Interview _ Becky Swain

Becky Swain
is Director of Manchester Poetry Library, the North West’s first public poetry library, opening in 2021. She has experience leading arts, literature and learning programmes at organisations including Arvon, Creative Partnerships, and Creativity Culture and Education, and is an experienced youth worker, English and Drama teacher, coach and arts learning facilitator. A Clore Fellow (2009), and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, she is a member of the Advisory Group and Young Poets’ Stories, a poetry writing development research.

In this interview, Becky Swain talks about poetry, the Manchester Poetry Library and why poetry matters.

How would you describe the Manchester Poetry Library?

Manchester Poetry Library based at Manchester Metropolitan University, is the North West’s first public Poetry Library, and the only public poetry library in the country to be based within a university. The Manchester Poetry Library will open on Oxford Road in Manchester early in 2021.

It will host a public programme where language is celebrated in all its diversity. It aims to imagine, make and grow a leading collection of contemporary poetry with our members and partners and to be a place where the next generation of readers and writers are made.

Open to everyone, visitors will be able to enjoy a collection of contemporary poetry in the widest sense of the word; including anthologies, spoken word in recording, films, and poetry in translation.

The public will be able to borrow from and mould the collections and events programme to reflect their interests. We aim to work with people across and beyond the region to ensure that poetry from over 200 of Manchester’s community languages are represented within the collection. The collection will begin in 1889 – the year of the world’s first audio collection.

Tell us more about the library's focus on poetry in recording.

Manchester Poetry Library will also have a special focus on poetry in recording from film to audio. The library will be seeking funding to trace the history of poetry in audio recording from the first wax cylinder recordings to podcasting.

If you know of recordings that need to be preserved or made more widely available, please let us know. We’ve also had quite a request to collect vinyl and we have run our first Poetry Record Club online.

How did the idea of the library come about?

The idea for a public poetry library came from conversations some years ago between the amazing group of poets based at Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University – these include the recent poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Malika Booker, Jean Sprackland, Michael Symmons Roberts, Andrew McMillan, Helen Mort and Adam O’Riordan.

Manchester Metropolitan University has a thriving undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing community, and the North West has a huge array of poetry talent and a love of poetry. The idea of a dedicated poetry library captured the imagination of the university and it became part of the new Arts and Humanities Building on Oxford Road.

The idea has gathered momentum across the city, and amongst our partners as Manchester is a UNESCO City of Literature. Celebrating the many languages of the city will be key to the mission, and working with communities to co-curate the collections. There is excitement about the opportunity to work in partnership with poets, literature, arts and community groups across the city as we start to develop the collection and public programme.

What can poetry libraries add to literature and life?

I think that just the act of creating a poetry library in Manchester shows the sheer love for poetry in this city and will add to the vibrancy of the scene that already exists.

Connecting poetry with the civic role of libraries has the potential to be a powerful combination, especially during times when public libraries have had to fight for their very existence - and where our curriculum in schools often lack any real commitment to, or understanding of, poetry and how it can engage young minds.

Creating Manchester Poetry Library enables us to develop a space dedicated to poetry in all its forms. We aim to create a poetry place of opportunity and creativity. The Poetry Library will be for everyone interested in, curious about, or simply inspired by poetry. A place to read, hear, perform, write and talk about poetry. We will work in partnership with literature, arts and community organisations across and beyond the city which already has a thriving literary heritage and scene.

How is the Manchester Poetry Library different from other libraries that are out there?

The focus on poetry makes it different – and poetry not just in books, but recordings and on film, with a programme of reading, writing and performance in partnership with poets. We will work closely with poets to develop programmes that meet the needs of residents and members of the library. Specialisms will include poetry and community languages, poetry and recording, poetry for children and poetry in collaboration.

Why does poetry matter?

For writers and readers I think the best of poetry can explore what it means to be human and help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Poetry matters to people in so many different ways.

It’s always good to ask a poet too. When asked whether she felt poetry could change the world, poet and Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer Malika Booker replied, “Poets interrogate the world to arrive at truth and honesty and that can inspire people.”

Poetry can often articulate what cannot be said and give it clarity.

As an educator, I have seen that poetry can change a person’s life in the way that they find comfort in other’s words, and through writing poetry themselves, which can help us see a sense of possibility in their future. I have seen students re-engage with themselves and learning and take a new kind of pride in their own voice – to understand that they do have something to say that is of value to others.

And people turn to poetry in challenging times. Carol Ann Duffy initiated the WRITE Where We Are NOW poetry project at Manchester Metropolitan online in March and we have seen over 50,000 people engage with the poems about people’s experiences of living in the time of a global pandemic. The Manchester Poetry Library will be collecting public submissions to curate an archive for future generations.

Manchester Poetry will be the first dedicated public poetry library in the North West of England, a place where poets are plentiful and held in high esteem. Not just at Manchester Metropolitan, but also Lemn Sissay and Jackie Kay, who hold Chancellor roles at University of Manchester and Salford University respectively.

Manchester alone is home to award winning independent presses such as Comma, Carcanet, Saraband, Confingo, Flapjack, Manchester University Press and the Manchester Review. We also have Commonword/Cultureword and fantastic festivals – including the Manchester Literature Festival, and Manchester Children’s Book Festival.

Is there anything you would like to add or emphasise?

You can sign up for the Manchester Poetry Library monthly newsletter for the latest on news, opportunities, writing workshops and events, and blogs.

We are always interested in what you'd love to see in the library and any ideas for working in partnership - email


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