There are few towns of St Andrews’ size which could be considered such a cultural hub. This week, for example, we have one of the UK’s biggest poetry festivals right on our doorstep. StAnza, now in its 23rd year, will be running over 100 readings, workshops, lectures and installations around St Andrews from Wednesday 4th to Sunday 8th March. Last week I was lucky enough to sit down with Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone to discuss the ever-growing success of StAnza and what we can expect from this year’s programme.
Livingstone began by recounting the legend of StAnza’s founding, which in 1998 now makes the festival older than most of St Andrews’ students. StAnza was not the first poetry festival in St Andrews, but it was the first to last more than a few years: ‘In ’98 famously John Burnside was reading in St Andrews. After the event (poet) Brian Johnstone and Gavin Bowd, who’s in the School of French here, were in the bar together and they were saying wouldn’t it be great if we had festivals again. Supposedly Brian created the logo on the back of a beermat there and then.’ Livingstone’s own history with StAnza begins in that first year, at an event in Aikman’s on a Sunday afternoon. She then joined the festival committee in 2003 and became director in 2010.
Since its inception, StAnza has become a truly international festival, attracting poets and artists from across the world. Livingstone singles out 2006 as a turning point in the festival’s growth, not just because the festival saw a rise in demand that left them having to turn people away from sold out events. One of StAnza’s defining features is its enthusiasm for engaging with poetry written in other languages, and Livingstone traces that back to her visit to Rotterdam’s Poetry International Festival in 2006. ‘Up to that point we’d always had translated poetry, but we had tended to present it as a niche interest… That’s a very Anglo-centric way of thinking. Most of the big European festivals will have as many poets writing in languages that are not the host language as the host language.’
Livingstone and I then discuss what it means to have such an international event in a setting like St Andrews. Surely it must be a struggle to attract people to somewhere so much smaller than the cities of the typical festival circuit? Livingstone does admit that ‘We find that people from outside Scotland, even in England, assume that St Andrews is in Edinburgh.’ The major challenge of StAnza is enticing people to the East Neuk of Fife, whereas ‘if you have a festival in Edinburgh or London or Rotterdam you’ve got millions of an audience base just on your doorstep.’ Fortunately, StAnza seems to have no problems here – 80% of their audience travels from outside Fife and a third from outside Scotland altogether.
It soon becomes clear however that StAnza could never be held anywhere else. ‘St Andrews is not just the location for the festival, St Andrews is an essential part of what makes StAnza like it is,’ explained Livingstone. ‘You can be in here for a reading and ten minutes later you can be down on Castle Sands. It just gives a really unique feel to it.’ StAnza is not just limited to its nerve centre, the Byre Theatre, but take place all over town: in galleries, shops, Parliament hall, and even underneath in the bowels of the Medieval History building. As Livingstone points out, ‘If you’re in an interesting space it gives an extra element. It’s like we’re creating what the white space of the paper does for the poem.’
Livingstone also credits the university for StAnza’s success. ‘If you tried to unweave it all it would just all fall to bits. Even though StAnza is independent from the university, we’re like a sort of satellite that goes round.’ The festival has longstanding ties with both the School of English and School of Modern Languages but has also worked with many other departments. This year, for example, will feature a digital installation created with the university’s marine biologists. On top of that, StAnza is reliant on the students who volunteer every year to help run the festival. ‘We literally could not deliver the festival without the students,’ claims Livingstone. She is clearly proud of the reputation StAnza has built for treating its volunteers well and gives countless examples of students who have returned to help out long after graduating.
Finally, we turn to what we can expect from this year’s festival. The themes for StAnza 2020 are ‘Coastlines’ to tie in with Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, and ‘Due North’ which reflects this year’s focus on poetry written in Nordic and Gaelic languages. For Livingstone both themes offer a way into discussing the climate crisis, especially with so many poets travelling from Scandinavian countries which have just experienced their warmest winter on record. She also firmly believes that poetry has a part to play in mobilising people: ‘You can read terrible articles every weekend in the Guardian about the climate crisis… but you can read a ten line poem that says it all and that just hits you, and you get it.’
Livingstone is not short of names when I ask her who she is excited to see this year. One that comes up repeatedly is Carolyn Forshé, who recently brought out an award-winning memoir on her human rights work in El Salvador and will be launching her latest poetry collection at a reading on Friday night. Although likely to sell out, they hope to set up a livestream for Forshé’s event upstairs in the Byre. Among the others there is Birdspeed, reigning champion of both the UK and BBC poetry slams, and Tony Walsh, whose poem ‘This Is the Place’ became an anthem for the people of Manchester after the 2017 bombing.
The sheer variety of events echoed an earlier point Livingstone made when I asked her how she would convince someone to give poetry a try. She compared somebody saying they dislike poetry to saying they dislike music: ‘They might not like jazz, they might not like classical, they might not like rap but most people would not say “I just don’t like music.” People tend to think that poetry is just like one of these, whereas poetry is all of these. Regardless of what it is that interests you, there will be something in poetry.’