Interview by Helen Brown
11th June 2010
Fife writer Brian Johnstone has lived and breathed poetry every day for the last 10 years as director of StAnza, Scotland's international festival of poetry — and much more — but he has passed on the baton. "The problem with running a festival about words and writing is that it doesn't give you time for writing any of your own!"
Brian Johnstone isn't complaining. He's loved every minute of the last 10 years as director of Scotland's truly international festival of words, even if some of them have been too busy to recall in much detail.
"You try to build in some down-time to fit in some writing but, after a while, it somehow just disappears, especially given the wonderful way that StAnza has taken off. It is a very creative thing devising programmes and putting ideas together but I think it's indicative of the time factor involved that my first collection was published in 1997, just before I got really involved with StAnza and my second only just came out at the end of last year!
"My successor, Eleanor Livingstone, has just brought out her first book, so I hope her timescale doesn't quite mirror mine. I don't think you can be both an organiser of something like this and a writer in the way you would want. But maybe that's just me!"
Even if things have passed in a blur, however creatively satisfying and enjoyable, there is much to remember — and much to celebrate. As a veteran of 10 festivals at the helm, and of several more as a keen and enthusiastic organiser and participant, Brian reckons that StAnza has all it needs to go from strength to strength as it enters its teenage years. He's not going completely "cold turkey" — he will still be involved as festival consultant, including looking after the archive. And, if his plans to get back to serious word-smithing come off, he may well be back as an active participant in the many and various events that StAnza has to offer.
If poetry is the perfect medium in which to capture and express spirit of place or the soul of a location, the festival's setting in St Andrews is the perfect example of an event focused in exactly the right spot. There were, of course, literary and poetry events there pre-StAnza. A graduate of St Andrews' University, Brian wrote poetry as a youngster, as many of us do, and like many of us, abandoned it for over 20 years before being drawn back in later life. He recalls poetry festivals in the town in the late 60s and early 70s, with luminaries such as Norman MacCaig and Alastair Reid taking part.
During the earlier St Andrews Poetry Festival, latterly managed by poet and academic Douglas Dunn, Brian was on the committee so he and many others knew the interest was there, both locally and from the responses gleaned from much further afield. Of course, StAnza as such started small — it didn't spring fully-formed into the event it is in 2010.
"I think it might have got lost a bit if it had been presented in one of the big urban centres," Brian reckons, "but St Andrews is perfect because of its scale, intimate yet with an incredibly cosmopolitan outlook, with a strong local base of interest in all kinds of culture. There are five major poets teaching at the university here. It had the first creative writing course in Scotland and from the start. And we are incredibly lucky to have the Byre Theatre as our hub."
"From the start, with a bit of brass neck, we claimed to be 'Scotland's Poetry Festival' and eventually we added 'international' to our pitch as it is genuinely what we are. We toyed with that for a while before the Scottish Arts Council advised us to get over our embarrassment and go for it! The people we invited and who were delighted to be asked to come here, represented not only the best of Scottish writing but a truly global choice and voice."
"The international element has always included a strong contribution from the US, Canada and Australia and this year, we had people from Iraq and European countries from Germany and Denmark to the Netherlands. That, allied with strong local support, has made it what it is. I think we can justifiably claim to be the poetry equivalent of the Edinburgh Book Festival. The scale is different, of course, but in terms of scope and coverage, we're there. We also pride ourselves on our organisation and hospitality — people are queuing up to come!"
From the start, major names have been part of the programme. Scotland's own Edwin Morgan topped the bill in the first year and, this year, the main event with Seamus Heaney was one of the busiest and buzziest ever. The international input has been increased not only by bringing in poets of all nationalities but also in the highlighting of translated poetry which has also included the different Scottish tongues, from Gaelic and Lowland Scots to Shetlandic, used by young poet Christie Williamson this year to translate the work of near-legendary Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. This year's Gaelic language poet at the festival came from Nova Scotia.
There has been a vast increase in links across the art forms to take in dance, film, visual arts of all kinds and disciplines. Brian explained, "It's an attempt to show that poetry is an all-pervasive, interconnected thread that moves through life and links all this together, not something in a separate compartment or category. I think that has brought in a lot of people who might not think they were interested in poetry but have discovered it through a love of some other form."
In spite of the built-in intimacy and deeply personal nature of most poetry, most poets are keen to appear on-stage and share their work directly with readers. "As I see it, the main difference between poetry and other literary forms is that it doesn't really exist on the page. It has to be heard — and heard in the poet's voice. On the page, it's like musical notation, it needs a voice, an interpretation to bring it to life. Most poets are performers in some respects, even if they are not strictly performance poets. Something like StAnza gives them the chance to present their work to their peers, to fans, to new listeners and readers in the most conducive circumstances."
There's also a strong commitment, increasing over the years, to fostering the work of young and emerging writers by showcasing the winners of prizes such as the Eric Gregory Award, now over 50 years old, and participants in the Clydebuilt Poetry Mentoring Scheme. "There have been so many technological innovations, too. Eleanor Livingstone, as Artistic Director over the past five years, introduced our poetry film programme and the Distant Voices initiative, a world first which has brought about a virtual festival through contacts beamed from 68 countries around the world. I did take part in this myself, reading my poems from Italy to the audience here in St Andrews and on the web worldwide. When we started in the first year, we didn't even have email!"
Nothing quite beats the buzz of actually being there, however, and that is something that Brian admits he will miss most. "The atmosphere is wonderful when the place is jam-packed with people, there's a natural momentum and spontaneity about it. "Everyone speaks to everyone else — it's access all areas where discussion, conversation and banter are concerned!"
As a writer himself, he is obviously looking forward to doing more of just that and following his recently-published collection, The Book of Belongings (Arc 2009), with more and varied work. He has his already-mentioned two books to his credit, along with publications in pamphlets and anthologies in Scotland, the UK, Europe and the US. His poems have been translated into Catalan, Swedish, Polish, Slovakian and Lithuanian, with a small collection appearing in Italian. He has won prizes at Poetry on the Fringe in Edinburgh, at the Writers' Bureau and the Mallard competitions and in the UK National Poetry Competition.
Another compelling reason for giving up the directorship now was to let the future of what has become an incredibly successful event speak for itself. "There's a danger that an event can become too associated with one person and that's not good for its longevity. It's also 13 this year — its first teenager year — and I think that's a good time to spread its wings. We get a large number of completely new attendees each year as well as people who keep coming back. People are still surprised, I think, by the scale and depth of StAnza." He called this year the "most successful yet, with over 11,000 people coming along," adding, "At the start in the 90s, we only had between 500 and 800. "It's good to be going out on a high!"
So what will he miss most? Obvious question and equally obvious answer — just about everything, but in a way that leaves him feeling fulfilled rather than frustrated at letting go at what he is certain is the right time. "It will be quite a wrench not to be working with such a wide range of people and in particular with some of the students who have all been so keen, helpful, willing and a treat to work with. It's one of the great things about StAnza that our youngest committee member is a teenager in second year at the university and our oldest is in his 80s. Bringing town and gown together has always been a big part of what goes on each year."
In my time, I've interviewed many of the people who have participated in StAnza and if one stands out for me, it was Brian Keenan, hostage for so long in the Middle East, who not only writes movingly in prose but reckoned that his love and knowledge of poetry was one of the things that helped him to survive his captivity not only physically but mentally intact. Brian Johnstone agrees. "He was our first 'In Conversation' subject and he was a wonderful communicator and an extraordinary human being. Seamus Heaney is another. I can't speak highly enough of him."
"I've also loved the links with American poets and with some of our own Scottish talents. Michael Marra, to my mind, is the best songwriter in Scotland and it's been great to have people like Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, John Burnside and Vicky Feaver, appearing here, people who do Scotland proud. These are the poetic roots from which we grow. Novelists Louis de Bernieres and Ben Okri have made a huge impact and having Alex Salmond to open the event in 2009 was amazing. If someone had told me in 1999 that we would have the First Minister of Scotland at the launch of StAnza, it would have seemed impossible to me!"
"The 100 Poets gathering organised by Jim Carruth for our 10th festival was magnificent, especially in the face of people saying they didn't think he could find 100 poets who were all interesting. The best reaction was from those who expected to spend about 10 minutes listening and who instead stayed to the end. It was also a wonderful experience to see The Reaper and other historic boats from the Fisheries' Museum in Anstruther flying the StAnza flag while sailing into St Andrews' harbour to the music of a pipe band for our poetry installations."
"Just dealing with the writers, that personal communication, has been an absolute joy." And what about the ones that got away? He laughs. "We have been so lucky over the years that very few have been unwilling or unable to take part. Finally persuading Ben Okri to appear this year was wonderful. But I would like to have brought over the American poet Mary Oliver whose work I really rate and I would love to have presented Jeanette Winterson. She's best known as a writer of fiction but has a passion for poetry and has written a wonderful book about the place of the creative arts in people's lives."
"We had Adam Thorpe, a favourite poet of mine, booked this year but unfortunately he had to cancel, and a few years back we came within an ace of booking the last of the Beat Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but sadly it wasn't to be. There's also an element of ‘what might have been'. We came to the fore after the loss of such great Scottish writers as Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown (although I doubt we could have persuaded him to leave Orkney!) and Iain Crichton Smith. That would have been some line-up!"