival. You’re not constrained by the difficulties of bringing people. We had our second wee festival book group session on Wednesday—we do this each year, where we look at the poems of some of the poets that are coming to the festival. Of course this year it was on Zoom, but usually it’s in St Andrews with the locals, so again it meant we could get a lot more people. I opened this week’s session with my favourite poem of Naomi’s, which is ‘Gate A-4’, and I won’t give you much but it finishes, the last line is a good thing to remember in these difficult times:
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Can you give us any advice as a new festival pushing our boat out, especially in the thick of this, whatever ‘this’ may be in October—the ‘during’ or the ‘afterward’?
Annie: Trust your audiences. Audiences will be a lot bolder and a lot more curious than people give them credit for. I always remember Eleanor once saying that when she had really wanted to push making translated readings—so reading of poets who don’t write in English as their first language—a bigger focus at the festival, a lot of people said, ‘that’s almost gonna be a bit niche, that won’t ever be mainstream’, and now it’s what we’re really known for. It’s one of the things that really, people really appreciate about StAnza, and it was one of the things that drew me to StAnza originally—so trust your ideas, trust your audiences, and don’t be afraid to be bold, and to try out new things.
Eleanor: I suppose on a similar line, I do feel that if you have ideas and you have a kind of vision, go there. And then if you’re lucky, everything will fit into place to make it possible, but if you wait and don’t move forward until you think that everything is in place, and you just take very very small tentative steps… you have to have a kind of confidence and commitment to your vision, and then just push it forward. Push the boat out, and hope that everything else comes in. I mean, that doesn’t happen always; you’ll always get things that you do and then they just fall down and you don’t get it, but it’s great sometimes how we’ve gone ahead with things and then we’re able to get partners and funding to come in to support projects once we’ve got started with them. But if you just start saying, ‘well we won’t do anything until everything absolutely is in place’, you don’t [get anything coming in].
Annie: Given that Push the Boat Out has launched during a global pandemic, we probably don’t need to say that.
Eleanor: *laughs* Yeah.
Horizons in Poetryland
The Scottish Book Trust has made a wonderful list of opportunities for writers in Scotland and we’ve whittled it down to what is most relevant to your poetic genius:
Gutter Magazine is looking for poetry and prose submissions. Deadline 15 March.