Manchester’s cultural shift from bands to books

Photo Credit: Manchester Literature Festival 2018

There was a time, if you were a young Mancunian, that you’d funnel your raw attitude into a band. The result would be an exhilarating cocktail of hedonism, swagger and wit. Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Fall, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, Oasis — few British cities can boast of a richer musical heritage than Manchester.

Taking music’s place as a cultural rite of passage is now poetry. If you want to feel the city’s cultural pulse, you’ll find it at a poetry reading delivered to an enthusiastic crowd in a pub. Just as in the early days of punk, Manchester’s spoken-word scene is a buzzing, grassroots phenomenon, with more than 60 events taking place throughout the city and its suburbs every month, from poetry slams to open mic nights to bookshop events.

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Photo Credit: “DO YOU LOVE POETRY?” by Helen Harrop via Flickr. License info.

A City of Storytellers

For Sarah-Jane Roberts, co-director of the Manchester Literature Festival, those worlds have much in common. “Manchester has always been a city of storytellers,” she says. “Some of these stories have been channelled into music, art and theatre, but many of them have been distilled into poems, short stories, novels and the spoken word.”

Manchester’s literary history is “rich and substantial,” she adds, citing a list of local greats, including Anthony Burgess, Elizabeth Gaskell, Shelagh Delaney, Jeanette Winterson and the “people’s poet,” John Cooper Clarke.

Manchester also boasts renowned libraries, influential publishing houses and leading university writing courses, not to mention the Manchester Literature Festival, which takes place in October. That heritage, combined with the current vibrant scene, has contributed to the city becoming designated a UNESCO City of Literature.

What makes Manchester’s spoken-word scene so distinctive? Roberts cites the city’s DIY attitude and “an endless amount of energy, hard work, goodwill and talent” as key factors. “The scene is constantly growing, changing and expanding as new nights, producers and performers emerge and pick up the mic,” she adds.

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Photo Credit: Manchester Literature Festival 2018

Poetry Venues and Events

Nearly any day of the year, you can find opportunities to find live poetry in Manchester. “Bad Language, One Mic Stand and Evidently are three of the longest running and most fun spoken-word nights in Manchester and Salford,” says Roberts. She also recommends Verbose in Fallowfield, which recently won the “Best Regular Spoken Word Night” at the Saboteur Awards.

You can also find monthly and seasonal poetry nights in the city, such as First Draft, That’s What She Said, Flim Nite, Speak, Word Central and The Other Room. “Lots of the nights include open mic slots for new and emerging performers, a bar for Dutch courage, a welcoming atmosphere, playful hosts and free or low price admission,” Roberts says. “What more could you ask for?”

Of course, the Manchester Literature Festival itself is an annual culmination of the city’s poetry enthusiasm. The festival hosts live literature events in music venues like Gorilla and The Dancehouse, as well as in more traditional event spaces. A recent festival showcased the brilliant South-Asian poetry collective The Yoniverse and Faber New Poets alongside Manchester-based poet Hafsah Aneela Bashir performing with Sufi singer and musician Sarah Yaseen. The event also commissions poets to create and perform new work.

“We’re definitely inspired by the energy and DIY spirit of the city’s live literature scene,” Roberts says.

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Photo Credit: Manchester Literature Festival 2018

A New Generation of Mancunian Writers

Spoken word promises to have a long future in Manchester, as a many new local writers are beginning to join the poets of the past and present. Names such as Lemn Sissay, Tony “Longfella” Walsh, Louise Wallwein, and Henry Normal are just a small sampling of the growing pool of talented young poets and performers. The Young Identity and HATCH collectives are local institutions instrumental in fostering their own generations of talent, including such rising stars as Isaiah Hull, Billie Meredith and Ella Otomewo.

“You can catch them performing at One Mic Stand and other nights throughout the city,” says Roberts.

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