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  • Fiona Bennett

The Poetry Exchange at Manchester Central Library

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

‘This poem…. It’s like a hand grenade...’

it can be held in your hand and the energy could be destructure like something held for too long… or it can take a different form, a creative explosion. It is ten am, we are settling into our room in Manchester Central Library and we are straight into the visceral force of poetry in people’s lives listening to our first guest introducing us to the poem that has been a friend to him, Harlem by Langston Hughes - quote from poem…

The Poetry Exchange talks to people about the poem that has been a friend to them. In exchange we create a gift for them, a bespoke reading of their chosen poem inspired by the conversation. We work with a small team of writers and actors to hold these intimate conversations with visitors from all walks of life. In Manchester our team included myself, Michael Shaeffer, Hafsah Bashir and Sarah Butler.

Each conversation begins with a little time to read the poem to ourselves, that special silence of strangers communing with words on a page and then we invite our visitor to bring the poem fully into the room by reading it aloud. Even before we begin the conversation, something is revealing itself anew to all of us through the unique connection of this reader to the poet’s chosen words and rhythms.

Over two days at Machester Central Library as part of International Mother Languages Day and in collaboration with the Creative Writing School we were introduced to poems by Rumi, Jo Shapcott, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Sarah Key, Dylan Thomas and more. The conversations are always diverse and specific to the unique connection each person has made to the poem they bring. At the same time, across a day of exchanges sometimes a theme appears and recurs, linking very different poets and poems through the lived experience of readers. On our days in Manchester several conversations turned around the idea of poem as release valve, able to simultaneously honour violent and possibly destructive emotions and experiences whilst at the same time opening a door onto the possibilties of a creative, generative power through the words used to conjur and consider them; Dylan Thomas meeting the, as yet, unexpressed power of a teenager’s heart and mind, Langston Hughes challenging injustice with the artful anger of song, Rumi a prayer at dawn to transform the darkness of the day’s impending hostility…

Amidst conversations about death, anger, daily disappointments, prejudice and disempowerment there was also a lot of laughter in the glass walled activity room that had been given over to our conversations for the day…. Around us the busy and friendly library was making people welcome from across and beyond the city, sitting at shared tables beavering away on laptaps, curled up in scooped back chairs browsing a book plucked incidentally from a shelf and, some of them, no doubt, dipping in or deep-diving into poetry.

A writer is a reader is the common mantra of most creative writing programmes and workshops… and a reader is… whether they are also a writer or not, an active player in the realisation of the poem. As Kate Tempest once described it:

"There's this electricity that surges between the writer, the book and the reader. As readers we don't give ourselves enough credit. Imagine this triumvirate thing - the writer, the text and the reader...the reader is why it lives. All three things have to be burning for it to live. The moment of the reading is as important as the writing of it."

Talking to readers about the poem that has been a friend to them gives us a different and priveleged access to the force-field of a poem through the unique way it has impacted on our visitor’s heart and mind and indeed their lives.

By way of a thank you to the people who come to share their poems and their stories with us we create a bespoke, gift reading of their chosen poem in the light of the conversation we have had with them and send it on to them after the event. Sarah Butler, writer, literature activist and MMU tutor described her day;

"It is such a fascinating process, unpacking the poem’s layers of personal and textual meaning with someone who has a very particular relationship with it. And then the process of creating the guest reading – trying to find a way to honour and reflect the conversation but also perhaps trying to offer something unexpected, a new way for the visitor to look at this poem they already know so well."

We go to poetry as writers and readers through the physical jolt of experience falling on words and turning them around in our mouths, ears and our hearts through the acoustic instrument of the poem’s form.

Vibrations were dancing between us in the conversations in the glass room of Manchester Central Library. We could see them leap, hover and dip on the monitor of our ‘Zoom’ recorder as each guest gave voice to the poem they had brought and we sat together in its company.

You can hear the episode on The Poetry Exchange's podcast and sign up for news of our next events in Manchester via our Contact Page.

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