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Celebrating Young Writers’ Talent

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The Portico Young Writers’ Competition: A celebration of writing talent in the North West.


Although you’ve probably passed it a dozen times without realising it’s there, the Portico library has sat on Mosley Street in Manchester for over two hundred years. And this week, something quite special was happening there.


For the past four years the Portico Library, with support from Manchester Metropolitan University, has run the Portico Young Writers Prize, a writing competition for 14-19 year olds across Greater Manchester. But this isn’t just a writing competition; it is a project in which entrants are selected by their schools and teachers (each school entering selects two ‘laureates’ from their most talented young writers), who are then mentored by students and alumni of MMU’s Writing School and undergraduate English and Creative Writing programmes.

Humanity Hallows has been invited down to attend the launch of this year’s competition, and find out a bit more about the prize.

Buzzed in through the door, up a few flights of steps and into the main gallery of the library, I was greeted by Richie, an MA Poetry student at MMU’s Writing School currently interning with the Portico. He administrates the prize, and took up his internship after being involved as a mentor in a previous year.

“The mentors are all at the back with Sherry,” he informs me. “We’re expecting the young writers in about half an hour.”

It’s hard to take in the Portico in one glance. If you can imagine the ‘classic’ image of a library, then the Portico certainly fits. The Gallery room is skirted with floor to ceiling bookshelves, each lined with crackling, leather-bound books. It is a perfect setting for an afternoon of writing workshops to kick start the competition.

I make my way to the back of the Gallery. Sherry sits with a group of mentors, talking them through the afternoon’s event. Sherry has been the Writer in Residence at the Portico for the past two years. Also a Creative Writing Lecturer at MMU and a published children’s author, she has overseen the project since its inception. Later, when I manage to grab her for a quick chat about the competition and the project, she explains the workings of the prize, and the mentor/mentee relationship that makes it such a unique competition.

“The Portico has always wanted to have a young person’s prize alongside their main adult prize. What makes this distinctive from other competitions for young people is that we are looking for excellence. We are looking for the best talent in young writers in Manchester.
Writing can be pretty scary for young people, as it can for anybody, so MMU provide each entrant to the Portico prize with a personal mentor, who is an MMU student who’s had experience of creative writing workshops and who are writers themselves, who they can contact for support to help make their writing the best it can be before submitting it for the competition.”

For the moment, however, she is finishing running over a few points before the young writers arrive. The student mentors all look eager to get started. For some, this is their second year mentoring a young writer, but for most this will be their first time.

I speak with Sophie, an English Literature student at MMU. “I would have jumped at the chance to get this sort of help when I was younger… the young writers are going to feel so supported with their work…”

“But as well for us as students we gain a different insight into the creative writing process…” Dan, studying English and American Literature adds. “We do writing workshops at Uni, but coming from the other side is interesting for us from a technical point of view…”
The mentees begin arriving shortly after that and take a seat under the grand white dome of the Gallery. Beneath the auspice though is a relaxed and informal atmosphere. Everyone is chatting, drinks and sandwiches are in ample supply, and as the Gallery begins to busy, there is a real sense of excitement in the air.

Emily Adams and Rachel Wood are lower sixth form students from Sir John Deans Sixth Form Centre. As hopeful writers, the competition and the mentoring offers a chance not only of exposure and a potential win, but of guidance with their writing.

“It’s one thing to write for coursework but it’s another to show people what you’ve written, and put it forward for judgement. It’s a great opportunity to get advice as well, and get feedback about our work from the mentors.”

It’s a sentiment shared by members of staff and teachers present: “It’s a really good platform for students to get mentored by young enthusiastic writers who can pass on their enthusiasm and their expertise in some way….” says Annabel Lloyd-Hughes, an English teacher from Manchester Grammar School for Girls. “The process is really interesting, and of course there’s the setting.”

For Mr Day, from Christly King High School in Preston, there’s a longer term goal in mind.
“It’s the start of something really,” he says, stood with his school’s selected Year 10 Laureates. “Once we’ve got this we can look at having students down here more. For our students here as well, it’s a relationship they start now, and they can carry this enthusiasm and this link throughout their GCSEs and into their A Levels.”
The event gets started. Sherry matches the mentors with the young writers, and begins the afternoon workshops. After today the young writers and their mentors will meet regularly at the Portico to work on their piece for the competition. They will be submitting their pieces over the summer. The winners, I’m told, will be announced in October.

I slip away from the hubbub and find Lynne Allen, the Chair of the Portico and chat with her about the library, and the wider context of this competition.

“This competition and this project means a great deal to us at the Portico, because many people have lived their lives here and don’t know about us. Our intention is to bring new audiences to the library and engage much more fully with young people of all ages, because they are future. Especially at this time when libraries are under pressure and closing all over the place, we feel it’s very important for us to engage with young people as fully as possible.”

And they are doing so hand in hand with MMU.

“It has to be said that this would not have happened without the support of MMU, the Writing School, English Department and the staff and students who’ve been involved over the last four years,” Lynne says to me.

As I leave to the chatter of workshop talk and the scribble of pens, I’m struck by how much work the Portico and MMU are doing to develop writing talent in the North West. It seems that the Portico, steeped in heritage and history, is very much looking to, and investing in, the future.
The Portico Adult Poetry and Fiction & Poetry Prize has been running for over 25 years, counting Anthony Burgess amongst its previous winners. For more information about the Portico, including its competitions and exhibitions, visit http://www.theportico.org.uk/
For more details of Manchester Metropolitan Universities Writing School and Undergraduate Creative Writing Programmes, visit: http://www2.hlss.mmu.ac.uk/english/the-manchester-writing-school/

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aAh!

aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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