“It helps you explore what it is to be human.” Becky Swain, Director of the new Manchester Poetry Library, talks to Northern Soul
When you think about a traditional library, what comes to mind? Books from floor to ceiling? Maybe a frosty librarian and a lot of dramatic shushing? Growing up I adored the library, but years spent at university, pouring over textbooks and watching the person sitting next to me sneakily wolf a smelly tuna sandwich, dampened my library-loving spirit. It’s only in recent years that I’ve rekindled the flame.
Manchester, which was awarded UNESCO City of Literature status in 2017, has some exceptional libraries (I could spend hours in The Portico, staring at the domed ceiling) so when I heard that the Manchester Poetry Library, part of Manchester Metropolitan University and the North West’s first public poetry library, was to open its doors in June 2020, I was intrigued to see what it might look like and how it would differ from its counterparts. Then along came COVID-19 and, unfortunately, the social distancing rules sanctioned during lockdown prohibited the library from opening this year. Not that the team has been dispirited, turning instead to the internet to support and inspire the community.
But first, a bit of background. According to Becky Swain, director of Manchester Poetry Library, the idea for setting up a dedicated poetry space in the city was at the suggestion of poets from MMU’s Manchester Writing School, and has been in conversation for a few years. So, when the time came to construct a new arts and humanities building, it made sense to include the library. “Poetry is such a central area of expertise at the university,” says Swain. “But the thing that pushed it [to be built] was the idea that it would be public facing.”
Swain, who previously worked as head of learning for the Arvon Foundation, the UK’s national organisation of residential writing centres, was appointed director of the Manchester Poetry Library in August 2019. She explains that far from being a research-based university building, this new library is a place “open for anybody curious about poetry”.
Aside from the well respected National Poetry Library situated in the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre (the largest public collection of modern poetry in the world), a Google search shows no mention of another dedicated poetry library in the UK, certainly not in the North West.
“We’ve spent a great deal of time researching what people want,” Swain says. “There will be lots of events and, because the new arts and humanities building has theatre and recording spaces, we have a chance to use these to work with people, young and old. We will have poetry in recording, children’s poetry, poetry in translation and in different languages. Part of it is about celebrating the 200-plus languages across Greater Manchester and setting up a library with the community so we don’t just decide what’s in it and then open the doors. We will be working with an already thriving poetry community.”
Like so many of our beloved arts and cultural organisations, the pandemic forced the library to cancel a programme of celebratory events due to run from March 2020 up until the proposed opening date in June. The library is now hoping to open in early 2021 depending on how current social distancing procedures progress. Despite the disappointment, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom.
““We had to delay the opening but it’s not just about the building. One of the ways [COVID-19] has changed things is that we thought about how we could respond to people who were demanding what kinds of poetry projects they could get involved in while they were at home. Two things that were really popular were Carol Ann Duffy’s Write Where We Are Now [when poets from around the world were invited to write directly about the pandemic or about the personal situation they found themselves in during lockdown] where over 50,000 people engaged with these poems written by professional poets. But, as well as that, The Poetry Library has been collecting public submissions, so we’ve got over 400 that we are curating into an archive. It’s not all about the pandemic, [the poems are] about living in the here and now. They’re about relationships and nature and all sorts of things and I think that has provided a good outlet for people.”
So, has our current reliance on technology changed the way the library might operate in the future? Will there be a stronger digital focus?
“We were always going to have a website anyway,” says Swain. “We had envisaged the public programme but we hadn’t realised how popular the online engagement would be. Instead of having a face-to-face library and then developing an online programme, it’s happened the other way around.”
She adds: “It’s interesting when you have introverted people who might be interested in poetry actually doing something online first. And, of course, for people who might be disabled, have caring responsibilities or for some reason can’t get to a library, it’s magic. You can have just as enriching an experience online.”
One of the most intriguing plans for Manchester Poetry Library is a focus on the diversity of language. Considering the 200 languages spoken across Greater Manchester, Swain says it would take “years and years” to develop a representative collection. However, they have secured funding from The Granada Foundation to develop a collection in five languages. After that, more funding will be sought to expand into further languages. Swain explains that the process involves working closely with poets who write in a different language and using their knowledge of poetry to produce a starting collection. Then, they can develop festivals and events around that theme.
“People assume that it will only be poetry in English,” she says. “As a poetry library of the North West, people have asked me ‘is it just poetry from the North West?’ and it definitely isn’t. It’s a contemporary poetry collection so different to what you’d find in a public library, and it starts in 1889 which is the year of the first recording of a poem [Robert Browning recorded How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix on a phonograph] and because of the history of poetry and music – lyric and rap is so strong in Manchester – poetry and recording is another [of our] specialisms.”
Swain talks a little about the need to decolonise libraries (the process of building a more diverse collection) and the importance of being representative of the real history of writing. “I prefer to refer to it as liberation,” she says. “When you start a new project, or a new collection, you’re bringing to the fore poets that should have had their rightful place in history. So some of the work we are doing to co-curate collections is about that. Trying to build something new and starting with all of the voices, rather than a select few.”
It seems like this important work is underway with projects like Mother Tongue, Other Tongue, a multilingual poetry competition that celebrates cultural diversity and the many languages spoken in schools in the UK. It’s already a huge success.
“Even though children have not been in school due to coronavirus, we’ve had more entries than ever. [The programme] encourages pupils who might feel like they have their mother tongue that they speak at home and English that they speak at school, and feel sort of broken in half a bit, to have pride in their mother language as well.”
Supporting young, emerging poets is also high on the list of priorities. “There are so many young people in Manchester who are just starting out who need to get support and know how to get publishers and agents. We are connecting with organisations where young people are interested in poetry writing or putting together a collection but might need some help from a poet just to think through the scale of their idea, just to give them a sounding board.”
I must admit that I’ve never been much of a poetry reader. I didn’t think I was smart enough to ‘get it’ and it wasn’t until much later in life that I found myself drawn to reading poetry for fun. Does Swain think that poetry is an unfairly overlooked genre of literature?
“Some of the reasons why there are barriers to poetry, and the way that it is thought of as elitist, is how it’s been taught by some teachers and the way the curriculum focuses on a certain canon of poetry and on poetry criticism, not on poetry for pleasure and giving children a real opportunity to write their own poetry and think about an audience. [The current curriculum] is about finding the right set of given answers and, to me, that is the absolute opposite of what poetry is about. I can perfectly understand why people wouldn’t want to try again, but my advice would be if you don’t like something, it’s like film or music, then try something else.”
She continues: “My view about poetry is personal and other people might say something different, but I think it helps you explore what it is to be human, to make sense of yourself and the world. It’s always good to ask a poet and Malika Booker [British poet, writer and artist] says ‘poets interrogate the world to arrive at truth and honesty and that can inspire people’. Often you can articulate what cannot be said.
“I find comfort in poetry and I know a lot of people do. I was an English teacher for a long time and I worked for Arvon too, so I saw a lot of children come on residentials who said ‘no, poetry is not for me’ and, actually, by finding comfort in other people’s words and finding out that poets are alive and not that much older than them, that was quite interesting. But [they also found comfort] in writing themselves.
“If you’re living in a vulnerable situation or you’re just surviving, if you get a chance to see a sense of possibility in your life, you start to own it and you believe that you have something to say that is of value to other people. I have seen that process so many times, it literally changes somebody’s perspective about who they are.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Manchester Poetry Library is scheduled to open in early 2021. In the meantime, you can sign up for the Manchester Poetry Library monthly newsletter for the latest on news, opportunities, writing workshops and events, and blogs. Also, the team are interested in what you’d love to see in the library and any ideas for working in partnership. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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