Poetry in Durham and Darlington

Jackie Litherland introduces the lively north-east writing community and reports on current challenges

Durham is a beautiful medieval city with a castle and cathedral on a romantic promontory looped by the River Wear. It has lush trees and riverside walks. It used to have a hinterland of pits which are now all closed, and sadly, there's quite a lot of drunkenness in the town at weekends. Therefore anyone who offers an alternative to pub culture ought to be given a Hero of Culture badge. Happily, there's a lot of poetry going on.

If you are looking for a course, there are term-time creative writing evening classes/workshops at Darlington Arts Centre, Tuesdays 7.30-9.30pm (Women only); Alington House, Durham, Wednesdays 7-9pm (WEA); and Clayport Library, Durham, Thursdays 7-9pm (New College). The Lamplight Theatre, Stanley, is holding a creative writing afternoon (4-6pm) on 1 July run by Sue Kane and from 7pm there will be an open mic for writers and musicians.

There are many groups and collectives offering a mix of events, publications and workshops. One of these, Vane Women writers' collective and press, is based at Darlington Arts Centre. It's composed of twelve good women and true who publish very attractive first poetry collections by north-east women. The latest is The Spar Box by Pippa Little and The Laden Table by Celia McCulloch, due in Autumn 2006. They also put on very lively readings with seasonal themes, and open mic sessions two or three times a year, as well as organising outreach readings and workshops around village halls.

More recently, The Muses have appeared in Durham City. Not the nine from Parnassus but a new student group organising readings in different venues. It sounds great fun but there are no fees for the poets, so it's purely for love. Darlington's Crown Street Library is keen on poetry promotion, has held lunch-time readings of a local kind and is open to ideas on events. Jo Colley has recently been poet in residence there and she's run a course on children's writing.

Wear Valley Writers group meets on Wednesday evenings at Bishop Auckland Town Hall Library (7-9.30pm). One of its leading lights is novelist Wendy Robertson who is running a year-long programme of monthly classes at the Town Hall called 'The Determined Butterfly'. The group sets its own workshop exercises and also organises a lecture programme. It has forty members on its books, about twelve attend at any one time. The Town Hall also arranges the occasional poetry readings and workshops. Smaller groups include Greenfield Writers at Newton Aycliffe, which meets weekly on Monday afternoons (1.30-3.30pm) and sometimes hires tutors, and Valley Writers, which draws members from the locality of Esh Winning, and meets in the Library on occasional Monday evenings (5.30-7.30pm). In September-October Durham City Arts runs the Durham Lit Fest but at the time of writing there is no news of this year's programme.

May was the cruellest month in Durham. Without warning Colpitts Poetry (on whose committee I serve) was cut off from funding by Arts Council England North East. Colpitts, which recently celebrated thirty years of readings by national and local poets in Durham City, takes its name from the Durham pub in which it was founded and now puts on regular readings at Alington House on North Bailey. Our most recent event was a launch of the Iron Press anthology, North by North-East, edited by Andy Croft and Cynthia Fuller. Readers over the past year have included David Harsent, Penelope Shuttle, Colette Bryce, French poet Jacques Darras and Andrew Burke from Australia, among many others. Within weeks of hearing the funding news, 68 poets and poetry lovers had emailed with wonderfully eloquent letters of support. Among them were Sean O'Brien, Roy Fisher, David Harsent, Alistair Elliot, Matthew Caley, Matthew Sweeney, Ruth Padel, Anne Stevenson, Anne Cluysenaar, Helen Dunmore, John Kinsella and W.N. Herbert.

And it's not just Colpitts. Darlington's Hydrogen Jukebox is also vulnerable. This could end six years of successful hosting (by Jo Colley and Andy Willoughby) of a radical mixture of young musicians/rock bands, top class poets, local open mic and a cabaret by youngsters from the Sixth Form College next door. Over 100 were there last week – I hope that someone will come to its rescue.

The Durham-based magazine Other Poetry, founded in the 1970s by Anne Stevenson and Evangeline Paterson has also been affected by the current funding situation. And several of our neighbouring Newcastle-based organisations have suffered. It is unrealistic to expect these organisations to go dark, and open up again, and then go dark etc., according to the vagaries of the grant system. We're all part of the north-east writing community and we need a strategy that respects our infrastructure. Unless emergency funding is put in place, Durham and Darlington will be left forlorn of poetry outlets.

S. J. Litherland's The Work of the Wind is published by Flambard in July

Contact details
Hydrogen Jukebox;
Women's Creative Writing Class
both at Darlington Arts Centre:
01325 348843
Wear Valley Writers
Bishop Auckland Town Hall:
01388 602610
Crown Street Library Darlington:
01325 462034
WEA Creative Writing Class
Alington House Durham
WEA Northern District:
0191 4618100
Colpitts Poetry Durham
Convenor Michael Ayton:
0191 3849406
Clayport Library Creative Writing Course, New College Durham:
0191 375400
Greenfield Writers Group
Community & Arts Centre
Greenfield Way, Newton Aycliffe:
01325 379048
Durham City Arts:
0191 3018245
Vane Women/Press:
01325 468464
The Muses:
email: [email protected]
Lamplight Theatre Stanley:
01207 218899
Other Poetry:
email: [email protected]