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Linton Kwesi Johnson Comes to St Andrews

Celebrated dub poet and activist takes on the StAnza stage

From the 9th to the 12th of March, Scotland’s international poetry festival, StAnza, ran wild throughout St Andrews. Supported by bodies including Creative Scotland and the University of St Andrews, the festival’s theme this year was WILD: forms of resistance. Indeed, the hybrid blend of in-person and digital events were encouraged by Sasha de Buyl, Guest Curator for StAnza 2023, to “ask the vital questions that wrestle and play with the meaning of wildness and what it means to resist, covering everything from climate change to challenging societal traditions”. The festival involved poets from Scotland, the UK, and beyond, with subversive works which debated ideas of ‘wildness’, ‘wilderness’, and ‘rewilding', in keeping with the festival’s identity as a cutting-edge promoter of provocative poetry for all. It is no surprise that in 2021, StAnza won the Saboteur Award for Best Literary Festival in the UK. This year’s festival featured a diverse group of performers, from ecopoetics Craig Santos Perez (who livestreamed from his home in Hawaii) and Elizabeth Jane Burnett (who combined poetry, prose, and song in her immersive event) to Glasgow’s Gaelic poet laureate, Niall O’Gallagher, who advocated for the poetic forms of the Gaelic bards, and wildness in the urban experience.

It was the visit from world renowned dub poet and reggae musician, Linton Kwesi Johnson, on Sunday 12th March that proved to be an unmissable finale for the festival. A sage on stage, dressed in a lavender corduroy jacket and cap, Johnson read with wit and warmth from his new edition of Selected Poems to a rapt audience at the Byre Theatre. Performing poems which spanned five decades, starting in the 1970s, the musicality in his words and delivery was striking. Of course, Johnson possesses an incredible musical legacy with classics of the dub poetry genre and of reggae itself, such as ‘Dread Beat An' Blood’, ‘Sonny's Lettah’, and ‘Inglan Is A Bitch’. When asked for advice to give young, particularly black, poets on how to make a living with poetry, he lamented the difficulty, saying that he never made a living with poetry, it was always music. Indeed, Johnson really views himself as a reggae artist.

With an oeuvre that covers so much of recent British history, Johnson recalled his memories of the protests after the New Cross Massacre in 1981. He asserts that Black Lives Matter is nothing new, and Theresa May did not create the “hostile environment”. When asked whether things had changed since, he replied concisely: “The struggle continues”. In 2020, Johnson was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for defending freedom of expression for a lifetime spent committed to his work and dogged political activism. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Johnson confessed that “From the start, I saw my verse as a way of chronicling black British history as it was being made, I certainly did not see myself as an angry young black poet, which was often how I was portrayed, but as someone who was attempting to articulate in verse the experiences of my generation”.

The event was a look into Johnson’s past as well as future. Indeed, his Penguin edition of Selected Poems chronologically divides his poetry into the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Johnson reveals that “The first decade was about urgency of expression, things I needed to get off my chest, the second was all about learning my craft and how to structure my language, and the third was when I finally began to find my voice”.

The veteran poet revealed that the muse had not visited him much of late, though he delivered wise words on his lockdown experience. Titled “Di First Lackdoun”, the poem remembers a beautiful day in early spring as he took a walk in the park, in his emblematic style: London-Jamaican Patois rendered as it is spoken. The poem is imbued with a sense of hope and filled with childlike playfulness, recounting the joy of the socially distanced cyclists, skateboarders, and sunbathers. However, the last line cuts the laughter all too eerily short with “di unrelentin wailin soun of sirens” from passing ambulances.

This finale event was dedicated to the memory of StAnza founder and acclaimed poet, Brian Johnstone. Helping to deliver the first StAnza festival in St Andrews in 1998, Johnstone served as festival director from 2000 to 2010, leading the festival from its humble beginnings to international recognition and status as a major fixture on the Scottish cultural calendar. Event host and StAnza co-chair, Peggy Hughes, lamented that for those unfortunate enough to never meet Johnstone: “ye missed yersel”.

StAnza’s finale event with Linton Kwesi Johnson sent the audience away both joyous and contemplative, a reminder of the power of poetry, and a testament to StAnza’s strength at championing wildly out-of-the-box, boundary-defying thinking and writing.

Illustration: Jordan Anderson

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