Stuart McMillan talks to Eleanor Livingstone, Director of one of Scotland’s biggest poetry festivals.
Eleanor is quick to point out how much students are a part of StAnza, arguably Scotland’s most successful poetry gathering, which happens every Spring here in St Andrews. They help out on the committees, and are, unbeknownst to many, given hefty positions on the StAnza Committees. ‘The second years learn from the 3rd years,’ she says of the chain which makes the student input so valuable, the passion evident in her voice. Eleanor is nothing if not passionate, with a keen understanding of what makes for a good festival experience. A poetry lover at heart, her ability not to let it cloud her business sense when it comes to planning StAnza seems second nature. Given her service in the field, this might not come as too much of a surprise. Eleanor studied at the University of St Andrews, got into StAnza when it was a mere seedling of the great rooted oak of a festival which it has now become, and rose through the ranks from follower and helper, to Artistic Director, to Director of the Festival. We spoke to her, and got the lowdown on StAnza 2014:
The first thing I want to know is: what is StAnza’s history? How did it first come about?
There’s always been a tradition of poetry festivals in St Andrews; StAnza’s not the first one. This’ll be our seventeenth festival, so StAnza’s been in town since the end of 1997. The very first one was in Aikmann’s bar on a Sunday afternoon, very modest. There were two or three earlier festivals; Douglas Dunn set one up in the early ’90s, so there has been this history of festivals. We like to say that St Andrews is Scotland’s poetry town, there’s such a strong connection of poetry here, some of the biggest names in poetry are connected with here, particularly the creative writing programme [of the University of St Andrews], so it just makes sense. Originally the festival was at the beginning of October, but it often clashed with the Dunhill, and the hotels in the town said ‘look, this town ain’t big enough for the two of you,’ so we as the incomers moved. We use so many student volunteers that we needed to have the festival at a time when students were available, so there really was only one other time.
How has it changed over time?
It hasn’t grown in a steady line, it has grown —in kind of— jumps. You’ll have a sort of year—
Is that to do with who is performing?
It can be to do with those sorts of things, but that isn’t generally how you remember it. We always remember 2006 as a ‘jump’ year, because that was the year when events happened like the domino effect. People went to one event and they couldn’t get in, so instead of going to the next one they went and had a coffee, then when they turned up at the next event they couldn’t get in there either. So on Saturday it was just so busy, because in those days we used to have one event at a time. So we started having multiple events on at the same time. 2007 was our tenth festival, and we had this absolutely crazy event —we decided to do an event on the Sunday with 100 poets reading, we had it down at the Golf Hotel. We actually invited 103 poets expecting that they wouldn’t all turn up on the day —but they all did! Even though it snowed. That got a huge amount of publicity, it sort of went viral. We were also responsible for what I’ve been told is the first digital poetry festival, with poets broadcasting from all over the world, Sacramento, Tbilisi, Stavanger, New York. So that was another jump.
Tell us about this year’s theme.
We’ve got two themes; we always have two themes. We always have themes because I feel it makes it easier to make each festival different. One of the themes is A Common Wealth of Poetry. I keep telling people that it’s not a typo; we’ve spelt it as a Common Wealth of poetry. That enables us to look deeper into what the whole idea of ‘common wealth’ means, but also it gives a whole other meaning to when you talk about a common wealth of poetry, all this poetry that we share, I don’t just mean in the Commonwealth. But we are bringing lots of poets from Commonwealth countries as part of that; Jamaica, Botswana, South Africa, India, Canada. So that’s going to be a really interesting idea. We’re going to be looking at how moving from home can affect a poet’s writing, and whether you ever leave home. You know, one famous example is Bernard O’ Donoghue, who’s been at Oxford for about 50 years, but his poetry is still this rural Ireland of his early years. I’m really interested to explore that idea.
The other theme is Words Under Fire, as a commemoration of the legacy of poetry in the First World War. First World War poetry is some of the most influential poetry in keeping people connected to poetry. People who have no other interest in poetry will remember the First World War poetry that they got at school. It sticks with them. So we’re starting with that, but we’ve expanded to war poetry much more widely, and also the idea of poetry as some sort of written record; it tells us how people felt in a way that is personal and uniquely condensed. You don’t have to read a biography, you read one poem and you get that sense of what it’s like. J.O. Morgan will be there with a retelling of The Battle of Maldon, and S.M. Steele, who was sent by Canada to Afghanistan as an official war artist, will be reading. We’ve also got several poets coming who have had war experience, like Brian Turner who served in the Balkans and Iraq, and a Croatian poet who served in the Balkans.
You’ve also got some names from the University reading here; John Burnside, Jacob Polley, and of course Carly Brown [St Andrews student who won the Scottish Poetry Slam and came fourth in the World Poetry Slam in Paris last year]. How eager were they to get involved?
We always have some of the local poets from St Andrews. We do mix it; we have a five year rule, one of the devices to keep the festival fresh is that we do not invite people back to do the same thing for at least five years. So you’re not going to get what you have at other festivals where we always have so-and-so. We’ve got Carly, who won the StAnza slam, won the Scottish Slam, and came fourth in the World Slam. We’ve got Douglas Dunn, Jacob Polley doing one of what we call our round table readings; no more than a dozen people, we’ve got John Burnside doing a reading for us again. We’re also collaborating at the festival with the University Library on a student poetry recitation competition, Poems Aloud, following similar [things] in the US which you can see on YouTube. Students read or perform a published poem by someone else. It’s for St Andrews students only to compete, but anyone can attend the event.
Carol Ann Duffy has arguably been responsible for publicising poetry and the post of Poet Laureate. Poetry is probably more sprawling today than it has ever been but is also in quite an unique place. What do you think of the state of poetry today?
I think Carol Ann has increased the awareness of poetry, and has worked very hard at making it widely accessible especially in schools and in all sorts of projects that she’s done. She’s been involved in all sorts of anthology projects; one for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, she’s got one out which is to do with the anniversary of the War, so if you like she’s finding places where people are already half way there, and then she’s taking poetry to that place. I think that’s really good. When you say ‘poetry’, it’s a bit like saying ‘music’, because poetry is so widespread, from your very very mainstream and traditional to your experimental, and also in terms of your serious to your very funny, and also digital. I say that poetry’s for everyone. When people say to me ‘I’m not very keen on poetry’, I say to them, ‘well what poetry are you not very keen on?’ Because there will be something, somewhere, that registers, for everyone. I think [Carol Ann Duffy] has been really good at doing that; at getting people round to poetry.
Who is your favourite poet?
I got a book this week by an Irish poet called Tom Duddy. He was a philosopher at NUI Galway, he died sadly of cancer in the middle of 2012. He wrote the book six months before he died and it’s called Years. I’ve just started to read it, and it is really good. There’s something about it that reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912, that he wrote after his wife died. It’s like Duddy is both there, and observing. He manages to have a kind of ‘wow moment’ at the end of each poem. So that’s what I’m reading at the moment.
Students who are interested in volunteering for StAnza should email email@example.com
StAnza takes place all over St Andrews between 5th-9th March. For more information, click here.
Image Credit: Eleanor Livingstone, Dan Phillips/Writer Pictures