StAnza Poetry Festival 2016 - Mapping the world with Poetry

Nora Gomringer and Philipp Scholz
Terry Lee

If you take the shortcut to St Andrews’ Byre Theatre, an unmistakably Scottish close leads you away from South Street, one of the main arteries of the town with its hardy-looking tourists and ice cream-wielding students. The close leads through to a garden, and in the evenings of early March, you might find yourself stopping to admire the trees, their otherwise bare silhouettes adorned with bright, white fairy lights. Alternatively, it might be the scent, surprisingly like honeysuckle, which causes you to stop and look around. Or it might be something else entirely – a rich, sonorous voice echoing through the garden, its vowels catching the meter of a language which isn’t your own.

The voice is part of Lyrikline, an audio-installation of German poems and their English translations which is an outpost of StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. The festival, which took place from 2nd to 6th March 2016, had a dedicated language focus for the first time this year and turned the spotlight on German-language poetry.

The Lyrikline installation (also to be heard on headphones inside the festival hub, the Byre Theatre) in many ways highlighted the double-pronged approach of the festival in showcasing German-language poetry: the language itself, with its cadences and half-rhymes so different to English and Scots, was neither more nor less important than the translations which made the poems accessible to a whole new audience.

The interweaving of English translations with German originals became particularly clear in VERSschmuggel, one of the core events of the festival’s German focus. VERSschmuggel is an annual project carried out by StAnza’s sister festival, the poesiefestival berlin; each year, six German poets are paired with six poets from a different language or cultural region and they collaboratively translate each others’ work with the help of interlinear translators. “I like to describe the process as a six-handed translation workshop,” explains the project coordinator Aurelie Maurin, grinning. In 2014, it was the turn of Scottish poets to smuggle verses, and the StAnza event showcased the work of two of the pairs of poets involved, including Anna Crowe and her German counterpart Odile Kennel. The pair explained to the audience that they would alternate reading originals and translations first, thus blurring the boundaries between translation and original “to point out that this distinction maybe isn’t so important after all”, added Odile. Afterwards, she told me laughingly, “It worked! Someone came up to me afterwards and told me how much they liked ‘my’ poem about the fence – but that was actually by Anna!”

  • Anna Crowe and Odile Kennel Olivia Vitazkova
  • Anna Crowe and Odile Kennel at the StAnza Poetry Festival 2016 Olivia Vitazkova
  • Nora Gomringer and Philipp Scholz Terry Lee

The VERSschmuggel event highlighted that even in a country often derided for being overwhelmingly monoglot, the appetite for events about and work in translation is clearly large: “We’ve put together poetry and translation and German – three things considered very niche in the British literary market – and we ended up with a sell out event in a venue seating 150 people! How did that happen?” marvelled one of the festival organisers. The unspoken answer might be that the “international” aspect of Scotland’s international poetry festival really is key and that we can trust audiences to be interested and curious beyond the big names which are guaranteed to fill auditoriums. Above all, even while debate about Britain’s place in the EU rages in the headlines, audiences are still keen to read beyond their own borders – perhaps in an attempt, like that once suggested by Christa Wolf, to map the world with literature, rather than with military defences.

The ways in which poetry can map the world we know, and thereby rearrange it, were explored in two further events with a German focus. A session in which the translator Anne Stokes discussed and read from the work of German post-war poet Sarah Kirsch highlighted not just the lyrical beauty of Kirsch’s work but also the differences in debates in Scotland and Germany surrounding what poetry can and should do. Such debates are necessarily louder in Germany, where an ongoing confrontation with politics and the past plays an active role in cultural discourse – and there is the unspoken suggestion that, in their approach to art and its place in society, both countries might be able to learn from each other.

Meanwhile, a discussion event with the collaborators of StreetLyrics – a book and exhibition juxtaposing photographs of manhole covers with poetry responding to these in English, German and Gaelic – highlighted what poetry does best: the way it transforms our understanding of everyday objects, showing them to be rich with meaning and allusion.

The German focus ended on a high with a performance by wordsmith extraordinaire (and Ingeborg-Bachmann prize-winner) Nora Gomringer and the multi-talented jazz drummer Philipp Scholz. Scholz’s and Gomringer’s exuberant performance – in which they presented work by both Gomringer and other poets – was yet another demonstration of how poetry can cross borders: borders of language but also of media. Gomringer’s playful performances of experimental sound poetry (including one silent sound poem – a favourite with the audience) demonstrated this particularly clearly, leaving the audience unsure as to whether they were listening to music or poetry, English or German.

It is perhaps telling that the idea for a German-language focus at StAnza was prompted by an exhibition also on show at the festival, a selection of photos bringing together poets from across Europe to respond to the question, “What’s the point of poetry?” The point of poetry – the German-language events all suggested in their own way – is to take us across borders which we wouldn’t otherwise have crossed. What happens after that – it might be art, it might be understanding, it might purely be a trip to the pub – is up to us.