Thursday, August 30, 2012

Spreading the word

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

As well as organising the festival itself, MLF partners with a number of arts and cultural companies and groups to deliver activities around the year. One of these is The Reader Organisation, whose RISE (reading in secure environments) programme of events brings an exciting range of authors to readers in secure criminal justice and mental health care settings. MLF is delighted to be one of five literature festival partners in RISE, and our participating authors are Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams and Joe Dunthorne, who will visit HMP Styal, a secure ward in Prestwich Hospital and an approved hostel in Greater Manchester. Here, we chat to Maura Kennedy, Events and Publications Manager at The Reader Organisation, to find out a little more.

MLF: Could you explain a bit about The Reader Organisation's Get Into Reading project, of which RISE is a part, and how it works?
MK: This September is actually the 10th anniversary of Get Into Reading, which began when Jane Davis, the founder and director of The Reader Organisation, set up the first group in a library in Birkenhead. Jane wanted to “share literature with people who need it, like me” and felt that getting out of schools and universities was vital to making this connection. That first Get Into Reading group became the model for those that followed: challenging, high-quality fiction and poetry read aloud weekly so that all group members share reading in “real” time. It soon became clear that this reading aloud approach encouraged a real, often personal, response to the poem or prose piece being read. Crucially, it also facilitated conversation and reflection among people who might not otherwise meet – the groups are social as well as literary; there’s great literature but also great chat and cake! Another cornerstone of Get Into Reading that grew out of that first group is the connection between fiction and poetry: in each session, a poem is read as well as a short story or, in the case of long-standing groups, a section of the novel the group are currently reading. Connections between disparate poems and stories, often from different centuries, reveal themselves in the reading aloud and conversation process. Sometimes people can have very personal responses to a given piece of writing but the conversation always comes back to the text itself, the heart of the group. There are now over 300 Get Into Reading groups across the UK, from Northern Ireland to the South West, including Scotland, Merseyside, London and lots of places in between. The reading groups take place in community and specialised settings, including libraries, universities, workplaces, care homes, prisons, hospitals and schools, and one-to-one with looked-after children. Each group is led by a Reader staff member or a person who has completed The Reader Organisation’s training, which ensures that the spirit of that first group – challenge, reflection, generosity – is maintained. 
MLF: How does the RISE programme of events fit in with this? 
MK: The Reader Organisation now works in partnership via its learning and reader-in-residence programmes with a wide range of partners in education, healthcare, criminal justice, cultural and other sectors; via this network we can reach all kinds of readers in all kinds of places. Our Get Into Reading groups in criminal justice and mental health care settings are successful in bringing readers and non-readers together – the reading aloud model means that people who are not comfortable with reading for literacy or other reasons can still fully participate and contribute and, most importantly, enjoy the group. The traditional reading group model, where each member reads in private in his/her own time, can be off-putting to people who are not in the habit of reading or face other challenges such as access to books, concentration or other issues. Over the past couple of years, we have invited a variety of authors to visit our reading groups in some of the secure venues where Get Into Reading takes place – HMP Low Newton, HMP Liverpool and a number of Mersey Care NHS Trust sites. These visits have been really successful and enjoyable and we saw that there is a real appetite among readers in these environments, authors and partners to take part in this type of activity, which is a staple of the cultural calendar in the “outside” world. RISE is about imaginative and social connections: connecting readers in secure settings and the general population with each other and the work of really good, interesting contemporary authors; connections between festivals, authors and partner venues. Our groups in host Manchester and Durham venues have already begun reading Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams, Joe Dunthorne, Michael Stewart and Jean Sprackland in preparation for their visits and, so far, their work has stimulated a lot of interest and conversation.
MLF: We are one of five literature festivals participating in RISE - which are the other partners and why is it beneficial to team up with a festival? 
MK: We’re really delighted to be working with these five festivals for the first year – Manchester Literature Festival, Durham Book Festival, Words Literary Festival in Wigan, Writing on the Wall in Liverpool and the Southbank Centre in London. The benefits are clear from the response that we’ve had to the pilot year: nobody said no to taking part. Every author we invited, festival we approached, secure venue we work with, our own project workers in each location they all jumped at the chance to take part. Crucially, Arts Council England saw the benefits of pilot funding a unique network which has ambition and scope for making further connections. The connection to a literature festival in the locality and the buzz of a guest author coming in is a highlight for those who read weekly and often also to staff and the general prison/hospital population. As mentioned, we have previously brought guest authors to some of our groups in secure settings, which were very successful – the benefit of doing so as part of a festival is to broaden the festival audience to include readers in these settings and to bring the buzz of a festival into what can be very socially and culturally isolated venues. There are also very practical reasons for the RISE partnership: authors need lots of downtime to write and are more open to invitations in the festival season; costs on all sides can be reduced by joining forces; structured visits with plenty of lead-in time work best for the staff in secure environments; and jointly, we can raise the profile of RISE and the work of The Reader Organisation in general with the help of our festival partners and vice versa.

MLF: Is this the first time Manchester / Greater Manchester has hosted the Get Into Reading sessions, and what (and who) will they involve? 
 MK: There are weekly Get Into Reading groups in Prestwich Hospital, HMP Styal, the probation service and other venues across Manchester and Greater Manchester delivered in partnership with Greater Manchester West NHS Trust and our criminal justice partners in the area. Thanks to the Manchester Literature Festival, we’ll be offering Get Into Reading sessions as part of the Family Reading Day on  21 October in Manchester Town Hall, when we’ll be sharing the delights of our brand new anthology A Little, Aloud for Children, featuring everyone from WB Yeats to Jacqueline Wilson! We’re looking at hosting a taster session for adults also, so watch this space…

MLF: What can people do to get involved in Get Into Reading and RISE?
MK: We really want Manchester Literature Festival-goers to make the connection with our readers in HMP Styal, Prestwich Hospital and the probation service – it’s not possible to do this physically, so we’re inviting people to contribute to our RISE forum during the festival and let us know what they thought of the event they attended with Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams and Joe Dunthorne in the public festival. Get Into Reading is all about sharing responses and it would be wonderful if readers who are separated physically, and perhaps in other ways, can share their imaginative responses to these excellent authors. More generally, our website has lots on information on our publications, projects, fundraising and other activities: visit

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