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By Emily Oldfield
Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre came alive this week for a night of poetry, jazz and a reading from acclaimed poet Liz Lochhead. The event formed part of Manchester Writing School’s Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series, which is now in its 13th year.
The event was opened by the Poet Laureate herself Carol Ann Duffy, who introduced the evening with a “poem for the new year” entitled ‘Snow’. Carol Ann then went on to reflect that it was “wonderful for our own city to have that relationship” with a diversity of creative talent.
Clear examples of this talent at work were the hosts for the evening, John Fennelly and Mark Pajak, MA students from Manchester Writing School who were recently appointed the new House Poets for the series. As Carol Ann herself commented on the decision for not one but two House Poets, “Two… because our students are so marvellous.”
A further three students from the Manchester Writing School read their poetry in the first half of the event, Ian Walker, Hilary Robinson and Keith Hutson all uncovering a range of styles and subject matters well-received by the audience.
Ian Walker was the youngest of the performers, having graduated from Liverpool John Moores University before going on to study for an MA at Manchester Writing School. His poems showed ambition in their subject matters, from the intimate life of insects, to an alternative portrait of Jesus. Walker remarked that, although he no longer practises religion, his Roman Catholic upbringing informed his work, including “the rhythm and poetry of the psalms offering a glimpse of something bigger.”
Next was Hilary Robinson, a retired primary school teacher who has supported Manchester Writing School at many events and who is also studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Her first reading was a hauntingly frank perspective on post-natal depression and desperation, followed by a selection of verse with subjects as varied as a lovers’ trip to Singapore to a line of thread connecting grandmother and grandchildren.
Third to read was Keith Hutson, also studying for an MA with a background in writing for Coronation Street as well as scripts for a number of comedians. He performed a humorous selection of poems exploring the lives of Victorian variety performers, inspired by his debut pamphlet Routines, published by Poetry Salzburg. With subjects ranging from a “man who could kick himself up the arse” to the shattered life of the first female “human cannonball”, Hutson combined silliness with sensitivity.
During the interval, Hutson was quick to comment on how receptive the “warm audience” had been and how, “The variety of the poetry was surprisingly complimentary…. Along with the great living-room feel” of the set.
Following the interval, the House Poets took to stage themselves to each perform a poem of their own, Pajak detailing an encounter with a grizzly bear whilst Fennelly reflected on primary school days and learning “the facts of life” a little inaccurately. Carol Ann Duffy praised the performances before taking to the stage for a final time to introduce the acclaimed poet and her “dear friend” Liz Lochhead.
A poet of widespread acclaim, Liz Lochhead was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1947 and has been instrumental in celebrating the position of women in poetry. She argued against the labelling of a woman poet as “poetess”, adding, “If anyone wants to call me a poetess, they can come and find me afterwards.”
Full of humour and pathos, Lochhead delivered a range of poems, from elegies mixed with nursery rhymes to wedding verse and even a little bit of so-called “filth” to finish. Lochhead having worked as Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland from 2011-16 – this event was an opportunity to see a professional poet in action, summarising a very special evening.
The Carol Ann Duffy and Friends events are hosted by the Royal Exchange Theatre in association with the Manchester Writing School . The 2017 season holds a number of upcoming guest poets, including Elaine Feinstein on Monday 13th February and Adam O’Riordan on Monday 20th March. For tickets and more information, visit the Manchester Writing School events page.