Scotland’s international poetry festival, StAnza, begins today in the historic Fife town of St Andrews. Festival Director Eleanor Livingstone gets us versed on the festivities.
What are your own roots?
I’m 100 per cent Scottish as far as I know, with the different branches of ancestors ranging over the country. There are lots of ministers and teachers in my family tree. One great grandfather had a church in Orkney in the late 1800s, another is held in family lore to have planted all the trees in the Bathgate Hills, and I have strong memories of Sunday walks around Cairnpapple and Knock Hill. My family moved from West Lothian to Fife when I was eight seeking the benefit of the sea air for my asthma. It seemed to work and I’ve lived in Fife since then, always on the coast. I grew up in Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the real life inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It was a wonderful place for children, we had the beach as our playground with woods, hills and quiet country roads behind. I spent my university years in St Andrews and then moved along the Forth to Leven where I still live. However my parents moved to the west coast of Scotland just north of Oban, so I got to know that part of the country as well.
When and why did you get involved with this event?
I’ve been writing poetry for almost two decades. I used to belong to a Fife women writers group and we went to the StAnza festival in St Andrews most years. As well as enjoying the readings, we took part in open mic events and workshops. Following on from this, in 2003 I was invited to join the local planning committee for StAnza and later to become Artistic Director and then Festival Director.
What are the rewards of being involved?
I’ve always loved poetry and words. From the first StAnza in 1998 I relished the diversity of events and hearing poets from across Scotland and much further afield, so when I was invited to join the committee and help plan the festival, I couldn’t believe my luck. My first year on the committee, I had breakfast one day with Louis de Bernierès (author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), I kept thinking surely I’d wake up soon. But this was a dream which just kept giving. Over the years I’ve met and heard so many amazing poets and other artists and had such wonderful experiences. I’ll never forget joking backstage in the dressing room at the Byre Theatre with Seamus Heaney and Denis O’Driscoll before introducing their event at StAnza 2010. As well as being great poets, they were such fun. Sadly they both died recently, within months of each other, and I’m privileged to have these memories of them at StAnza. Other people who come to the festival have told me StAnza has changed their lives and that’s the best reward.
Why is it an important event for the community there?
Once a year, StAnza makes St Andrews a hub for people from all over the world who love poetry, culture and the arts. As well as attending events, locals get involved in planning or supporting the festival and share the kind of experiences I’ve enjoyed. More than a hundred people help us each year. For our student volunteers it’s also great for their CVs – a lot go on to work in the arts – and of course we bring business to the town and give exposure to local organisations which partner us in events. And it’s a wonderful chance for local writers to engage with poets from around the world.
What can attendees expect this year?
StAnza is part of the Homecoming Scotland 2014 programme and we have an amazing line up of poets on the bill plus a spectacular opening night contemporary circus and dance show. We also have all kinds of other cross art collaborations with poetry. As ever we plan to show that this corner of Scotland can offer an international stage. One of our themes this year is A Common Wealth of Poetry, and as part of this we’ll be looking at what home means for poets in their writing. Our other theme of Words Under Fire acknowledges the legacy of amazing poetry from WW1. But it’s not all serious. StAnza has a reputation as being one of the friendliest festivals and as ever there will be lots of fun in-between and around events.
Will you remain involved with the event in the years ahead?
I can’t imagine not being involved in StAnza as long as my legs will take me over the hill to St Andrews. And the festival has online events as well, so if the day comes when I can’t get into town, I’ll keep in touch that way.
How else are you involved with the Celtic community there?
As a Scot living in Scotland I take a lot for granted – it’s when I go abroad that I’m aware how people find so much that speaks of Scotland in my own poetry. But I do love the land and seascapes here, the heritage and history, and this often appears in my own writing. And I never tire of driving between Leven and St Andrews, the views always make my heart stand still.
Are we doing enough to preserve and promote Celtic culture generally?
I think as Scots we are very proud of our heritage and take great pleasure in promoting this far and wide. There are so many little things that are just part of everyday life for us that we love but that others find interesting, unique and even a bit strange – haggis springs to mind here! But on a much larger scale Scotland is fantastic at acting as a stage to showcase the many wonderful events which tell the story of our culture and StAnza is proud to be one of the amazing attractions which draw tourists year after year to sample their own little bit of Celtic life. And we make sure to engage with our Irish and Welsh neighbours all the time. We often have events featuring Welsh and Irish poets and musicians, keeping strong the links between us.
What can we be doing better?
In the year where Scotland welcomes the world for Homecoming Scotland 2014, hosts the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup it is hard to think of anything more that could be done to promote our nation and culture.
Photo Dan Phillips