In case of a fire: save the books
The national library of Scotland, where the launch takes place, is filled with those gentle, bespectacled, bookish types who make you glad that certain stereotypes still reign strong. Despite a relatively small turnout for the preview of Scotland’s foremost poetry festival, the atmosphere is that of a group of people most decidedly on the same page. This is apparent when the fire safety announcement involves the suggestion that we might want to save some of the 15 million books and journals housed in the library should the building go up in a blaze. The appreciative chuckle that goes up from the crowd suggests that they are at least considering the prospect.
Every March for the last fifteen years poetry lovers have descended on the tiny town of St Andrews for Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. The festival draws inspiration, and poets, from such far off places as Lithuania, Iceland and Singapore. It doesn’t even solely focus on poetry: a brief glance at the programme reveals that there will be art exhibitions, Jacobean music (no, I don’t know either, but they seem pretty excited about it) and the slightly disturbing sounding ‘cross-media performances’.
The preview is merely an appetite-whetter for the festival itself, with inky fingers’ spoken words poets Harry Giles and Rachel McCrum each performing three pieces, while Edinburgh makar, or poet laureate, Ron Butlin gets away with squeezing in four. Giles is a former student from St Andrews’ university and is smiled on with all the favour of the returning son, having participated in StAnza performances while a lowly student. A charismatic stage presence, he’s clearly at home in front of the crowd, switching accents and styles. Nonetheless, he remarks that he doesn’t identify with being either a performance or a written poet but instead describes himself eloquently as ‘a poet poet’. Identity seems to be an issue that runs though his work; he begins with a poem in Orcadian Scots about the uncertainty of having a split loyalty between his island home, the rest of Scotland and his English heritage.
One of the Edinburgh book sculptures (more of which in a coming blog post)
Next up was another ‘poet poet’ Rachel McCrum, who’s been reading from the same old tattered copy of her own verse at so many events that it is in danger of falling apart. She muses that she may treat herself to a new copy. McCrum’s oddly affecting verses include ‘The Glassblower Dances’, about the power and appropriateness of certain words, inspired by Edinburgh’s notorious book sculptures. (She gets half way through an explanation of the what the book sculptures are, realises that she is talking to a gathering of hardened bibliophiles and points out that ‘no one in this room doesn’t know what the book sculptures are.’)
Not to be outdone by the young ‘uns the cheery Ron Butlin takes to the floor. One of the delights of having a Scottish poetry festival (albeit one with a decidedly international emphasis) must be hearing someone else’s observations about a country you know and love. Butlin’s verse is taken from his book ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’ and is consequently peppered with references to city landmarks, important figures and local council squabbles. Altogether, the evening offered a charming selection of poetry, the standard of which will hopefully set the tone for the rest of the festival.
Author: Lia Sanders; Image © Chris Scott