Ryan Van Winkle is the new Artistic Director for StAnza, Scotland’s first poetry festival. Hilary Menos talks to him about what the future holds
First, a bit of history. StAnza was conceived in 1997 by three poets based in St Andrews: Gavin Bowd, Anna Crowe and Brian Johnstone. The festival was launched in October 1998, on National Poetry Day. Brian Johnstone was “the man who made StAnza happen”, according to Anna Crowe. “From the very beginning he had ambitious hopes for what was to become StAnza (the cunningly spelled title was his idea). I was keen to make the festival international in scope, and he had the vision and energy to see how this could be achieved.”
StAnza evolved as a national festival with international stature – under Eleanor Livingstone’s directorship it became a member of the festivals’ network that meets annually in Berlin. In 2003, the festival moved from the autumn to a date in early March, thus kicking off festival season each year. Brian Johnson was very keen on jazz and music, and his wife is a visual artist, so a lot of visual art and music was included from the get-go.
Eleanor Livingstone took up the position of Artistic Director in 2005 and, when Brian retired, became Festival Director in 2010. During her tenure, ably assisted by Annie Rutherford and Louise Robertson, she was responsible for arranging packed readings by poets from Seamus Heaney to Carolyn Forché, the establishment of StAnza’s digital Poetry Map of Scotland, and the webcast of festival events to 68 countries in 2009 – a world first! Livingstone introduced the StAnza poetry film programme in 2007 and over the years featured more performance-based events.
Virtual offerings became the norm in 2021 due to lockdown. StAnza rose to the challenge under Livingstone’s leadership and the virtual festival was awarded the Saboteur Award for Best UK Literature Festival. After Livingstone retired, Lucy Burnett ran a hybrid festival in 2022, combining livestreams with in-person experiences. The 2023 festival was curated by Sasha de Buyl, who built upon the hybrid model and aimed to bring poetry to a wider audience. Now Ryan Van Winkle has been appointed as Artistic Director. We talked to him about what the future holds for StAnza.
HM: What experiences have you had personally that you’d like to draw from and perhaps try and replicate at StAnza — what sort of vibe would you like to foster and how will you go about doing this?
RVW: Well, a large chunk of my experience comes from helping to manage The Forest Arts Collective in Edinburgh for about 20 years. This was a vibrant, volunteer-run, collectively-owned, free arts & events space (masquerading as a vegetarian café). Over that time I learned the joy of collaboration, the value of being open to experimentation, and the importance of community interaction. The nature of the space meant we had poetry nights intermingling with clown workshops and punk gigs. Artists met other artists, which led to memorable & unusual collaborations and an audience who learned to expect the unexpected. I hope to bring some of that spirit to StAnza, encouraging multi-art forms, working together and trying unusual things.
I’m not sure exactly how I’ll go about it. I feel like I’ve only just started, but I’m working on partnerships and collaboration, and on finding poets and performers who go beyond the page. Put simply, I will be trying to get interesting people in the same room to meet and spark new ideas.
HM: Have you been to other festivals and seen / felt things you’d like to import to StAnza?
RVW: I’ve lived through 20 years of Edinburgh’s festival season and been to too many festivals to mention here but, broadly, the most exciting thing about a festival is the chance for artists and audiences to be in close contact with each other. As an artist, I always relish the opportunity to meet other artists from around the globe. As an audience member, I am always delighted to be switched on by what I’m seeing and am thrilled when I check something out and discover a new favourite that I never heard of before.
The most exciting thing about a festival is the chance for artists and audiences to be in close contact with each other
My experiences with the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a participant and audience member have been pivotal – it’s such an open space and it allows for unexpected encounters. The Queensland Poetry Festival in Brisbane also stuck me as brilliant – both playful and serious in a way I very much admired and would love to emulate. But really, every festival I’ve ever been to has taught me something and – content and programming aside – the most important parts were often the feeling of being welcomed into a special space with like-minded people. It’s precious, and sad when it’s over, and getting that feeling at the end of the festival feels important to me. I guess, in some ways, I always work backwards, so I’m aiming to get to that feeling, and the paths to it are myriad. I think we’re lucky because we have The Byre Theatre as a hub and the small town of St Andrews as our home-base, so as artists and audiences we can really get to know each other, can take pleasure in the quality and variety of poetry, can enjoy, critique, learn and experience together. This, I believe, will help us achieve the spirit I’m looking for.
HM: What will you try to continue from Eleanor Livingstone’s way of doing things and what will you change?
RVW: I admire so much of what Eleanor did. I spent a lot of time at the festival when I was doing my regular podcast and just loved the variety and access to world-class national and international authors. StAnza has the well-earned reputation of being a truly extraordinary festival, thanks to Eleanor and Brian and the team who helped every year to make the festival happen. There’s a loyal and loving audience who wants to hear it all and really soak up everything, from the big names to the quirky and experimental poets.
I guess what I’m saying is, I love what Eleanor and everyone built, and much of how it got made is still a mystery to me. I’m not sure if I’ll be changing much to start off with, though, the nature of the festival has had to change. Audiences are evolving, and the economic climate is different so we’re a slightly smaller festival now, we’re based in only one venue rather than spread throughout the town, and we’re working both in-person and virtually.
HM: When I came to StAnza in 2012 (and recorded a podcast with you for the Scottish Poetry Library) I remember seeing Kwame Dawes, Lavinia Greenlaw, Tony Curtis (the Irish one), John Burnside, Lachlan McKinnon, and Bernard O’Donoghue. I think Michael Symmons Roberts was there, plus Kathleen Jamie, Matthew Hollis, John Glenday … And the Dave Batchelor Quintet, with Don Paterson on guitar. It was quite a starry list. Looking at the 2022 and 2023 festivals, I can’t see anything like that sort of line up. Of course this is only my perspective, but my impression is that the parts of your audience that wanted big mainstream names will have been disappointed. Was this a choice on the part of the programmers, or because of funding or other challenges? And in which direction are you hoping to take the festival?
RVW: Wow, I forgot how good that 2012 festival was – what an incredible line-up of heavy hitters! How lucky we were to be all in the same place for a spell!
Bearing in mind the fact that 2024 will be my first festival as Artistic Director, I can’t honestly account for what happened in 2022 or 2023, and I wasn’t on the ground so I can’t say if folk were disappointed. Certainly, looking at the past programmes, I didn’t feel disappointed so much as daunted, and as if the bar had been set high.
That said, my feeling (backed up by the limited data we have) is that the core StAnza audience is intrepid and voracious. For instance, our poetic meditation event, “Breath & Verse”, has completely sold out in under a week, which I never expected. So, there’s a lot of people who come to StAnza, and they want to see everything and are willing to try things out. Sure, they love the big names, but they also like the quirky and weird – they like having their tastes challenged and they like finding a new voice (and really, what a joy it is to feel as if you’ve discovered a new artist, someone to tell your friends about, someone who, years later, you can say “’I saw them when they were reading to only 20 people in the back room of a pub”.)
For better or worse, I’m very trusting of the StAnza audience, that core of people who go to multiple events over a weekend. I hope they’ll learn to trust me. The challenge, of course, then becomes how to welcome more people in, and I think all festivals and arts organisers are dealing with that. There’s limited attention, limited amounts of discretionary income, and an awful lot of choice as to where to spend what money and time you do have. And, to that end, a star-studded line-up can be very effective.
The core StAnza audience is intrepid and voracious
So, my aim is to balance the opportunity for discovery with the chance to see some of the top names in poetry. You can see our full 2024 programme here.
Two of Scotland’s great Makars will feature – Kathleen Jamie and Liz Lochead – both well known, and both beloved. I’m thrilled we have Jason Allen-Paisant with us, fresh from winning the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize – he’s only the fourth writer ever to achieve this double win! Plus, we’ll have Daljit Nagra, author of five Faber collections and winner of the Forward Prize, who audiences may recognize from his work with the BBC. We also have the 2022 T.S. Eliot Prize winner and multi-hyphenate Anthony Joseph, and we’ll be celebrating the collected works of Fleur Adcock – she’ll be with us for our closing night events.
On the discovery side, I’m excited to be able to share work from a bunch of trailblazing poets who I’m confident will have wondrous trajectories in the future and who have already had exciting debuts and prize wins. I’m optimistic that in 12 years some version of Hilary will look back & say “wow, that was a starry list”.
HM: You also talk about access to world class international authors. How important do you think it is to include international artists, what do you think they bring to a festival, and who do you have lined up for StAnza this year?
RVW: Well, ‘international’ is built into StAnza’s name and hard-baked into our reputation. It’s important to hear from artists from around the globe, to hear work in translation, learn about other traditions and experiences, and to be reminded that fans and poets are part of a larger, global story. International poets at StAnza makes coming to St Andrews from Edinburgh or Glasgow worth the trip. It helps our local artists make connections with other parts of the world – there’s intangible but real benefits from people being in the same space, seeing each other perform, having a few drinks, chatting about common projects or interests. This sort of thing can yield new opportunities for everyone!
This year we’ve got two wonderful poets visiting from Morocco. I’m looking forward to what will surely be incredibly powerful performances. We also have a number of poets who are based in the UK but hail from elsewhere – Jason Allen-Paisant from Jamaica, Yomi Soda from Nigeria, Alycia Pirmohamed from Canada, Anthony Joseph from Trinidad, and Fleur Adcock from New Zealand. We’ll also have a host of international guests in our digital programme so, all told, we’ll be featuring 92 artists from 11 different nations with eight different languages/dialects. I’m pleased we’ll have such a variety!
HM: StAnza – along with the rest of us – has had quite a lot to deal with over the last few years. Covid, Brexit and the fall in disposable incomes have all led to smaller audiences, and changing audiences. Under Eleanor Livingston’s leadership, StAnza responded to the challenges of Covid and the lockdowns in 2021 by programming a virtual festival which won the Saboteur Award for Best UK Literature Festival. After that, 2022 and 2023 were hybrid festivals. What’s planned for 2024?
RVW: We’ll still be hybrid this year with a mix of pre-recorded, live-streaming, and special live online events and workshops. We’ll be live-streaming many of our events including the headline events each night. Our Round the World series will go to Australia, the Czech Republic, Pakistan and Ukraine. Our Past and Present digital exclusives will draw attention to the poetry of pioneering Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail, who sadly passed away in 2022. We’ll also be speaking with Rosa Campbell about the lost legacy of V.R. Bunny Lang, an exciting American poet.
We’ll also host an international online Open-Mic with Poetry Lit! We’ll have a special live event with young poets from Ukraine and Scotland sharing new translations of Ukrainian poetry, and we’re working with Anthony Anaxagorou to produce a special live event online in support of Medical Aid Palestine.
HM: That sounds fabulous. And for someone like me, living in mainland Europe, virtual attendance this year is a welcome option. But how do you feel about online events in general? Do you think they offer the same opportunities (for contacts, networking etc) as in-person events? If a festival has fewer in-person events, won’t this reduce your audience, particularly people who travel from some distance away and who want to make a week of it, say? Do you still want to attract audiences from further afield, or do you think that the online events offer them an acceptable alternative?
RVW: I think online events offer some important opportunities that, despite the end of the pandemic, are still worth chasing. Firstly, it gives those without the means to get to the festival an opportunity to partake. I know watching a live-stream event isn’t the delightful novelty it once was, and there’s quite a lot of burnout following Covid, but there is an audience grateful that they’re still able to attend virtually. There’s a host of good reasons why people can’t make it to St Andrews in person – medical, mobile, child-care, financial – so we’re pleased to continue providing online events they can attend, and we’re especially lucky we have access to quality live-streaming gear, thanks to the Byre Theatre. So you and your readers, no matter where they are, can join in.
It also means we’re able to offer events that would be impossible without digital technology. For example, getting Ukrainian and Scottish poets together for a live reading would been prohibitively expensive and a logistical nightmare. Bringing poets to Scotland from Australia would have cost a fortune and had an environmental impact we couldn’t have mitigated. We are happy we can share poetry from around the globe without breaking the bank or contributing to the ongoing climate crisis. In terms of reach and accessibility, I think online events are wonderful to have as part of our festival.
My goal is to develop the online events and to try to find exciting and innovative ways of presenting work that are attractive to a world-wide audience
Obviously, there are not the same opportunities to make personal connections (or get your book signed) but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I feel Poetry Lit!’s global Open-Mic is a way to use the internet to create a special space for people who want to share their poems, and they create a warm and inviting atmosphere despite the distance. I think we can develop those kinds of spaces. In fact, my goal is to develop the online events and to try to find exciting and innovative ways of presenting work that are attractive to a world-wide audience. We’ve started well, but there’s still potential in the online realm.
We do have rather fewer in-person events because we’ve had to reduce the days of the festival. This is just a sign of the current funding climate. I’m sure that those who love in-person events will still come, and those who like making a weekend of it in St Andrews will still prefer to do that rather than stay home, and we will reward those who attend in-person with unique events, installations and experiences.
One event, in fact, that is kind of a hybrid event in reverse is ‘Long Distance: poems for your ears only’, which is a collaboration with Leigh Kotsilidis, a poet and intermedia artist from Canada. Essentially, you enter a small, cozy, dimly lit room. You sit down, get comfortable and on the table next to you, a phone rings. You pick up the receiver and get a live reading from a poet in Canada. This is our response to those events where the artists are on a screen above the stage; we wanted to make a warmer, fuzzier, lo-fi version of that experience which would be more resonant with audience members. The little room will be in the foyer of The Byre and we’ll be constructing it especially for the festival – I’m lucky to have a team willing to make something like this happen.
My point being, we certainly want people to visit from near and far if they’re able. I don’t see the online events as an alternative to the in-person festival, it’s just another venue or another way to access the festival if you can’t make it. My aim is that they work in harmony and complement each other and I hope, as I grow into the role, I’ll be able to make them work together in a way that expands audiences and creates some one-of-a-kind work.
HM: The job titles of those running a festival are always somewhat baffling to those on the outside. However, it looks as though StAnza, under Eleanor Livingstone, had a Festival Director and Programme Co-Ordinator (Annie Rutherford), whereas now you (Like Lucy Burnett before you) are an Artistic Director, backed by an Executive Producer (Suzie Kirk Dumitru) and an Assistant Producer (Natalie Clark). How have things changed in terms of the practical responsibilities, and do you have live meetings, or are your interactions mostly online?
RVW: I know what you mean about these job titles; they always felt opaque to me as a poet. Again, I can’t speak to how things have changed, since I’m not sure exactly how responsibilities between Eleanor and Annie were split. But as for now, I’m in charge of the creative vision of the festival. I work on what you see in the programme, and try to create the ‘story’ of each festival, while looking at long-term vision. The rest of the team – Suzie, Natalie and Kirsten Murray (our communications officer) – all work to make it a reality and ensure audiences know about what we’ve brought together. We also have the support of the incredible staff at the Byre Theatre, James Boyer Smith on tech & problem-solving, a cohort of wonderful volunteers, a brilliant board of trustees. I’m super delighted by my role, and by the team I was lucky enough to inherit. They’ve really been amazing (and patient) as I’ve had to learn a lot on the fly.