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The best of Manchester: poetry heaven at the Eighth Day cafe

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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.




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Greg Freeman

Fri 5th Apr 2013 07:31

I don't think you need to be distracted either by flies in the ointment or by any bees in bonnets to accept that Best of Manchester Poets is an enduring success. I'd like also to take the opportunity to congratulate John Keane and all the members of Stockport Write Out Loud for their anthology, as previously reported in our news columns

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Laura Taylor

Thu 4th Apr 2013 09:32

Great review Cathy - still gutted I couldn't be there.

For the record John, I'd never have Isobel down as a left-liberal ;)

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Julian (Admin)

Wed 3rd Apr 2013 12:58

Cracking review Cathy. Interesting points re representation all.
Personally I dislike the books' name - too much braggadocio about it - but truly admire its ambitions and achievements.
I also think that singling Dominic out for having 'contributed more than anyone' etc, is a little unfair to the many people who have contributed to Manchester's thriving poetry scene; which includes the 10 years of largely unfunded support given by Write Out Loud and its members.

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Dave Bradley

Wed 3rd Apr 2013 00:37

Excellent review of what must have been a great evening. BoMP sounds terrific. Regarding ethnicity - risking Izz's eggshells - it's people from a Chinese background or heritage who have been missing in my experience. Haven't run across one, yet they have been present in numbers in the North West for centuries.

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Wed 3rd Apr 2013 00:16

In my earlier comment I was speaking mainly from a performance perspective. Black poets aren't well represented in the North West, hence I've only had opportunity to see and hear poets specialising in a street/rap style - highly successful poets, I might add.

I have no doubt that those poets and all black poets are equally capable of writing in perfect Iambic pentameter, or any style they choose to - I just spoke of what I'd heard.

I don't think it hurts to actively seek out poetry from different cultures, if in doing so you are producing a book that reflects the heart and soul of Manchester, with all its components.

If anyone other than John finds my comment patronising or racist, then I do apologise - it was not intended to be. Discussing ethnicity is sometimes like treading on egg shells - only for the brave or the foolish.

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winston plowes

Tue 2nd Apr 2013 19:42

Yes, it was a wonderful night. Re the Fly in the ointment comments. These are clearly driven by the editors wish for fairer representation of a multicultural Manchester in the BOMP pages and a self critical attitude to strive towards this. From what I know of them if this came out 'wrong' it is simply that. Winston

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John F Keane

Tue 2nd Apr 2013 17:50

Of course it is. But it won't be if it tries peddling ethnic stereotypes.

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Freda Davis

Tue 2nd Apr 2013 17:39

Well, John Keane, you scored a brownie point there I suppose, but I am sure Isobel meant no harm by her comment. Its great when people will establish poetry presses and promote poetry in spite of recessions. There are some shining examples around, of which this is one. Perhaps the Best of Manchester people were referring to who turns up to live readings. Maybe they meant to be encouraging to people who might think they would not be welcome. I have always found live poetry in the North to be very welcoming to all.

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John F Keane

Tue 2nd Apr 2013 14:50

Black writers have a lot of 'soul and rhythm'...? What is that but a hackneyed ethnic stereotype, right there? Well, I can assure you that black poets can write sonnets, blank verse or anything else, without reflexive recourse to 'soul' or 'rhythm'...

All of this just reinforces my belief that left-liberals are patronizing racists of the worst kind. This knee-jerk conflation of skin-colour with 'rhythm' and 'soul' is not only offensive, but ludicrous in the extreme.

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Mon 1st Apr 2013 22:57

I know where you are coming from John - I did a double take when I read about that 'fly in the ointment'. If I were black, disabled, gay or of any other minority group, I'd hate to think that I was making up a quota. Poetry is about words - it really shouldn't matter what skin it comes from.

Having given it some thought though, I'm wondering if Cathy means that she wanted a broader kind of poetry in the book or work that reflects the multi-cultural diversity of Manchester.

Without wishing to stereo type, I do think that black poets write great contemporary poetry; they have a lot of soul and rhythm and offer a different view on the world. I think having them adequately represented would definitely give the anthology more depth.

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John F Keane

Mon 1st Apr 2013 00:03

How on earth can they tell if someone is white or not from their poem or name? Must a black writer be called Winston Kwesi Mbobo to pass muster as a 'black' writer? Must their poems be full of hackneyed ethnic stereotypes to be considered?

<Deleted User> (6315)

Sat 30th Mar 2013 13:10

I have already heard what a wonderful night it was Cathy..Great respect for all those involved..long may you last!!

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Cathy Bryant

Fri 29th Mar 2013 20:11

Thank you, Greg! I hope you enjoy volume 3. Plenty of Write Out Louders, of course - it wouldn't be the best if it didn't have them.

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Greg Freeman

Fri 29th Mar 2013 19:02

Great account of what sounds like a great evening, Cathy. Wish I'd been there. I'm a southerner, but I understand the importance and impact of Best of Manchester Poets, I think. I really enjoyed vol 2, not least for the number of familiar Write out Loud names, and look forward to seeing vol 3. Greg

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