Poetry in Leeds

Leeds has been voted Britain's favourite city. It's a boom city, a place where, at the wave of an architect's wand, every derelict urban postage stamp is being turned into a commuter's castle. From Katherine Hamnett to Harvey Nicks, Leeds is fast becoming a fashionable mecca. But beyond the labels, surely what should speak for any city (or village, or town) should be its poets?

Leeds is mapped out in the voices of the poets who live, or have lived here. Tony Harrison, Ian Duhig, and Tom Paulin (though raised in Belfast) were all born in Leeds. Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel regularly came to visit their friend Ellen Heaton at her Leeds home. Ellen was a women's rights activist, educational benefactor and Christina's long-term companion. In a fitting tribute to Ellen's politics and her poetry connections, her former home is now The Swarthmore Centre, a community arts centre running heavily subsidised courses on everything from writing sonnets to Salsa Dancing.

So, what are the shortcuts and signposts for people who want to get in on the current Leeds Poetry Scene? Yorkshire Word – a comprehensive listings guide to open mic nights, writing groups, recently published books and independent presses in Yorkshire – is an invaluable resource for any writer or reader of poetry. "Location, Location, Location" is the buzz phrase here; one scan of Yorkshire Word and you realise that the beauty of being a poet in Leeds is not just the city's ever-changing poetry scene, but the fact that you are Metro Line minutes from other parts of Yorkshire, each with its own poetic face.

Leeds Guide and Metro News both contain spoken word listings and frequent poetry features. Visit Leeds Central Library and you'll leave all clued up as to the range of poetry reading groups and writing groups in the City's libraries.

Leeds Writers' Circle has been running for over eighty years and puts together an annual programme of development sessions. The circle invites guest speakers to give feedback on members' writing, organises performances, produces publications and promotes its own poetry competition, which is judged by established writers.

Borders and Waterstone's run occasional open mic nights, and Thursday Night Live at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a monthly talent hotspot for up and coming writing talent of all genres. However, Wicked Words is the most established of the City's live poetry nights, with a large and loyal following. Wicked Words showcases city-grown talent, back-to-back with celebrity poets such as Roger McGough, Lemn Sissay, Brian Patten and Joolz. The open mic is always heavily over-subscribed and provides a much needed platform for both emerging and established poets.

Leeds' Young Authors is a new Chapeltown-based collective of 13-19 year-old writers, whipping up a storm both here and across the Pond. Back in April, the group received the accolade of "outstanding" at the Brave New Voices Poetry Slam in Los Angeles, and is now in the middle of a helter-skelter tour of the UK.

There are a number of beginner and advanced courses (some accredited and some not), led by published and practising poets. The Workers' Educational Association (WEA), the Swarthmore Centre and the University of Leeds' Continuing Education Building between them run courses in poetry for performance, poetry work-shopping and classical and contemporary poetry. The University of Leeds Continuing Education Building also runs a popular summer school and provides options for distance learning. All of the accredited courses can lead to degree qualifications.

Numerous independent presses across the region provide writers, including those in Leeds, with a vital presence on the page. Grassroots Press is Headingley-based and publishes new collections by up-and- coming poets on the Yorkshire poetry scene. Peepal Tree Press is Leeds based and also the largest distributor of Caribbean fiction and poetry anywhere in the world. It publishes giants such as Forward Prize winner Kwame Dawes, Edward 'Kamau' Braithwaite and Opal Palmer Adisa. Both Peepal Tree and Yorkshire Arts Circus, in partnership with Arts Council England Yorkshire, are spearheading writer development programmes to nurture the voices of the next generation of writers.

So, things aren't just looking up for Leeds's bricks and mortar, they're looking up for its poets, too.


Rommi Smith's second collection of poems, Mornings and Midnights, is due from Peepal Tree Press in 2005. www.rommi-smith.co.uk

Poetry News, Autumn 2005