Sunday, February 19, 2012

Manchester Poetry

I picked up a copy of the Manhattan Review in Oxfam, an anglophilic American poetry magazine. The issue had a feature on Liverpool and Manchester poets for North American readers, edited by Chris McCabe and Philip Fried. The lead essay talks in depth about a Liverpool poetry scene from the 60s and 70s, The Mersey Sound et al, but struggles a little to define a similar Manchester one: repeating instead the musical story of the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Tony Wilson and Morrissey et al.

I've lived in Manchester since 1991, and though Manchester has always had a literary scene, it would be fairer to say its had a series of poetry scenes, rather than just one, performance, mainstream, experimental, or based around bookshops, magazines and publishers.

There was a Manchester Poetry Festival - which has since morphed into the literature festival - but that grew out of spoken word and comedy; though it didn't ignore the role of Carcanet and the Universities in the city's scene. It's why any truly anthropological collection of Manchester poetry would surely include Chloe Poems' (aka Gerry Potter) "The Queen Sucks Nazi Cock" and Lemn Sissay's "Hardy's Well" poem alongside Morrissey's lyrics to "Suffer Little Children", "Beasley Street" and "The North will Rise Again." Then there's long term resident of the city and poet laureate Carol Anny Duffy, Staffordshire born, Liverpool-linked; not to mention the poets, academic and otherwise, Manchester based, and Manchester exiled, that circle Micheal Schmidt's Carcanet and PN Review - Jeffrey Wainwright and John Ash to name two. Several of the Manchester poets in the Manhattan Review collection, including Matthew Welton, and my publisher Chris (Hamilton) Emery, no longer live here, the latter leaving a long time ago; whilst is Accrington-raised, Withington-based Steven Waling "Mancunian" any more or less, because his accent is geographical closer, than someone like myself who grew up in the West Midlands? A genuinely Mancunian writer such as Lee Rourke (now based in Essex) or Neil Campbell (in the North East) don't necessarily define their poetry by their city of origin. There was an issue of Norfolk based The Rialto a few years ago which included Welton, Campbell, myself and a couple of other Manchester poets - which we joked about being "the Manchester issue." It's also far too easy to forget that the internationalist approach of more experimental writers, like James Davis and Tom Jenks, both living in the city, but through presses like ZimZalla and ifPthenQ seeing themselves part of a non-parochial movement, that nonetheless has a strong physical focus here in the NW.

I'm certainly more of a Manchester poet than a Birmingham one - though I'd say I was more of a Midlands poet than either, if only because I retain both the accent (which does come through in the speech cadences of my poetry) and the memories (that imbue some of my work - and I've never spent more than a couple of nights in the city of Birmingham, never lived there.) I've written substantially about Manchester, but more in fiction than poetry, and the city - I realise - is only explicitly mentioned in two poems in "Playing Solitaire for Money". But York, London and Lancaster where I collectively spent seven years of my life don't get a mention at all; I'm clearly not an Elizabeth Bishop writing of geography, or a Philip Larkin of particular English place.

And that I think is true of Manchester poets in general. There are Manchester poems in books by Les Murray (a frequent visitor to the city) and John McAuliffe (resident here), but defining a Manchester poet is a hard thing. David Constantine has written about the Salford slums where his grandparents lived; and the Manchester poets who wear there city heart on sleeve are those where the accent and the image is so much part of their work, like Mike Garry or John Cooper Clarke. The 2 books that were recently published by Puppywolf under the name "Best of Manchester Poets" have come from the spoken word scene, though making tentative efforts to be more wide ranging.

Whereas there are Scottish anthologies, Welsh anthologies and similar, where nationality can be seen as being something that is "real", I'm not so sure that city's have the same identity; Manchester writers may have been born here, or live here or study here, but they don't necessarily write about here, and why should they after all? New Order, Joy Division and the Smiths have a universality regardless of their postcode or subject matter. Only The Fall retain, through sound and subject matter, a vision that can be so explicitly linked to their city of origin. Parochialism is one of the city's great failings - and its those artists that transcend that, whether referencing their background or not, that make it a great city - and one that can attract writers as diverse as Martin Amis and Carol Ann Duffy. A truly representative Manchester anthology, I think, would struggle hard if it limited itself to writing about the city by residents or sons and daughters of the city; similarly I think the last thing any Manchester poet - whether born, bred or landed here - wants to be told is to write about the Hacienda, Coronation Street and Boddingtons. Identity is fluid, and good poetry reflects that. It matters not where the writer of "Adlestrop" was born or lived, after all.


Jenny Wren said...

Thanks Adrian for this whistle stop tour of poets who, let's say, are connected to Manchester in some way. Your post is really helpful to me to try and get a handle on what the poetry scene in Manchester actually consists of - although as you rightly point out, after a certain point, where a poet is from, or was from doesn't really matter. Especially when nowhere is much more than a day and a half away by plane (apart from the moon) and t'Internet brings the whole world in front of our noses. Thankyou for your deep knowledge of Manchester-connected poetry, and for sharing it here.

Tom Jenkins said...

Hey Adrian,
Nice post - came across your site while searching for poetry events in Manchester. Don't suppose you know of any good Manchester slams? I moved up here recently and have struggled to find anything so far. There's the festival in October, but that seems to be invitiation-only.


Adrian Slatcher said...

There used to be regular slams at the Green Room but since its shut not entirely sure where they happen, if you like that kind of thing. Not slams as such, but open mics etc. Bad Language
You might find info here and Poets & players keep an email list of events - To subscribe to the ‘Dear List’ mailing list, please send an empty email to:

There are regular nights on at Sand Bar on Grosvenor St. called Beatification and Say Something; both which have open mic nights; and Contact Theatre does have regular stuff as well - as well as young people's poetry groups.