Packed houses for the St Andrews festival show there's an audience for poetry
What would make you go to a poetry reading? There are some folk who can’t get enough of the things, attending poetry events on an almost nightly basis. But even they would have to admit that, for the average reading, you don’t expect gigantic audiences to come beating down your door. I love poetry and going to poetry events but I’m usually pleasantly surprised if there are more than 30 people in the crowd.
But one of the most remarkable things about the annual StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews is its consistently packed-out venues. The Byre Theare’s main auditorium has a capacity of 220, and demand for tickets to see this year's Saturday night headliners Kei Miller and Simon Armitage was so high that the festival organisers live streamed the event for the crowds of poetry fans who hadn’t been able to get a ticket inside the sold-out theatre.
On Friday night I went to see two up-and-coming poets who are still early in their careers, Helen Mort and Liz Berry. Berry was unable to attend and at the last minute another relatively new poet, JL Williams, took her place. The St Andrews Parliament Hall building in which they read was packed to the rafters with devoted listeners.
What is it about StAnza that turns poetry into a blockbuster, must-see event? I suspect it’s the concentration of imaginative programming and the number of big names booked: poet laureates from around the world rub shoulders with Britain’s most high profile prize-winners. As well as attracting big names, StAnza’s festival director Eleanor Livingstone also has a gift for devising events that look at literature from a new angle.
Take the fascinating Writing Motherhood event this year, for example, in which poetry really got its teeth into an urgent contemporary topic, or the variety of poetry installations (including an 'Emergency Poet’ van, and 'five-a-day' food-themed poems handed out to visitors as beautiful little handmade scrolls) scattered across the town throughout the festival each year. The most famous poets chaired round-table discussions and workshops as well as performing traditional readings of their work, while elsewhere younger writers’ creativity was firing on all cylinders.
The result is that StAnza feels like a haven for poetry, and loyal visitors who return year after year have well-placed faith in the festival to provide several days of enjoyable and thought-provoking events. They trust Livingstone and her team so much they’ll book a hotel in St Andrews before the programme has even been announced. Even if you’re only a part-time poetry fan, you can trust that StAnza will provide something that you’ll enjoy. It’s hard to have the same faith in, say, a new poetry open mic session in the basement of a nearby pub: poetry audiences can be suspicious entities.
That may change though as the consistency of good poetry performances improves. Over the last few years, more and more poets have experimented with innovative ways to perform poetry and serve new audiences in the process, particularly in Scotland. Ryan Van Winkle is a pioneer of spellbinding one-on-one poetry readings that are akin to stepping inside your own poetic art installation. Harry Giles combines poetry with radical politics, participatory games and performance art, and says that "his work generally happens in the crunchy places where performance and politics get muddled up”; often people don’t know quite what to make of Giles’s work, but it’s always worth following. Meanwhile, in Leeds this week, Helen Mort and Sam Moore debuted Poeta, a poetry-meets-flamenco performance.
Not every experimental poetry performance will be a success, and not every one will attract a large audience. But what StAnza proves is that the audience is out there. There is a sizeable and enthusiastic congregation of poetry fans who will make the effort to attend poetry events that have been thoughtfully put together, and will take a risk with new creative ventures. That should be reassuring for poetry fans and artistic performers alike.
Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist and illustrator who covered StAnza 2015 for The List.