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Literary link-ups lead to success

  • Date: 5 July 2011
  • Artform: Literature
  • Area: North
Jeanette Winterson addressing audience Jeanette Winterston discusses her Manchester Sermon at Manchester Cathedral, Manchester Literature Festival/Steve Baker

Leading literary organisations across the North West are increasingly joining together in innovative partnerships which are leading to exciting new work that engages diverse audiences across the region.

A networked group of playwrights, poets, literature producers, librarians and independent publishers attended a Salon event on 19 May 2011 organised by Punam Ramchurn, Senior Literature Development Officer at Oldham Library and Lifelong Learning Centre. Hosted by the International Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester, the event opened with a short talk by Alison Boyle, Relationship Manager, Literature, Arts Council England.

The talk began with an overview of the new literature landscape, following decisions about the organisations in the region that had been awarded National portfolio status. Liverpool-based Writing on the Wall and the Manchester-based consortium of Comma Press, Madlab and Literature Northwest will create openings for different kinds of collaboration. The organisations' new literature programmes were described in the context of cross-artform opportunities in digital, theatre and music with an awareness of projects in the region supported by the Arts Council's National Lottery funded Grants for the arts scheme.

The group was encouraged to find opportunities to bring libraries and local authorities into the mix and to make joint funding bids that will help the available funds to go further. The role of the new bridge delivery organisations in supporting Arts Council England's commitment to children and young people was outlined. Curious Minds will deliver this work in the North West alongside nine national organisations. Grants for the arts funding of £1 million for Olympics and poetry-themed events in 2012 and the Reading Agency's three-year My Voice programme supporting young people at risk of exclusion can reach their full potential through partnerships with local authorities and arts development organisations in the North West.

Long running examples of successful collaborations in the North West can be found in the fifth annual Manchester Literature Festival (MLF). Of the 60 readings, events and experimental happenings over 12 days, the festival's inaugural Manchester Sermon featured a commissioned piece The Temptation of Jesus. It was written by acclaimed author Jeanette Winterson, who presented it to an audience of 400 people at Manchester Cathedral.

Winterson - who gave her fee for the event to The Reader, a charity working in Liverpool which encourages marginalised members of society to enjoy literature - was joined at the event by Michael Schmidt, a distinguished poet and founder and editorial director of Carcanet, the Manchester-based independent literary publisher. Schmidt took part in a panel discussion, chaired by Rachel Mann, a poet and parish priest for Burnage, Manchester, which tackled some of the questions raised during the sermon.

Health, well-being and literature were the subject of a conference on 17 May 2011 in Liverpool organised by The Reader organisation. Arts Council England funding supported the inclusion of Pullitzer and Orange Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson in the conference. Future collaborations at planning stage may enable public libraries and other literature organisations to gain access to the creators of high-quality writers too, through joint funding applications. The result of a long-standing collaboration between Carcanet and the Central Library in Manchester is a varied and high-quality reading programme (currently in the Becker Room at the City Library) that delivers on four fronts: audiences have free access to new and established poets, the writers are given performance and feedback opportunities, their publishers have a platform for the published works, and when exciting literature programmes are offered in library venues these important community spaces support a myriad of opportunities for arts development. A new collaboration programme is underway between independent publishers and libraries in the north, including members of the Time to Read network.

The question of how art can achieve social inclusion is equally relevant to Liverpool-based The Windows Project, which supports Wirral Mind and marginalised Merseyside communities through its writing projects. The launch of audio guides featuring poetry written and narrated by diverse communities in Liverpool was part of a 10-year anniversary celebration for the beautiful glass Palm House in Sefton Park on 14 April 2011. Members of the Greenhouse Project, Sefton Park Allotments Group and the RSPB Youth Group (Edge Hill) wrote poetry and recorded vox pops about their responses to the Palm House. Roger Phillips, current affairs presenter on BBC Radio Merseyside, and Christine Gibbons, a recording technician from Liverpool Museum, also contributed time and expertise to the project, which gives visitors the opportunity to press a button on the audio pod and listen to voices of Liverpool.

Through a strong creative collaboration between the The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal and the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, young writers received professional feedback from Andrew Forster, poet and Literature Officer at the Wordsworth Trust and two other judges, playwright Kevin Dyer and novelist Zoe Sharp. This ensured that a good breadth of experience was applied to all entries to the Brewery Arts Centre's Anne Pierson Award for Young Writers - an accolade established by the centre's Trustees to mark Pierson's 25 years of work there. The Brewery organised an awards evening on 6 April 2011 at the venue which featured a keynote speech by Helen Mort, current poet in residence at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and readings of shortlisted texts by professional actors. A publication launched on the night features the award-winning entries, and the quality of the writing is stunning in places. It was important to the partners in this enterprise that all of the young writers who entered the competition received feedback, and discussions are underway about how to support their writing development after the competition.

In another inaugural event at the Manchester Literature Festival, Manchester Translations, the first English translation of the short story Family Secrets by Shanghai writer Ding Liying was presented at a live discussion event. This short story will feature in an anthology of Chinese short stories to be published this year by Comma Press, a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new fiction and poetry in its home city of Manchester and beyond. Comma Press was awarded National portfolio status in March 2011, alongside consortium members Madlab - a research and development lab based in Manchester, and Literature Northwest - a network of independent publishers with a wide geographical membership.

Commonword, Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester City Library teamed up to offer an opportunity for unpublished writers to pitch their work to a panel of experts in the publishing industry in front of a live audience in an event titled Is There A Novelist in the House at Manchester Literature Festival. Commonword, a creative writing development organisation based in Manchester, focuses on groups that do not normally have access to writing and publishing resources.

Some festivals are also using digital initiatives to expand their audiences and provide new reading and writing opportunities for those audiences. Entries to Manchester Literature Festival's annual Blog Awards, which celebrates and showcases the best of the city's online writing, are increasing year on year. The Blog Awards idea came from two freelancers based in Manchester, who developed a stronger platform for participation by working in partnership with the festival.

This year's festival in October and November will continue to invite audience members to write reviews and comment on them for their own blog site; this increases web traffic to the main festival website and promotes the whole literature programme.

Cathy Bolton, Festival Director, Manchester Literature Festival, said: 'MLF 2011 will provide a celebratory focus for the city's year round literary activities and aspirations. It remains very committed to partnership working. We've really felt the benefits of our collaborative approach to programming and marketing. Over the past five years, MLF has worked with scores of individuals and organisations (including the BBC, publishers large and small, libraries, universities, cultural institutes, museums, galleries and other festivals) enabling us to programme such an imaginative and diverse range of events. This sharing of expertise and resources has been instrumental to our year on year success in expanding the festival's programme and international profile, as well as reaching out to new audiences.'

Michael Schmidt, Editorial and Managing Editor, Carcanet is an active participant in north area festivals. He presented his selection of Desert Island Poems at the Baronial Hall in Chetham's School of Music as part of last year's Manchester Literature Festival. Ongoing collaborations between publishers and festivals in the north are exemplified by a selection of contemporary poems published by Carcanet and Sheffield-based The Poetry Business, which were presented at the Ilkley Literature Festival. Another product of close working across the greater north is a mapping of contemporary poetry by leading independent publishers Michael Schmidt of Carcanet (North West), Simon Thirsk of Bloodaxe Books (North East) and Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press (Yorkshire). Propositions that continue to be discussed by these publishers and the wider poetry community include the writing of poetry as well as its performance and distribution.

Michael Schmidt said: 'It's fascinating to be part of the evolving poetry culture of Manchester. For almost 40 years, with Carcanet and PN Review, with the Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival and the Manchester Library readings, working too with the Universities, Chetham's, the Cathedral and the wonderfully rich Manchester Literature Festival, we've contributed to the transformation, the growth of a diverse and responsive audience and readership. These are all organisations which contribute to the unique collaborative vitality of the North West. The area has a collegiate feel: we are part of a lively and including culture.'

Pete Kalu, Chief Executive, Commonword said: 'We love collaboration. We have enjoyed the boost to attendance at our events that working with Manchester Literature Festival gives us, and drawing upon the expertise Carcanet offers. In turn we have been happy to lend our own smarts - in reaching emerging writers and developing more diverse programming - to all our literature partners, for the benefit of writers and literature lovers everywhere.'

Alison Boyle, Relationship Manager, Literature, Arts Council England, concluded: 'The art of writing is still often a solitary business. But successfully sharing the written word, in its wonderfully diverse forms, is more than ever dependent on individuals and organisations sharing resources, ideas, expertise and a passion for literature. We're seeing that when organisations work together they usually save money and time, and crucially, new ideas are generated. When our North West libraries and museums work alongside our diverse literature groups (many funded through Grants for the arts) opportunities to take part as watchers, listeners, readers and writers are the result. By partnering with organisations that also have digital expertise we are making powerful connections nationally and internationally too.'

You can visit the following websites to find out more: Bloodaxe Books; The Brewery Arts Centre; Carcanet; Commonword; Comma Press; Ilkley Literature Festival; Manchester City Library; Manchester Literature Festival; Peepal Tree PressThe Poetry Business; The Reader; Time to Read network and their blogspot; The Windows Project; The Wordsworth Trust; and Writing on the Wall.