Public Poets, Public Poems, Public Art

28 September 1999, British Library, London

Reader's Rights Poetry on Loan - promoting poetry to librarians and the large reading audience they serve each day across the West Midlands.

Michael Donaghy, Adrian Johnson and Christine Bridgwood explored three different facets of recent work with library staff members to enhance ways in which libraries can bring more readers to the pleasures of poetry.

The poet Michael Donaghy spoke on his work with librarians - based on his pamphlet Wallflowers and his initial work on the free West Midlands Arts/Faber readers guide project with libraries across the West Midlands between September and April 1999. This project helped to produce 40,000 free readers guides called 'Passion for Poetry' which were distributed to bookstores across the country and partner libraries in the West Midlands.

Adrian Johnson, Literature Officer at West Midlands Arts followed this with a presentation of ideas and reasons for why any one of the 10 English regional arts boards should be concerned to support activities, in partnership with libraries, to bring more readers to poetry.

[Throughout the presentation at the British Library Adrian's contribution was supported by a selection of projected background quotes on slides by poets on poetry which are interspersed throughout the following text]

'It is surely interesting that in a period of widespread scepticism about meaning and value, much of the best energy goes into poetry, an activity predicated, however uneasily on the necessity of both... [also] just as contemporary music needs listeners, what poetry needs is readers.'

Sean O'Brien The Deregulated Muse (Bloodaxe Books, 1998)

As we turn our thoughts to poetry and public libraries it may be useful to quickly run through some facts and figures about libraries, poetry and publishing to illustrate why all of the 10 English regional arts boards, the Arts Council and many other funding agencies continue to initiate and devise a wide range of projects to reach new reading audiences for poetry. For example:
  • In 1998 Social Trends identified that a visit to the library is the public's 5th most popular leisure activity outside home (followed by a visit to the cinema, disco and trip to a theatre at number 11 and camping at number 12).
  • Fiction sales account for 36% of booksales in the UK which earns £1,673 million per annum. Public Libraries buy £113m worth of books each year and 58% of the nation owns a public library borrowers card.
  • In 1997 nearly 3,000 poetry titles were published (compared to 9,000 adult fiction titles) and the publishing industries total output exceeds 100,000 different books.
'Sometimes my son gets a poem instead of the latest expensive toy or over hyped gadget - he's not always happy about it though!' (Jackie Kay speaking at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, July 1999.)

* There are over 4, 672 public libraries across the country, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport rightly observed, in 1998 that 'the library is the most frequently used public service with nearly 400 million library visits per year and 10 million people using a library at least once a fortnight.  An impressive number of visitors to entice and introduce to poetry.

Closer to home, there are 365 libraries across the 14 local authorities that West Midlands Arts works with.

Libraries across the West Midlands (like those all over the country) including Coventry, Birmingham, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Sandwell and Warwickshire have all participated in some kind of poetry focused stock promotions, author visits and reading group development .

None of this has, however, been underpinned by support work and sustainable networks to maintain momentum and staffs energy in the same way as the recent Poetry On Loan initiative - of which more from Christine Bridgwood, later.

'Of all the literary arts, something most of us carry in the body's luggage from childhood as, among much else, an affirmation of joy and a spell against the dark. (Charles Causley,  Poetry News - Poetry Society, Winter 1998)

With many of the previous impressive points in mind in 1998 West Midlands Arts brokered a pathfinding partnership with Faber, four library authorities from the West Midlands and ACE to produce 'Passion for Poetry'. This set out to be, quite simply, a reader friendly, accessible guide to a selection of contemporary poetry and how to get a readers group up and running inside libraries or local bookstores.

40,000 free copies of this 28-page booklet went out to libraries across the West Midlands and a number of poetry reading groups are mushrooming as a result of this initial starter booklet in libraries in Shropshire, Staffs and Coventry.

'I hardly understand any poetry, but I still buy poetry books all the time. They're precious to me, even if I only get one phrase from them. I was reading Ted Hughes the other day and came across the phrase - 'the night snowed stars ...When a poet says that, you think 'wow.' (John Hegley, Independent 20 Jan. '99)

Earlier in the year Chris Meade, the Director of the Poetry Society, wrote in Poetry News and the Library Association Record of his vision in which every library in the country becomes a registered Poetry Place.

This galvanised West Midlands Regional Library Systems and West Midlands Arts to action. We proposed a regional, pathfinding project which could provide a possible and plausible national model and template for libraries to work with (and improve/adapt) across the country. Primarily the project aimed to enable librarians to successfully explore, and become, more positive, pro-active and confident about contemporary poetry and poetry readers inside (and outside) their library. That was, and still is the mission.

At the time of speaking Poetry on Loan is still only half way through. It's outputs are already very encouraging including a sustainable network of poetry places in libraries where readers can be confident of finding plenty of relevant and fresh poetry publications. Suggested training ideas for library staff and ideas about the crucial and most inspiring poetry books since the sixties that any library should carry have also emerged. There is more to come that appears to work and inspire - which must be good news for poetry readers and writers.

'My main advice would be to read a lot - of all kinds and all countries. Read a hell of a lot, then write a bit, then read a lot more. I meet young people who sometimes say, "Oh no, I can't read other poets because it might influence me." I say I really want to kick your ass because you need influences. ' (Adrian Mitchell,  Reading the Applause - NAWE, 1999)

Incidentally, and to conclude, only last week the poet Sophie Hannah, Coventry's Mayor, 70 local poetry readers and writers (and a local sponsor - the undertaker) launched the Earlsdon Library 'Poetry Place' in Coventry. The Birmingham Poet Laureate, Simon Pitt, also launched the Poetry Place in Erdington Library and the energetic Birmingham-based poetry place librarian, Mike Read, helped to launch the Redditch Library Poetry Place in Worcester.

Already, the sustainable, pleasurable networks and enduring links are beginning to form across the west midlands which Poetry On Loan has enabled to better serve library staff who are keen to do more with poetry, with renewed confidence and less poetryphobia.

'Rules for reading poetry, like the rules for writing poetry, don't exist. Or rather there are innumerable sets of unforeseeable rules; imagine a form of chess incorporating all the known maneuvres with their infinite permutations but add as legitimate moves licking the chess pieces or one by one or slapping your opponent with a rubber chicken...many contemporary poets make up their own rules as they go along. Half the pleasure is seeing them move the goalposts around the pitch. (Michael Donaghy, Passion for Poetry - Faber, 1998)