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Stanza 2008: What Andy Did

17/03/2008

I jumped into the car first thing yesterday morning and zipped up the road to St Andrew’s for my fix of StAnza 2008, listening to The Guardian CD of great 20th century poets on the way to get me in the mood. My first event was the masterclass in translation with Helmut Haberkamm and Fitzgerald Kusz, who both write in the Franconian dialect of German, and, from the Scottish side, Robert Alan Jamieson and Sandy Hutchison. I was irritated with myself that I hadn’t managed to do or submit translations of any of the masterclass poems, but it was an extremely worthwhile event for the discussion of dialect writing and translation*. It also gave me the chance to catch up a wee bit with Donal McLaughlin, Jim McGonigal and Chloe Morrish. And I came away with some free back issues of the Berlin-based poetry and fiction periodical lauter niemand and it’s English-language adjunct, no man’s land.

After a somewhat hurried lunch, I was back in the Town Hall for the French-language translated poets reading. French isn’t really one of my languages, but I’ve complained in the past about translated poets only being during the week when there isn’t a hope of my getting to StAnza so, having missed the Frisian and Franconian poets’ readings because I was unable to be there on the Saturday, I felt I ought to go to this one. It was a fascinating reading. Neither of the poets–Heather Dohollau and Soleïman Adel Guémar–was actually French. Heather Dohollau is Welsh but has made her home in Brittany and writes in French, translating her own work into English. Soleïman Adel Guémar is Algerian and writes in French but is now living in … where else? … Wales!

I have to confess that the exhaustion of the previous day’s 1st birthday party was beginning to tell by that point and I didn’t get as much out of the reading as I should have done. But I’d certainly look out for their work again. To combat the tiredness, I headed to the Byre for a cuppa before Wholly Communion, a film of a massive reading at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965. To judge by this, poetry–or at least the Beatier end of it–was so much part of the counter culture it could fill an establishment venue like that to the rafters in those heady days. It’s a mad, mad film. Some of the camera work made me feel sea-sick (I’m serious; O for a steadycam!), some of the poetry was equally shaky (but some was still good) and some of the audience likewise. (Well, probably most of the audience and writers were under the influence of something. These days, you wouldn’t even be able to smoke a cigarette in there, never mind what was probably in the majority of the roll-ups visible on screen.) Adrian Mitchell‘s “To Whom it May Concern” was one of the best bits of the film and here it is:

After the film, Rob Mackenzie and I had a coffee in the Byre before heading to the pamphlet fair. By the time we got there, it was really winding down, and there wasn’t much doing. We browsed what there was and chatted with Jim Carruth and Tessa Ransford, the force behind so much of the promotion of poetry pamphlets in Scotland over the past number of years.

Back at the Byre, I bought myself a ticket for the 5:00pm performance by Belfast poet Gearóid MacLochlainn with guitarist Dave Burnett, on the recommendation of Donal McLaughlin. And I’m glad I did. His billing as a performance poet doesn’t tell you the half of it. Readers of this blog will know I’m sceptical of the animal performance poetry, generally thinking the bulk of it is better less spotted and spouted, but MacLochlainn is the real deal. He writes in, across, over and under Irish and English. There’s a very strong flavour of the elaborate soundscapes of the great canonical Gaelic poetry and song, such as Duncan Ban MacIntyre to use a notable Scottish example, but it’s deeply contemporary in feel and content and–get this–he does it successfully in English too, perhaps not least because he brings this tradition into collision with elements of rap. I was, shall we say, hugely impressed and bought his CD, Rakish Paddy Blues II, my travelling companion on the way home.

The comparison with Duncan Ban is, by the way, not random: one of the pieces MacLochlainn performed was a poem in praise of an Irish travelling piper, Johnny Doran. MacLochlainn’s poem emulates the rhythms of Irish “open” pipe music and then slips into those of “closed”, dance music (hope I got those terms the right way round!). The distinction sounds not unlike that in Scotland between ceòl mòr (or piobaireachd) and ceòl beag and, of course, Duncan Ban’s great poem “Moladh Beinn Dòbhrainn” (“In Praise of Ben Doran”) is written in the form and rhythm of a piobaireachd.

Gerry Cambridge mentioned to me that Iain Crichton Smith had translated “Ben Doran” and that the version was in his Collected Poems. I hadn’t realised that, despite having the book on my shelf. After a quick look this morning, I’m impressed with the degree to which Smith successfully renders the rhythm, meaning and some of the rhyme (he ignores some of it, presumably because it’s just so elaborate it would be nigh on impossible to do in English). Julie Johnstone said she thought one of the films showing on the day’s loop was partly about the poem, so I went up to have a look: she was right and, luckily for me, Moladh Da Bheinn (In Praise of Two Mountains) was the last one to show in the loop.

For me, the last event of the day was the Adrian Mitchell and James Fenton reading. Mitchell was a likeable chap with a very loose, relaxed style of presentation but, while I liked some of the poems, much of it did nothing or as near as for me. Probably the best was his slightly updated rendition of “To Whom It May Concern”. However, I wish there were more poets as passionately pacifist as he is.

Fenton’s work I don’t really know at all, I must confess. However, from the extracts of his book on metrics that appeared in The Guardian a good few years back, I do know that he’s quite conservative in many of his aesthetic views and that came across in the work he read. At times I found myself wondering whether Modernism had ever happened. That might well be an uncharitable, uninformed view, but it was my reaction. He read some beautiful, powerful, hugely accomplished and intriguing poems–and read them extremely well–but, but … I don’t know, something didn’t quite engage me at the level and in the way I really wanted. One of the most interesting and powerful pieces he read was “Jerusalem“, certainly worth hearing and reading.

Still, it was an extremely good day, full of good, interesting poetry and conversations with friends and strangers, many of whom I’ve not mentioned here. That’s one of the things I love about StAnza. I overheard somebody say he preferred it to the Edinburgh Book Festival. I know what he means: even people you don’t know talk to you, which doesn’t happen so much in Charlotte Square. There’s a sense of community and everyone seems glad to be part of that community.

*Of course, the term “dialect” is not one I’m comfortable applying to Scots as a whole, but the fact is that, because there is no standardised form of the language, everyone who writes in Scots writes in or out of a particular dialect of Scots, regardless of whether they confine their Scots vocabulary to that dialect.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Rachel Fox permalink
    18/03/2008 11:10

    Thanks for putting the video of Adrian Mitchell up – I really enjoyed it. He was fantastic at the Past and Present on Thursday (written up on my blog if you’re interested). MacLochlainn sounds interesting too – I will look out for him another time.

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