By David Keyworth
Shortlisted for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize, Manchester Met Professor of Poetry Michael Symmons Roberts’ seventh collection Mancunia is about Manchester, or at least a version of Manchester. The title takes inspiration from the satirical Utopia by Thomas More, first published in 1516.
The collection was recently launched at an event hosted by the Manchester Writing School and Manchester Met’s Research in Arts and Humanities (RAH!) programme as part of Manchester Literature Festival.
The event was held in the Performance Space at Manchester Central Library and opened by Dr Martin Kratz, Project Manager of Manchester Poetry Library. Martin commented: “Mancunia is about a real and an unreal city. It reminds you that there are as many versions of Manchester as people who live here.”
Having read to audiences further south, Roberts said it was a particular pleasure to read from Mancunia in Mancunia. He opened with ‘Great Northern Diver’ – an aerial view of the city. Before reading ‘Manuka’, which talks about the film-sets of this city, its writer, noted how Manchester is both very filmic and increasingly being used for film-sets including Captain America: The First Avenger.
Before going on to read ‘Rhyme of a Merchant Mariner’, Roberts also told the audience about going, aged six or seven, to Salford Docks. This was in its pre-Media City days and his grandfather worked there. The poet was also suitably accompanied by the car horns outside the library as he read ‘A Mancunian Taxi-Driver Foresees his Death’, a poem which took inspiration from the WB Yeats’ classic, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’.
Mancunia is dedicated to the victims of the attack on Manchester Arena, in May 2017, and those who came to their aid. There are no lines about that shattering night in the book, which took place two days before it went to press. However, ‘In Paradisum’ begins: ‘Three thousand refugee children arrive in our city.’ Roberts explained it was a phrase he heard repeatedly on the news, at the time of writing.
After he finished his reading, to appreciative applause, the poet introduced a short film, accompanied by a recording of him reading ‘Terra Nullius’. The film is a collaboration between Director of Manchester Met’s North West Film Archive Marion Hewitt and the Manchester School of Art’s Professor Steve Hawley. The edited footage features parades, marching bands and comical floats, watched by spectators under umbrellas. The clips then change to military men in open-top cars. In reality, this could have been a fraternal visit of foreign soldiers, or even astronauts. However, the clips took on a sinister quality, set against a poem about a population, which “dare not open our lips/ in case a word gives us away.”
Speaking to Humanity Hallows later, the poet also talked about Men Who Sleep in Cars, his verse-drama recently shown on BBC4. The writing of this piece, originally broadcast on radio, slightly preceded the writing of Mancunia. He said there was a synthesis between the projects. “My head was in Manchester, particularly Manchester at night,” he explained.
The event ended with a wonderful reading of ‘A Mancunian Diorama’ by Cesare Taurasi, who appeared in Men Who Sleep in Cars. A diorama, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a ‘model representing a scene with three-dimensional figures’. Speaking to Humanity Hallows, the Italian-Mancunian actor said he imagined being transported into the diorama where nothing is referred to by name, whether it’s “a world-famous nightclub”, the “world’s first rock-star footballer”, or a “code-cracker.”
Audience member and self-proclaimed “Wigan lad” Chris Allen enjoyed the context and “warmth” Roberts brought to his introductions and readings. He added: “Some [of the references] struck home and some felt unfamiliar.”
Fellow audience member Amy Churchman said that her first love was drama. She praised Roberts as a good reader of his own poetry.
Carole Green, in Manchester on a weekend visit from North Wales said: “The addition of the film was a lovely extra dimension.”
Martin Kratz added: “I think Roberts always has an eye for the ‘between’ spaces as much as the big landmarks. In his non-fiction this is most apparent in a book like Edgelands and I think it comes out in this collection too.”
Reflecting on what it was like to read from Mancunia, in Manchester, Roberts told Humanity Hallows: “It feels more charged and complicated because everyone in the room has their own mythic Manchester.”
Michael Symmons Roberts will also be reading his work at a forthcoming RAH! event. Encountering Corpses III is a conference (8 – 9 December) which will focus on the many ways in which we increasingly encounter the material remains of the dead in a variety of contexts, including popular culture, the media, the everyday, tourism, heritage and archaeology, and medical contexts. For more information, visit the RAH! events page.