Thursday, October 27, 2011

Moved by the Breeze

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Saturday 22nd October, workshop 3pm; performance 7.30pm, Contact

Workshop: Words by Shaaheda Patel. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

On a Saturday afternoon, Oxford Road’s vibrant Contact theatre is the venue for today’s meeting of dynamic, young writers, waiting to be coached by acclaimed Caribbean poet Jean "Binta" Breeze.

The oranges and purples, running parallel to the striking urban artwork on our entrance, reflects the diversity of our motley group. We are led into a slow-moving mirrored lift, to an upper floor. The chirpy yellow room is already occupied by a small table in the centre; seats are filled.

I sit to the left of Jean; she is beaming and welcomes us in.

White plates of chocolate biscuits are on offer, sugary stimulants for the writing process ahead. We have intimacy and arm space, as two Young Identity members arrive and the door is closed. Part of the writing development organisation Commonword, Young Identity supports teenagers and young adults by using poetry, prose and performance to expose young people’s issues.

Jean begins with some warm-up activities. She introduces herself as Jean, a poet who had Alpen for breakfast. We are subsequently asked to introduce ourselves in the same way but are challenged to build up the list of names and breakfasts as we circle the table. It turns out that I am accompanied by a first-time writer, some accomplished poets, a young poet who had frankfurters on baps for breakfast and this year’s Superhero Of Slam poetry winner.

Jean now gives us five minutes to carry out some free writing. We are asked to write in detail about everything that we have done in our day so far. I find myself jotting down intimate details of my husband, as he finally sweeps a dying bee off the floor that had inconvenienced us by lying there dying for two long days already. The writer next to me whispers that she finds this exposing and I find myself agreeing.

Commenting on one writer’s smoking habits, Jean tells us that she was once a chain smoker, and only the risk of a brain haemorrhage has now slowed her down. Her day would normally have read, “Coffee, 16 cigarettes, coffee, 10 cigarettes…”

Jean now introduces the difference between the concrete and the abstract and our next task is to use only the concrete to describe the more convoluted abstract. We choose an abstract noun each and begin the process. I choose Imagination.

Jean starts by asking a series of questions to evoke the senses and we are silent in this large yellow room and only the scribbling of Biros is heard. “If you walked in on your abstract, what would it be doing?” She asks as her final question. Immediately I see Imagination spinning, neat and orderly: “Chaos contained through movement,” I write.

To recharge, Jean points us towards the green room and on return we re-read and redraft our poems in silence.

Jean asks us to share what we have written. We hear of “boiled tripe in bleach”, and “stray strands of silky black refusing tidy pony tails”, triggering animated discussions of grief, integrity and indifference.

Our time with Jean has ended.

Jean talks about perspectives and tells us as we sit in silence: “We are on our own in this world. It is your world and the senses are full of wonderful things.” She discusses our frustrations as new writers and sometimes our obsessions with "getting an idea". She encourages us to trust our senses. “We are sometimes overturned by a smell, and this is how the poem becomes the idea.” She helpfully advises while pointing at the table: “Be true to the local and the concrete… that will then become true to the universal.” She ends: “Be true to the little things.”

We learn that Jean didn’t come to this point through academia and university. She has been writing since 11 and performing since the 70s. Her book of selected poems, Third World Girl, came out last month and as she leafs through it she can still see the truth. The truth transcends time.

“Write with honesty,” she pleads. And with that thought we leave on this Saturday afternoon; stepping back out onto busy Oxford Road; inspired and ready to self-consciously sense again on our separate journeys home.

Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English Language and Literature at a sixth-form college in Blackburn. She blogged for Manchester Literature Festival in 2010 and has worked on literature development projects with Time To Read.

Performance: Words by Kevin Danson. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

Tonight is a night I want to remember and tell people about for a long time. I say this not only due to a series of bicycle calamities getting to tonight’s event, involving me riding a bike which would be too small even for a six year old then pedalling like a fugitive to maintain punctuality, but also because I was given the opportunity to watch the sold-out performance of passionate and compelling Jean "Binta" Breeze. Segun Lee-French is the anchor of tonight’s Manchester Literature Festival event, jointly hosted by Renaissance One, Commonword and Speakeasy.

Launching this evening’s poetry are some members of the inspiring group Young Identity: Nicole May, Saquib Chowdhury, Yussuf M’Rabty, Reece Williams, Elmi Ali and Mike Bennett. They stand in unison as the voice of our young generation presenting pieces relating teenage struggles of romance, hesitant thoughts of an infatuated boy and difficulties of witnessing domestic violence. It isn’t all seriousness however. Nicole gives a witty piece on extremities women go to - waxing, botoxing, enhancing, clothing - in order to fit the ever-changing picture of an ideal woman. Young Identity offer free workshops every Tuesday at Contact Theatre from 7-9pm. Some of these poets perform their arts as part of Brave New Voices, representing the UK around the globe. Manchester’s where it’s at!

Three Speakeasy poets substitute the Young Identity crew and smooth the audience with their luscious voices. Between them they describe society’s judgments on our current reality vis-à-vis virtual reality (Chanje Kunda) and rap issues on politics and the global financial crisis (Yvonne McCalla and Amanda Milligan), all the while causing a respirational standstill for silent reflection. It is that quiet I could hear a feather land.

Jean "Binta" Breeze steps into the spotlight to euphoric applause. After cracking a few jokes – though this continues throughout her performance – Jean breaks into song that rolls sweetly into her first poem, Simple Things. As she finishes her Testament poem, Jean tells us of the church songs she learnt as a child in her granny’s lounge. And that is just how we all feel right now; as if we are in the lounge of Jean "Binta" Breeze and she is sharing her childhood memories. There is a certain intimacy between the audience and this captivating poet. Jean starts a song; we all join in. Jean taps her foot and we keep the beat like a human metronome. I love it when she hurtles the lyrics; "Old pirates, yes, they rob I" receiving a bursting return of the subsequent words to one of Bob Marley’s most significant songs. Her presence is like that of a church leader, admitting truths in her words above sounds of harmony and amens from her devotees.

I would never have guessed that as I sit here in Contact I would be travelling through the mountains of western Jamaica meeting stern yet entertaining grandparents and watching a small Jamaican child arrive on our foreign shores then being witness to a Caribbean wife/mother/worker’s testament. Occasionally I find myself lost under the patois yet I cling on to an identifiable word and get myself back on track.

Jean wraps up with a rhythmic poem about a Caribbean woman - however there appears to be not a chance in the world that this crowd will let her go that easily. The applause is like a thunderstorm and the fans rise to give her a full-house standing ovation. We get one more out of her, a new poem called Third World Girl, also the name of her new book. Undoubtedly one of the best colonial poems I have ever heard. With verse like "You can’t love me cos you own me / my paradise is your hotel" and "Empire’s over but the rape’s been done", my thoughts are drowned and I’m swimming in contemplation.

I arrived dizzy and out of breath, now I’m leaving in exactly the same way. Even though I have an unforgettable Nana of my own, I am happy to take on 20 more Jean "Binta" Breezes.

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The greatest love affair

Antonia Fraser: On Harold Pinter, Wednesday 19th October, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Rowena Roberts. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

“At the dinner party, we sat at opposite ends of the table – which vexed me, as I’d been hoping to meet this man who everyone was talking about. The evening drew on and I had to leave with my friend – but before I did so, I walked over to introduce myself to him. So I said who I was, and that I unfortunately had to leave, at which he turned his extraordinary black eyes up to me and simply said: ‘Must you go?’”

Such was Lady Antonia Fraser’s account of her first meeting with the Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Harold Pinter in 1975, which she described to a crowded, yet hushed room under high white ceilings and mellow yellow lighting, in the Whitworth Art Gallery last Wednesday.

Of course, on that night in question she didn’t "go", so these first words of Harold to Antonia marked the start of a relationship that was to endure for 33 years – and inspired the title of her biography on him, published last year.

Must You Go? was written “with passion in 10 weeks”, Lady Antonia revealed, following Harold’s death in 2008. Quite a departure from her usual best-selling books on historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, it’s both a mourning and a celebration of the man and their life together, based on Antonia’s personal diaries.

On this evening in the Whitworth, Lady Antonia spoke to stand-in interviewer Jon Atkin (who did a sterling job at last-minute notice) about the love of her life and “one true friend”, reading extracts from the book that perfectly matched her conversational style: anecdotal and affectionate.

With a stately air and gracious demeanour, sporting a smart black-and-white floral jacket and a wicked sense of humour, Antonia revealed details of parties and playwrights; of family trips to Eastbourne; of a jolly cricketer who wrote sinister plays; of poetry penned in the intensity of passion celebrating “the breath we took when we first met”; and of the characteristically understated manner in which Harold received the news of his crowning career achievement – “I seem to have won the Nobel Prize.”

The audience Q&A also brought her other historical works into the conversation, allowing Antonia to touch on her forthcoming work, a book on the Great Reform Bill, for which she was visiting Manchester’s People's History Museum the following day.

But, as Pinter’s plays reveal, emotions can sometimes best be glimpsed in throwaway lines – such as Antonia’s quiet, matter-of-fact admission towards the close of our discussion: “I can’t read the end of my book – and I wrote it.”

That sense of enduring love and incredible passion, bubbling below the surface of a literary discussion, is what I’ll remember most from this evening with Antonia Fraser.

Rowena Roberts is a copywriter, editor and journalist based in south Manchester. You can see more on her website.

Brain drain

Literary Quiz with James Walton, Sunday 23rd October, 7.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Kevin Danson.

On another weirdly warm October night, the doors are closed and curtains drawn in the IABF as teams cluster around tables for this year’s Manchester Literature Festival quiz night with writer and host of BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff James Walton, also author of the handy literary quiz book, Sonnets, Bonnets & Bennetts. James is the creator of this year’s quiz, made up of six rounds with 10 questions each and random bonus questions thrown in. On top of that, he torments us with an occasional twist in certain rounds when giving the answers.

Each round has a theme; bestsellers, food and drink, sport and the like. We sit, anxiously waiting to show our literary knowledge to one another and maybe even shock ourselves. In all honesty, from round one I discover my choice of literature has been entirely off the mark, except of course for the Twilight series - worth one question. My team appears to be better equipped than I, though silence and frozen stares tell me they too may soon collide with the same brick wall I have.

Q. Which current bestseller opens July 15th 1988?
Many of the teams scribble immediately onto the sheet of paper. I on the other hand admire the renovated building I am sitting in and the pieces of antique furniture scattered about the room. With the difficulty of the questions comes an amplified volume of oooooooos and aaaaaaaaaas. These people love a challenge, forcing their minds to dig deep within those chests and vaults kept at the back of their thinkers. I will have to empty mine out and start again.

Q. Who wrote the short story; The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner?
My team is wide-eyed. A small team of two young ladies appears unabashed as the questions are read. In the third round a helpful twist comes to our aid; the final letter of an answer will be the start of the next answer. This seems to work in our favour at the beginning, then we go back to our standard inter-gawking. I’m trying to decipher lip movements from the team at the other end of our table but alas, I have yet to acquire this skill. I have a clear view of one of this year’s Manchester Blog Awards’ winners, Benjamin Judge, but he’s speaking tight-lipped. Does he know what I’m trying to do?

The 1960s rock band Steppenwolf was named after a novel by which author?
As the rounds progress the pressure multiplies the number of empty bottles on top of tables. The last round brings with it the harshest rules of the night, received with grumbles and shifting chairs; If you get any answers wrong, including the bonuses, you lose the points for the whole round. Nonetheless, James does let us leave a blank if we are unsure. The teams release their breath.

Q. Who wrote the novel The Sporting Life?
Q. Which novel contains the characters Dr Slop and Yorick?
Q. Whose second novel was called Human Croquet?

So many varied questions and, fortunately, so many well-read partakers to tackle them. The final round ends and the judges huddle into their corner to add up for the grand finale. I am pleased to say we didn’t come last, though very, very close.

The final four are as follows:
4th – joint position from teams James Draper and The Iliterati
3rd – The Lancs Team
2nd – Five And A Baby
And, for a second year running, first place is awarded to brainboxes The Librarians. They are presented with a bottle of champers and copies of Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.

Even though I leave perplexed from the amount of catch-up reading I have to do from now on, it has been a very fun night and I have had the pleasure of meeting the extremely delightful Emma Jane Unsworth, author of Hungry, The Stars And Everything and the spellbinding Zoe Lambert, author of The War Tour. A lovely end to an evening and to this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. Well done to all who took part!

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.

Norse code

Francesca Simon: The Sleeping Army, Sunday 23rd October, 5pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Literature blogger Ann Giles has written about this event on Bookwitch. Read the piece here.

A truly global feel

International Prize For Arabic Fiction Discussion, Sunday 23rd October, 1pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Manchester-based arts and culture journalist Ben East has written about this event for The National. Read his article here.

Chloe is gone, long live Gerry

The Men Pomes: Gerry Potter, Friday 21st October, 7.30pm, Contact

Words by Daniel Carpenter.

The first thing you hear is the thump, thump of a walking stick. It echoes across the room and from the corner, he enters. A cloaked figure, stomping his way to the microphone. Once he shuffles on stage, he casts aside the cloak and stick and grasps the microphone tight.

If there’s one thing to say about Gerry Potter, he knows how to make an entrance. Even back when he performed as Chloe Poems, he was a powerhouse of poetry.

It’s not just his approach to the stage, it’s his presence once on there. He is warm and friendly between poems, or should that be pomes? As referenced by the title of his latest collection, The Men Pomes, we quickly learn that men don’t like to say the word poem. The poetry he performs tonight is an exploration of this idea. Delving deep into the male psyche he brings with him a combination of working-class anger, love for Liverpool and a unique voice on the poetry scene.

Poet Dominic Berry who was also in the audience said, “Queer culture really, really needs this and too few even try to do what Gerry does so stunningly.” He’s right of course; Gerry Potter is a unique talent. The climax of the first half of his set, a poem called Bashed left most of the audience in tears and is one of the finest pieces of performance poetry I have ever seen. There is an honesty to a lot of his work, and it comes across on stage, so that even when he forgets his words, or stumbles, the audience is with him every step of the way.

There was a huge turnout for the evening and a vibrant crowd. Upcoming poet Zach Roddis commented, “He was in turn funny, thought-provoking, and poignant. It was really an honest portrayal of his own life in Liverpool, nothing was altered, and that's why it stood out for me as a performance that I will never forget.” Dominic Berry continues, “My all time favourite poet used to be Chloe Poems but last night Gerry Potter well and truly killed her dead.”

Daniel Carpenter is a writer and one of the organisers of the monthly spoken word event Bad Language. He blogs at Winter Hill.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Translating ideas

Zhu Wen: In Conversation With Julia Lovell, Sunday 23rd October, 4.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Adrian Slatcher.

Of China, we hear so much, but sometimes know so little. It’s why the visit of the writer and film-maker Zhu Wen to Manchester was so engrossing. Born in the late 1960s, he came to prominence in the 1990s with stories that were attempting to reflect the reality of contemporary China; a state that has changed considerably over the last 20 years. Zhu Wen’s stories have been translated into English by Julia Lovell, and this event, to celebrate a new translation of one of his stories, due to appear in a Comma anthology next year, was supported by The Confucious Institute at The University Of Manchester.

I’ve read the stories collected as I Love Dollars and there’s a freshness and a looseness to his writing that seeks to give voice to the real China. The newly translated story, from which Wen read, as the English translation was projected to his side, tells the story of a student who goes from Nanjing in the south of China, to Harbin in the north, “The frozen city beyond the great wall”. It tells of a culture clash in this vast country, where the southern student dresses inappropriately for the cold weather and is shocked by the poverty of the friend’s family with whom he stays. A diet of pickled cabbage is dealt with by outside communal latrines which are “scattered with rods of excrement and icicles of urine”. It is a classic tale of a culture clash, where the educated southerner is shocked by the grim life of his northern countrymen, and the routine violence with which men treat their women. As the extract comes to an end, the narrator sees a woman who intrigues him, and when she turns, he describes her eyes as being “colder than the January wind”.

In questions from Comma editor Ra Page and the audience after the reading, Julia Lovell contextualises three generations of Chinese writer. Those born in the two decades after the war tend to write novels about China’s recent history, while those born since Mao’s death are far more commercial, writing in genres for the market. For Lovell, Zhu Wen is one of the writers of a “sandwich” generation, more avant garde in their style, and focusing on the “hurly burly of life in China today”.

Zhu Wen was an engineer and a poet before he was a fiction writer, and, fascinatingly, no longer writes stories, instead having become an acclaimed film-maker. Explaining this transition, Wen talks of film being a “a new love affair”, and reflecting his desire to try new things.

The audience is a nice mix of Chinese and English readers, and Wen is an engaging, albeit ironic, interviewee. When asked about the difference between a novelist and a short story writer, Wen says that the novelist needs “strong and muscular buttocks”, clearly an aphorism that Lovell can’t translate exactly. She talks about the difficulty of direct translation from the Chinese in a way that will make sense to English readers – and how it has helped that writers, like Wen, have been so open to her capturing the tone and style of their work for translation into English. For Wen, the book is remade when it is translated into English, so it becomes a different book, a collaboration between writer and translator.

It was a fascinating event in a number of ways – not least, because of how Zhu Wen has always been reluctant to define himself as a writer. Lovell says that on her visits to China she speaks to younger writers about who they read, and Wen is a name that frequently crops up as an influence. Little known in the West, and no longer working in the medium, his work is well worth discovering as a gateway onto a culture that is continuing to change at speed. Lovell makes the point that though we know little of Chinese literature, Chinese writers are far more open and aware of Western literature – and events such as this help to redress the balance.

Adrian Slatcher blogs about literary matters on Art Of Fiction and writes poetry and prose. His poetry collection Extracts From Levona was published by Knives, Forks and Spoons press in 2010 and Playing Solitaire For Money is out on the Salt Modern Voices imprint from Salt Publishing.

A newsworthy novel

Catherine O'Flynn, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm, Event Room, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Sarah Holland.

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, was critically acclaimed and won the prestigious First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards in 2008. What a pity for the 20 agents and publishers who rejected it before it was printed by Tindal Street Press, a small Birmingham publisher. It was on my final year reading list at university and its natural prose, humour and engrossing mystery plot led me to pick it for an essay subject. After spending significant time scribbling my rambling thoughts and question marks on the pages of her first novel I am glad to be in the intimate Waterstone’s event room this Saturday evening, to hear her chat about her second novel, The News Where You Are.

It is evident by the sitcoms that grace our television screens regularly, the American sense of humour often differs to the British. Flynn mentions that in America her novels are placed in the mystery category, but in comedy in England. She prefers to think of her work as the latter and says that anyone expecting an intricate and gripping mystery plot would be disappointed.

Writing has come very naturally to her. When asked about how she developed her unique style she struggles to answer, seemingly embarrassed by the application of her real voice. It is a similar style to her emails and letters, she says. How easy she makes this writing malarkey sound. But, could a voice be taught and nurtured? Or does it simply exist or not, and that is that? She couldn’t say, except that she finds the notion of "finding" a voice an "over-mystification". She uses her natural voice, but other writers create a more heightened prose, and that works for them.

Her second novel is about Frank, a local news reporter with a superficial "corny" persona who becomes greatly affected by the tragic stories he uncovers. She is interested in exploring the person behind the image. Local news reporters are often sneered at and viewed as ridiculous, she says. Her life experiences and interests influence her fiction. She recounts when she worked at HMV and a local reporter, who was often viewed as a bit of a joke, approached the counter with surprisingly acceptable choices to her critical musical ear. His politeness and charm seemed incongruous to his screen character and made her admire the largeness of personality required to be indifferent to the constant sniggers. Growing up, she watched a lot of local news, stories that were both funny and sad, a “strange cocktail of the surreal and the depressing”. She says that her books are basically the literary equivalent of the tragic-comic local news programmes.

The characters in her novels suffer from lost or misled ambition. I ask about her attitudes to ambition and she responds that, in a sense, she is "ambitionless". She never expected to be an author. She had many jobs before this, including a post woman and in the box office of a local arts centre. She will stop when it feels natural, she does not want to be trapped in the label of being a "writer" and churn out novels for the sake of keeping the role. Her ambitions lay in the smaller finer things, the ability to read what she liked and such. I say to her this instils an optimistic thought that, sometimes, good things can unexpectedly happen. She replies that so called "grand" ambitions are not always needed to achieve.

Catherine O’Flynn has kept her self-called ramblings succinct; she has been easy on the ear and incredibly humble when it comes to her work. I approach her with my copy of What Was Lost, and she writes in it ever so graciously, "I am sure your essay is better than the book". Oh, if only.

Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.

Shedding light on problems

Sam Willetts with Glenn Sharp & Chico Pere, Saturday 22nd October, 2.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Sarah Holland.

It is one of those clear, fresh October days. The white, open space of the Whitworth’s South Gallery is radiant as the sun peers through the huge windows that display Whitworth Park. The sun glistens on the green leaves, couples are sleepily lying on the grass and bicycles cycle past. It is a perfect, peaceful setting for this Poets & Players event. An afternoon filled with music and poetry? Don’t mind if I do.

Poets & Players was started in 2004 by poet Linda Chase, who passed away earlier this year, with musical director Chris Davies. This afternoon, appropriate for the setting, Sam Willets is reading from his poetry book New Light For The Old Dark, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards last year. Now, I never read poetry for pleasure. I don’t possess the patience to decipher the abstract metaphors and ambiguous meanings, hidden like a puzzle. I like stories. I like to be told things. By the end of today though, I feel a little turned.

The event commences with musicians Glenn Sharp (guitar) and Chico Pere (cante) from the group Calaita – Flamenco Son. The only movement in the gallery is the tapping of their feet and the clapping of Chico; who is looking the eclectic musician in baggy orange trousers and a bright red shirt. The guitar is beautiful and Chico’s lungs are powerful indeed. He sings with such passion that his face turns red.

Sam Willetts approaches the microphone and nervously says that he is “very unused to doing this when sober”. He was a heroin addict for over 10 years, and is now in recovery. He is shy, and trembles as he reads his first couple of poems, commenting in between that he does “feel extremely nervous”. He is normally intoxicated when giving poetry readings and it would just “breeze” by. The audience laughs.

He has a fascinating background. He mentions how his mother escaped from the Nazis and came to England as a refugee in 1947. Within three years she was reading English at Manchester University. His poetry is influenced by her experiences and his secular Jewishness. He reads his mother’s guilt-ridden survival experiences from On The Smolensk Road. He revives a visit to a Warsaw cemetery. His poems are not all darkness however, there are homesick poems dedicated to the white cliffs of Dover, and the first poem he reads is Anchor Riddle, as he has always found anchors to be beautiful.

There is a poetry break for more music from Calaita. People start to gather outside and observe through the glass, and one family decide to come in for a look. That is what is lovely about this event. It gives it a relaxed, open vibe. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon, experiencing talent in such a lovely setting, all for free.

When Sam appears again he is sat down, water in hand and seemingly more relaxed. He reads the incredibly powerful Digging, a poem about his heroin addiction: "I'm back in a basement / heartsick, digging for a vein in February / as in a February gone and a February / still to come, spitting prayers through the tourniquet / in my teeth, licking up tears and pleading / for my blood to plume up in the barrel, please". This second part is so emotional that my eyes tinker on the edge of watering. He recites a poem about his painful separation from his girlfriend. Witnessing him read is witnessing his pain and regret. He recites a poem dedicated to regret, and the time he regrets wasting, on regret. He reads a tribute to his father that describes the time he died in hospital. He balances this compelling content with lighter love poetry, and reads the amorous Coup De Foudre, a poem he eloquently says is about “falling precipitously in love”. He says he chose that title to make it sound a bit “posher and sexier”. He starts to enjoy the reading, assuring more than once that this will be his last one, before adding during the applause "just one more". He ends with a short, surprising poem about a break-up that has the audience grinning as they applaud: “She said / Look / It’s not you / It’s me / I don’t like you."

This has been a personal highlight of MLF 2011. The combination of delicate Spanish guitars and a gifted poet with a lot to express has given the event a unique quality. I approach Sam Willets, holding a newly purchased copy of his collection, and tell him how much I enjoyed it despite not even being a poetry person. He responds that, funnily enough, he isn’t much of a poetry person either. Those that put him up for both the Forward Prize and TS Eliot prize would probably disagree with him on that one.

Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.

Science is golden

Alan Turing & Morphogenesis: Jane Rogers and Martyn Amos, Sunday 23rd October, 2pm, MadLab

Words by David Hartley. Photograph by Craig Pay.

Bringing together the forces of the Manchester Literature Festival and the Manchester Science Festival, Comma Press invited an audience to their chilly but functional headquarters at MadLab to discuss and celebrate a figure very dear to the scientific heart of Manchester. For their latest anthology, Litmus, Comma paired off a clutch of top-quality writers with a gaggle of eager scientists to produce short stories based on Eureka moments from the history of science. A quick scan of the credits in the book reveals that many of the scientists involved are currently based at a Manchester establishment, so it seemed somewhat inevitable that the irrepressible Alan Turing would get sucked in along the way.

The subject of my favourite Manchester statue (sitting on a bench in Sackville Park), Turing is as famous for his turbulent and tragic private life as he is for his scientific genius and is one of the few Manchester heroes truly worthy of the accolade. The reverent atmosphere in MadLab therefore felt entirely justified and the excellent hour-and-a-half discussion worked its way into a beautiful homage.

Litmus editor Ra Page introduces proceedings by briefly explaining the tricksy concept of Morphogenesis, the subject of the afternoon. The mind-bending complexities of how one cell expands and evolves into a intricate living creature was the focus of Turing’s last great thesis and the inspiration for Dr Martyn Amos’ suggestion as his Eureka moment for Litmus. The lucky writer who claimed this difficult but alluring topic was Jane Rogers, author of The Testament Of Jessie Lamb and recently long-listed for the Booker Prize. Tasked with not only grappling with the mind and life of a well-loved genius, but also pinning down one of his trickiest concepts, the project was evidently no mean feat.

But what a success. Rogers reads an edited version of her resulting story, entitled Morphogenesis, and manages to bring both Turing and his concepts to life, intertwining the two into a biographical tale of love, loss and lightbulbs. From the delightful ("his destiny is in his cells") to the heartbreaking ("the law will not allow him to be the man his own cells tell him he is"), Rogers’ story and her exquisite reading of it seems to bring the man himself shimmering into the room, apple in one hand, fir cone in the other.

After the story, Dr Martyn Amos, head of Novel Computation at Manchester Metropolitan University, takes to the stage to further elaborate on Turing and his theories. Amos places a lot of emphasis on Turing as a "great connector"; a scientist and mathematician who was unafraid to cross and mix disciplines. Amos correctly notes that science needs more interdisciplinarians to collaborate and contribute to each other’s fields in an effort to better enhance their own. Turing was a great proponent of this, fuelled by his simple fascination in all areas of natural life.

A Q&A session follows and questions from the floor range from the one which forces Dr Amos to assure us that he is NOT A ROBOT and another from a scientist at the back which contains so many unknown words my brain melts and I am unable to write it down. Fortunately for me, most of the rest of the audience seems equally bamboozled! If, indeed, Turing’s spirit has entered the room it would perhaps have been enough to encourage one of his elusive smiles.

As one observer notes, by bringing together scientists and writers in this fashion, a natural metaphor for morphogenesis arises; the scientist plants the original seed and the writer encourages it to grow into a work of fiction. The Comma experiment is a success; a great homage to a true Manchester hero.

David Hartley writes short stories and even shorter film reviews. He can be found at Do A Barrel Roll and his other blog, Screen150, recently won Blog Of The Year at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards. Find him on Twitter: @lonlonranch and @screen150.

A difficult subject

"The Mind Has Fuses": BS Johnson, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Nick Garrard.

The Burgess Foundation is bulging with a capacity crowd for this evening of talks, readings and films in celebration of the late novelist BS Johnson. They have to fish out spare seats from the wings and there are people lined against the back wall, huddled around coats and shopping bags. It would be hard to imagine something like this happening in Johnson’s lifetime: though Burgess himself was a rare supporter of his work, Johnson never quite achieved mainstream acceptance and, frustrated with his perceived lack of success, took his own life at 40. He quickly fell out of print but, since the publication of Jonathan Coe’s loving biography Like A Fiery Elephant in 2004, he has undergone something of a critical revival.

Johnson’s work is hard to define. He offers his readers a wonderful grab-bag: funny, sincere, experimental and heartbreaking all at once. He was a great acolyte of Joyce and Sterne, and seemed to be constantly at war with the form. As David Quantick will later remark, one of the most interesting things about him is that he was a novelist who apparently hated novels - "oh, fuck all this lying" was a favourite catchphrase. So, while the turnout tonight would seem to indicate that he has now been semi-canonised by the literati, a number of walkouts towards the end suggests that his work can still cut too close to the core. Not very English, all this sincerity.
What we get this evening is a wonderful jumble, curated by people who clearly love their subject matter. The actor James Quinn reads excerpts from Johnson’s second novel, Albert Angelo. Journalist and critic David Quantick is on hand to present a scattering of his film work, as well as an endearingly fudged talk which positively buzzes with nerdish enthusiasm. The second half is dedicated to a screening of The Future's Getting Old Like The Rest Of Us, Beatrice Gibson’s inventive filmic reworking of House, Mother, Normal, a key Johnson text.

This, for me, was the highlight. Like the book, it presents an overlapping series of dialogues drawn from the residents of an old people’s home. They bicker and talk over each other, sometimes speaking nonsense, sometimes with the clarity of old age. The whole piece is presented as a text and there are chapter breaks and interspersed scenes in which the actors address the camera and read out their character descriptions. The fourth wall lies in tatters, even before I distractingly notice that one of cast used to be in Desmonds. I try to convince myself it’s the sort of thing Johnson would have approved of. Probably I’ve just watched far too much television.

It makes for a wonderfully disorientating close and when the lights come up and we’re ushered out into the cold, I still can’t quite make sense of it all. There’s a marvellous synchronicity when, shortly after one of the first walkouts takes place, an actor turns to the camera and says "you don’t know what you’re missing". How very apt, I think.

Nick Garrard lives and works in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @havershambler.

Words, walking and watering holes

Boho Literary Pub Walk, Saturday 22nd October, 5-7.30pm, starting at the Midland Hotel

Words and photograph by Hayley Flynn.

This evening's walking tour takes in three local pubs each with their own literary ties and has proven to be a big attraction for Manchester Literature Festival, with a group of around 60 people gathering at the entrance to the Midland Hotel. We’re certainly a thirsty bunch. The tour is split into two groups to make it a more personable experience and I set off with Ed Glinert's group in the direction of The Peveril Of The Peak. Stopping off every now and then, we remember the massacre at St Peter's Fields and how 80,000 people demonstrated for the right to vote. The Peterloo Massacre is covered in several books including The Manchester Man by Mrs GL Banks but most radically, perhaps, by Shelley's poem The Mask Of Anarchy. Shelley lays heavy blame with the Conservative party and talks of murder and fraud - as such the poem was considered too libellous for publication at the time. Comparing Eldon to fraud embodied, Shelley makes a rather beautiful reference to the cotton mills of Manchester in the following verse: "Next came Fraud, and he had on, / Like Eldon, an ermined gown; / His big tears, for he wept well, / Turned to mill-stones as they fell".

Taking in the Bridgewater Hall, a site which Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson considers soulless, we approach the shimmering green delight that is the Peveril Of The Peak. Sitting like a little emerald island on Great Bridgewater Street, the pub is named after the Walter Scott novel and is also the name of the fastest stagecoach from Manchester to London. After we're all sated with beer and ready for the next venue, we stroll along the canal towpath learning as we walk about the political writer William Cobbett who carried the bones of Thomas Payne, a radical writer, with him when he visited Manchester. We stop off besides Manchester's longest running ballroom, The Ritz, and listen to the John Cooper Clarke poem Salomey Maloney: "I was walking down Oxford Road / Dressed in what they call the mode / I could hear them spinning all their smash hits / At the mecca of the modern dance, The Ritz".

By Bridgewater House, Ed recommends the best books that really make you understand Manchester through the ages, citing Love On The Dole by Walter Greenwood as an essential local read which sparks some discussions among the crowd about local authors. Weaving our way along the canal we reach our midway point, The Bank. Upstairs is the Portico Library and previous visitors and members have include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas De Quincy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Val McDermid.

In the Evening Standard, 1936, George Orwell wrote an article describing the perfect pub. The pub should be free of music or any extraneous activities, he called this pub The Moon Under Water and it's this pub that the Wetherspoon chain is based upon. But we bypass Wetherspoons in favour of some local character and end our tour taking in the grand John Rylands library, home of the oldest piece of the New Testament, and have our final drink at the Sir Ralph Abercromby. This is the only building in the area to have survived the Peterloo Massacre and so nicely wraps up the tour back where we started.

Hayley Flynn won Best City And Neighbourhood Blog in the Manchester Blog Awards 2011 for her site, which features the regular Skyliner series, which looks at "the secrets above your eyeline".

Animal magic

Family Storytelling - Toon Tellegen, Saturday 22nd October, 12 noon, Children’s Department, Waterstone's Deansgate

Words by Lisa Hart-Collins.

Toon Tellegen is a Dutch writer who has created a beautiful world populated by anthropomorphised animals that also deals with aspects of philosophy. He started his reading by briefly explaining how he follows a rather strict set of rules for his world. Firstly, all of his animals are the same size, which is important to understand when elephants are asking squirrels to dance. Secondly, in this world there is no hierarchy. Thirdly, there is only one of each thing to avoid confusion. The animals all like each other and want to share and there are no wars.

The children and adults sat around him in a sunlit corner of the children’s department as he began to tell his tales. At first some of the children were rather busy playing with other books, but as each story went on they became more and more involved. Almost as involved as the parents!

He was reading from his recently translated work The Squirrel’s Birthday And Other Parties and started with a story about a snail who built an extension onto his home, so that he could have a party. This was certainly an odd one, but definitely an endearing tale. He also read A Speck Of Dust, The Rhinoceros, Wish List and The Whale And The Seagull, but my personal favourite was A Cake For Someone Who Doesn’t Fancy Cake, because – just like the Squirrel and the Ant in the tale – I always fancy cake.

Although the event started with only a handful of people, it quickly filled up when people had managed to get past the press and crowds in St Ann’s Square, where Betty Driver’s funeral was being held.

The time passed ridiculously quickly and Toon then honoured me with a chat. I asked him very little, as he was a wonderfully warm and chatty man who was willing to offer lots of information. He told me that this was only his second reading in the UK, the first one being a year ago in the small village of Briar Marston, a place where he spent a summer as a 14 year old and to which he returned and read to their primary school.

We also discussed how sometimes clever words created in our own language create an impossible situation for the poor translators, who have to try and find an alternative for an animal which is part beetle, ant and mole (molkevmier? Sorry If I have messed this one up, Toon!). I also exposed my true heart and told him that I too have written a children’s book, but that I – like him – also write for adults. I enquired whether such behaviour was more acceptable in the Netherlands as I understand that it is certainly less accepted here, and apparently it is equally misunderstood.

I finished by asking him for his thoughts on that now rather infamous Martin Amis quote regarding the circumstances under which he would write a children’s book. Toon was, as I expected he would be, wonderfully gracious about this statement, saying that although many in his circle back in the Netherlands were up in arms about it, that it really was a statement made to create controversy rather than reflect an understanding of the processes of writing for children.

Toon was a pleasure to meet and you should all go out and buy his wonderful books, even if you don’t have children.

Lisa Hart-Collins is a writer, traveller, teacher and artist. Not always in that order. Born in Manchester, her love/hate relationship with the city tends to send her running from and returning to it at irregular intervals. She is presently taking a sabbatical to attempt to get her children’s book published.

Cultural carry-out

Poetry Takeaway, Saturday 22nd October, 11.30am-4.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Isobel Buckingham. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

When I think of a poet, the image that springs to mind is a bearded, middle-aged Parisian, sitting in a café in Saint Germain, brooding over decadent verse, fuelled by the substances as familiar to his fingers as his pen; absinthe and tobacco. I am bewildered, therefore, upon arriving at the Poetry Takeaway event (the first time I have ever come into contact with these elusive creatures), to find the poets upbeat, down-to-earth and – dare I say it – normal. The "emporium", as it is referred to, looks delightfully awkward against the sumptuous backdrop of the Whitworth Art Gallery; its rickety structure almost visibly strained by an incredible amount of words bouncing to and from the assiduous minds of renowned poets Tim Clare, Dominic Berry and Rob Auton.

An idea brewed by Tim Clare and producer Tom Searle, the Poetry Takeaway Emporium travels the country’s finest festivals, creating made-to-order poems in under 10 minutes ("under 15 minutes!" squeals a pressured Dominic Berry), wrapped in authentic takeaway boxes and performed to the peckish poetic consumer – free of charge. Steady waves of people drift over to "order" their poems. The requests vary greatly from person to person. One man is resolute in his wish for a poem about confusion; 10 minutes later, Tim Clare is reading back his well-cooked poem which dealt with the terrifying truth that neither communism, capitalism nor socialism can "fix" society, and which ends with the profound comment on the covetousness of human nature, "if I see two bicycles, I want the best one".

As the effervescent, Manchester-grown Dominic Berry’s first Poetry Takeaway customer (finally, a claim to fame), I am initially asked for a vague topic upon which he should base my poem. Although I am desperate for him to create something reminiscent of Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the conversation takes a natural turn towards the horrors of the university application process. No, the idea of a poem about forms and grades doesn’t appeal to me much, either. But, 15 minutes later, Dominic steps out of the emporium and animatedly performs the poem he has written based on our conversation; an existential ballad about waiting for confirmation, with allusions to Coleridge and Yeats ("don’t step upon my dreams"). I am impressed to say the least.

This dynamic triad of poets has never before worked together at the Poetry Takeaway Emporium. It is, as Tim Clare so magically put it, an "unprecedented constellation" of poetic skill in an infinitive sky of accomplished writers. This remark particularly resonates with me, since the whole event seems so charmingly dependent on luck and chance; "remember Anneka Rice?", Dominic Berry suddenly asks - and she becomes the foundation for a poem titled Manhunt, requested by a presenter from Radio Manchester, who are broadcasting live from the event.

Poetry has always been viewed as something that feeds the mind and the soul of the reader. At the Poetry Takeaway, however, the poets are unanimous in declaring that, in fact, the "customers" feed their poems; Tim Clare recounts his becoming temporarily, and bizarrely, enamoured with lawn bowling, after being asked to write a poem on that very subject. "Suddenly their issues matter to you," he explains. "In fact, I’d say it was 50% about being a poet, and 50% about actually listening to other people." This is not an advocacy for literature and poetry; if the Poetry Takeaway chefs did not cook up poems that would satisfy the interests of the customer, then a nasty bout of poetry-poisoning could rear its monstrous head. Although I notice that most poems bring a warm smile to the customer’s face, Tim tells me gravely that about one person per shift will break down in tears. "Usually the poet!" quirks Dominic.

Gustave Flaubert is said to have spent up to a week sweating over each page of his novel Madame Bovary, indefatigable in his constant quest for "le mot juste". While I watched the poets frantically scribbling, their heads bent over the countertop, only their eyes visible above their raincoats, it occurred to me how astonishing it is to think that 21st-century poetry could be ordered, created and enjoyed, the literary equivalent of a guilt-free Big Mac; I believe it to be proof that we are living in what is indisputably an exciting time for English literature.

Isobel Buckingham is a Year 13 student at Altrincham Girls' Grammar School, hoping to study English and French at university next year.

Learning from others

Poetry Business Workshop, Saturday 22nd October, 10.30am, Becker Room, City Library

Words by Jo Bell.

"If you’ve been up all night or you’re hungover, then you might get some particularly good work out of today," says Ann Sansom. Well, this is promising: I am fresh (or not) from a 12-hour train journey after a break in Skye, and not at my scintillating best. Perhaps I should strive to always feel as if I have lived on fish and chips for a week, and travelled in grubby trains for a day at a time. Actually, most of the time I do feel like that; so by Ann’s reckoning I’m ahead of the game.

Ann and husband Peter run The Poetry Business. They lead workshops across the UK and regular writing days in Sheffield; they produce the fine poetry journal The North and the Smith/Doorstop series of pamphlets; and, for 25 years now, they have fostered new poetry talent with quiet kindness and generosity. This workshop has sold out quickly: a dozen or so poets, most fairly experienced, gathered in the Becker Room of the City Library to share some creative chemistry.

The Sansoms favour a fluid, write-it-fast-and-leave-it-be style of writing, which might indeed work especially well in a fragile or altered state, and which certainly generates four or five nascent poems in this 2½ hour session. It’s a standard format - write and read back, write and read back - with poems by Paul Farley, Denise Levertov and others to spark off particular trains of thought. Peter and Ann are old hands at making their workshoppers feel comfortable, and everyone is willing to share their work.

The exercises are pitched rather low for a group which includes several experienced writers – "write about an inanimate object", or "write about yourself at a younger/older age" are long-familiar fare. But perhaps any exercise that jolts us out of a rut and into a new way of telling the truth is worth playing with, and certainly any new writing shared in a workshop deserves to be heard with respect. The poet’s job, after all, is to notice and to report back from the front line. Your front line will be different to mine; your inanimate object might be a button, mine a narrowboat. The point of a workshop is not just to get us writing but to get us writing together – to encourage those who aren’t sure where to start, to motivate those who fear they have stopped, and to catalyse that creative chemistry that can only happen when writers get out of their garrets and sit around a table with a shared purpose.

Stepping out into Deansgate, several of us go on to the Poetry Takeaway at the Whitworth Gallery, where Manchester performance poet Dominic Berry is among today’s "chefs". It’s my birthday tomorrow, so I order a poem on that subject and Dominic obliges, delivering my freshly prepared order on the gallery steps. It’s a bright, breezy day on Oxford Road and the afternoon lies ahead of us. I think I might go and write a poem…

Jo Bell is a poet, promoter and producer of live literature. She is the director of National Poetry Day and currently working on a new live show, Riverlands, with storyteller Jo Blake.

A bit of Northern honesty

Poetry From The North: Geoff Hattersley, Allison McVety, Ann Sansom and Peter Sansom, Friday 21st October, 1pm, Becker Room, City Library

Words by Shaaheda Patel.

It’s day 12 of the Manchester Literature Festival, and on a sunny Friday lunchtime, I find myself squeezing into the brimming Becker Room; a charming Victorian room on the first floor of the City Library. Festival director Cathy Bolton points me towards a wooden chair that was resourcefully being used as a doorstop; allowing the final trickle of Northern blood to enter.

Luckily, I now find myself sat in the front row.

Immediately Cathy walks to the front of the crowded room and announces today’s celebration of The Poetry Business’ silver jubilee and 25 years of The North: a magazine capturing Northern poetry, articles, reviews and features.

Editor of The North Peter Sansom springs towards the mosaiced fireplace. While holding his reading glasses in his right hand, Peter begins to read from the latest publication; the first is Stay, a poem by Jeanette Hattersley. The poem takes us to Darlington through the poet’s gentle reminiscences. Peter tells us that this 25th anniversary edition of The North celebrates by reprinting some of the most popular poems in the magazine’s history.

We experience this first hand now through further readings of Simon Armitage’s Zoom and Suddenly by Diana Hendry.

Allison McVety now takes to the stand, dressed in coordinated chocolate brown and a striking red lipstick. She explains that Manchester is her home town; even though she now lives in the South. She recalls her days at Whalley Range High School with its brown uniform and the bus conductor who would get away with unbuttoning school girls’ blouses. She continues by playfully sharing her long-term love with a boy whose name she still does not know. She calls him Boy On The Bus and now reads a poem about him dressed in “air force blue”, “casual cool” and her lonely “17 stops of feeling blue”.

Her next poem paints a picture of post-industrial Manchester in Urmston Brickworks. Here we learn of her frequent escapes from her mother-in-law, who lives in Flixton.

She receives a rapturous applause, disturbing the silent room after each reading. “At home”, she tells us, “I would never get this, the dog will yawn and my husband will tell me he is going out.”

Her next poem was published in The North issue 41. Before she begins reading she asks if there are any psychologists in the room. We look around and shake our heads in unison, intrigued by her question.

She reads from the poem, The Two Times I Saw Your Penis; a matter-of-fact poem about her father. With her audience bewitched by her frank and honest words, she now shares her memories of school, and in particular the times when she would attend school having not read "the right books". Fittingly, this poem is set in a library. She softly summarises how, “everything happens in parenthesis”.

Now Peter Sansom introduces the Northern poet Geoff Hattersley (pictured). He reads from the blurb of his latest collection. “Geoff Hattersley is a welcome subversive and ’the real thing’,” we are told. Geoff, in his baggy shirt and salt and pepper hair, stands up, faces the fireplace and takes a drink of water. He turns around and we hear his uncut Yorkshire twang. He tells us how poems were always from the South and was pleased to find this magazine that allowed poems about things like vests.

His simplicity makes us smile.

He reads from the poem His Fingernails, and plainly tells us, “I never quite knew what this one meant”. He continues reading about a pub in Barnsley and an old couple in the corner who never left, even when the pub was given a facelift to attract the local twentysomethings.

The afternoon now moves from the quirky to the surreal, with Geoff's collection of poems on "hebium", inspired by a dream in which a Dutch lady asked him, “Where’s the hebium?” His quest for the meaning of hebium sparks off lines such as “you have a hebium infection” and “happy hebium honey”. The audience are now in stitches; the applause gets louder and takes longer to subside.

The afternoon has come to an end.

Seamlessly, the table of neatly arranged festival leaflets now becomes a shop, and we crowd around wanting to get our hands on the publications featured in this afternoon’s event.

Leaving the heaving room, my chair a doorstop once again, I begin to understand what Northern poetry actually is. It’s poetry that’s punchy, it’s distinct and it’s downright honest. But paradoxically, Northern poetry still embodies a universality that stems from its need to be ordinary and original.

Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English Language and Literature at a sixth-form college in Blackburn. She blogged for the Festival in 2010 and has worked on literature development projects with Time To Read.

More than enough love

Not Many Love Poems: A Tribute To Linda Chase, Thursday 20th October, 7.30pm. International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Laura Maley.

Judging by the number of people arriving to join this tribute to Linda Chase, founder of Poets & Players who died in April, I suspect the event could easily have run twice at capacity. Linda had been a keen supporter of tonight’s venue, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, from its early days and it seems a fitting place to launch her new anthology, for Manchester’s Carcanet, Not Many Love Poems.

The evening begins unforgettably with music. The Mariachoos serenade the audience with a medley including La Bamba, Twist And Shout, Let’s Twist Again, Pretty Woman. It’s brilliantly funny (and good!), complete with huge wobbly moustaches. They follow with a moving version of The Kooks’ Valerie which comes “from the heart”.

Linda’s friends, colleagues and family members read poems from Not Many Love Poems and 2001’s The Wedding Spy. Most introduce their selections with some little nugget of personal memory about Linda.

The evening is introduced by Carcanet editor Michael Schmidt (pictured) who speaks about Linda’s passion for poets to read aloud – an idea to which she eventually brought him round. He even describes Found And Lost, which he reads, as needing to be “in the air”.

Jeffrey Wainwright describes Linda’s work as having many different tones in her voice and the two poems he reads are great examples of Linda’s richness. In Old Jewish Men, she writes in such strong and sure loving tones of “heart keys” and “love looseners”, which contrasts with Lost Souls From Christie Hospital, which is rife with delicate and confused fragility.

I really enjoy John McAuliffe’s reading of two conversational poems; they’re full of brightness and sensitivity. Dare is a reluctant discussion about death which is breathtaking and devastatingly powerful. Asleep And Awake similarly ponders on death, but with a more accepting, final-moments, perspective. Both these poems share a wonderful sense of rhythm.

Poet and writer Grevel Lindop tells the audience he shared a sense of writing about subjects “you’re not supposed to write about” with Linda. He reads the poignant Ticks And Kisses, dealing with mastectomies and the effects they have on people (not just the women who undergo them) which is shot through with humour and a deceptively light tone right up until the stark, final line.

Linda’s daughter Cleo reads Taffeta, a poem about Linda’s mother, Cleo’s grandmother. It’s a great piece of atmospheric, Chanel-drenched nostalgia for a 1950s housewife so perfect, as Cleo tells us, she even had curtains to suit every season.

James McGrath reads poems Linda wrote for her friend Ella, celebrating Ella’s home and friendship. Linda herself extended her home and family to so many that these themes – and the dining table motif, as James points out - come up repeatedly in her work. Gift House is a celebration of home comforts and the rich fruits of friendship.

Paying tribute to the speed with which Linda set up Manchester Poetry School, fellow poet Mimi Khalvati is clearly impressed with Linda’s "just get on with it"attitude (or the Linda-ness of Linda, as Matthew Welton describes it later). She chooses to read Yesterday which finds languid beauty in the Mersey’s flow and familiar changes from summer to autumn with “the reddening leaves, the bright berries splattered against the Wedgwood sky”.

Fellow Carcanet poet Carola Luther (Mimi and Carola both launched new Carcanet poetry collections at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival) says she’s reading First Thought, about the act of writing and of thinking about what you write, because she can hear Linda’s voice in it. The poem has a characteristic freedom and openness in the imagery, ending with, “a true writer is one who never lied”.

The tenderness of Night Vision, selected by Matthew Welton, feels almost too intimate for readers to be allowed in; it’s nearly a peeping Tom of a poem. “I open the duvet and draw you in / as the feathers fill their cases”.

Linda’s celebration of female spirit and independence in One Woman Dancing holds massive appeal for me. It seems to capture Linda’s charisma and inspirational nature, ending as it does: “I don't have to dance if I don't want to dance, / but I do, so I do. One woman dancing. / Look, there's another. And another. / Each of us out there, eyes shut, rocking. Yes!”

What feels abundantly clear, to me, from this glimpse into Linda’s work and her life - and in anecdotes tonight from those who knew her so well - is the importance, for her, of connection; whether as a response to the invasion of cancer, sharing family meals and stories, or giving thanks for a friendship. Linda’s body of work and the new collection Not Many Love Poems is filled with a graceful sense of movement, beauty and a very personal warmth.

Laura Maley lives and works in Manchester and blogs about arts and culture at Cultural Shenanigans. You can follow her on Twitter @elle_c_emm

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Survival stories

Words on Asylum & Refuge, Saturday 22nd October 2011, 12.30pm, Cross Street Chapel

Words by Richard Jackson.

On the penultimate afternoon, as well as being one of the busiest days of this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, the doors to the Unitarian Chapel - on Cross Street - open to a crowd of festival-goers, all eagerly taking advantage of the book sale that coincides with today’s event. In support of Amnesty International, with 2011 being the 40th anniversary of the Manchester Amnesty group, all the proceeds from this event go to the work of the organisation.

The book sale is just one of the reasons why this afternoon’s gathering is unique amongst others held by the festival. Firstly, it is the surroundings: the circular seating arrangement, in which everyone is facing one another, creates an intimacy that is entirely appropriate for the theme of the afternoon. This, as well as the 30 minutes or so everyone spent buying books beforehand, allowing for conversations to spark – between the audience and today’s speakers alike – produces a comfortable and warm setting, one suitable for an event that stirs as much emotion as this.

After words from the representatives of Amnesty International, we are introduced to those appearing today: Mende Nazer and Caroline Clegg, Segun Lee-French, as well as Aslee and Zofia, representatives of the Manchester-based Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST).

Beginning with Mende Nazer, author of the harrowing memoir Slave and a notable human rights activist, we are introduced to her through Caroline Clegg. Caroline, director of Feelgood Theatre, adapted Mende’s book for the stage. The play premiered at the Lowry theatre, in Salford, late last year. There is clearly great affection between the two ladies, with Caroline expressing how moved she was moved by Mende’s story, “before I finished reading it - through tears, rage and often most of joy and laughter in celebration of Mende’s culture - I just knew I had to do something about what I had read”.

Mende sets the scene and starts with a description of her happy childhood. Growing up within the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, she notes “My childhood was absolutely wonderful. It was just free of responsibility, and it was an amazing childhood - like every child deserves. Everyone who lives in the Nuba Mountains are farmers, and they look after their own animals. Life is very simple and safe, and it’s just amazing.” This though, is a prelude to Mende’s difficult story. One day, in 1994, Mende’s village was attacked and raided, under the Scorched Earth policy by the Arab North Sudanese government. During the destruction of her village, she was caught and taken to Khartoum with a group of other captured children. In the capital, she was sold into slavery, spending the next years of her life in servitude to families in Sudan and London, during which, as Caroline describes: “Mende cooked, cleaned, no day off, no pay, she was beaten, abused, and completely dehumanised. Forced to speak Arabic, she wasn’t allowed to speak her own cultural language. If she was found singing or anything, she was beaten. This became her daily life, still not knowing what happened to her family, not knowing if they survived the raids, what had happened to her friends or anyone.”

Visit the Mende Nazer Foundation.

Such was the emotional weight of Mende’s testimony, and Caroline’s words, the latter half of the event continued with Segun Lee-French uttering: “It’s not often that such people can make you feel like crying, but that really did move me, so I feel a little bit inadequate to follow” - though he shouldn’t. Working for the Manchester group Speakeasy People, Segun is a writer, singer and poet that puts on events that concern human-rights causes. Though only a short performance, he uplifts the audience through interactive poetry readings, as well as singing songs about “championing the underdog” and “the need for equal opportunities for everyone”. Intelligent and well spoken, I would recommend catching a performance of his to all.

Ending the event, are Aslee and Zofia from WAST. WAST, formed in 2005, works for women to have a “safe, mutually understanding and supporting environment, in which to talk about their experiences and trauma in fleeing their home countries, and the issues they are facing under the immigration system in Britain”. Having over 100 members, we learn from Aslee how the women help each other, most still waiting to learn the outcome of their asylum petitions. Following this, a reading is given by Zofia – herself an asylum seeker, currently receiving help from WAST – from their publication Am I Safe Yet. The book contains a selection of experiences from WAST members, and is available to buy now. Please visit the WAST website: it contains important information about WAST, as well as how one can involve themselves and offer help. In particular, it offers information of how to contact Nick Clegg and Theresa May, in regards to ongoing petitions of asylum.

Richard Jackson is a PhD student interested in Central and Eastern European history, literature and culture. His blog, Lemberik, concerns the issues of minority populations in this region and he can be followed on Twitter via @lemberik.

The PEN is mightier than the sword

Writing Freedom: The Story Of English PEN, Saturday 22nd October, 3.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Elinor Taylor. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation played host to a stimulating and original exploration of the history of English PEN as it celebrates its 90th birthday. The original format of the event entailed readings from two novelists, Edward Docx and Catherine O’Flynn, and two poets, Shamshad Khan and John McAuliffe. Between them, these authors read scripted scenes from the early days of English PEN, extracts from the letters and diaries of writers imprisoned around the world, and contributions to landmark debates hosted by PEN. The presence of these four distinguished writers, and their feeling for the words they read, brought to life vividly the history of this organisation, the profile of which is perhaps lower than it ought to be among ordinary readers.

English PEN (standing for Poets, Essayists and Novelists) was founded in 1921 by Amy Dawson Scott to promote literature as an aid to understanding among nations, and to campaign for the freedom to write and the freedom to read. This celebratory event began with a reading of its founding charter, including the memorable assertion that, “Literature knows no frontiers, and should remain a common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals”. Its members pledge to “champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world”. Over the course of the afternoon, the importance of defending these clear and inspiring principles was eloquently affirmed, while the difficulties of defending them through the ensuing 90 years, in a world in which such motifs of mutual understanding have become unfashionable, were not glossed over.

It is through readings of the words of imprisoned writers that the reality of persecution and oppression is brought home – the diary of a Turkish socialist journalist, the letters of a South Korean writer, and the harrowing account of a persecuted Iranian writer. These performances were gripping, leaving no doubt of the indispensability of PEN’s work. The event then gave the audience a taste of some of the debates on free speech hosted by PEN, most notably the strikingly divided contributions to the debate that followed the fatwah on Salman Rushdie. Some made for uncomfortable listening, but in so doing they testified to PEN’s necessary role as an organisation within which delicate issues of freedom can be seriously debated. The idealism of its founding charter may seem problematic now, and the principle of freedom of speech less than transparent, but this only makes it more vital that the conversation continues. Increasingly, PEN has been involved in debates about how to respond to threatening and inciting speech, and the balance between protection and censorship; the evolution of its role was the subject of a lively question and answer session.

This was a well-structured event that left the audience persuaded that the struggle for the freedom to read and write is vital, and is far from won. The IABF, named for a writer who was himself no stranger to the controversies of censorship, was a fitting venue, and proves itself once more to be key part of Manchester’s cultural landscape.

Elinor Taylor researches 1930s literary Communism at Salford University, where she also teaches. She writes fiction and the odd poem.

Science and nature

The Devil's Garden: Edward Docx and Johan Oldekop, Saturday 22nd October, 1pm, The Manchester Museum

Words by Nija Dalal. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

In a quiet room on the topmost floor of the Manchester Museum, Johan Oldekop, a biologist, begins a discussion of his research in the Amazon. He stands in front of about 30 people, and illuminates the complexities of environmentalism and conservation when placed against indigenous peoples' concerns. “The environment,” he says, “is like a plastic cup. You can squeeze a plastic cup, and it will change its shape, but it can re-form and it will still hold water. But if you squeeze it too hard, it’ll break, and it won’t be able to hold water any more, and importantly, it won’t be a cup.” Why squeeze the cup? Development.

He put it most starkly by telling us about how one village is currently six hours away from the nearest hospital by boat... but if those villagers had a road, they would only be one hour away. They want a road, but conservationists want to maintain the rainforest, and in the heart of the Amazon, Oldekop argues, is where issues of science, progress, humanity and the environment come together. Where do human rights, such as access to medical care, trump environmental concerns, and who should be the beneficiaries?

Oldekop's research focused on the role of rural communities in conservation initiatives and environmental impacts, so his work fits neatly in with today's other speaker, Edward Docx.

The Devil's Garden, by Docx, is about a scientist named Dr Forle, who is based on a river station deep in the South American jungle. Docx begins by telling us that he’s happy to be in Manchester promoting his new novel, because Manchester is his home town.

First, Docx discusses his inspirations that led him to write this book, including Coetzee and Conrad. He describes casting his characters in such a way to maintain conflict. “Conflict is drama,” he says. For example, if there’s a scientist, then there should be a religious person to conflict with the scientist. He tries to imagine his characters as a whole cast, in the round, so that there’s always drama. In The Devil’s Garden, he says, there’s drama because it’s about the conflict between corporations, environmentalists, scientists, missionaries and indigenous people.

But the real issue that his novel is about (and, he says, that every novel is really about) is how we should try to live.

Edward Docx then reads out some short sections of his novel before the floor is opened to the audience for a Q&A. The discussion ranges from eco-tourism to ethics, but most interestingly, one audience member challenges both Oldekop and Docx’s work. By explaining how all the complications and complexity of decisions around environmentalism are so interrelated, they’re essentially saying there’s nothing we can do that would be both fair to everyone and still save the earth. It’s despairing, and shouldn’t we just stop even trying to save this planet? Shouldn’t we just work on finding a new one to colonise, if this is all so complicated that, in the end, we simply can’t figure out what the best route might be?

In response, Oldekop and Docx both recognise the despair in their works, but Docx tempers this sentiment by saying that humans have always been inventive and creative. Art, he thinks, is humanity’s redemption. While his book is dark, he feels it is full of light. If people will re-read the book (which, he says, “is the only way of really reading”!), he thinks they’ll find it suggests there is a future.

And Oldekop agrees, saying that nihilism is dangerous, because if we really begin to believe there’s nothing we can do, then it will stop us doing anything to protect our planet or take care of people.

Nija Dalal is a writer, radio producer, and a second-generation Indian-American. She's radio obsessive, cooks and crafts and sews, and keeps a blog about it when she remembers. Currently in Manchester, she's lived in Sydney and Atlanta, and she's looking for a job in radio.

All Wells and good

David Lodge: A Man Of Parts, Friday 21st October, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Benjamin Judge.

I had always thought that HG Wells was just this bloke who wrote some books and once said something a tad unfortunate about eugenics. But it appears there was more to him than just War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine (the film version of which featured Samantha Mumba. Remember her? I’ve just Wikipedia-ed her and she had more hits than you think. And she once dated Sisqo. Who did Thong Song. Remember? No? What? I’m getting distracted? HG Wells? Oh, yes. Right. HG Wells. Sorry.).

It turns out that apart from being a writer and thinker, ol’ HG was something of a card as well (or "player", to use the modern vernacular). In fact, so long was the list of his love affairs and casual conquests that David Lodge gave as examples of Wells’ behaviour that I was surprised he had the energy to even pick up a pen, let alone write over a hundred books.

Wells was, I suppose, the Sisqo of his day. Both masters of the written word (compare Wells’ “Yet so vain is man and so blinded by his vanity...” to Sisqo’s “I like it when the beat goes da na da na”), both most happy when “dat dress so scandalous”. It is in no way hyperbole to suggest that if your family was based in South London between 1866 and 1946, chances are you are related to HG Wells. That man really did love “that thong th-thong thong thong”.

David Lodge, in his new biographical novel, A Man Of Parts, uses Wells’ love life as a framing mechanism to tell his story. He explained how while writing a biographical novel has the advantages for the author of relieving him of the duty of making up a story, and giving him the readers' belief (which, he points out, is particularly useful with someone like Wells, whose life was so unusual), it presents him with one major problem: that of finding a “novel-shaped story” within somebody’s life. Wells’ women provide this novel-shaped story because there are so many repeating motifs (two sexless marriages, two affairs with brilliant undergraduates, two lovers with young suitors that they would eventually marry, many affairs with women novelists and essayists), which allowed Lodge to create patterns within the text, and create fact in the guise of fiction.

Lodge’s talk was, perhaps unsurprisingly given his background in education, effectively a lecture on the genre of biographical fiction interspersed with readings from his new novel. Put simply, it was rather brilliant; a highlight of what has been a vintage year for the Manchester Literature Festival. It is not often one gets such an insightful look into how a writer approaches his work, or what a respected critic thinks a genre, such as the biographical novel, should and should not strive for.

Lodge is an engaging and generous host, giving long and thoughtful answers to questions posed by the crowd. Asked how he felt about the possibility that in the future his own life might become the material for a novel, he laughed, and admitted that he would hate it, and that Wells would probably hate his own book. “A contradictory answer,” he smiles, “but then, novelists are contradictory.”

Benjamin Judge's blog, Who The Fudge Is Benjamin Judge?, was joint winner in the Manchester Blog Awards 2011 in the Best Writing On A Blog category, and he is also one of the five winners of The Real Story competition.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Super troopers

Superheroes Of Slam Final, Thursday 20th October, 8pm, Yard Theatre

Words by Kevin Danson. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

This year’s Superheroes Of Slam Final, hosted by Manchester Literature Festival and Commonword, opens its doors to an eager crowd waiting to cram the Yard Theatre’s stalls to bask in two hours of the best local poetry from around the North. Competing to win a £250 cash prize and the Dike Omeje Slam Champion Trophy are the finalists from Manchester, Gift Nyoni; Liverpool, Rael James; Leeds, Zodwa Nyoni; Wigan, Louise Fazackerley; Oldham, Mark Mace Smith; Newcastle, Aidan Clarke, and Crewe, Emma Purshouse.

Bouncing onto the stage is the excitingly spontaneous Dominic Berry, writer/poetic performance artist and winner of the previous Slam Final. Appearing to never suffer from a pout or frown, Dominic introduces us to the judges of this stirring competition: Baba Israel, Artistic Director at Contact Theatre, writer/poet and Commonword’s very own Yvonne McCalla, and one of Arts Council England’s Alison Boyle. In addition to these "celebrity" judges, two members of the audience are chosen to award points for the public. Points are awarded for both performance and content. Poets have three minutes to Slam! their poems before they are interrupted by a gruelling noise made by Segun Lee-French. A founding member of Manchester’s Speakeasy People poetry and music collective, Mr Lee-French tests the judges with a theatrical performance of one of his own works which describes a typical Mancunian Friday night down Deansgate.

The first round is astounding. If I had known I would be in the vicinity of such talent I may have brought an autograph book. There is a huge variety of material; accidental muses, cigarette nubs, slavery, wars, modern love, pigeon-loving smack heads. I felt like I had boarded the Pepsi Max of poetry. Aidan throws us a quickie on young lovers before he begins his competing poem: "Oh how romantic / now they’re alone / she’s checking Facebook / he’s on his phone".

Despite each contestant’s pieces being worthy of the rapturous applause received, there are three which I should mention; Emma Purshouse’s poem on cigarette nubs, Zodwa Nyoni’s intense piece on global wars (first whopping 10 for content) and Rael James’ skill with rhyme and meter - together with his expressive words, this gets him awarded the second sparkling 10 for content.

Welcoming back the increased gathering, Dominic covers us with one of his own poems called Time Travels, recently written and with an admirable annunciation to Manchester Literature Festival 2011 (hooray!). While the poets reel off their craftworks in the second round, the air feels somewhat tenser. Legs twitch, contenders rub their hands as they look on at their opponents. Even I can feel my heartbeat picking up its pace. Themes seem to have subdued in this heat; lost love, riots, a passionate voice about passionate voices, yet up we go again with Emma's entertaining Mexican fruit machine song. Mark takes control of the stage with a heartfelt performance and Rael stitches my memory with the words "I want to do cartwheels to show you how my heart feels". What a rolling sea of verbal waves. In accordance with Dominic, I have to say Rael really is a Ninja of rhythm and rhyme.

The air is heavier than ever. We crane our necks to see how far the judges are with their tallying to reveal the final two who will go head-to-head in the ultimate word-off. It's Rael James and Mark Mace Smith.

So Low, So High is Mark’s final poem of the competition. And what a poem. Not only does it possess beautiful imagery of nature in conjunction with oneself, he provides it with incredible delivery, both vocal and physical, captivating the audience with a blending assonance and onomatopoeia. His final syllable collides with the sudden "out of time" noise. Phew.

Up next is Rael "Ninja" James. We sit and we listen to Rael’s meaningful words of a growing relationship, one that blossomed and grew, drawing tears, attracting envy. Everyone is paying attention to these sincere words uttered in his usual melodic, urban tone. He tells us he wants to share the object of his poem and so we sit, transfixed, waiting for him to produce… a pair of bloomin' trainers! This guy knows his art like a painter knows his paints.

Although very tight between the two finalists, Mark Mace Smith is declared winner of this year’s Superheroes Of Slam Final. In his modest demeanour he finishes his final performance with a homemade turntable-scratching political, satirical verse.

I speak to Mark briefly after his win. He explains he first began writing poetry to woo a girl in his teens. He sent her letters and poetry until he finally won her over. Seeing he had a gift, or something that would help him win further females, he became further inspired by some of the greatest lyrics surrounding him at the time. He loves to perform and after tonight we can see why.

Congratulations to Mark Mace Smith, Rael James and the other six grand finalists.

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.