Two Great Days at StAnza Poetry

Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words – Charles Simic

I arrived at about 8pm on the Friday evening. Leuchars station is not close to St Andrews itself and (it made me feel at home) there were roadworks disrupting the usual route so instead of 5 miles it was a 10 mile trip. Actually, it was dark and I had no idea where I was so I’m just quoting the chatty taxi driver here – who also lamented the decline in business in recent years. Lack of local money generally he said and the changing habits of students who go out less, pre-drink more and choose to stumble home rather than call his cab. We waited a few minutes for Pascale Petit’s train to arrive. She’d been travelling for 12 hours (from Cornwall) which made my 5 hour train ride feel like nothing much. Unpacking, I reflected north is a very long way north.

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I was staying at the Greyfriars Hotel but walked up to the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street, the main Festival venue. The headline reading for the evening was Lemn Sissay (who I’d just missed) followed by Don Paterson. I arrived at the interval and the talk at the bar was of a local heckler interrupting Sissay. I never got to hear how he dealt with it but it seemed to say something about the tone of this festival that there was as much talk about inclusion as there was annoyance at the interruption. The auditorium was sold out (typical of this StAnza while I was there – you needed to book your event fast). I had no ticket but Jim Carruth took me to the studio theatre to a live relay of what remained of the event. Paterson read mostly from 40 Sonnets including ‘Here’, ‘Wave’, ‘A Powercut’, ‘Little Aster’ and the curiously moving death-of-a-dog poem ‘Mercies’. He also read aphorisms from an iPad and I remember ‘Poetry is not a vocation but a diagnosis’. And (one for his students, he said) ‘If a poem is read slowly enough we begin to hear things – which – are – not – there’.

I was woken by seagulls in the grey dawn and through a gap in the Greyfriars curtains I could make out a CCTV camera on its right-angled gantry across the road, white and intent and about the size of a large gull. Perhaps I was dreaming. I was reading next morning with Tracey Herd in St John’s Undercroft, a long brick-arched room, with a great acoustic and atmospherically lit. Andrew Jackson generously introduced us and I read most of my A Hatfield Mass sequence which I think of as celebratory poetry about nature, perception, growing up/older, the body. Tracey’s book Not In This World was a PBS Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year and is her first collection for 14 years. She did not read those poems about film stars or racehorses for which she’s justly renowned but powerful, recent poems of loss: “Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving”.

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I was also reading in the afternoon at a ‘Past and Present’ event – where poets talk on writers from the past. This was the first occasion (in the Council Chamber of St Andrews’ Town Hall – where marriages are performed we were told) at which I could read some of my new, just-off-the-press versions of the Daodejing. Pascale Petit was also appearing and she talked about her enthusiasm for Tomas Transtromer, in particular the way in which his poems often use an aerial perspective; from his first published poem: “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams”. I’m sure she said she’d consulted a Swedish friend who said his surname meant something like crane-over-water – ornithological crane obviously.

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Later in the afternoon, at the Parliament Hall, Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan read. Benson was nervous in front of the large crowd (and who can blame her) but she was soon absorbed in the poetry itself and her demeanour was not at odds with the work. Sections of ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ (Van Gogh) were read with great intensity. Other poems of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood were more moving and (as Dave Coates has suggested) her book’s up-beat title, Bright Travellers, misleads. The contrast with McMillan was not to either poet’s detriment. I reviewed physical on this blog back in July 2015 and his (in various senses) naked poems, even when sad, manage to stir great pleasure in the audience. In person, he adds to this a wise-cracking, witty style of introduction and between-poem chat. Given his marvellous success this year I wasn’t sure why he wanted to discuss some of the negative criticisms he’s had but even that does not prevent me wanting to use that old Hollywood term ‘star’ in listening to McMillan perform.

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Nora Gomringer

It was another sell-out in the Byre Theatre on Saturday evening with an event indicative of the Director, Eleanor Livingstone’s innovative approach to programming (and part of the German poetry emphasis to this year). Nora Gomringer performed work (with percussionist Philipp Scholz) which reminded me at moments of Laurie Anderson, at others of the much-missed Bob Cobbing (who I saw read/sing in London in the 1980s), at all times evoking a jazz-like improvised feel. Quite brilliant. Jo Shapcott had the tricky job of following this and chose to read a number of ‘The Roses’ poems from Tender Taxes, her responses to Rilke’s poems in French. These are a bit delicate and brief to come over very strongly in a live reading and other new poems on pain (but without mentioning the word) I found not easy to appreciate. But the brilliant prose poem ‘Scorpion’, the touching ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ and the finisher, ‘Piss Flower’ ended the evening in style.

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I had a train to catch next day but managed to get to stride along the Chariots of Fire beach early in the morning plus take a peek at St Andrews Old Course before the Poetry Breakfast discussion on translation. Diplomatically and informally chaired by Annie Rutherford, the theme emerged that we ought to think more loosely, more liberally about the idea of translation.  Aurelia Maurin suggested we should think of it more  as we do cover versions of songs. Claudia Daventry opened the field up by quoting Charles Simic’s idea that all poems are translations from silence. Nora Gomringer remembered a professor urging her to find ‘the game’ of any poem she intended to translate not merely to work line by line. She’d been asked to translate Yoko Ono’s poems into German but felt unable to and the importance of the rightness of a translator to a source text was demonstrated when, on another occasion, she’d translated from Russian (I think) and had actually been spat at by a disapproving reader. I was struck – as before – by what powerful emotions the idea of translation stirs up, involved as it is with ideas of truth, honesty and fidelity. I especially liked Daniela Seel’s take on the process, stressing the almost chance meeting of suitable translator with appropriate source text and the way in which the linguistic and emotional ‘body’ of the translator (his/her resources) need to be matched to the varied demands of the source text.

But I had to catch my train and, though exhausted, I spent some of the six hours back re-reading Montale’s loving lament and memorial to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, here translated by G. Singh:

With my arm in yours I have descended at least a million stairs,

And now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.

Even so our long journey has been brief.

Mine continues still [. . . ]

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Montale and Drusilla

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