For those unfamiliar, StAnza is Scotland’s biggest poetry festival held every March since 1998 in the quaint town of St Andrews. Over the years it has consolidated its reputation as one of the leading international festivals dedicated solely to that intricate writing tradition which has produced the likes of Sylvia Plath, Louis MacNeice and T.S. Elliot.

 

This year’s two prominent themes were A Common Wealth of Poetry to celebrate Glasgow playing host to the Commonwealth Games next July and Words Under Fire marking the centenary of World War One.

 

The six-day event offered an exceptionally generous programme whose highlights included productions by Square Peg Contemporary Circus performing Coleridge’s “Rime of The Ancient Mariner” in words, dance and acrobatics. Workshops, lectures, poetry readings and slams as well as films and exhibitions, were just some of the activities available throughout the week.

 

The poetry evenings showcased some of the best voices in contemporary verse amongst which Tishani Doshi and David Lee Morgan left a lingering impression.

 

Doshi is a poet whose writing is coloured by her life in India. It is the writing of a woman who quietly resists many of the traditional values and expectations that befall the majority of her peers. Yet it is also the writing of someone who watches our rapidly changing moral landscape with sympathy and at times incredulity. There is a composed fragility set against a defiant survival instinct that makes her poetry audible.

 

In “Girls are coming out of the Woods” the unsettling frankness almost provokes contempt because of its unabashed honesty. Lines such as: “girls…, lifting / their broken legs high, leaking secrets / from unfastened thighs…” are both brave and discomforting but also touching, especially when towards the end we get:

            

          girls are coming out

          of the woods the way birds arrive

          at morning windows –pecking

          and humming, until all you can hear

          is the smash of their miniscule hearts

          against glass…

 

During the reading she said she was “a bit nervous” and that we must excuse her, but the truth is that we were a bit nervous too. In “Walking Around (after Neruda)” we get a sense of that quiet rebellion from a woman who is content to be in love with her “undrunk breasts”. In “Ma is no longer with us” we can appreciate her cool reticence at the way technology is changing how we share and process personal information.

                                                                                                                      

When it comes to Morgan here is a poet of a whole different calibre. Powerful and energetic, his stage presence jolts you into awareness from whatever momentary slumber you may have succumbed to. Best known for writing impassioned political diatribes his words, to use the title of his recent poem from Science, Love and Revolution hit you like a bullet without pausing to consider your feelings.

 

Calling himself a citizen of the planet a pure kind of empathy that is intelligent and transcendent colours his writing. In “Samson” he asks:

            

             Did you ever feel like you had so much love locked up inside

             But you couldn’t let it out, couldn’t let it go

             Had to keep hold of an icy cold silence

             Or you might explode in mindless, raging violence

 

We feel exposed, almost cornered by the intuitive revelation of the question. And the answer is “yes” we do feel like that at least sometimes.

 

His intention, if one can presume to know it, is to push our limits of awareness until we, like him, are able to see the particulars of the bigger picture. To see them and to be charged by our knowing of the truth, enough to start doing something to resist the injustices which have been allowed to thrive. In “What Is To Be Done” that intention is arguably reinforced when he says: “the revolution will not come until it has pierced your heart” and sealed in “Santa” through: “Toys were made to be broken, not children”.

 

We don’t have to love poetry or be poets ourselves to learn to appreciate its value. Good poetry finds a way into the memory independently of us and stays there. That is why festivals like StAnza matter.