This year at StAnza, the St Andrews annual Poetry festival, I decided that I would do something a bit different in the name of archival outreach and put down my name to take part in one of the festival’s famous open mic nights!
The archive I am working on is the David Hay Fleming collection. David Hay Fleming [1849-1931] was a local historian and antiquary who researched and wrote many publications on the history of St Andrews, the Scottish Reformation, and John Knox. Here at Special Collections, we are not only lucky enough to house his library, which he gave to the town of St Andrews on his death, but we also have his research papers, correspondence and the historical manuscripts he collected throughout his life. The historical material he collected dates from 1467 and mainly relates to St Andrews and the plight of the Covenanters in the 17th century.
As I spend most of my time indoors cataloguing this collection (I’m currently storming through the letter ‘E’ of his correspondence) it is always nice to get the opportunity to get out and promote this collection.
The idea of promoting the Hay Fleming collection using poetry came a while ago when I uncovered a book of newspaper cuttings containing poems written by David Hay Fleming. They vary in length and style and range from the endearing to the offensive. If I were to be a brutal critic, I would compare some of his poetry to that of McGonagall, with one of my favourite titles for his poems being;
To the wee wild-flower with which Miss Hart adorned my button-hole, when we were at Magus Muir on Thursday evening the 8th of June 1882
This poem quickly escalates from a wild flower to the human existence. It is quite something.
But to our tale, ae StAnza open mic night.
After picking three poems from the Hay Fleming collection, which I deemed fit for public performance, I headed over to the Byre Theatre bar at 22.00 on Thursday night 3rd March 2016 to make my poetry performance debut. After discovering at the start I might only get the chance to read one of his poems, I had to pick the best one. After consulting with a professional poet “Flowers of the Sea” was picked as his best.
I was first to write my name down for the open mic night, but the performers were to be picked at random. The first poets came up to the mic and presented their own poetry wonderfully. ‘Oh no!’ I thought, ‘Everyone has their own poetry, doing their own thing…they’ll think you’re a fraud! Reading someone else’s poetry like it’s your own. “Boo!” They’ll shout…the exit is just there, maybe I could…”
I was up.
I stepped to the front, adjusted the mic and explained myself. I was not going to read my own poetry, but that of the historian David Hay Fleming who could not be there that night due to being deceased for the last 85 years. As I looked into the audience, all I saw were smiling faces, no frowns or tuts, just a warm welcome. I took a breath in, and read some poetry:
FLOWERS OF THE SEA
Though some call us weeds, we’re flowr’s of the sea,
And fair as our kin of garden or lea,
Taught by the blue waves to love ev’ry tune
Played by the rough wind who changes so soon,
We danced to his music while it was light,
And scarce ever rested during the night,
Till in a tempest his notes were so strong,
The wave-losing temper-dashed us along.
Tossed by the breakers, that cast on the sands,
Scorched by the hot sun we came to your hands:
Gently you lifted and spread us all out,
Smoothed ev’ry small blade and each little sprout.
Gladly we thank you for this your great care,
And hope in all good you ever will share,
While in your album we fearlessly bide
The wrath of the wind and treacherous tide.
(written for his sister’s scrapbook)
Once it was over, I was rewarded with a warm round of applause (and another for it being my first ever poetry reading) and friendly congratulations.
I really enjoyed taking part in StAnza this year and I always love the chance to promote archives in unusual places (though I would never bring original material to a bar) – we shall see what opportunities arise in the future for rediscovering poetry in the archives.