StAnza Poetry Festival 2021

Posted on Updated on

St Andrews
March 6th – 14th

StAnza Director: Eleanor Livingstone

The Stanza International Poetry Festival took place online from 6th to 14th March. Stanza was born in 1997, the brainchild of three poets deeply qualified in the field, Brian Johnstone, Anne Crowe and Gavin Bowd. Over the decades it has built up a standing as a leading place at the head of world poetry. Brian Johnstone, the poet and writer, is part of Edinburgh Shore Poets, with a particular interest in live poetry. Brian served as Festival Director from 2000-2010. Anne Crowe has many publications and prizes, and has translated into Castilian, Catalan, German and more, and Gavin Bowd teaches in St Andrews University. The first Stanza Festival launched on National Poetry Day in 1998, only a year after its conception.

This year, there wasn’t a single poet who did not strive and succeed in the field wither older or younger. having many honorary or volunteered for positions in the festival life itself. But the top seats had to go to the amazing Eleanor Livingstone who took us around as the Festival Director, Louise Robertson, on Press & Media and Annie Rutherford, Programme Co-ordinator.

Annie Rutherford

The pre-festival 5th March Panel discussion I found extremely interesting. I was captured by all the great styles of the written word. Taking off, with an expert discussion about the current goings on in the ‘European regions progress in literary culture’: an assessment of the progress culturally in considering brand new approaches. With an emphasis on understanding of the said European literary culture and regions, whether or not the writing is concerned enough with winning a battle of creating real roots outside the English dominant language. With the good news of their beginning to be or not of new infrastructures that are coming through with fresh lenses.

The Event ‘Trafica’, a radio initiative/European project talked very specifically about its identity and the giant world of creating serious funding that is met a little in the creating of inroads into how to qualify for funding. With Dostoevsky mentioned; the getting out of politics in poetry or at least in the intake of greater cultures, was dreamed of with the belief that poetry is of the Alchemy of the spirit and a gorgeous wish to move far away from being anything narrow minded. All coming with the initial supra courageous step of leaving your home country, finding its way to Stanza.

Concrete Poetry & Insta Poetry

My introduction to this came in a ‘Meet the artist’ event concerning the concept of concrete poetry and Insta poetry; The Insta was explored in Chris McCabe’s ‘For every day’ a poetry book with two poets in what is called a poem atlas, an idea of high mountains and frequent views both bad and good (to put it in simple terms). Bringing with it uncomfortableness and an openness which through the poetry went into the performances and readings.

Insta poetry is helping herald the quiet yet substantial revolution of poetry to the new and younger audiences. With its new forms of poetry, such as photo poetry. All made around the two fresh prospects of Concrete and Insta poetry. Giving the poets a chance to convey personal interests in the nature of concrete poetry measuring its effect upon itself with the natural components of words.

Political poetry then would have helped in the creating of a platform for forming options for the artist to reach their own outreaching platforms. They talked about the marvel that is online eventing calling it a dynamic in the world of Instagram critique. Astra Papachristodoulon asking us to travel beyond the book. Thinking instead about using her own brought objects to the table, a very wavy broadband of a subject. She also gave the example of using sculpture to make sense of her feelings, in particularly mixing sculpture with poetry. So, the highest abstracts were made possible in her very own art form.

The poet called Jinhao Xie spelled out more of how Instagram has brought a closeness to the audience and an interest in the poems themselves. But the aim was to use concise language and influence the critical gender performance, that leaves us with a chance of using simple graphics, with the all-important thing: humanity of others. His concrete poem where doors being closed, set to hatch his poem.

Found in Translation

From Found in translation (as to the popular lost in…) came a call to translators to show their form, their all-important co-working partner; interpretation. Tania Hershman, a poet and translator and Peter McKay communed online with Nicola Gevsky, who translates and interprets, and is into the fascinating, enthralling and necessity ways of the paving for us no less than as a world-wide phenomenon, which sounds like quite a thing, doesn’t it?

Nikola herself read from her poem written to be spoken of; an amazing people who nearly translate the world yet so humanly seek to make translating poetry into something directly close to fun. Saying that the instruments for writing do very well to entertain the senses of the human body all the way up to the mind as a meditation. We listened to the sound of rhymes as gold dust falling from the voices.

It seems that where there is an adopting of cultural context, there is room for expansion as in this case hailing from smaller countries. Translation takes place from the blood, sweat and tears of theirs and our revered poets who speak well in public. Though this is a thing that tends to differ per society (environment) and in their linguistics’ of the personal and the very public.

Backgrounds made the curtains of the theatre fall but it was always in pursuit of something fresh, lost and found is a good place to start. In the discussion on background of poems, there were translating challenges presented; to be handled by an enhancement in the learning about culture which is the passport to many things in the flight of this poetic world. It headed home to St Andrews with the translating from Gaelic of Peter’s piece, and Mitko Gogor’s into English. Putting the sharing of poetry at the forefront that merged for us into being very relaxed and finely in tune.

And in this relaxed manner George Colkitto (another wonderful name) who can understand full Welsh; again, portrayed another act of listening to the Welsh. He read these sounds like hymns of the human voice. Translating as a known and unknown quality where words and worlds still fall away. The ‘meet the artist’ events were always informative and super pleasant. And with the introduction of Peter MacKay who is among many other things a broad caster, lecturer, very much interested in translation of art and poetry into film. A question and answer, about the film poem just seen, was discussed with Ciara Ni E, a Berlin student with a deep and intense response to events.

Q & A on Found in Translation

Paul Maguire mentioned the occasion of choosing to speak in his own tongue, in the discussion and Pauls Scots, who speaks Gaelic Irish – wanted and does create the space for the handy opportunity to see the world through different lenses. And in the relationships between nations, whose translation into English has brought an external archive that was described as an ‘interesting process’ and with that the introduction of film, called a different animal ‘Urban fox’ an Irish sharing of cultures, stories, and a celebration of the ancient street scenes of Edinburgh ‘…fox eyes then her human eyes.’,

In translating from Welsh, words that didn’t fit into the interlocking of the process stood out, as the Welsh stands out as a language. Q. How much were you working from sound? Was a question that expounded the mediums and enhanced the subjectivity of the matter concerned.

Another Q. was. Is there too much emphasis of nationality in Ireland, Scotland and Wales? Which I felt was an electric question because it seems we would all like to know that one, a dynamic question for more wide spread thinking. Poetry has the ambition of representing entire cultures and in that world, they say that Irish and Scottish can very well be vice-versa in their substances. But there are feelings that Welsh is left to the side lines, mimicking perhaps a wider ignorance towards an anti-thesis that not all languages share the same usefulness as the mostly dominant Anglo English. In Wales there is a sense of a great lack of interest in the fineries of romantic culture as set aside by Rome

In the gaps in language, it is found that identity disappears. In for example closeness to masculinity undergoes misunderstandings, but in the spirit of determinism of subject there are important links succeeding between communities, snow balling since the big efforts for change affected in the 1970’s.

Online Organisation

Reaching remote communities is an exciting happening due to the internet’s reach, seeming to come to all of us here. It has among many other things created a different conversation online. The history side of things throw up great questions that probed into changes of attitude among nations. Where there is at the moment a longer process involved in Anglo Saxon world, because translation requires a wider questioning of translating older wisdom!

Maria Stepanova & Aileen Ballantyne, Two Poets

Maria Stepanova

‘Poets at home’ where we met Maria Stepanova & Aileen Ballantyne event was of the downs of which the poet and translator Sasha Dugdsale incurred. In the voice of the downs, adapted by the nature of the countryside she is so very close to. For her it was everything, and her radiance grew with every piece of her dramatic and informational poems. Information that included methods for well mental being. But her soft voice spread out to the water or fields in front of her, almost with freedom at hand. ‘The downs – ‘wide open…’, a huge affinity…,’ laying her shadow into the picture as her ‘eternal feminine’.

‘The last model’ – Francise Boutle (2020) – Latgalien poetry to showcase appeared last year, who having formed broad international contributions in a minority language had Jade Will, a compiler and translator, own work ‘The last Model’ – 2018, Published (Boubly publications) – In the translated from Latvian into English the poem her ‘…age of Christ…,’ The last days of the Soviet Union, belches of Soviet era. The power of poetry, the power of Russian poetry, is a power and blood shed of war.

Taking in Topics

The power of translating from Russian into English results in desperate and yet very strong words, coming from a shift in history, that is to be taken very personally. So, reading two, three, four poems fresh from the press started coming from the same place in literature but differing greatly in environment.

The subject of describing woman and defining woman, often led to some horrible histories both personal and societal (societal should be easier to change for the better). Offering first-hand accounts, of the sheer pain of war and destruction that happened in the native or visited countries and regions who all share the same map. Woman have never been dismaying into backing down the extremely withered sensation in a battle of the sexes.
Nature takes its place in the heart of the Stanza’s proceedings, and by the looks of it a learned poet can be as clear as a country river with its objects and musings all in the power of poetry that bends like nature to your will wherever it may suit you.

Where in any line there was loveliness and hope at any other time the words and ideals disrupted our gentle walk and took hold of us to the very collar. Also, though not so much imagined sorrow but very real and now, holding poetry to their hearts or casting them very far afield. Always returning to the magic that poetry seems to have a place for all of us.

The Foreign Language & Finance

Estonian poetry had a good presence, with the positive news that some things are as good as on the right track. To the esteemed concrete idea of being a poet who earns a living. From the Latvian situation comes a revealing of wide spread publishing. And it looks as though it differs because of a problem of language acting as a stopper, that this process is proving hard to understand. But the line out of it would be in making the poetic market a non-government organization, and the organization of friends to establish publishing, leaving off for a need of more future progress.

Another New Poet

The Stanza 2021 Poetry Centre Stage events had varied poets who have been internationally sought after was Russell’s readings that had his close adherence to poetry through science fiction, to throw open the field and the day. His images with poetry crossed genres and moved into a new way of sending a message through poetry. His writings and compilations all worked in pushing things to an extreme.

Stanza: Masterclass

The ‘My Favourite Poets’ time was spent in producing a masterclass. Where from dark words, the hero poet knee deep in failure, bitterness and then joy, was like a scene from some unmentionable tragedy reported through praiseworthy poetic Stance. As a woman wrapped in insignificance. Reminding us of the wide and well spread coverage for exemplary poetry and factual utterings.

Helen Boden, Suzanna V Evens and Jaqueline Saphra

Suzanne V Evans

As we were joined by Helen Boden, we took a virtual walk along Fife coastal path. For which she amounted her poems and photographs from Yorkshire. With extensive collaborations, responsive poems and creative non-fiction under her poetic belt. She was so soft and full of great endearment, passion and accomplishment. Photography or film merges very well with poetry and creates a view of sight and sound. She celebrated her land marks of sheer familiarity for her that included the poems celebration of a light house that see the high winds and seas.

Jaqueline Saphra

When Jaqueline Saphra joined Suzanna V Evens the experience heightened for me with the language she used in the forms of Form & evolution, in Suzanna’s terms it is something like or exactly like a palace of words. Or rather her term of the palace of poetry.

Her injection of this metaphoric place; the palace of poetry led us to understand her loud cry for this palace, as somewhere we could reach for or entre at will. She spoke of her wish to be inspired into claiming and taking over this palace which to me had a feeling of the epic poetry of old. To realise the struggle of the work of word. Leaving us with the epic quest of what it might be to create a formless poem?

Post the Palace of Poetry

Read aloud out from a Fatal interview of St Vincent Mallet who spoke; ‘in the winter stands the lonely tree…’ sparked a rich discussions with Eavan Doland’s whose point of view was both agreed with and disagreed with. About the art and against the silence. Of a combustion engine that belongs to everyone, she takes note of a Yeats poem called ‘leader of the swan’, which is a horrific poem about the indifference of men to the scene of rape! I feel sorry to mention that here but maybe my feelings should waver here. She took us through how poetry has been shaped in our earliest stanza of the more pure and innocent prayer and lullaby, which was remarkably built to be remembered(imagine that).

So, onto Stevie Smith whose black and white film was directed by his stringent found truths that are in sense and music, and how again they can be used as a back-up for poems, his subversive style revolutionised the sonnet (no small thing). And for Eavan Boland, Marlyn Nielson, Gwyndelin Brooks the embracing the sonnet is most powerful potential for poetry of its two-line sentencing and short hand but lyrical object.

Spurring back to Eavan Dolands in the sense of the staying of woman in the broad sense as love objects. With a longing for breaking down from her fiery motif of moving the wall of the palace, as if holding a sword to the air. And with a sad push comes the recognition that poetry ignores people, or at least that may be how it appears at large. Which was a frequent comment fit for discussion and holding to the poetic torch.

Entering a zoom discussion was always bubbly and filled with the joys, Though no less discursive. We talked about the limits created by the currant and older problems of isolation of the senses. Coupled with the opposite track of internet wide coverage for the poetic world to emerge into. There is a lot to be recognisable in for example the music and metre where ability to conduct poetry is to try everything right up and down the harbours of the mind.

A Suggested Unison & Inclusivity

In all the work of the poet’s poems there seemed to run an undercurrent of a spoken unison. And at this year’s online festival, it was very successful that is to say very absolute in the faces of many frustrations that are holding unhelpfully back the literature movements. Some of its drive was of poetry that is not being held with quite the esteem and potential as it could be in the arts that convey it.

The inclusivity of the festival was paramount to the weeklong presentation. And when in the inspire sessions, we were given some gifts of direct techniques and of tackling the prospect of making works yourself. Showing something for everyone from well-established poets who so magnanimously shared. Making the poetry mostly into a taking off leading us far in and out of ourselves just by the act of listening!

No poem had less than 2 lines of topic of subject; creating a wonderful addiction to the gentle reassurances that were often to exorcize a turn of listening to a person talking in a language I’m sorry to say I didn’t know. In the Q & A and in the discussions, post reading offered the time for these considered people to reveal their trade.

Centre Stage

On a Poetry Centre Stage event Mona Kareem, a featured writer met with Michael Grieve a Fife poet and teacher and who has been involved in Stanza before, offered a little correspondence through some poetry. In an endearing poem by Michael, his lines were about time and thinking and contemplating to look beyond his own words and performed as a living dedication to some sweet ideas for living in the planet.

The bitter hero set to last only for a small time, or to be disregarded anyway had the writing seeking for a purity of living that won’t be found in anything less than an honest one. Weaving around the straight English poetry was the translating effect from English to Another or another to English. The Gaelic language held a fore front as well as Russian.

The writing covered seemingly every aspect of life. Using far-fetched facts about frilly concepts that were splayed by the continuous almost threat of darker things to come or those that have already happened. To put Kareem back into the centre stage event found that his ever-growing process had fired off with the increased use of as many forms of poetry as he found was possible, putting his work right out there to be studied for years to come.

The poets, the staff, the volunteers shared a feeling of great togetherness when going through all kinds of poetic certainties and more importantly uncertainty.
Kareem’s poetry makes things easier, subscribing for that, poetry can save the world, hit us with her ‘Femme ghost’ project. Through which she in no uncertain terms reclaimed her right to be more than the degradation that man always makes of her. Writing lines that really do change the world by bringing them into focus.

Beginning the Conclusion

Not a point was missed in each event that was so discursive to an onlooker like me. So many things were mentioned and so many discussions witnessed the glee of what it takes to be colleagues in the field. With striking questions and well covered subjects.

Winsome Monica Minott, a poet and chartered artist, was a Jamaican born young and emerging poet. An award winning, freshly published seeker for human rights for her country of origin. Had with Zion Roses created an historical journey in the voice of the Caribbean. There was more seriousness and passion in them as to make it from the heart of their culture and sad history of perpetrated violence upon centuries.

Giving many stories of how these artists became interested in poetry in the first place and a lot of them found that it gave them an inner voice. Something that grew and grew in personal strength and also in the world of awards, publications and collaboration inherent in that world, using a fundamental tradition.

A Big Thank You

Poetry can lend its hand in navigating history into its specifics. And during which time it creates hybrid languages, in the shaping of it. It has over the years encountered singular great and sudden changes led by individual people concerned with the history of the voice. But the signs go up again reminding us of the potential for hampered growth, disconnection, and of things that seem like they should not be. There needs to be a departure from standard English into fresh language as the poetic voice itself would instruct us to go.

Kate Tough, Lisa Kelly, and Greg Thomas were grouped together in an interesting discussion about the fast subject of ‘Making it new’, where there was a sense of optimism. And there was more of challenging the norm, looking into an extended field of choice that can grab the world from the few to the many. As is with creative writing metaphors came thick and fast. Having experiments to confirm or deny any given thought or feeling. With the concrete poetry either distantly or confrontingly standing as an outstanding new field.

Daniel Donnelly

The Declaration of Arbroath

Posted on Updated on

Seven Hundred years ago this week, the Scottish nobility put their names & seals to a document which defined the independence of Scotland. In this extract from THE SCOTIAD, the Mumble presents a poetical dramatisation of the events around the signing of the Treaty of Arbroath.


1 The Declaration of Abroath

All wars end in diplomacy,
Battle has set the Scottis free,
But far away the contree’s hope
Lies with the bias of the Pope,
If Robert was refused his reign
Would all their suffrance be in vain?
If Christ’s first soul denies the king
Many more knights could Ingland bring
Drawn from all over Christendom,
From Bannockburn to Kingdom Come,
So Bruce summon’d nobility
To come & pay due fealty
At the cathedral of Arbroath –
From both sides of the frothing Forth
They came in splendid finery
& plentiful festivity,
Where on the beach did De Linton,
Muse magic in the morning sun
Native spirit helping him scrieve
& web of noble words to weave
This brightly shining document,
A manuscript that would be sent
To Avignon, where pious bides
The Pope & all His spirit-guides,
As one-by-one the magnates came
Each swore to add their seal & name
To Scottis spirit carved in word,
As gather’d round their King they heard
The settl’d will of Scottis soul
The Bruce’s words filling the hall
Chaunting in sweeping cadences
Through these sonorous sentences!


2 The Scottish Nobility

“Most Holy Father, friend of Christ,
Lord John, vicar of paradise,
Man of the providence divine,
Supreme Pontiff of Jesus’ wine,
Laird of the holy church of Rome,
Receive us from oor Scottish home,
Your sons so humble in their life;
Noble Duncan, the Earl of Fife,
Thomas Randolph, Roger Mowbray,
David Graham & Gilbert Hay,
The Earls of Ross, March & Moray,
Lennox, Strathearn & Sutherland,
Sir Walter, Steward of Scotland,
Campbell, Fergus of Ardrossan,
Mowat, Murray, Maxwell, Straiton,
Cheyne, Ramsay, Leslie, Cameron,
Wemyss, Mushet, Graham, Fenton,
Magnus of Caithness & Orkney
& others of good baronrie,
The Lords of Brechin & Douglas
& through Scotland divers others
Offer filial reverence,
Kisses devout & Peter’s pence.


3 The Scottish Primacy

Thou most Holy Father & Lord,
As ancyent chronicles abroad
Tell that the Scottis & their crown
Graced with a widespread, world renown,
From Greater Scythia they hail’d,
Through pillars Herculean sail’d
To dwell an age in dusky Spain
Where savage tribes desired them pain,
But nowhere could they be subdued
By races barbarous & crude,
& thence they came, twelve hundred years
Since Moses dried old Israel’s tears,
Finding a special place to stay,
Westerly, where they live today,
The Britons, there, they first drove out
& then the Picts utterly rout,
Though often was assailed the reign
By Norwegian, Saxon & Dane,
They took possession of that home,
Valorous as a second Rome
&, as historians of old
Bare witness, they have kept good hold
Upon these lands where minstrel sings
Of one hundred & thirteen kings
Of oor ain royal stock divine,
Pure in blood, an unbroken line.



4 Saint Andrew

This people’s highest qualities
Have gain’d glories enough from this:
But in the kirk the eunoch sings
Of Jesus Christ, oor king of kings,
Following his perfect Passion
& the day of Resurrection,
Did call them to his holy thought,
Even though settled so remote
Into the Earth’s uttermost parts,
Nigh first, with faith filling their hearts,
Nor would He have confirmed the Scots
With anyone chosen by lots,
But the first of His Apostles
Whose e’erlasting relique fossils
Were brought for all good Scots to view,
Him, the most gentle Saint Andrew,
Him, the blessed Peter’s brother,
Desires to be our protector
& sacred patron forever –
Since then oor Most Holy Fathers,
Your wide, revered predecessors,
Gave careful heed to all these things
& on the country & her kings
Bestowed many gracious favours
& numerous privileges,
As we, being the special care
Of blessed Peter’s brother fair,
Have lived & thrived so peacefully,
Rejoicing in oor liberty.


5 The Wars of Independance

Scotland saw days of darkling crime
In Ingland’s first King Edward’s time,
Father of him that rules today,
Who to low lots oor land would lay,
Seeing oor kingdom had no head,
& our people unprotected
He treat us as an enemy
Drew deeds of violent cruelty
Wholesale slaughter, pillage, arson,
Both robb’d & murder’d monk & nun,
Comitting many outrages
To all sexes, ranks & ages,
That could cover countless pages,
Such horrors no-one could surmise
Unless were seen by their own eyes!
But from this endless treachery
Our peoples have gain’d liberty
By help of Him, who though afflicts,
Heals & restores, & those edicts
Sent by our tireless King & Lord,
Robert the Bruce, whose fiery sword,
Fearless in wars that others wage,
Preserv’d his people’s heritage,
Deliver’d from opponent hands,
& ‘gainst the tides of peril stands
Like another Macabaeus
Or Joshua, victorious
He bore those hardships cheerfully,
For greater good of his contree,
With divine providence, his right
Of succession in heaven’s sight!


6 The Scottish Defiance

According to those ancyent laws
We shall maintain, them whom oppose
Oor customs, fight unto the death,
All of Scotland join’d in one breath,
That duly with oor consenting
Has made the Bruce oor prince & king,
Whereby whose merits & the law
Holding oor freedom to the fore,
We are bound to the Bruce today
& by him stand, proud come what may!
Yet, thoogh he is oor greatest son,
If he gives up what he begun,
Trifles with oor hard-won freedom
& to make us or oor kingdom
Subject to the King of Ingland,
For this we Scots would never stand
& would at once put him to flight
As the subverter of oor right
& make some other man the king,
Able the land’s defence to bring,
For as long as but a hundred
Of us remain alive & good,
From this moment & forever,
We shall never, thrice times never,
Be brought before the Inglis rule,
‘Tis not for glory, gleaming jewel,
Nor honours that we are fighting,
But freedom, tis a noble thing,
Which no man born with honesty
Would give up, unless dead were he!

Read More of the Scotiad


7 The Papal Plea

Thus we to thee, Father & Lord,
Beseech thy Holinesses word,
Hearts open, praying earnestly,
Hope you will in sincerity
& goodness consider all this,
Look at those troubles brought on us
By Inglis hosts vainglorious
May it please you to admonish
& exhort Kings of the Inglis,
Who ought them to be satisfied
With what once seven did divide
& leave us Scots to our own soil,
Who covet nothing but the toil
Of oor poor, little dwelling place,
Father, this truly concerns you,
Since you have been sanction’d to view
The savagery of the heathens
Raging against the Christians,
Whose princes false reasons pretend,
They cannot to the crusades send
Their Knights because of local wars,
For all this read one real cause,
For making war on neighbours small
Makes fast profit & few knights fall,
As Him, whom nothing does not know,
Knows how cheerfully would we go
To war against the infidel,
In your thoughts let this reason dwell,
Our lives we shall profess to thee,
Vicar of Christianity!



8 Bruce Completes the Reading

But, if regards your Holiness
With faith the false English impress
& will not grant belief sincere
To what we have written down here,
Then the slaughter that must befall,
With the perdition of the soul
& all the woe inflicted then,
By them on us & us on them,
Will surely be laid upon you
By Him Most High that all must view
Concluding, we shall ever be,
As far as the call of duty
Binds us to your will, full ready
As sons obedient to you
His Vicar, & forever true
To Him our Supreme judge & King,
To cast our cares in thee, trusting
He will inspire us with courage,
Annul the wars our foemen wage,
May the Most High with sacred gaze,
Preserve your health, grant length of days!”
Silence descended for a while,
De Linton gave approving smile
& all the nobles gather’d there
Toss’d herbs & flowers to the air
& all who heard the words agree
They’d never known sic majesty,
Feeling their rightful liberties
Would thunder down the centuries,
Seeming that Scotland & the age
Are cast forever on the page!


9 The Declaration Taken to France

The Treaty of Arboath is born
& on the breast of Scotland worn
As noble men with teary zeal
Inscribe the parchment with their seal,
The bells of Abroath peeel & peel!
With the declaration muster’d,
On two knights the scroll entrusted,
De Gordon & De Maubuisson,
Who by the morning star were gone,
Meandering to Avignon,
Sails bellied out beneath the breeze,
Stretch’d far & roundabout the seas,
Where bottlenose & flipper rise
Above the waves… the crows nest cries,
“Inglis pirates are bearing down!”
The captain’s face grew affy frown,
“Do not fret!” said De Maubuisson,
“We shall win yet!” adds De Gordon,
As pirates pulled aside to board
Both knights unsheath’d a gleaming sword
& leapt upon the pirate’s deck
Severing bodies from the neck
& less than half-a-minute pass’d
Before they had broken the mast
& slain the ocean banditry,
The Scottis captain jigged in glee
& boated them round Brittany,
Surfing the vast Atlantic flow
To dock the vessel at Bordeaux,
& bid the knights his heart-felt hope
They would be welcom’d by the Pope.


10 Avignon

Two Knights kelper’d through sundry lands
To where the Rhone spreads silver sands
Where the Rocher les Doms commands
An oval bowl of gardens green
Stuffed full of priestliness serene
That gilded cage beneath the sun
The holy see of Avignon!
Here many days those knights did wait,
The mistral fierce, the evening late,
When they were granted audience,
The room was candle lit intense,
As bishop reads De Linton’s words,
Fluttering as a flock of birds,
Their flight ends & a silence falls,
Soft breeze flutters along the walls
Raising the rows of canvas art,
The Pope took bishoprie apart
& there they talk’d a little while,
The knights stood nervous in the aisle
Til bishop greets them with a smile,
“De Gordon & De Maubisson,
Ye brave young knights of Caledon,
Him that resides at Avignon
Has been heart-struck by your warm plea,
Wishes freedom for your contree,
& now shall treat you as his friend
By morning prayers he shall send
A transcript to your sacred king,
Which ye two knights shall to him bring!”


11 Two Letters

Two parchments have departed France,
Both texts desiring to advance,
The peaceful isles of Albion –
The first is carried to London,
Words that the second Edward reads
Describing warfare’s gory deeds,
& strongly urging them to cease
So Scots can carry on in peace –
Of this Edward did nobly learn
First witness of the papal turn,
Remembering brave Bannockburn,
He sent a letter to Scotland
Offering them filial hand!
So one by sea & one by land
Two letters came to Edinburgh!
Arriving almost together,
One from King Edward in London
One from the Pope in Avignon
Which with a knife of silver sheen
Was opened by the Scottis Queen,
“Has word come on from Avignon
On oor ex-communication?”
“My husband, Dio gloria,
Absolvitur ab instantia!”
The second text confirms the truce,
Sent by King Edward to the Bruce,
Recognizing the Scotis right,
Resolved for ever in her fight,
To never let battle renew,
So both lands can the future view
In perfect calm as neighbours do.


12 Freedom

The Scots free from tyrant control,
Free as the waves of ocean roll,
Free as the thoughts of minstrel soul
But freedom bought at such a price,
Many had made good sacrifice,
But bonnie Scotland has stood firm
Against the frightful Lambeth worm!
Her voices rising proud & free
For love of land & liberty,
Frae granite city, Aberdeen,
To Aberfeldy sat serene
Frae Inchcolm, Findochty, Durness
To Comrie, Sanquhar & Stenness,
Frae Fintry, Keith & Cunnighame
To woolly-wooded Whittinghame
Frae bothys between Lairg & Tongue
To all the islands set among
The Hebrides both near & far,
Frae Dalkeith, Dunfermline, Dunbar
To Currie, Carnoustie, Cupar,
Frae Granton, Gorbals & Maybole
To Papay near the Arctic Pole
The Glaswegian, the Galwegian,
Frae Gilmerton in Lothian,
To Motherwell & marshy Merse,
& all the luchts that intersperse
The golden spellcraft of a glen,
Where nature dwells with happy men!


13 Saint Andrew’s Cross

Fly mightily noble Saltire
Frae Taransay & Luskentyre
To the crofts of treeless Lewis
& the soft hill slopes of Harris,
Frae Ayr, which no town can surpass
For honest lad & bonny lass,
To Invergarry, Inverness,
Portlethen, Prestwick, Quanterness,
& Edina, Scotia’s empress,
Frae Newcastleton in the south
To Ullapool at Loch Broon’s mouth,
Where fishermen e’er praise this day
Frae Kenmore, all along the Tay,
Thro’ Crieff to Perth & then Dundee
& further, perch’d upon the sea,
Airy Arbroath & its abbey,
Where pious Bernard de Linton
Reads out the text from Avignon,
Ending the pages with a smile,
As wide as Thurso to Argyle
& summons a young trumpeteer
To sound the glory of this year,
Soft airels on the ocean breeze
Ascend the skies in sweet degrees,
Sailing to nations overseas,
Now all shall know who know the world
Saint Andrews cross fore’er unfurl’d!


The Madness of Merlin

Posted on Updated on


Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad

In recent years, in other places, I have demonstrated that King Arthur really did once exist, when from the obscure seed that was his life sprung up the legion of legends that constitute the Arthurian myth. If our great king existed, then, is it not also possible that the other members of his pantheon are also real? This leads us to Merlin, the spell-singing court sorcerer of Camelot, whose vitality supported by a wide array of sources. The Welsh chronicle known as the Annales Cambraie tells us.

573 AD: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffert and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.

A medieval Welsh triad sums up the battle perfectly;

The three frivolous causes of battle in the Isle of Britain.
…The second was the action of Arderydd, caused by a bird’s nest, in which 80,000 Cambrians were slain…

The battle of Arfderydd & Merlin are tied together in a number of old Welsh poems. They tell the story of a great civil war among the native Britons,  climaxing at the battle of Arferydd. After the battle Merlin lost his mind then ran off to be a hermit in the Caledonian Wood. A sterling effort in finding the battle site was made by the great nineteenth century Scottish antiquarian, William Forbes Skene. His ‘Notice of the site of the Battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth‘ in the PSAS of 1864-65 shows this often brilliant scholar at his very best.


Where, then, was this battle fought? We ought, in the first place, to look for it in one of the great passes into the country; & a curious passage in Fordun gave me a clue to the probable situation. In his notice of Saint Kentigern, he describes, evidently from some older authority, his meeting in the desert a wild man, who informs him that his name was Merlin, & that he had lost his reason, & roamed in these solitudes because he had been the cause of the slaughter of so many men : ‘qui interfecti sunt in bello, cunctis in hac patria constitutis satis moto, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carwanalow situato.  The last part of the Latin means, ‘fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok.’ Liddel, as is well known, is the name of the river which flows westward through Liddesdale, & joins the Esk about nine miles north of Carlisle. Near the junction is the border between England & Scotland, & from thence the flat & mossy district, called the Debateable Lands, bounded on the east by the Esk, extends to the Solway Firth

This nugget of information was the catalyst for Skene, who now begins to hone in on the battlefield, near Longtown in Cumbria, where a small settlement called Athuret immediately raised his heckles. Taking the train down from Edinburgh, Skene found a place to stay in Longtown, whose landlady was quite shocked to see anybody staying in the area at all. Skene continued;

About half a mile from Longtown is the church & rectory of Arthuret, situated on a raised platform on the west side of the River Esk, which flows past them on a lower level; & south of the church & parsonage there rise from this platform two small hills covered with woods, called the Arthuret Knowes. The top of the highest, which overhangs the river, is fortified by a small earthen rampart, enclosing a space nearly square, & measuring about 16 yards square. On returning to Longtown, I asked the old guard whether he knew of any place called Carwandlow. He said that Carwinelaw was the name of a stream which flowed into the Esk from the west about three miles north of Longtown, & also of a mill situated on it, & that beyond it was a place called the Roman Camp.

At this point Skene visited the ‘camp,’ which is today known as the Moat of Liddle. He thought it a magnificent native strength, & was taken aback by its splendid views, including the knowes at Athuret in the distance. He went on;

Between the fort & Carwhinelaw is a field extending to the ridge along Carwhinelaw, which is about half a mile off… The old farmer of the Upper Moat, who accompanied us, informed me that the tradition of the country was that a great battle was fought here between the Romans; & the Picts held the camp, in which the Romans were victorious; that the camp was defended by 300 men, who surrendered it, & were all put to the sword & buried in the orchard of the Upper Moat, at a place he showed me. This part of the tradition is curious, as the Triads mention the Gosgord of Drywon-ap-Nudd at Arderyth which consisted of 300 men.

The name of Erydon, which Merlin attaches to it as a name for the battle, probably remains in Ridding at the foot of the fort, & I have no doubt at all that the name Carwhinelaw is a corruption of Caerwenddolowe, the caer or city of Gwenddolowe, & thus the topography supports the tradition.

This is all breathless work, & leaves us moderns with a few scanty crumbs to discover. The only object of interest I could scrape up myself concerned another fortification, a mile or so to the North of the Moat of Liddel, where; ‘there is a slight eminence called Battle Knowe by Prioryhill farm near Canonbie. It feels like a burial mound & tradition says that a battle was fought here & human bones have frequently been dug up but no authentic information can be obtained to confirm the supposition. (Ordnance Survey Name Book 1858)


Having discovered battlefield where Merlin went mad, let us now practice the very modern art of Psychoanalysis on his mind. By studying the old poems & stories surrounding Merlin, it is clear he had paranoid schizophrenia, the modern terminology of a condition as old as humanity itself. Joan of Arc heard voices & in the first Book of Samuel, Saul shows all the classic symptoms of a lunatic. The following are extracts from a report by the World Health Organisation in 1992.

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common type of schizophrenia in most parts of the world. The clinical picture is dominated by relatively stable, often paranoid, delusions, usually accompanied by hallucinations, particularly of the auditory variety, and perceptual disturbances. Examples of the most common paranoid symptoms are:
Delusions of persecution, reference, exalted birth, special mission, bodily change, or jealousy; Hallucinatory voices that threaten the patient or give commands, or auditory hallucinations without verbal form, such as whistling, humming, or laughing;
Hallucinations of smell or taste, or of sexual or other bodily sensations; visual hallucinations may occur but are rarely predominant. Thought disorder may be obvious in acute states, but if so it does not prevent the typical delusions or hallucinations from being described clearly. Affect is usually less blunted than in other varieties of schizophrenia, but a minor degree of incongruity is common, as are mood disturbances such as irritability, sudden anger, fearfulness, and suspicion.

Merlin appears the medieval tale Lailoken and Kentigern, which states: “…some say {Lailoken} was called Merlynum.” This name change leads us to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum of Nennius, which states that in the late 6th century, ‘Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.’ Nobody has ever established the further identity of Bluchbard, but the ‘Luch’ embedded in the name links it to the ‘Lok’ within Lailoken. Thus Lailoken the Bard easily becomes Luch the Bard, then Bluchbard. Perhaps, perhaps not, but there’s enough in there to believe it so.

Moving on from digressive conjecture, in the tale of Lailoken & Kentigern, Merlin is depicted as seeing visions & hearing voices, the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. On one occasion a voice from heaven says; ‘because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan & you will have communion with the creatures of the wood.‘ We probably all have experienced a moment in public when a person of obvious insanity wanders around screaming wildly & talking to themselves. Lailoken and Kentigern reports the same thing of Merlin, who used to interrupt the services of his clergy by shouting out prophecies. It also has Merlin seeing bright visions of ‘martial battalions’ lighting up the sky shaking their lances ‘most fiercely’ at him, & then dragged off into the woods by an evil spirit. In another text, the Itinerarium Kambriae of Giraldus Cambrensis, he is said to have lost his mind just before the battle of Arferydd when he saw a monster in the sky.

On Thursday 11th September 2008 The Independent ran a fascinating story about the son of Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent. His name was Henry, who told the paper; ‘do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist definitely believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people.’ Patrick added, ‘Jan and I soon became familiar with the distorted landscape of the strange world in which Henry was now living. The visions and voices, though the most dramatic part, were infrequent. He spoke vaguely of religious and mystical forces and was extremely ascetic, adopting a vegan diet and not wearing shoes or underpants.’

Henry certainly sounds like a modern day Merlin. When the mind is being bombarded by extra-sensory stimuli, there is only one true way to ‘let of the steam,’ & that was summed up nicely by Henry;  ‘my main strength was art, and it was through art that I understood my world.‘ Among the all the arts poetry is perhaps the oldest, yet its beauty is that anyone can write a poem. The writing of them is seen by modern psychology as a therapeutic tool to aid schizophrenia. In the  Journal of Poetry Therapy (June 2010), Noel Shafi writes; ‘a patient exhibited negative symptoms including social withdrawal. Under clinical observation she successfully wrote renkus describing her everyday life & seasonal feelings. After 13 months of renku therapy the therapist observed improved social functioning &decreased negative symptoms in the patient.’

This brings us neatly to the ‘therapeutic’ poetry of Merlin himself. While he was in the woods, fuelled by the typical poetic salve that is insanity, Merlin composed a number beautiful poems, of which 6 still survive. In them solid traces of schizophrenia can be found. They also show the skill of an accomplished bard, the first step on the ladder to becoming a Druid. Inbetween is the Ovates, the title given to a bard after twelve years of intense poetic training. On attaining this second rank, the bard will develop visionary powers, being able to see into the future & commune with long dead ancestors. It must have been a total nightmare experience for Merlin once he lost control of his visionary mind. He was not the bearded wise-man of Arthurian mythology, but a man in need of series help.


Throughout his poetry we can detect the possible reason behind Merlin’s madness, the catalyst that sent him over the edge. It begins with the tradition of Gwendydd being his twin sister, which is given in the aptly titled, ‘The Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwenddydd’ from the Red Book of Hergest.

Since the action at Arderydd and Erydon
Gwendydd, and all that happened to me,
Dull of understanding I am–
Where shall I go for delight?

I will speak to my twin brother Myrddin, 
wiseman and diviner, 
Since he is used to making disclosures 
When a girl goes to him.

The tone of the first stanza is sullen & reflective. We can work out why from the following stanza from the Black Book of Carmarthen;

Sweet appletree that grows in the glade!
Their vehemence will conceal it from the lords of Rydderch,
Trodden it is around its base, and men are about it.
Terrible to them were heroic forms.
Gwendydd loves me not, greets me not;
I am hated by the firmest minister of Rydderch;
I have ruined his son and his daughter.
Death takes all away, why does he not visit me?
For after Gwenddoleu no princes honour me;
I am not soothed with diversion, I am not visited by the fair;
Yet in the battle of Ardderyd golden was my torques,
Though I am now despised by her who is of the colour of swans.

So here we have Merlin talking to the trees. It also introduces Rydderch Hael into the story, the King of Strathclyde who had married Merlin’s sister. With the line, ‘I have ruined his son and his daughter,’ we have a clue as to why Merlin went mad. If Rydderch is his brother-in-law, then the children in question were his nephew & niece. In the next line he says that ‘death takes all away,’ which hints that it was Merlin himself who killed them. No wonder his sister ‘loves him not!’ The emptiness of the last few lines portray his soul in dejected reclusion. His lord Gwenddoleu is dead & his mind is full memories of when he was wearing the ‘golden torques.’  The pathos of the piece gives us an excellent insight into Merlin’s mind at the time of his madness. He is obviously suicidal, a thread which the Dialogue poem expands on;

Great affliction has fallen upon me,
And I am sick of life–

I feel heavy affliction.
Dead is Morgenau, dead is Mordav,
Dead is Moryen, I wish to die!

Could Merlin, by surrounding himself with nature & solitude, be seeking reaffirmation with a forgiving god in the woods. Not wanting to disturb him too much, I think we should leave Merlin in the soft, safe confines of his Caledonian Woods. We find him talking to a little piglet & bidding him hide from the ‘dogs of Rhydderch,’– who were out to get them both – that classic delusion persecution, where conspiracies are found at every turn.

Listen, O little pig! happy little pig,
Do not go rooting on top of the mountain.
But stay here, secluded in the wood.
Hidden from the dogs of Rhydderch the Faithful.
I will prophecy–it will be truth!

There has always been a certain sense of the insane about the poet. John Clare spent years in an asylum churning out new cantos of Don Juan. TS Elliot composed his seminal Wasteland while undergoing psychological treatment at a clinic in Switzerland, while William Blake was blatantly as mad as a hatter. Of Baudelair, Jeremy Reed, in his Madness- the Price of Poetry (1989) wrote; ‘Baudelair was a prey to neurosis, his life is the record of an individual seeking to interpret incipient madness through the refinement of an aesthetic sensibility.’ So I guess Merlin & his madness are in pretty esteemed company, & I suppose you do have to be a bit mad to be a poet in the first place!


(& links)

The first three are found in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen, with the others appearing in manuscripts from later centuries.

Yr afallennau – The Apple Trees
Yr Oianau – The Greetings
Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin – The Dialogue between Merlin & Taleisin
 Cyfoesi myrddin a gwenddydd ei chwaer – The Dialogue between Merlin & his Sister
 Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y bedd – The diffused song of Myrddin in his grave
 Peirian Faban – Commanding Youth

Border Crossings: Laura Accerboni & Kathrine Sowerby

Posted on

StAnza 7b.jpg

StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Undercroft, St John’s House, St Andrews
9th March 2019

The Undercroft is an intimate, arched, windowed cellar room belonging to the School of History at the University of St Andrews. It is almost too intimate for a mic’dpresentation, but being long and narrow it is not intimate enough to do without. Thereon hangs a problem: microphone technique is not something that everyone has, and a simple operational slip can cause something unwanted to obtrude.

So I’m sorry to start on a negative note – please bear with me. As Laura Accerboni recited her work purely in Italian, she was partnered by a man who alternated with translations into English of each poem. He sat while she recited, and vice versa; the lack of space meant that they had to shuffle round each other to get to the lectern, and whilst Laura recited from memory, her English reader referred to a script, spoke with his head down, approached the microphone too closely, and treated us to a series of plosive, overdriven consonants. Added to that, his script was organised in such a way that on several occasions he had to turn over his corner-stapled A4 sheets in the middle of a poem. Interruption of speech. Rustle, rustle. All this could have been avoided with a tiny bit more planning. He and Laura could have both stood, either side of the lectern, approaching and retreating as necessary; he could have had a better-organised, less unwieldy script. That would have added the little bit of polish that had worn off Laura’s half of the event.

Did it matter much? Well, to be honest, not when one considers the poetry. Laura’s wont is to stand immobile, arms by her side, and almost declaim her work, the listener, to whom it is xenoglossy, being made aware of the aural qualities of the Italian language. Each line of poetry seemed to take a single breath, and there was a rise-and-fall there, regardless of enjambment. As I listened, I recalled how Swiss French has this kind of rise-and-fall, and wondered if what I heard was some characteristic of the spoken Italian in the same country. As my own knowledge of Italian is very sketchy, I found myself listening as though to Baroque music – Scarlatti or Pergolesi – and reflecting how much Basil Bunting would have approved of that! The lack of movement of limb or feature in Laura’s presentation meant that every syllable was crystalline, and that aspect of her half of the event was utterly captivating.

One thing the English translations certainly did do was reveal the sometimes startling imagery behind the musicality. Otherwise who would have guessed, for instance, that “Yesterday all the tallest boys / made their enemies starve / and quickly gathered up their toys. / They showed their mothers / the order / and discipline of the dead.”

Stanza 8b.png

The matter of translation is something both poets at this event shared. Katherine Sowerby – we learned from the chairman’s introduction – had recently taken part in poetry translation projects in Pakistan and Latvia. Katherine, right at the beginning of her half, signaled her intention to read twelve poems. It was that structured. There was to be no looking across at the chairman to check how long there was to go, no fitting in a couple of short ones at the end. Twelve were scheduled and twelve is what we got. The result was that this session of ‘Border Crossings’ had a ‘short-and-sharp’ feel to it, the whole event lasting little more than half an hour. Although her delivery was not as straight-ahead as Laura Accerboni’s, although there was animation in her face and voice, there was a non-nonsense feel to the presentation. Title, poem. Title, poem. Title, poem…

House However, her most recent collection, from which she selected part of her presentation, consists of sixty-two prose poems. If, as another contemporary Scottish poet said, poetry is whatever prose wouldn’t dare say, where does that leave ‘prose poetry’? in Katherine’s case it leaves it in a place where (yes!) short-and-sharp images can be strung together, teasing us with their apparent lack of relevance to each other but, true to the concept of gestalt, making up a whole that is other than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, despite this, there is deliberate repetition (“You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want us. You want us. You want.”), often there isn’t (“The creak of a chair. Our lit-up faces,” or “Mountains cut in half. I wear a shirt from that day. You told me the cost. You asked me questions about my microwave.”). The answer is, therefore, is that prose poetry can indeed fulfill the same function as any other kind of poetry, move us out of our comfort zone in which we expect step and step, cause and effect, day and night.

All of which leaves me wanting to read Katherine’s three-novellas-in-one-cover, The Spit, the Sound and the Nest, to find out what in her poetics feeds into her fiction. Poets can make the most startling storytellers, and a story would add yet another dimension to what I was able to experience today.

Paul Thompson

Border Crossings: Nadine Aisha Jassat and Mary Jean Chan.

Posted on Updated on

StAnza - Jassat & Chan.jpg

StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Supper Room, The Town Hall, St Andrews
8thMarch 2019

I am ashamed to say that it totally passed me by that Friday was International Women’s Day until I was on the train home. There, I’ve got that confession out of the way, so there is no danger of my falling for the temptation of claiming I came to see these two poets as some kind of celebration or act of solidarity. Nope, I just had poetry on my mind. I had just come from a free lunch at the ‘Poetry Café’, and hearing Nadine Aisha Jassat start off by remarking that she had her “Fisher and Donaldson stash” offstage right made me hope that this wasn’t going to be the “pudding session” of the day. Don’t worry – it wasn’t.

StAnza - Jassat.jpg

However, wherever I go at StAnza synchronicity seems to keep step with me, and today was no exception. Nadine’s first poem was about her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, and whom she refers to as a “time traveller” because of the shifts in time and place that seem to go on in her mind, according to the narrative of her one-sided conversation. Of course I too am a time traveller as I write this review, having just written a review of an event from Saturday the 9th, in which the topic of dementia also came to the fore. Review-writing can be approached phenomenologically, let me tell you… oh… Let Me Tell Youis the title of Nadine’s debut collection, damn this synchronicity thing! As for her grandmother, Nadine says that her time travelling is by turns moving and hilarious, because you can never be quite sure what you are going to get.

I can see the “moving” part of it without any problem; to watch an elder’s memory loosen like a piece of fine, paterned cloth having threads tugged from it must be especially poignant for someone with as many threads to her heritage as Nadine has. Her voice is Yorkshire, her family story is full of other people’s journeys to where she is. Her own journey includes, expressed in a poem – “Hopscotch” – all the words that men have said to her on the street. There is only one up-side of the latter circumstance, and that is the poem itself, its anger presented so gently in a simple reading, used as a reason to create. If you want to hear it in full menace mode, then I suggest the following short film by Roxana Vilk, which is based on the poem.

Mary Jean Chan is a poet and an academic living in London, though originally from Hong Kong. I love the way she delivers her poetry, which is with composure and utter clarity. It’s not surprising to note that when she was a young adult she was a fencer, nor is it surprising to find out, in the context of border crossings, that her discipline was European – she handled an épée – rather than Chinese. Given the subtlety and directness of her poetry, the simplicity of the choice between a straight and pistol grip seems entirely in keeping…

Here I stop and stand apart for a moment. There is a challenge to ‘Border Crossings’, and it is this: how much attention do we give to the ethnicity, or the actual mix of heritages, that the poets bring with them? There are those of us, I suppose, who try to keep this uppermost in their minds, and others whose priority is to try to let the words, the actual poetry, take them. What, on that sliding scale, is appropriate? Each poet – every poet fulfilling a ‘Border Crossing’ role at StAnza – has crossed, or even ‘transgressed’, some of the fault lines that we, humanity, have opened up for ourselves. They have made a conscious journey, taken a step across a metaphorical meridian, made a choice to say this-and-that in such-and-such a way not necessarily their own, or perhaps have brought something very much their own and set it down in the context of a Scottish poetry festival. Take Mary Jean Chan, for example, whose latest collection is called ‘Flèche’. She has already crossed from Cantonese to English; now that French word, a homophone for ‘flesh’, crosses yet another border, punning as it goes. The blurb for her book puts it like this: “This cross-linguistic pun presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable and weaponised, and evokes the difficulties of reconciling one’s need for safety alongside the desire to shed one’s protective armour in order to fully embrace the world.” In French, ‘flèche’ means ‘arrow’, and it is also a method of attack in the discipline of épée.

StAnza - Chan.jpg

Over her vulnerable flesh, “my skin is yellow,” she says in one poem, and in doing so she takes on directly one of our fault lines – the biological fiction of race and skin colour, of which we have made so big a deal, so great a burden for ourselves. And then in the next she cites fencing: “As a teenager […] the closest thing I knew to desire.” It is a sudden and surprising launch of an image, direct, as I said before, to find a fighting sport, a combat between two people, made cognate with sex and with sexuality, the homosociality of the young women’s group suddenly given a tension that wasn’t there before as they change between one uniform and another.

This is brilliant stuff, and no mistake. At the end I wanted to shake both poets’ hands, I wanted to cross that border between listener and… something else. In the end I only managed a brief passing comment about Yorkshire to Nadine, but I did shake Mary Jean’s. I took hold of a hand that had both held an épée and penned poetry, and I left the Town Hall buzzing, and ready for a cup of normal tea… that sounds like normality… and which, in my case, means Earl Grey.

Paul Thompson

An Interview with Ben Norris

Posted on Updated on

Norris, Ben.jpg

A rising star in the world of words, 2019 sees Ben Norris make his debut appearance at StAnza Poetry Festival…

Hello Ben, so where are you from & where are you at at, geographically speaking?
I’m from Nottingham. I currently live in London but I’m back in Notts more and more these days, as I’ve just started working more closely with the Playhouse there, and with Nottinghamshire Libraries as their poet-in-residence, which is lovely.

When did you realise you were a poet?
I started to dabble in sixth form (in secret of course – the shame!), but it was when I got to university that I really knew I had the bug. I went to university in Birmingham, which has an incredibly vital poetry and spoken-word scene both on campus and in the city as a whole, so it was really fecund ground to develop as a writer and performer. It’s impossible to overstate what an impact that place, and those people, had on me.

You’ve won the national poetry slam TWICE. How did you pull that off & did you have to write a whole new set for the second event?
Poetry slams in this country are a bit like boxing titles, in that there can be several champions at once, because there are quite a few different events! My two national titles came from two different slams (the UK All-Stars in 2013 and the BBC Slam in 2017), and because they were 4 years apart, thankfully I had written some new poems in that time, yes!

after R.E.M.

I ran to the bay
hard and long-spined
like someone was watching
a keen blade
through the beetroot streets
of a new place
hit the rails at the end of the fishing pier
did my best Titanic
eyes shut arms wide the figurehead
at the prow of the city

remembered my granddad
the non-swimmer
his sleepwalk down
to the sea one night
in Morecambe/Swansea/

How he loosened a boat from the bayside
eased like the too-tight knot of a tie
from its moorings
rowed out into
a patient dawn his craft a finger
lightly pressed on the creaseless shirt
of the water

I imagined him coming to oddly calm
his hydrophobia a distant second to his reason
smiling the smile my mum sometimes says I have
noticing his raincoat buttoned perfectly
over his long johns and night vest
realising how little choice he had
to resurface there

I sucked back the Severn salt
drug for an inland man
tipped a wide-brimmed windswept smile downstream
gazed out towards Weston-super-Mare
ten miles to the south east
Latin America just a little beyond it
if I’d my father’s wrist for skimming stones
if I’d my mother’s hope
I thought and felt
my anchor fall

What does Ben Norris like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic? 
I was a very keen long-distance runner when I was in my teens, and over the last year or so I’ve found myself getting back into that, which has been great. It’s not just a fitness thing for me, but a mindfulness practice too. So an ideal Sunday would probably involve at least 14 miles of gallivanting through some muddy fields!


Can you tell us about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family?
It was my debut show, a one-man performance about me and my dad. I hitchhiked to everywhere he ever lived when he was growing up (he was born in Brixton and every time he moved house he moved north, and roughly in line with the M1, so that provided a convenient geographical structure!). I started in Nottingham and hitchhiked south, going backwards through his life. I wanted to learn more about his past in the hope I would get to know him better in the present. I hoped to discover some cataclysmic event that explained away our differences (me the millennial who, I thought, was good at opening up, and he the typically taciturn male baby-boomer), but I quickly realised the irony of my going on this hugely convoluted journey rather than just ringing him up and asking him about his childhood(!), so the show became a lot more about me and my own reservations, and masculinity in general, and all the hang-ups that remain. It went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 where it won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award before touring the UK and then Australia.

How did you find yourself a part of the international institution that is The Archers, & how is it all going?
I was invited to audition, I believe, on the recommendation of my radio teacher at my old drama school, and was lucky enough to be offered the job. Relatively normal process really! It’s going well; everyone there is so lovely, they’ve made me feel very welcome, and it’s a real honour to be part of such an institution.

As a writer yourself, do you get to tweak the script?
Not really, and I wouldn’t really want to either, because I know how annoying it is when other people mess with your work! Occasionally if we need to lose a bit of time on an episode we might suggest small cuts but the director leads on that. Those who know their characters better than me might feel a bit more qualified to tweak things (if they’ve been playing them for several decades!) but I’m still getting to know Ben Archer…

Which poets inspired you, both old skool & of today?
There are so many, far too numerous to list. But these people have all been hugely influential to me, some of whom are friends, some of whom are long dead. Some aren’t even really ‘poets’ by popular consensus, but I think their writing could easily be classified as such.
Bohdan Piasecki, Liz Berry, Caroline Bird, Claudia Rankine,
Richard Scott, Sean Colletti, Sharon Olds, Andrew McMillan,
Dizraeli, Loyle Carner, Joni Mitchell, Anthony Anaxagorou,
Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, Maria Ferguson,
Geoff Hattersley, Sylvia Plath … I mean, I could go on, but I shouldn’t…

When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
When you finish it and feel a sense of relief, having purged something, or captured something that you feared might elude you. If you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired you to start writing. Even if it’s shifted as you wrote it. The hypothetical poem in your head will always be better before it exists than once it’s written, but a good poem is one that is closest to the hypothetical ‘perfect’ poem that inspired the actual poem into life. If you finish it and still feel an itch that hasn’t been scratched, or if you immediately want to start hacking it up, then it probably isn’t great.

This year you have a pamphlet of poems forthcoming from Verve Poetry Press, can we see a couple?

It’s difficult for children to pinpoint the exact moment they realise that
nothing lasts forever, but rather it slides into view, like the silver wink
of the sea as the family Astra rounds the bend of a Lincolnshire hill

Of course I wasn’t to know
as Jason Leathen and I
pretended at playing snooker
on a full size table
as dad shuffled Clare and me
round the go-kart track
if only to get our money’s worth
as grey day turned to grey night
and the adults all drank
and nobody thought to lament
the fact that the mums and dads
of Netherfield Colts FC (under 15s)
couldn’t afford to go abroad
as our static caravan
terrestrial tele
chicken nugget weekend
trundled on like
a 70s fairground ride
that no one found exciting even then
as Butlins spluttered into Monday

of course I wasn’t to know
that you were setting yourself on fire
letting yourself love him
for the first time

You probably had brunch
probably held hands
linked kissed
with February lips
like a torn calendar

I wasn’t to know
that one day this would find itself
in a happy poem


Screenshot 2019-02-06 18.40.59.png

BenNorris-393-Edit.jpgWhat is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
The relationship with the audience. The fact you’re all in a room together, you’ve all agreed that that’s a nice way to spend your time. The mutual vulnerability and investment involved is genuinely beautiful. As much as I love performing on radio or to camera, nothing compares to the experience of live performance.

You are about to perform at this year’s StAnza. What are your former experiences of the Festival?
It’s my first time there!

What have you got in store for us?
Because I have a pamphlet coming out, and I had a pretty seismic 2018 personally speaking, there are a lot of new poems I’m looking to give a first read to at StAnza.

What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Writing more, both poetry and theatre. I’m looking to further develop a new show about long-distance running, inspired by my teenage obsession with it. I’d also like to go on holiday. Maybe. Probably not.



Breakfast at the Poetry Café: Off the Page / Sat 9th March
Start your weekend with poetry and pastries!
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Studio Theatre

Poetry Café: Ben Norris / Sat 9th March
Enjoy an entertaining lunch with a BBC slam champion
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Studio Theatre

The StAnza Slam / Sat 9th March
With MC Ben Norris
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Auditorium

Murder Ballads

Posted on Updated on

Woodland Creatures
Leith Walk, Edinburgh

Not only does Max Scratchmann possess the most deliciously suave of names, but he also loves to present the poetry-lovers of Edinburgh something different, something theatrical, something cool. His Halloween special, therefore, drew in poets from across Scotland to interject & connect with the continuous tartan thread that is Jennifer Ewan & her band.


The prominent theme, of course, was the frighteners, but I found the evening less fearing & more full of fun, for the performers were all of the highest level. So, half of the time we were being regaled by the band – alongside Jennifer on guitar & vocals were Kim Tebble on accordion & Simon Fildes on bass; all were clad in black & their music swarmed into the ears of the healthy & ever-appreciative, sometimes-even-dancing audience, like bison reaching a prairie water-hole. We were given a steady stream of well-chosen numbers; of Jennifer’s own creations & also covers, when numbers such as Bessie Smith’s ‘Take me to the Electric Chair‘ sounded amazing with a Scottish burr.

As for the poets, there were five of them, who did cheeky wee floor spots in between the ballads on both sides of the interval. Our host Max’s first poem defined Edinburgh as a ‘city of murder ballads‘ & we were off.  A lot of the material was freshly written for the night – Molly McLachlan admitted to composing hers in Leith Weatherspoons earlier that day; not that you could tell – it flowed with elegant mastery. She, & the other poets – the shamanic Stella Birrell, the regal & dramatic Nicoletta Wylde, our beloved Max of course, & the rapid-tongued Scott TheRedman Redmond – presented some of the highest standard & absolute quintessence of performance poetry a la 2018 – when the post-modern polemical story-chaunt is all.

I’m not dying I’m transcending… & if I transcend you’ll transcend with me
Nicoletta Wylde

With half of the audience & all the performers making an effort aesthetically, & webbing & branches hanging off the walls of the venue, a genuine Tam O Shanter like vibe was  gothically invoked. Thus setting & content were perfectly matched, upon which occasions good times are guaranteed, a tradition which Murder Ballads perpetuated with ease. A fluid, fascinating, & above all entertaining night’s entertainment.


EIBF: Carol Ann Duffy with Keith Hutson & Mark Pajak

Posted on Updated on

2018-08-14 13 CAD.jpg

Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre

Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t smile much, one never knows how to take her. So when it was announced at the beginning of the event that there would be no question-and-answer session at the end, and that the poets who were taking to the stage had asked us not to tweet during the performance, there was that kind of hush you get when everyone wonders whether this was going to be a po-faced afternoon. As it turned out, there was no need to worry at all, because it was a sheer delight from beginning to end, so much so that the hour went by in what seemed to be the proverbial twinkling of an eye.

Carol Ann has an ongoing policy of seeking out relatively unknown, emerging poets and championing them. The presentation today included two of her latest protégés, Mark Pajak and Keith Hutson. Neither of them had ever appeared in a Book Festival event before – Mark said he had been here as a punter – and when I asked them afterwards how it felt now it was all over, they both testified to the adrenalin still working. You wouldn’t have known that they were anything other than totally relaxed from how they came across in front of the audience; this isn’t really all that surprising, as they had both given readings before, that much is obvious.

Mark Pajak is a Liverpudlian. He has a careful, lilting delivery which – he won’t thank me for this – reminds me a lot of Roger McGough. I know, such comparisons are inevitable whenever a poet from Liverpool appears. In Mark’s case there is something about the timbre of his voice and in the questioning inflection at the end of lines that evokes this. It is a style of delivery that captures and holds the attention, however, and it makes an audience hang on his every word. There is a lot of humour in his work, and a lot of tenderness. His account, a love poem if you will, of a stupid prank that he and the best friend of his childhood and youth carried out, and how it led on to the rest of their lives was… all right, I’ll say it… one of the most wonderful expressions of friendship since Edward Elgar wrote ‘Nimrod’. Over the top – moi? I’m being honest here, it was a Scouse David-and-Jonathan thing.

2018-08-14 14 Hutson & Pajak.jpg

Keith Hutson was either born in Lancashire and lives in Yorkshire, or vice-versa. Anyhow, the Roses cricket matches must be hell for him! In contrast to Mark, Keith delivers his poetry and the intervening patter with a broad if imperfect grin. One tooth is missing. “You should see the other poet. All I said was don’t give up the day job!” His speciality is the celebration of bygone stars and meteors of the music hall and variety. His subjects ranged from an impresario who, after a walk-out by his whole cast, performed solo on stage every character in the story of Dick Turpin, to bandleader Ivy Benson and the resentment directed her as an outstanding female in a male world, to railway-obsessed, RADA-trained (hah!) Reginald Gardiner. I think Keith was tickled when, afterwards, I said “Reginald Gardiner – that’s the ‘biddly-dee, biddly-dah’ man, right?” Readers, that’ll only mean something to my generation, people who remember ‘Uncle Mac’ on the radio on Saturday mornings!

Carol Ann bracketed the event. She flagged up the humour of the event by opening with her short poem about encountering a gorilla at Berlin Zoo; they stare each other out, the gorilla’s gaze barely concealing rage – “with a day’s more evolution, it could even be President.” Okay, well-judged there, she took a chance that a certain politician currently prominent on the world stage is not popular in his ancestral country and it paid off. Her finishing poem was a sestina. Carol Ann can do this, she can bend old poetic forms to her will. This sestina depended on the repetition of six words (of course): arseholes, gatekeepers, chancers, tossers, bullshitters, and patriots. In passing, I wonder if, when she first wrote that poem, she speculated beforehand which of those six words spellcheck was going to reject, and whether she experimented just to see whether her computer would accept the American spelling of ‘arsehole’. Anyway, that’s hardly relevant, because her sestina wove those words and several homophones round themselves like the patterning on a Fair Isle jumper. I confess that I have never been her greatest fan, but reviewing a reading by her and, as is necessary in a good review, leaving my prejudices outside, I can say that I now see precisely why she was awarded the Laureate. Applause.

Overall, this was a splendid event to start of my personal tour of duty at Charlotte Square – thank you, Book Festival – but as always it felt much too short. I know, that can’t be helped.

Paul Thompson

EIBF: Rose McGowan with Afua Hirsch

Posted on


Edinburgh International Book Festival

If any of you are for some bizarre reason unaware of who Rose McGowan is at this stage then its time to be introduced. McGowan was until recently mainly known as an actor, appearing in independent movies but also toying with the majors in films such as “Scream” and the successful TV show “Charmed”. All that changed though last year though when she became a Hollywood whistle-blower with regards to the sexual abuse prevalent in the film industry. Her courage in doing this helped to bring down Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s biggest players as well as encouraging other women to come forward with their own experiences kick-starting the ‘#MeToo movement’. But you knew all that already – unless that is you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last year. What you might not be aware of is that McGowan is now also an author and was here at the book festival to promote her autobiography, “Brave”. It was clear from the start of the interview that Afua Hirsch herself is something of a fan so I was concerned this was going to be a rather fawning affair – the acolyte stroking the ego of the glamorous movie star. Yet from the very beginning it was apparent that McGowan was not that kind of actor. Giving us a reading from the introduction to her book it became clear that her journey from Hollywood starlet to social justice warrior was complex and owed much to the harsh lessons of her early life.

McGowan described how her upbringing in a religious cult, “The Children of God” led her to have direct early experiences in the abuse of power which she feels is also so prevalent in Hollywood. She described how she feels the use of trigger words, punishments and similar cult techniques are used not only in Hollywood but also in the politics of Trump. In fact it was Trump’s election that encouraged her to contact the press to break her story early ( she was already writing the book). Sick of seeing the rise of sexism and racism his presidency seemed to foster she felt it was the right time to speak out. McGowan mentioned almost casually that when she was attacked by Weinstein she told people right away but was ignored or dismissed. Feeling voiceless she essentially just ploughed on with her work trying to distance herself from the culture of Hollywood whilst remaining working within it, an experience she described as being “a lonely road”.

Whilst working on her book and when she started to talk openly about her experiences she began to be hacked, stalked and spied on, an experience which has in part led her to selling her Hollywood home and living out of a suitcase. As she describes it “Hollywood acts like the mafia to protect its own’. This did not silence her however but merely encouraged her in the belief that she was doing the right thing. This steely resolve is clearly at the core of her as is a sharp self-aware intelligence which is critical of her own previous inability to see the warning signs of threat and danger in her early days in the industry. A former teenage runaway with ‘street smarts’ she could only put it down to being overwhelmed by the oily charm of ‘people who were not my people’. McGowan acknowledged that the last year has been tough on her and that “the stress of it almost snapped me’ but that it was fantastic that so many people were now coming forward to tell their own stories. When questioned if she had any inkling as to how big this would become she said that she didn’t think about it at all, that she just needed to act in order to as she put it “make it impossible to look away”.

The roots of the abuse she feels run very deep indeed and she described the serial abuse of aspiring starlets in the 1920’s as being not the casting couch but “the rape couch”. She described how she has been forced to look back over some of her early sexual experiences within Tinseltown in a new light as the molestations that they really were. Far from being merely an issue within the industry she feels that if women look back over their own lives they too will recognise this.

Afua Hirsch

McGowan expressed her feeling that Hollywood holds a ‘fucked up mirror’ for all of us to gaze within and shows us a distorted image of the world which is damaging to both men and women alike. She feels that it is important for all of us to be self aware and critical of the culture we live within and be conscious that “what you have consumed from birth has formed you”. She feels that the images of women in much Hollywood product have a toxic effect on self identity and self esteem saying that “the men who thought they owned me think they own you too” This could all risk sounding a little hypocritical coming from an actor involved in the movie making machine itself but in fairness to McGowan she has remained mainly in independent cinema and been canny about her choices ( ‘Charmed’ being the longest running female led show in network history). She also is quick to point out how difficult this is admitting to loving ‘classic movies’ herself.

McGowan sees herself as essentially an optimistic person, and believes that Trump is in a sense an enabler of the kind of radicalism she espouses. She has no fear of offending and admits that to an extent it has cost her a more conventional creative career but believes that “being well behaved was not working in our favour”. By the end of the talk I was a fully paid up member of the Rose Army and would have happily taken the Queen’s shilling to do battle on her behalf. She was an eloquent, passionate and bracingly honest speaker who’s courage in speaking out against one of the most rich and powerful industries in the world has given us all encouragement to challenge corruption where we find it. Long may she reign.

Ian Pepper

An Interview with Lily Asch

Posted on Updated on

Lily+Real Talk.jpg

Real Talk is both a hugely beneficial social enterprise & the fertile bedsoil of a right good yarn. The Mumble caught its founder for a wee blether…

Hello Lily, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Lily: So I’m originally from Connecticut in the USA. I moved to Edinburgh when I was 20 and have been here for the past 5 years and it has become home to me.

When did you first realise you could tell a good story?
Lily: From a very young age I was enraptured with reading, consuming anything I could get my hands on particularly fairytales and high fantasy. I think that this early immersion in story made me naturally inclined to want to tell and share the stories I learned. My Mom constantly reminds me how I’d regale my family with minute details of my day each night at dinner (whether or not the audience was that interested). However it wasn’t until I got involved with theatre at age 9 that I really honed the more performative element of sharing. While I only acted for a few years, I think those foundational telling skills have stuck with me. So it has been a journey from loving to tell to actually developing my craft and I’m presently doing my storytelling apprenticeship at the Scottish Storytelling Centre and am a part of TellYours2018, a development programme for the next generation of UK storytellers.

You are stranded on a desert island with three good books. What would they be?
Lily: Oh my, this is really hard because quite a few of my favourite books are a part of a series… If I’m being cheeky I might bring along the entire His Dark Materials Series by Phillip Pullman in one book (which does exist because I have it). I’d bring along The Door by Magda Szabo, there is something haunting about it that makes me want to read it again and again, and then lastly the entire anthology of Grimm’s fairytales for a bit of variety :]

We are here to talk about an event of yours later this week, under the Real Talk banner. Can you tell us about the organisation?
Lily: So Real Talk is a mental health storytelling social enterprise. Our vision is world that celebrates transparency and authenticity around experiences of mental ill health and actively supports wellbeing. In practice we support people who have experienced mental ill health to learn how to share stories about their lives. We have a process where we deliver two workshops that use traditional storytelling tools to help participants craft a 10 minute story. After these 2 workshops we host a community event where these stories are shared to an audience and used as an entry point to speak about mental health more widely. We’ve found the process and these events really cultivate compassion for oneself and for others.

How did you get involved?
Lily: So I’m actually the founder of Real Talk. It was born out of my own experiences with mental illness and realising the need for more safe spaces for people to talk about their mental health and for other people to listen. It started as a passion project in 2016 and over the past 2 years I’ve been slowly transitioning to working on Real Talk full time. It has been quite challenging starting up a social enterprise but also so rewarding. I’ve met hundreds of people all looking to connect about mental health and excited about the power of stories. You can learn more at


I can imagine there are some emotional moments involved. Do the storytellers find it a cathartic experience or is it sometimes too much?
Lily: There are definitely some deeply emotional moments along the process. There is catharsis in sharing a bit of yourself to an audience, empowerment in being to share your story in your own words but of course the nerves and tentativeness that comes from acts of vulnerability. I think this is where the process is really important, storytelling as a creative practice is a wonderful vehicle for holding people where they are. However we always emphasise that participation is voluntary (so if people don’t want to complete the process they don’t have to) and I hold a COSCA Counselling Skills certificate and Mental Health First Aid training so am always on hand to help signpost to further support if needed.

Can you tell us about the event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre?
Lily: On Friday the 27th of July at 7.30pm, we will be hosting one of our community storytelling sessions. 7 participants will have come through the process and will be sharing 10 minute stories to a public audience. After all the stories are shared I’ll facilitate breakout discussion between the audience members before ending with an informal Q & A between the storytellers and the audience. We’ve run 11 events to date and they are always magical evenings where people come together to witness each other.

How much experience do the storytellers have?
Lily: Most of the tellers have very limited storytelling experience in a performative way, though some people definitely have experience with public speaking. For some it’s actually their first time sharing a part of their story in this way. It’s a big range but that is exactly why we have this preparatory process, so everyone has had a space to decide what story they feel comfortable sharing and how they want to do it. I’m always humbled by the creativity, bravery and strength of each speaker, even if they don’t see it in themselves.

Coldsville-Shadow-102.jpgWhat do you think the audience will take away from hearing the stories?
Insight, emotion, resonance, clarity, empathy. Because the audiences are diverse, everyone takes away something different but I think that having genuine insight into someone’s lived experience really breaks down stigma and barriers. Some are supporting a loved one who is suffering, so to hearing a real story helps them know how to help. Others might be suffering themselves and the power of realising you aren’t alone in your journey cannot be understated. Others are just curious and we hold safe space to talk about mental health openly, which we don’t always feel allowed to do during our day-to-day lives.

What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for both yourself & Real Talk
Lily: The rest of 2018 hold incredible potential! I’ll be working away at building Real Talk’s foundation as a social enterprise; building a team to help run it and expanding our event series. Hopefully we’ll be collaborating with other awesome organisations and supporting more people (feel free to get in touch!). Personally I’m hoping to graduate from my storytelling apprenticeship this year and start working as a traditional storyteller out with my work with Real Talk.

Real Talk: Story For Well Being

Friday, July 27th
Scottish Storytelling Centre