The best of Manchester: poetry heaven at the Eighth Day cafe
There are poets everywhere: poets on the chairs, poets on the tables, poets standing at the food counter, and poets all over the stairs like a carpet of energy. It's poet heaven, and I couldn't be happier - this is the launch of Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3, at the Eighth Day Cafe on Oxford Road, and I'm one of the editors. Our host is Dominic Berry, a poet and performer who has possibly contributed more to the Manchester scene than anyone over the last 10 years, running workshops and hosting events most weeks of the year. One of our criteria for the launch events is that we must have him - I've seen him lift dead rooms and raise quiet halls, and I'm pretty sure that if you rowed him out into the Atlantic and got him to do an intro and a joke and a poem, the Titanic would rise up, all hurts healed, with its engines purring and the band playing once more. Here at the launch we're already cheerful and friendly, but he makes the night festive and fabulous in a way that no one else could.
Dominic also has the task of wrangling over 40 performances over three hours, some from seasoned pros and some who have never stood up in front of an audience before. This is one of the pleasures of the night: seeing professionals at the top of their game, such as Rod Tame or Sarah Miller, alongside brand-new talents such as Martin Vosper or Joshua Mackle. I asked Martin how he felt about being in the book.
"It's unbelievable," he smiles. "I did National Poetry Writing Month last year and made a few friends - but if you'd told me that within a year I'd be published, and not just in any book but in this wonderful Best of Manchester Poets book, then I wouldn't have credited it for a moment."
The poems are as varied as the performers: Janet Loverseed, a diminutive figure of senior years, reads an astonishing poem about three guppies giving musical concerts from their tank to a couple; Alan Clemo reads a beautifully-structured poem narrated by a shuttlecock; Sue Barnard condenses Shakespeare's major works into pocket-sized poetic parcels of wit; Steve Rouse reads a subtle but chilling piece about the Nazis' Wansee conference.
Dominic recites several poems by contributors who couldn't attend, for example The Mancunian Prayer by Mark Niel: "Our Farnworth/ Which art in Oldham/Handforth be thy name", which goes down very well with a crowd who are as happy and involved as any I've seen.
I asked Dominic what attracted him to the Best of Manchester Poets (BoMP as it's affectionately known) project. He said: "I like being part of the BoMP project because the poetry scene matters so much to me. Many folk know that prior to my current existence as flamboyant Mr Performer, I was agoraphobic. It sounds cheesy, but I don't know where I'd be without Manchester's poetry scene. I really don't.
“The Best of Manchester Poets books are clearly labours of love for the editors, but of a very different importance - the actual launch events are wonderful evenings where artists of all levels of experience and all walks of life meet and chat and share ideas and have fun. It is a fabulous thing to be part of. Long may it continue.”
There is one fly in the ointment. We do have non-white contributors in the book (as we have in all the books), but not enough, and none attends the launch. This is our one failure, we feel, and although we read all the submissions anonymised, it isn't good enough. Next year we plan to bring in a new editor to change this, hopefully, so that we can attract more submissions from a greater variety of poets.
The current editors are me, Angela Smith (who studied English at Oxford - Andrew Motion was her year tutor, and her collection This is the Me I Would be if I Dared is also published by Puppywolf), Steve O'Connor and Keir Thomas. Steve couldn't attend the launch as he was teaching a creative writing class, and it would have felt wrong to have cancelled it for a project that is intended to support creative writing. That statement alone probably explains why he's a good choice as an editor, though you could add to it his years of hosting and workshopping in the city, including co-founding the famous Freed-Up nights at the now closed and much-lamented Green Room.
Keir Thomas is Mr Puppywolf. He started this whole thing off and does the majority of the work. Born and bred in Manchester, he left to go to university, where he edited his first poetry magazine. He went on to London where he edited various computer magazines and wrote computer books for a living. But he missed Manchester too much, came back, fell in love with the poetry scene all over again and came up with the idea for BoMP, which began back in 2010.
I asked him why on earth anyone would start a poetry press during a recession, with only a few volunteers and no funding. "We didn't even consider the fact there was a recession. But we also didn't intend to make any money, " he said. "In a roundabout way I'm happy to say this has actually happened - each book we publish just about covers its costs. I'd love to see a world where people approach poetry publishing with the goal of making money but I don't think that's been the case for a hundred years, at least. If we could get funding or sponsorship from somewhere that'd be stellar and we'd take off like a rocket, but not only is there not much funding around but it can be a full-time job even applying for it - and all of us already have jobs."
And why Manchester?
"For me it was the warmth, acceptance and freshness. I've been involved with poetry scenes in other cities and they tend to involve bearded men sitting in upstairs rooms in pubs, mumbling over a pint of bitter. In Manchester - perhaps because it is Manchester - we had people like the fantastic Dominic Berry and Steve O'Connor fighting with every fibre of their bodies to encourage, encourage, encourage people to create and perform, and never stand in judgement. I just wanted to continue this in book form. Somewhat ironically the book has begun to take second place to the launch gig we have each year, which celebrates Manchester talent like nothing else and again in the same friendly, positive and supportive environment."
All I can do is nod, because this is why I do it too (though I'm fonder of bearded men than he is, it seems). Every review of our launches I've ever read has described them as “warm”, which is what we want. The atmosphere is pretty cold out there towards the arts, particularly poetry, when people deign to notice it at all. Let's cuddle up with some books and celebrate. Which is what happened at the launch - long after Dominic had said farewell to everyone and thanked everyone, audience members stood about in groups, smiling and buzzing and reading the poems. Which is exactly what should be happening.