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Poetry Centre Stage: travelling time and space through verse

Last week saw Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, StAnza, go virtual. The yearly festival, usually based in St Andrews, adapted itself to suit our world today, adopting a ‘Pay As You Can’ system for the majority of its digitised events. As well as the increased ease of attending, most events were recorded, bringing a new facet to the usually transient nature of spoken word poetry. 

Spoken poetry has many differences to printed poetry, focusing more on its sound patterns, but giving the audience less time to look at the multi-dimensional metaphors which are one of my favourite parts of a poem. The Poetry Centre Stage event was an evening session with two poets, Russell Jones, who is based in Edinburgh, and Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who spends his time between Krakow and Chicago. 

Jones specialises in Sci-Fi poetry, a genre he particularly enjoys due to the way science fiction can span space and time, but which can be done in a controlled and concise manner through poetic form. During the event, he gave readings of various poems he has written. His reading of ‘I wear’ was particularly interesting due to the spoken nature of the performance. For starters, the double meaning of ‘I wear’ and ‘Eyewear’ was immediately highlighted. The poem praises technology for what it accomplishes, but also highlights the effect it has if it does not allow us to forget. I spend a lot of time reading pop-up messages on my laptop, making his reading of the poem’s phrases, such as ‘Click accept’, which we read many times a day online, feel surreal. Although the inability to reread these poems and grasp their further meanings due to their spoken format was frustrating, the overall performance was enjoyable. 

Jones also creates comic poems, which he believes work to broaden the horizons of poetry and make it acceptable to more audiences, and he showed three during this session in a video format. Despite the artwork attending the words being beautiful, I did not enjoy the way any mental image I might have conjured up was immediately destroyed, and any extraneous meaning was blanketed out by the specific images proceeding down the screen. 

However, Jones’ innovation does not stop there. He is now having one of his poems turned into a film, for which we saw a trailer. This video consisted of a dangling phone in a phone box, a scream, and lots of abandoned buildings and flickering lights. Eerie music was played throughout, and the screen made me jump as it was so full of anguish. This film is coming out in the near future, and it will be interesting to see how the transition from poem to film works by mixing image and sound.

The event’s transition to Zagajewski was sudden. He began with a poem about his mother, while several of the poems he read were also inspired by her. This poetry was originally written in Polish, and he read out English translations of all, except the first poem, ‘About My Mother’, which he read in both English and Polish. 

Zagajewski’s poetry is very different to the Sci-Fi style and attempts to ‘break the frontiers of what poetry can be’ that had come from Jones’ reading. The contrasting life experiences that each poet have had was starkly apparent, Jones being 37 and Zagajewski 75. Hence, while Jones’ Sci-Fi poetry breaks the boundary of time and space through technology and the possibilities of science, Zagajewski’s poetry does so by letting the listener travel back, and learn about the emotions of the past, the people of the past. His poems are full of regret, and the emotions of other people such as his favourite poets, Bach, his neighbour in Krakow, and his Jewish neighbour Ruth, a survivor of the war. His readings brought home the transitionary nature of our lives, and the presence of people and events of the past in the present. 

Zagajewski’s poetry is profound, and instead of trying to paraphrase it I want you to go and read it. Or if you dislike poetry, maybe you will find an opening through the comics of Russell Jones. I will definitely be looking out for Scotland’s only Sci-Fi magazine, ‘The Shoreline of Infinity’, which is edited by Jones. With so many pressing issues, Sci-Fi can be an enjoyable way to explore what is right and wrong and what needs to be changed, so that we can learn from the past and craft a positive future for humanity.

Whilst we all long for the return of live events, the accessibility and ease with which I could hop along to the StAnza festival is remarkable. It allowed me to travel through time and space during what was otherwise a commonplace Wednesday evening, and learn about people and objects through poetry. 

Image: Creative Commons

Image depicts poet Adam Zagajewski speaking at an event