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By Emily Oldfield
A free two-day celebration of writing and its relationship with place and location attracted a wide audience to Manchester Writing School at Number 70 Oxford Street last week. The Place Writing Festival 2017 offered a wide range of events including talks, workshops and guided tours.
Organised by Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in English and specialist in Place Writing Dr David Cooper, the two days were split into a range of options, allowing attendees to pick the areas of writing and place they would most like to explore.
Dr Cooper told Humanity Hallows: “Over the past ten years or so, there has been a real explosion of popular interest in writing about place. The possible reasons for this popularity are both complex and contested. What is clear, though, is that it’s a cultural phenomenon which is underlined as you walk into a branch of Waterstones, or switch on Radio 4, and you discover writing about place by such brilliant – and such brilliantly different – writers as Amy Liptrot and Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and Rachel Lichtenstein, Kathleen Jamie and Lauren Elkin.
“We’re incredibly lucky that here, in the Writing School at Manchester Met, we have some of the major figures in this field including Jean Sprackland, Paul Evans and Michael Symmons Roberts. So, over the past few years, we have been putting on more and more events, and more and more courses, which explore the knotty relationship between people, places and language. At the centre of this lies an enthusiasm for creative non-fictional approaches to place. Place writing, though, is a baggy label which also allows for poetry and fiction, as well as writing which connects with music and film, photography and sketching.”
The first day of the festival began with an introduction from Dr Cooper who spoke alongside Manager of the Manchester Writing School James Draper. The three choices for the morning were a writing workshop with the award-winning poet Jean Sprackland, a ‘Reading Place’ session with Nicola Bishop or a discussion of the concept of ‘Different Gazes on Place’.
The interactive, debate-friendly nature of the festival was particularly striking, as seen in the afternoon’s talk with Kate Feld from the project ‘Rainy City Stories’, along with Sarah Butler and Morag Rose, on the issue of ‘Rewriting/remaking Manchester’. Following the debate, Kate Feld said: “We had a discussion about place writing, specifically with reference to Manchester; it brought together three people from very different perspectives. Notable was how engaged the audience were, how interested and passionate, too, in wanting to debate some of the issues around regeneration. I expected discussion to be around techniques and writing; yet it was mostly about the place, how we feel empowered, who gets to write about the place and much more.
“It was also interesting because Sarah Butler has made place writing a real cornerstone of her practice, does a lot of residencies and community writing projects, able to give more insight which raised a lot of issues about place writing. It really helped the debate. Who owns it? Does it matter? What is it for? Discussion around who is creating the narrative around the city too – there is clearly a huge appetite for things like this.”
The first day closed with an author event from Amy Liptrot, discussing her book The Outrun. The novel, inspired by the places and spaces of Orkney, won the 2016 Wainwright Prize and was shortlisted for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.
The second day of the festival opened on the theme of book launches, with the acclaimed author Jos Smith, from the University of East Anglia, discussing the launch of his book Reanimating Place: where did the new nature writing come from? This lively hour highlighted the changing approach of nature writing over time and included some memorable stories of environmental activism, such as Friends of the Earth returning 15,000 non-recyclable bottles to Schweppes headquarters and David Bowie’s apparent involvement in a Save The Whale campaign.
This was followed by a series of options: a ‘Writing Place’ workshop with Paul Evans, a ‘Reading Place’ session with Martin Kratz and a discussion about ‘A New Manchester Alphabet’, followed by a talk on urban sketching by Senior Lecturer in Interior Design Simone M. Ridyard. Notably, ‘A new Manchester Alphabet’ explored Roger Oldham’s 1906 picture-poetics of the city, alongside Manchester Metropolitan University students’ reinterpretation – both displayed alongside each other.
Manchester Met Graduate Teaching Assistant Iris Feindt explained that a big aim of the project was “increasing student engagement” by inviting them to respond creatively to every letter of the alphabet in light of Manchester – though some letters were more difficult than others. She said: “Like Roger Oldham’s alphabet, it can only ever be a snapshot. In the ‘new’ version, the modern version, we have ‘U’ is for umbrella…We wanted to maintain the quirkiness! It’s not just about places, but the experiences you have which matter here.”
After a lunchbreak, the three afternoon sessions were either a Skyliner tour of Manchester street art, a guided tour of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections or an author event. The last involved a triple-bill of writers from Manchester Writing School’s PhD programmes: PhD student Natalie Burdett, Associate Lecturer in English and Research Assistant Martin Kratz and PhD student Rachel Mann.
Prompted by James Draper, after reading their own work, the three writers then gave their insight into the changing nature of writing and its relations to place. It was a highly personal and moving session, with Rachel Mann later telling Humanity Hallows: “What was significant was the engagement of the audience and the connection of the three writers on stage. This was an intimate event. It wasn’t about egos, it was about writing and this really matters.”
Martin Kratz also talked about writing about Manchester and the forms it inspires: “Manchester is an ambitious city and I’ve noticed flash fiction seems to be a Manchester form. Kate Feld alluded to the way open mic shapes people’s writing, for example. People end up condensing things into slots, creating poetry engineered for spaces.
“I write on the bus, that suits me…I do it regularly. It is about finding a rhythm. I don’t have hours at a desk and instead I work on what I have over time, store it up until I have to bring it together. Transport is a particularly productive place and the concept of movement matters too. A train will get me into a headspace which I write from. I like those connections between places and travelling – I think that’s reflected here.”
The variety of the city’s written contributions and inspiration was evident in the final two events of the evening: a screening and book launch by Adam Scovell followed by festival finale: The Singing Glacier with poet and Lecturer in Creative Writing Helen Mort and composer William Carslake.
Talking about the success of the festival, James Draper said: “Everyone has really got into the spirit. It has been an inspiring and informative two days, with a really good mix of people from different backgrounds and ages. Writers, people from in and outside academia, that combination of different people, has produced some interesting discussions. The audiences in particular have really enlivened it and given us food for thought as to how we go on. Academic Director David Cooper has pulled together a brilliant range of sessions and also given plenty of time and space for people to talk and feed in their own thoughts. Thanks to David for his commitment and vision in this emerging topic. Everyone has really engaged – with challenging and provocative points raised. There is a place writing Facebook group so people can keep discussions following this too.
“The passion people have has been brilliant. We thought we knew what place writing was but it has helped us refine, and even re-define, what we think place writing is and allows us to make developments for the future.”
What was evident was the high level of engagement at the festival, rousing many opinions and debate. As Dr Cooper said: “Place writing should not be uncritical about the places that are being explored. All of the greatest contemporary place writers worry about such issues as urban gentrification and rural poverty, as well as the biggest issue of all which is what it means to be living in the so-called anthropocene. At the heart of much place writing, though, is celebration: an impulse to seek out the wonder in the everyday. ‘Festival’, then, felt like the right word. We also hoped that it would encourage people who had never stepped foot inside Manchester Met to come along to the event at Number 70. It was really important to us, then, that – thanks to faculty Knowledge Exchange funding – the event was completely free.
“Ultimately, though, I hope that – if nothing else – we provided a space for people to come together and to share ideas, experiences and enthusiasms. In terms of the programme itself, a real highlight for me was the final event: a mesmerising performance by Helen Mort and William Carslake, based on a recent, and terrifying, expedition to Greenland. It was a great privilege to be able to end the Festival with a performance which both celebrated a wild place and worried about the fragility of that landscape. It was particularly poignant to be hearing Helen’s poetry and Bill’s music on the day that Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement.”