StAnza must be a contender for Scotland's most chilled out festival. The main hub and gathering place is The Byre Theatre where performers, organisers and audience members can be found mingling casually over coffee or a glass of wine.
As someone attending the festival alone and for the first time I didn't feel in the least bit intimidated, in fact I immediately felt welcome and at home. Between performances and over dinner I got chatting to people from an interesting variety of backgrounds and they all somehow felt like long lost friends. Having returned from the festival a few days ago, the feeling of homeliness and friendliness is still my overriding impression of StAnza and my weekend in St Andrews.
It is easy to have pre-conceived ideas about what a poetry festival might consist of or dismiss it as too arty or boring, certainly when I told people what I was going to be doing over the weekend not one of them said 'Wow, that sounds awesome!' (maybe I need to get more cultured friends). As it turns out a poetry festival is a mixture of music, comedy and storytelling all rolled into one and much more accessible to the masses than you might first think.
My philosophy in life is to approach things with an open mind as the best experiences often come from the most unexpected places and it turns out StAnza is one of those places, as I loved the experience from start to finish and will certainly return for a future visit.
Aside from the genuine friendly, laid-back atmosphere, it was the poets and their performances that really made this event for me. I went to 5 very different shows and enjoyed every one of them for different reasons.
My introduction to the festival saw me casually chilling out with a pie and a pint at one of the excellent Poetry Cafe events, which are ideal for poetry festival newbies like me. Erin Fornoff, a spoken word poet, had me quickly captivated with her emotional performance and stories of her life growing up in the Appalachian Mountains before a transition across the Atlantic to Dublin and an unfortunate casting couch experience.
By coincidence I ended up sharing my dinner table and conversation with Erin later that evening and it was this kind of informal, accessible atmosphere where everyone ate, drank and chatted together that made StAnza so memorable and unique for me.
The main StAnza event takes place on Saturday night and this year renowned headliners Kei Miller and Simon Armitage took the audience on contrasting poetic journeys from Jamaica to Yorkshire with plenty of wit and dry humour along the way. As someone who is interested in travel and culture, I particularly enjoyed Miller's humorous readings from 'The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion' and his thought provoking observations on geography, language and race.
My Saturday night continued past the witching hour with my personal festival highlight, the StAnza Slam. If you are unfamiliar with what the Slam consists of, think a competition with 12 poetry 'slammers' with 2 minutes each to impress a lively audience and panel of scoring judges. The top four slammers return with a second poem before the winner is announced.
The poetry performances I saw ranged from the bizarre to the serious to the outrageous and the atmosphere was more akin to a comedy festival. I noticed that the audience for the Slam was much younger and very different from the preceding main event and while it may not be for everyone I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On Sunday morning I savoured a walk in the sunshine around St Andrews itself. This is a compact town and it is easy to visit the historic sites, beautiful sandy beaches and independent shops without much effort and after a late night I was glad to start the day with a gentle picturesque walk back to the theatre past the castle and cathedral.
I had also carefully planned my first Sunday show to make sure I could relax with a coffee and some easy poetry. I had chosen one of the children's events, Stars in Jars, with Chrissie Gittins. I was relieved to see that I was not the only adult there without children and some innocent rhymes and entertaining questions from the young audience made this the perfect event for the young and young at heart. I left smiling after Chrissie finished with an open question session from the audience which attracted various queries about young people developing their poetry skills and the rather more random "Do you know a golden monkey?"
With just enough time to pick up another hot pie I made my way upstairs for the final Poetry Cafe event, this time with very witty Elvis McGonagall, a well known Scottish figure in the poetry circuit and beyond. A previous world slam champion his specialty is poking a lyrical, satirical finger at politicians, royalty and fat cats. With his rocker hairstyle and distinctive tartan jacket he seems to have gained a cult following of fans along the way as this was a popular event.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye to my new found long lost friends in the hope I see them again next year.
As one of the StAnza bloggers in residence some might think that I was a strange choice as I have no poetry expertise. Thankfully, Eleanor Livingstone, the director of StAnza, has the vision to appreciate that those interested in poetry don't need to be sold on a festival of words and rhyme. The people that need to be inspired to visit are people like me, people who think it might not be for them, people who don't possess volumes of poetry or those that are curious to find out more but can't find practical reviews from writers not in the creative industry. I hope the blogs I post about my experience encourage those of you that are dismissive, curious or just sitting on the fence to at least consider a poetry festival, after all what's the worst that could happen other than you might just love it?
Look out for my upcoming blogs with a first time visitors guide to StAnza and a photoblog featuring St Andrews.
To find out more about the festival visit the StAnza website at http://www.stanzapoetry.org/
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