This is a picture from 2019, an exhibition in the foyer at the Byre Theatre, by the artist Nicola Martin. You might notice, along the bottom row, Haggards (launched at StAnza in 2018) peeping out from behind a picture. We weren’t there this year, but I have to admire wholeheartedly the way StAnza embraced the on-line experience, including zoom chats, a catch-up facility for when people couldn’t get to the event at the right time, some glimpses of poets at home in their usual working spaces, and walks with poets Helen Boden and Beth McDonough which wouldn’t have been possible in other circumstances. There were films, music and exhibitions as usual, slams and open mics, and opportunities for random chats outside the events via Discord and Zoom breakout rooms.
There were special highlights for me – the walks, I mentioned, Ella Frear’s ‘who is driving this poem?’ and Malika Booker’s hammock. Jacqueline Saphra’s lecture on seeing poetics forms as accessible to everyone struck a chord, and Raymond Antrobus’ clear-eyed but tender poetry was just the right note for the week which brought violence against women to our attention (again).
I have to say, I didn’t get to nearly as much of it as I usually do. The pandemic prevented me from going, and therefore blocking out the chunk of time I’d usually take, and family circumstances made it very difficult either to get to things, or to concentrate when I could. It was lovely to see people’s faces on the screen, but I couldn’t stay long enough to chat. Which brings me to the BIG contribution StAnza has made to my life as a poet. It creates one week in the year where I have time to focus on poetry. It’s a place where to take poetry seriously, think deeply about form and technique, to debate its function as if it mattered, is not only possible, but normal. It’s where you can go into bookshops and the books are there on display (it’s also the place where poetry sells out very fast, which is also a good thing). It’s a place where there is no divide between talent and audience, because all of us are at everything, and also in the coffee bars and restaurants (I once ate a croissant next to John Burnside in Costa) and hanging out in the Byre, because, just like at Lisdoonvarna, ‘you’d never know who’d be hanging about’. How I missed this!
The main point of this blog, however, is to praise Eleanor Livingstone who has been the backbone of StAnza for seventeen years and who has just stepped down as Director.
She has been wonderful. The organisation is always meticulous. She knows everybody’s name. The care she takes to make poets welcome, to look after them while there, and to make sure people are thanked is second to none. Under her care the festival has been innovative, inclusive, diverse, light-hearted as well as academic, engaged politically as much as aesthetically, experimanental without disowning the tradition. It is a hard act to follow. Her assistant throughout this time, Annie Rutherford, wrote:
Eleanor is the kind of leader the arts need more of. She’s been quietly lifting up poets and arts industry folk for years. She’s pushed the boundaries of what festivals can do. She’s erased hierarchies. She’s offered sustained support to emerging poets, while trying not to keep that support limited to a small group of people. She’s always made time for students, for emerging poets, for new voices – both on and off the stage. She’s constantly worked towards more openness, more accessibility, more diversity. When Covid hit last summer, her response was to offer paid commissions to as many poets who’d lost work as possible, in ways which offered people stuck at home consolation and inspiration. And she’s done all of this without shouting about what she’s doing, without ever asking for the kind of recognition she deserves
Poetry, in Scotland and beyond, owes her an enormous debt of gratitude. I can only say a profound ‘thank you’ to her for her support for my work in amongst all the bigger things, and wish her all the best for her retirement.