Paul Stephenson interviews Eleanor Livingstone, Director of StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, about her experiences of poetry festivals across Europe
To what extent do you consider StAnza a European poetry festival?
We are more broadly an international festival, in terms of the poets and events we present and partners with whom we work, but we operate within the European family of poetry festivals, which provides our core network and support system. Perhaps our festival follows a recognisable European model for poetry festivals.
Is there is a network association for European festivals? How do the directors all communicate?
Yes. StAnza is a member of a formally constituted network of poetry festivals, which grew out of the
annual Meeting of Directors that the Berlin poesie festival hosts each summer. There are 30 or 40 members in this network who usually attend the annual meeting, though on occasion other directors from outwith Europe attend if involved in that year’s Berlin festival. The meeting is mostly in German and English with simultaneous interpretation.
Poetry International, Rotterdam is now approaching 50. Perhaps you could tell us a little about your involvement with the festival? And what goes on? How does it work?
I was first invited to Rotterdam for Poetry International in 2006, the year after I took over as StAnza’s Artistic Director. I loved the whole atmosphere, the events and the small and large ancillary projects happening there, how open and friendly it was, and especially the cross-language and cross-border conversations which came one after another, over breakfast, between events, and late night over drinks, which along with my explorations of a new very dynamic city, made it such a stimulating experience for me. I had conversations with poets taking part, audience members, those working for the festival, translators, publishers and industry guests, including those who manage their own country’s Poetry International Web page. From that first visit I brought back some specific ideas, which we adapted for StAnza, but more generally an excitement about international engagement. I don’t know that I articulated it at the time, even to myself, but it gave me a vision for the atmosphere and ambition I wanted for StAnza – for those taking part, for our festival team and audiences – which was reinforced with each subsequent visit to Rotterdam and festivals elsewhere. Most people coming to StAnza probably won’t get the chances I’ve had to visit overseas festivals, so I have been keen to bring the energy and excitement I found overseas to St Andrews.
And then there is Struga?
The wonderful thing about poetry festivals is that each has its own unique style, history and traditions. Struga Poetry Evenings has been going even longer than Rotterdam, since 1961, and the festival has seen huge political changes in Macedonia over its 56 years. Struga is situated on Lake Ohrid amidst wonderful scenery and beautiful historic locations, some of which feature in festival events, which take place on a stage built out on the lake, in the grounds of ancient monasteries and inside Ohrid’s 11th century church of St Sophia.
Which other festivals have been important to you in the last 25 years?
The poesiefestival in Berlin has been very important, and I’ve attended most years since 2007. The Berlin festival lasts for about 10 days, usually over two weekends and the week between. They have an extensive programme with a host of poets and translators involved and lots involved with the Lyrikline project. It’s a great resource for meeting people and developing projects. Another is Poetry on the Road in Bremen where I’ve been going for the past four or five years. The first time they had Herta Mueller and the 900-seat Goethe Theatre was sold out. People were standing outside with cardboard signs asking for tickets, the first – and only – time I’ve seen people begging to get into a poetry event.
Where’s the furthest or most exotic place you have been to a festival?
My visit to the Faroe Isles was as a poet rather than wearing my director’s hat, though I always pack it anyway, and subsequently commissioned a young poet/architect I met there to write a poem for one of our installations in 2016 when we had an architecture focus. I was invited to read at an alternative music festival with a poetry stage. The G! festival takes place in the small seaside village of Gøta, very much like a Scottish highland village on a loch except it was a fjord – and there were no midges – with the music stages on the beach, and everything going on late into the night; in July there, it never really gets dark.
How do the festivals vary in size, scope, programme?
At some festivals, poets read just one or two poems each, which makes for lots of variety. Rotterdam and Berlin both have a lot of engagement with visual art. It can be quite usual for events to be all or mostly in the evening, especially with big city festivals, which allows plenty time for sightseeing.
To what extent are the festivals political or not? Are they about more than poetry?
Poetry and poets don’t exist in a vacuum. Language and culture don’t exist in a vacuum. Poets will have
their own views anyway, and if you invite poets who are living in exile, or poets who have experienced war or struggle, or those who write about the issues of today, then these topics will be discussed, the audience will ask questions and offer opinions. But beyond that, festivals can create a space where cultural encounters, exchanges and engagements create a kind of cultural diplomacy that feels very constructive.
How does place and location influence the staging of European poetry?
Each poetry festival has something unique because of its place and location, and its own history and
traditions. I’m just back from the Stockholm International Poetry Festival, the venue for which was the Nobel Museum, so the presiding spirits are of the greatest minds of the past 100 years. Compare that with Struga where events are held in medieaval churches, or Ptuj in Slovenia, where readings take place in vineyards, or Druskininkai in Lithuania, where we read one morning in a forest around a bonfire.
Are there poets you heard read that really stand out in your mind?
Oh, so many. On my first visit to Rotterdam I heard August Kleinzahler and Tsead Bruinja. Others that
made a big impression I have been able to invite to StAnza, including Nora Gomringer, Aurélia Lassaque, Ilya Kaminsky and Rozalie Hirs. However there have also been the ones who got away. That first year in Rotterdam there was a young Iranian poet with a haunting voice. I heard an amazing South African poet, Sibusiso Conelius Simelanem in Berlin a few years ago; and I’ll never forget the Polish poet in Berlin who whispered his poems into the microphone. Others I’ve heard recently, I hope to invite over.
To what extent do you scout out poets for StAnza? Who did you first hear abroad and where?
Scouting becomes second nature; wherever I go, I’m always wondering if the poets might work for StAnza. Even if I don’t hear them read, if I meet poets and find them interesting, that can be enough to get me to follow up on. I was introduced to the Danish poet Martin Glaz Serrup at the Berlin poesiefestival some years back. He wasn’t reading at the festival, but a mutual aquaintance introduced us and we had a coffee together then kept in touch. Similarly, I was introduced in Berlin to Ghayath Almadhoun, then later went to hear him read and invited him to StAnza. Festivals are a great opportunity for making contacts.
Which European poets have recently read at StAnza?
We had a French focus in 2017, so lots of poets from France, including Aurélia Lassaque, Jaques Darras, Michel Cassir and French-speaking poets like Jean Portante from Luxembourg, and also Christodoulos Makris as our Digital Poet in Residence from Ireland. In 2018 we focused on the three languges of the Netherlands and Flanders for 2018 – Dutch, Flemish and Frisian – and had ten poets come over – Maud Vanhauwaert, Andy Fierens and Lies Van Gaase from Flanders and the Dutch Poet Laureate, Ester Naomi Perquin, plus Tsead Bruinja, Thomas Möhlmann, Jan Baeke, Sigrid Kingma, Geart Tigchelaar and F. Starik from the Netherlands, along with poets from Germany, Ireland and Estonia.
What has surprised you most attending so many festivals?
It’s impressive at some east European festivals how much support and interest they get from local communities who turn out in whole families, with small children in buggies sometimes to hear translated poets reading in languages they don’t understand, partly because it’s a local tradition to do so, but partly because of a sense that this is something of value which they – and their children – should experience. Such poetry festivals are often entirely free. They still have the mindset that culture is a good thing which your taxes pay for and should be delivered free, rather like we feel about our NHS. That’s partly why I always ensure there are plenty of free events at StAnza so it’s accessible to everyone.
Has the EU or Council of Europe been a sponsor of StAnza and other festivals? Does ‘Europe’ provide much funding?
Yes. We’ve benefited quite often indirectly from both for projects we’ve brought to StAnza. There’s become a lot more awareness in the UK about EU Creative Europe funding in recent years, which is rather ironic, given that it seems we’re about to lose it completely.
Should more be done to get UK poets and poetry audiences to European festivals?
The UK poets I encounter at European festivals are often poets we’ve had at StAnza, because festival organisers from Europe have met them in St Andrews. I’d certainly always expect that poets would want to take any opportunity they get to take part. As for audiences, I hope it’s not too late, with Brexit looming, to encourage more people to travel across the Channel
For Magma readers considering attending a European poetry festival, where’s a good place to start?
I’d probably suggest Poetry International in Rotterdam. It’s not too far away, a great city, people are friendly, they offer English translations at most readings, and the festival’s gallery tours – if you’re willing to try a bicycle – are a great way of getting to know people.
If you could only attend one European poetry festival bar StAnza which would it be?
Perish the thought! I’d probably go to several in rotation, but I would hate to choose. However, the Meeting of Directors in Berlin probably pushes it to the top of my list.
StAnza is Scotland’s international poetry festival held
annually each March. Read more at:
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