StAnza Preview Blog: An Interview with Lucy Burnett

StAnza Preview Blog: An Interview with Lucy Burnett

We’re excited to welcome Jenny Lewis to the Carcanet blog, who will be covering the 2022 StAnza Poetry Festival for us in the coming weeks! Jenny is writing weekly guest blogs for us in the lead up to the festival, and will be roaming the festival itself in March, reviewing events and interviewing poets. To start, she interviews Festival Director Lucy Burnett – read below:

The StAnza 2022 Poetry Festival in St Andrews, Scotland looks set to break all records with its bold reimagining of the place of poetry now in our lives and communities. From acknowledged leaders and prize-winners like Carcanet’s own Vahni Capildeo and Victoria Kennefick to lesser-known but equally exciting contributors working in a range of languages and forms, the programme is astonishing in its scope and inclusivity. Jenny Lewis asks new Festival Director Lucy Burnett (herself a Carcanet poet) how she and Assistant Director Annie Rutherford managed to come up with such a marvel.

JL: Lucy, I’m in awe of how you have come up with such a programme. Can you tell us more about the vision behind it and its title – ‘Stories like starting points?’

L.B: When I arrived at StAnza, the festival was already known for being both Scottish and international – two characteristics which I’ve been keen to maintain. Yet I also felt the festival needed to be more clearly framed. What excited me most about the possibilities of my new role was the notion of framing the festival as an intervention in poetry. By this, I mean two things: first that I wanted the festival to be more exploratory, and each year to enquire into questions at the cutting edge of the form; and secondly to explore what role poetry plays in the wider world of which it is a part. This year’s festival title (taken from Holly Pester’s book Comic Timing) and the associated thematic exploration of the role of narrative in poetry, are examples of the kind of question I’d like to enquire into over the coming years. This helped me to come up with the wide range of angles on the ‘theme’ which provide structure and variety to the programme. 

JL: Can you say more about how narrative can ‘act against change’ and your interest in ‘intervention’ in poetry generally.

Perhaps first of all I should say a few words in favour of narrative! I’m currently reading Robin

Robertson’s The Long Take which is a fabulous example of the potential of the verse novel, and one of the reading panels I’m most excited by explores contemporary epic. Yet there are also poets who contest the power of narrative, or who are more interested in re-writing existing stories for the current moment, or whose storytelling impulses take a more surreal or performative turn. My own concern about narrative stems from a feeling that we keep telling the same old stories, informed by the same kinds of thinking, over and over, and that this dynamic can become a conservative force which acts against change (my own research explored this dynamic in the context of climate change)…this said, in a chat with Don Paterson a couple of months back, we realised how difficult it is to escape narrative, even in work which you’d characterise as lyric. Furthermore, this year’s festival does involve a lot of poets who set out to rewrite existing narratives in new ways in order to challenge existing ways of thinking…Perhaps the best way to characterise my view of narrative is therefore ambivalence – it depends on how it’s done – hence wanting to curate a programme with the widest range of possible angles upon its role in contemporary poetry.

JL: Each day of the festival has a different focus: could you give us a quick glance at them in advance?

LB: Yes, of course.

10 March: ‘Whose story? And in what form?’ The question of ‘whose story’ it is will be explored by panels and workshops looking at how we write (and rewrite) history, and who re/writes it. An ‘Alternative Environmental Narratives’ panel will feature J.O. Morgan and Claire Crowther. On this day we also explore verse novels and long form poetry, and the relationship between the form of the novel / prose and poetry and performative dimensions of narrative.

11 March: ‘Exile, immigration, roots’. The focus of Friday is on questions of exile, immigration and tracing one’s roots, and the exploration of the role of narrative in non-western poetries (especially that deriving from the Arabic speaking world). The programme features a number of poets currently living in exile in the UK including Nouri Al-Jarrah, Adnan Al Sayegh, and Gezim Hadjari. It will also feature poets who are currently writing work which enquires into their ‘roots’ such as Kayo Chingonyi, Pascale Petit, and Leo Boix. The annual StAnza lecture will be delivered by human rights lawyer and poet Mona Arshi.

12 March: ‘Playing around with stories’. Saturday focuses on poets who have fun with narrative, or who contest it in interesting ways. They include Holly Pester, Paul Muldoon, Yang Lian, Matt Welton, Tom Jenks, Harriet Tarlo and Stephen Sexton. As well as their linguistic play, all of the above poets are exceptionally good performers, and among the most engaging poets to watch/hear.

13 March: ‘Storytelling with a Scottish slant’. The entire festival has an element of this running through it, from the festival launch which features poets and other speakers from the length and breadth of Scotland. This includes Scotland’s new makar Kathleen Jamie who will open the festival. Sunday does have the strongest Scottish focus with events featuring Luke Kennard, Karen Solie and WN Herbert.

JL: Judith Willson’s workshop on ‘Rewriting, Reworking, Re-imagining’ seems to set the tone for StAnza 2022. How important has it been to give a platform to, for example, queer and LGBTQ+ poets such as Andrés N Ordorica and Georgi Gill?

LB: I’m a firm believer that poetry does participate actively in the world of which we are part, and in fact that it’s inextricable from it in many ways. So it’s great to see poets engaging formally with cultural questions which are definitive of the current moment and helping to shape our responses to them.

JL: The programme has a strong international flavour – can you tell us a bit about your thinking here?

LB: StAnza has long been internationalist in ethos and maintaining this focus was Eleanor Livingstone’s key request when she handed over the mantle to me. For me, this was actually one of the huge attractions of the festival directorship of StAnza, since I’m a firm believer in the importance of international cultural exchange. One of the advantages of the recent digital turn has actually been the potential to make StAnza event more international than before, by programming more overseas poets via Zoom, and extending audiences worldwide through livestreaming. The Round the World events involve poets from every single continent, and there is also a lot of work in translation – but I won’t say much about that since I believe that you plan to speak to Annie about this in another post!

JL: Many of your events and outreach activities are home grown, as it were, can you tell us more about these?

To pick a small selection, Scotland’s Young Makars aims to help more young people to ‘get’ poetry, through online workshops with leading poet tutors. This year we have had Jen Hadfield, Caroline Bird, Andrew McMillan, Clare Shaw and Janette Ayachi. Well-versed involves me in Zoom discussions with seven festival poets with the aim eventually of encouraging the development of poetry reading groups around Scotland in partnership with Open Book. Meanwhile, over one third of StAnza’s poets and other artists are Scottish, or live in Scotland, and we remain committed to providing an international stage for the amazing range of Scottish talent!

JL: Thanks so much, Lucy.

Next time, in ‘Once upon a StAnza 2’, Jenny will look at Translation at StAnza 2022. StAnza is a hybrid festival with a mix of digital and live events. Buy tickets here or from the Byre Theatre box office.

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