That’s the title we give to the sessions at StAnza: Scotland’s international poetry festival where a present writer talks about a poet from the past. These events have been a regular feature of the Festival for several years now, and I’ve been involved since the start, chairing and introducing three of the first four events, as I recall. I’ve continued to be involved, but as I step down next month from chairing StAnza’s Board of Trustees, I realise it may be the last time for a while that I sit in the Provost’s Throne in the Cooncil Chambers. I always feel somewhat ridiculous in that chair, and, frankly, it’s rather uncomfortable, but the quality of the speakers always makes up for that.
I chaired two sessions this year, both memorable, and both sell-out events. First was one featuring Neil McLennan on the war poets in Edinburgh, and the second was Alice Oswald on Homer. Both very different, but utterly fascinating. Neil talked about Craiglockhart, a hospital in WWI, then a Catholic convent and student teacher training establishment, and now a part of Napier University. When I was growing up in Colinton Mains, I passed it every day on my way to Craiglockhart Primary School. Neil spoke about Owen and others walking in the Pentland Hills, as I often did as a wee boy. And when he mentioned Owen teaching English at Tynecastle High School I almost couldn’t believe it, because my late brother Graeme attended the same school. Then to Alice Oswald. I found her talk riveting and entirely believable. I want to read the versions of Homer she mentioned, and ‘to hear the wind blowing through the words.’ I also want to re-read her own re-interpretation of the Iliad, a book I completely enjoyed on first reading. She was wonderful.
My second session in the chair was very different. Emmanuelle Lacore-Martin spoke on the poetry of Mary, Queen of Scots, and my old friend Stewart Conn on the poetry of Muriel Spark. I have to confess that I hadn’t previously considered Mary as a poet, but on this evidence she certainly was. Also, familiar as I am with the novels of Muriel Spark, I hadn’t read her poetry. And yet, according to Stewart, she always considered herself primarily as a poet.
The outcome of these sessions, I always hope, will be to make listeners seek out and enjoy the poetry of the subjects, and that’s definitely something I have been encouraged to do this year.