Founded in 1998, Scotland's only dedicated poetry festival has been based in the Byre Theatre since 2002. So when the Byre announced that they were closing due to budget cuts only days after the StAnza programme was finalised things did not look good. But the enthusiasm of the StAnza team was infectious and before long everyone was pitching in with venues and offers of help, most touchingly many of the now ex-Byre staff. StAnza 2013 would live on!
I had never been to StAnza before, although many had told me tales of how exciting it was and what a wonderful atmosphere settled over St Andrews for the duration. The festival relies heavily on volunteers, as many festivals do. In this case it's rather lovely as it shows how many people, mostly students, are enthusiastic about poetry; my only concern is that they also rely on volunteer photographers, which does mean that the coverage is variable. Having agreed to go up for some of the festival, I set myself the task of capturing the atmosphere, showing what it's like to hang out there rather then just documenting the events, which were mostly covered already.
St Andrews is a strange place; considering it houses a 600yr old world class university and is one of the linchpins of the golfing world it's a small town that doesn't even have its own train station. Being small, it's hard to get lost, which is a relief since post-Byre StAnza is a little more spread out than is traditional. Wandering the streets it's strangely jarring to see so many students in what is otherwise a small Scottish town.
I arrived on day one, Wednesday, before everything had kicked off. The new 'hub' was the Town Hall, with ticket sales, book sales and general festival administration sharing a room with various artworks, cafe, bar and social space. Oddly, except at times when events were coming out and people were alternatively queuing to buy books and then get them signed, this all seemed quite natural and gave the space a pleasant hubbub. In the hub. Get it?
For the launch we decamped to a very fancy new university building about 10 minutes walk away (in St Andrews most things are about 10 minutes walk away). The cafeteria there was far from being a traditional venue for a festival launch but since the first real event, Riverrun, required more technological goodies than the Town Hall could field the lecture theatre at the Medical & Biological Sciences Building was doing the job. While we awaited the launch I took Alvin Pang and Erín Moure aside to shoot them for my own nefarious purposes...
Welcomed by the Festival Director, Eleanor Livingstone, those assembled were also entertained by Gillian Clarke, Alvin Pang, Erín Moure, and music from the University of St Andrews Buchanan Scholarship Quartet before finishing off with some rousing words from guest Lesley Riddoch and moving into the main event.
Nobody I spoke to was quite sure what to expect from Riverrun; all we knew for sure was that it was Irish poetry with some sort of multimedia. What we were offered was a series of poets performing in English and Irish Gaelic with images and words projected behind them while a clarinet provided atmospheric musics. Sadly, from my perspective, this was lit mostly in blue - not making for an easy shooting experience. At least the show was enjoyable.
After this most people went off to find their accommodation but a few of us went to check out Poetry Café: Inklight Showcase at Aikman's bar. This turned out to be mostly an open mic night run by the Inklight Creative Writing Society which isn't really my thing, so I went off to find my hotel.
Not quite bright and early the next morning thanks to a late night of editing and a comfy bed, I went to hang out at the hub and see what was happening.
One of the more unusual pieces of art on display was a set of dresses that used conductive lace to turn them into interactive poetry-reciting outfits. On display in a corner of the building that provided an amusing contrast, I took to hanging out with the dresses - and their keepers - when it got a bit hectic in the main space. The dresses were being taken on tour around St Andrews' fashion outlets at the weekend, which sadly didn't coincide with my trips to the festival, but I gather went down well.
Thinking I should probably attend an event I headed back to Aikman's for Poetry Café: Ghostboy, with Rob Barratt. An interesting pairing, Barratt is a comedic poet but is nothing shocking; Ghostboy, however, is a strange fabulous performance poet from Australia whose energy and audience interaction was clearly a bit much for some of the audience. It was at this point in the proceedings that I realised the audience were quite clearly split into two groups, one for each poet. Intriguing.
After the event I spoke to Ghostboy and his partner Katherine Battersby, who is a writer in her own right, and we ended up going for a walk with my camera around St Andrews. I was devastated to find that they had just been in Edinburgh as part of their whirlwind trip around Europe and had missed them there.
And then I had to get back to Edinburgh for other commitments, returning on Saturday...
Arriving after 3pm I had already missed a few events and guests I would like to have caught so rather than tarry any longer I dashed off to the Poets' Market to see what was happening there. It was a church hall filled up with stalls awash with pamphlets and pieces of word-based art, surrounded by the stallholders and many many punters. I didn't have long so made short work of the place before being summonsed back to the hub to catch the dresses after their fashion tour.
Two models had been brought in to showcase the dresses and the third dress was on the mannequin; we played around and took a few photos of them for posterity.
There are so many interesting people to talk to at StAnza that time flew by and suddenly it was time for Poetry Centre Stage, with John Hegley and Jacob Sam-La Rose. The auditorium was packed and both performers put on sets as excellent as one might expect, preceded by a rousing speech from one of the board.
With hardly time to breathe it was into the StAnza Slam with MC Luke Wright. A bit more shambolic than the average slam - yes, I know - it felt a bit like a Literary Death Match at times.
Having scoured the place for a good strong coffee I found Lukes Wright and Kennard pacing the main street, trying to find their venue. So I joined them in their quest. Eventually it appeared, as if from a secret close...
Border Crossings with Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and Luke Kennard was in the Undercroft, which felt like a better lit version of any underground vault in Edinburgh. Contrasting poetry and performance styles but both excellent.
Back at the hub I though I should check out some of the art on display before I had to rush off.
And of course a quick stop into the Poetry Café with Luke Wright was unavoidable.
Last year there had apparently been some very popular poetry biscuits so this year Sally Crabtree, the Poetry Postie, was distributing cakes with word-encrusted scrolls of rice paper tied atop them.
One of the ongoing pieces of work in the hub was some 'visual minuting' by Ariadne Radi Cor, documenting the Poetry Breakfasts in a visual style. I had seen these boards going up but only caught one in progress on the last day.
Then, having been impressed by his event, I convinced Luke Kennard to come pose in an alley for me, away from the snow!
So how was StAnza for me? I would like to have been able to stay for the whole thing, see a few more events and spend more time meeting the poets socially. From what I experienced, the staff, performers and punters were all lovely and also very keen; this certainly helped to make everything feel warm and friendly even when the venues weren't quite fit for purpose.
I do hope that by next year the Byre is back in action; everything came together but the lack of a real spiritual centre was often palpable. I'd also like to see the festival get some more funding, even if only to help document things more consistently; I've not yet seen the official coverage from 2013 but based on last year's gallery the output is rather varied and I worry that many of the performers, coming from larger cities and festivals, may be accustomed to more. And with the ever-increasing desire for immediate online discussion there is some space for expansion in that direction as well.
But generally, if you're a poetry aficionado there's an excellent time to be had, surrounded by similarly eager soon-to-be friends.
Disclaimer: StAnza have no photography budget and thus although they covered my travel and accommodation I wasn't exactly an Official Photographer, nor was I a complete outsider. However, as someone who has attended many literary events and been involved in numerous festivals of various flavours I feel that I am in an excellent position to report on my first StAnza experience from a reasonably impartial perspective.