Words by Kevin Danson.
The 6th Cultureword National Black Writers Conference (Facebook; website) takes place in Hulme’s Zion Arts Centre with a lot of support, including Arts Council England and Big Lottery Fund. Despite the gorgeous day outside, the theatres of the Zion Arts Centre show their own version of a lovely Saturday afternoon.
11am–12pm: Poetry Futures
Derry Burden of Curious Minds chairs the first panel. The aim is to debate the guidance poets of the younger generation are being given in order for their work and words to be heard. Beside Derry sits Khadijah Ibrahiim of Leeds Young Authors, Madeline Heneghan from Liverpool Young Writers and Manchester’s Young Identity leader, Shirley May.
Poetry-slamming events have grown in popularity over the past decade. Resonating something of a dance-off with words, Khadijah tells us about the slams she arranges three times a year, with some successful young poets travelling to the US to represent Manchester in an international SLAM! The Contact Theatre-based group Young Identity now go out and deliver a workshop for the project Wordsmith, an interschool slamming competition. Looking at things in different ways and under different names is all about changing with the times. Young Identity appear to have this covered.
Derry asks, ‘What keeps the children coming back for more workshops?’ Hands begin to punch the air as it seems many here have strong views and passionate voices on the matter of children’s education. Facts are revealed regarding the restricted syllabus schools have to adhere to, but one man, an English teacher with over 16 years’ experience, resolves the matter with a simple solution: ‘If you want to change the war, become a soldier, if you want to change the police force, become a policeman.’ Infiltration is key.
Derry brings the discussion to an end with an interesting fact: ‘Fifteen per cent of a child’s waking hour is spent in school, the remaining 85 per cent is at home and this is now being spent in the digital world.’ If influence to the arts starts at home, the transition will be, as Shirley calls it, ‘The passing of caterpillar to butterfly.’
12pm–1pm: E-books & Social Media
Under the hastag #bwc2012, the global ongoing debate of whether e-books will wipe out print begins. The panelists for this insightful talk are Zahid Hussain, a Manchester-based author, Simon Murray, Yorkshire-based poet, Adam Lowe, publisher and blogger, and the chair of the panel, web designer, author and Flipped Eye publisher, Nii Parkes.
I’m forever intrigued with the changes we go through to keep up with modernity. Questions that arise are: can e-books provide readers with good material? Will they allow unpublished authors’ works to be seen? Living in a country where technology is available to the majority of us, we forget about those absent from this developing world. Simon warns how technology and fingertip information has changed the psychology of those who have access to the virtual realm. It’s all about speed nowadays. News spreads much faster over the internet, allowing individuals to become recognised/discovered at a quicker pace. A good example of this is the poem The ‘N’ Word, which was uploaded by the poet Dean Atta. After sending several tweets, the poem became viral, ascribing him a name in the world of poetry.
With his experience of working within a publisher, Adam tells us how e-books challenge writers and publishers on how to reach their audiences. The pressure certainly increases in regards to which channel to choose when publishing current novels. Despite online publishing giving a chance to all who want their voices to be heard, the amount of ‘white noise’ polluting this new medium is abundant, transforming good literature into a cacophony of mumbling texts.
Zahid believes that print will not be going away, but may be sold on demand. Seeing how the next generation prefer more interactive features in their everyday tools, will they be satisfied with just a lump of words on a page? I can’t see why not. We’ve managed to enjoy word power for hundreds of years without needing to feel, smell or lick the page (well, some of us).
From the back of the auditorium the poet Kei Miller reminds us all: ‘Reading becomes an experience and the physical book becomes a souvenir of that experience.’ By looking at my bookshelf at home, I’d say I definitely agree with this.
Quick stretch of the legs and a blast of vitamin D and we’re back in for an informal session with poet and scriptwriter Anjum Malik. A very useful first tip Anjum imparts is: ‘Work hard and have no shame when it comes to earning money’ – within reason, I’m sure. One of the perks of writing is that it’s not a 9-5 job. It’s about learning, creating and adapting to the ever-changing market. A mantra from Anjum’s retail days is: ‘Every no means you are closer to a yes.’
A number of people ask about workshops they can do to perfect their writing abilities. Mixed reviews are given when it comes to MAs, though Anjum herself did an MA in scriptwriting and, since completing it, has never been without a commission. The Arvon Foundation is recommended, but receives cringing faces when prices are mentioned. One Arvon veteran defends the cost with the course’s content, not forgetting accommodation and food included. Finding out that bursaries are available for many of these writing courses, I begin to dogear the pages of a writing course booklet given to me at the entrance.
3pm–4pm: How To Get Your Novel Published
Panel members are: Margaret Busby, publisher, editor, judge of the SI Leeds Literary Prize for new Black & Asian Women Authors; Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press; Kavita Bhanot, writer, editor for the Tindal Street Press anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough, and chair of the panel Jacob Ross, London-based author and reader for The Literature Consultancy. The panellists do not want to waste our time providing us with tips on how to write a cover letter or proposal, as these are easily found on the internet. Instead they are here to share their experience as MA students, editors and publishers.
Jacob starts us off by explaining how editors are seen as the gatekeepers to the publishing world. When the word ‘quality’ is mentioned, seats stir among the audience. Many of these writers admit to being fobbed off with the excuse of poor quality. When it’s not the quality of writing, it’s the quality of voice or structure or plot. Could this be simply a case of self-victimisation or is the quality of the stories Caribbean writers create, lacking this sought-after ‘quality’?
Jeremy answers this question after admitting to seeing many changes within the publishers over the past 40 years. When it comes to good black writers submitting their novels to publishers, their stories are being rejected not because they are racist editors, but because the accountants look at what sells. ‘It’s not about quality, it’s about market.’ Consumerism once again shows its ugly face. A writer either adheres to the population’s demand and makes the big bucks, or writes for their own convenience with possibilities to publish through smaller companies.
The general understanding here is to prioritise your expectations. Once the art of writing has been developed, write what you feel comfortable with. Confidence comes with practice and whether you’re black, Asian or Caucasian, good writing is recognised and travels.
The end of the conference brings some great Caribbean and Asian poets to the stage to perform. The Speakeasy Collective creates a mishmash of grooving music and powerful words forbidding any foot to remain still. Kei Miller’s work reminds me of the MLF event I saw last year with Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (read the review here), enchanting with his strong Caribbean accent and rhythm. What impressed me most though was the poetry performed by the Young Identity poetry group. Throughout the day, they had kept quiet in their seats listening to the opinions and declarations, and summing up the discussions in poetry which they performed just before the last break - a thoughtful yet smile-stretching poetic side-commentary and a great ending to the day's events.
Here are some links to the recordings on Audioboo:
Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.