Stanza 2014: “a noise like the sea, displacing the day’s pale knowledge” (John Burnside)

Shoes full of sand, pockets full of shells, head full of words – it’s been an amazing StAnza! Scotland’s Poetry Festival at St Andrews has beckoned me from afar for many years, but I have not made it up until this year. Can I just say to anyone who has not made it yet: it is the best thing you will do, book your leave for next year as soon as the announcement comes! A week of readings by the best poets in Scotland, and from round the world, with workshops, masterclasses, open mics and virtual events, it is, as fellow poet Sheila Templeton says “an international festival, yet has this friendly, inclusive family feel to it.” I would urge all poets and lovers of poetry to come along – and bring the kids! My two (7 years old) were delivered up at the weekend, giving a nice combination of time to myself to really enjoy readings by my current poetic hero John Burnside, who shared a stage with Indian poet Tishani Doshi, the wonderful Maggie Rabatski and Jenny Lewis in a reading moving from the highlands and Islands to Iraq and Mesopotamia, and Alexander Hutchison‘s excellent lecture on war poet David Jones, with Brian Turner also speaking engagingly on Isaac Rosenberg, and time with the kids playing on the beach in the surprisingly mild weather. They very much enjoyed the Children’s show on Sunday, with Carol Anne Duffy, and spent the rest of the afternoon on the sand and in the sea – deservedly so, as they had been absolute heroes on Saturday, when I was representing my poetry bookshop, Tell it slant, at the poets market, carrying books, engaging customers, and even sitting in on the Scottish Book Trust showcase, where I allowed the truly gorgeous words of Kathrine Sowerby to wash over me, hugging one kid and watching the other grin at me from underneath the table. They were delighted by the rude words of Andrew Sclater, in a naughty poem about ice cream, (suitably enough Sclatrie in old Scots means obscenities!) and we all enjoyed the readings by Tracey S. Rosenberg and Marion McCready. We rounded up the weekend by taking part in the Poetry Tour of Scotland, an interactive online event which drew poets in via skype from Assynt and the western isles, to read and map Scotland in poems of place with others including myself at the wonderful Byre Theatre, which I am so glad to see opened again, as it was very much the heart of the festival. A highlight for me was Nalini Paul‘s wonderful poem about Orkney, from her time as George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow there. I also enjoyed Lorna Carruth’s reading of her husband’s poem. Jim and Lorna, the foremost poetry power couple in Glasgow, were a constant presence there, with Jim running the Stanza open mic very joyfully on the Friday night. In fact it was an odd case of St Mungo’s Mirrorball by sea, but joined by poets I had previously only known online, including Baker Prize winner Juliet Antill. Best of all though was the international flavour, meeting or hearing from poets from Croatia, India, Africa, and other commonwealth countries. My most vivid memory of this is the inspired pairing of Scots Quine Sheila Templeton with South African poet Gabeba Baderoon at the wonderfully atmospheric St John’s Undercroft. Congratulations to the StAnza committee, especially Eleanor Livingstone and Colin Will, for an excellent vintage StAnza year in 2014. I feel it has woken me back to myself, as John Burnside exactly describes it:


I’ve visited the place

where thought begins:

pear trees suspended in sunlight, narrow shops,

alleys to nothing

but nettles

and broken wars;

and though it might look different

to you:

a seaside town, with steep roofs

the colour of oysters,

the corner of some junkyard with its glint

of coming rain,

though someone else again would recognise

the warm barn, the smell of milk,

the wintered cattle

shifting in the dark,

it’s always the same lit space,

the one good measure:

Sometimes you’ll wake in a chair

as the light is fading,

or stop on the way to work

as a current of starling

turns on itself

and settles above the green,

and because what we learn in the dark

remains all our lives,

a noise like the sea, displacing the day’s

pale knowledge,

you’ll come to yourself

in a glimmer of rainfall or frost,

the burnt smell of autumn,

a meeting of parallel lines,

and know you were someone else

for the longest time,

pretending you knew where you were, like a diffident tourist,

lost on the one main square, and afraid to enquire.

Unwittingly, from A Normal Skin, by John Burnside

Pictures at:



About Pedalling Poetry

Writer Ellen McAteer is founder of Tell It Slant poetry bookshop in Glasgow, General Manager at Poetry London magazine. She was a visiting lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art, and a mentee of the Clydebuilt Verse Apprenticeship Scheme, under Alexander Hutchison, and a singer with the band Stone Tape, as well as a solo singer who won a BBC Radio competition with her song Blue Valentine. She was Director of the Poetry Trust, which ran the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, a director of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, a visiting lecturer at Oxford University's MSt in creative writing, and a member of the core group of performers at the Hammer and Tongue spoken word collective in Oxford. She is a qualified Librarian.
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