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Commonword and the 6th Cultureword National Black Writers Conference

  • Date: 24 September 2012
  • Artform: Literature
  • Area: North
Panel members sat in front of banners Poetry Futures Panel at Black Writers Conference 2012, Commonword

The work of the publisher and Arts Council national portfolio organisation Commonword supports the first goal of our strategic framework, that of supporting an artistically-led approach to diversity in the arts. The last five years have seen significant changes in the publishing industry. The demise or absorption into mainstream presses of independent publishers such as X Press, Mantra, Arcadia, Angela Royal Publishing and Tamarind Press has particularly affected Black minority ethnic writers. At the same time there has been a growth of vibrant new organisations including Flipped Eye, Saqi Books and a host of micro Black-focused or Black-run presses such as Dog Horn, some of which have received help through our Grants for the arts programme. The opportunities opened up by digital publishing made it an opportune time for writers to come together and debate these changes.

The 6th Cultureword National Black Writers Conference was held in Manchester on 24 March 2012 and brought together writers from across the UK to discuss changes in publishing and the spoken word arena, and how these changes might affect them. It was also an opportunity for writers to network with one another, tackling difficulties jointly as well as swapping news about innovations and discussing potential collaborations and partnerships.

The first session debated the future of poetry and the best way of fostering talent among young poets, as well as the role of schools in creative writing developments. The discussion was facilitated by Derri Burdon, Chief Executive of bridge organisation Curious Minds, and the panel included Khadijaah Ibrahiim, Shirley May, Young Identity representative, Elmi Ali and Shamshad Khan. The Arts Council is working with a number of bridge organisations to support the development and delivery of high quality art particularly for children and young people.

A session chaired by writer and performance poet Nii Parkes and including Zahid Hussain, Simon Murray and Adam Lowe, debated whether the paper novel was on its way out in the face of competition from ebooks. You can watch and listen to the first two sessions here. The use of digital media offers significant opportunities for more people to experience and be inspired by the arts which is one of our strategic goals.

The reasons for the small numbers of Black and minority ethnic writers being published by mainstream children's publishers were also discussed. A panel was drawn from all parts of the literary and publishing spectrum, from Carnegie Award winning writer Melvin Burgess to acclaimed novelist and academic Jacqueline Roy. This panel, supported by experienced judges of literature prizes, Catherine Johnson (associated with the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children Award) and Jake Hope (a judge of the Frances Lincoln Award) offered solutions ranging from sharper editing, to writers orientating their work more towards more commercial ends as well as being involved in grass-roots activism. There was also discussion of another area of concern - the lack of diversity in role models in mainstream publishing. This included the diversity of published writers and the ethnicity of role models that appear in published books. Melvin Burgess has been involved with the long-running writing workshops facilitated by Commonword (for both Black and minority ethnic and mixed ethnicity writers) to develop his own writing but also to help other authors.

The Commonword Children's Diversity Writing Prize, in association with Puffin Books and RWC Literary Agency, was the result of a year-long programme of writing workshops focused on boosting the numbers of people from minority ethnic backgrounds who are writing children's books. The culmination was a celebratory prize-giving ceremony as part of the Manchester Metropolitan University's Children's Literature Festival. The writing competition attracted a strong short list of writers for young people and Gaylene Gould received the inaugural award from CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell, based at MediaCityUK in Salford, close to our North West office.

The final session of the conference offered advice on how to get a novel published, given by Tindall Street Press editor Kavita Bhanot, writer Divya Ghelani, Jacob Ross, novelist, editor and reader at Literary Consultancy, Bristol based publisher Bertel Martin and Jeremy Poynting, MD at Peepal Tree Press (one of our national portfolio organisations).

The conference wrapped up with evening entertainment including performances from the poet and academic Kei Miller who is published by Carcanet, another Arts Council national portfolio organisation. You can view the evening's entertainment here.

The 2012 conference focused on how young people could further their careers as writers, and the likely impact of digital media on publishing. Plans for items for the next conference (to be held in October 2013) include the provision of advice to Black and minority ethnic writers on finding publishers or bookings. 

The 2013 conference will broaden its appeal by including an Asian, Arab or African (AAA) strand in 2013 debating topical issues from the point of view of writers of AAA descent, as well as those whose writing relates to the people and concerns of the regions. The organisers will connect the process of writing with ideas, politics and ideology, with the aim of bringing the field of 'post-colonial' or 'world' literature back to its activist roots. This strand will provide writers with the tools to deal with the particular issues they face. If you have any ideas about how to shape the conference, please contact Commonword directly through their website.