The Manchester Poetry Prize-giving ceremony has become an increasingly snazzy affair over the last three years and this year MMU Writing School pushed the boat out further to incorporate a Gala dinner into the proceedings; not black tie, the invitation insisted, but close enough to ensure some very fancy frocks and footwear. The Pennine Restaurant at the top of the All Saints Building may be the canteen to MMU insiders but, as made clear by the presence of a live jazz trio and free-flowing champagne on arrival, jacket potato and cheese was not on the menu tonight.
After nibbling on the teeniest of canapés, sampling the aforementioned champagne (gosh sorry am I repeating myself...) we all took our seats to be welcomed by Manchester hosts James Draper and Matthew Frost and to hear the panel of judges read from their work.
Daljit Nagra led the readings, warning the audience that they were in for a ‘long, dry poem.’ This quickly proved to be tripe. Nagra is a controlled but vibrant reader; his ambitious, musical half-rhymes occupy a lyrical territory somewhere between English and Punjabi and his reading served as a reminder of what motivated and successful poetry is capable of.
Lavinia Greenlaw preceded each of her poems with a short evocative contextualisation; this one about a bat colony in Florida, that one about dancing to an iPod in Nova Scotia; vox-pop intros can often steal a poem’s thunder but hers these added colour to an otherwise metronomic ‘Serious Poet’ delivery.
Simon Armitage followed with a customarily brilliant reading of three distinctive lyrical vignettes from his new collection Seeing Stars. There’s a poem about a bear who lives in a skip and turns out to be a heroin addict, another about a desperate man purchasing and gift-wrapping the ‘space’ his lover so vocally desires. Armitage’s poems are linear, narrative and explosively vivid. For some, it’s ‘not proper poetry’, but there’s no denying that his work has integrity and is consistently engaging.
After the readings it was time for dinner. A crab and langoustine cocktail with roast pepper dressing awaited us on our return to the tables, served in a Martini glass no less, just to make absolutely clear that it was posh food. This was swiftly followed by a succulent breast of chicken with sage and hazelnut mousse with a tian of vegetable and fondant potato – poetry on a plate. My neighbour, Manchester Literature Festival Director Cathy Bolton, had the vegetarian option and assured me that that was also ‘very nice’ (it occurs to me that food criticism is perhaps not our strong point...)
All suffering the effects of a large dinner and one or two glasses of wine, we gratefully accepted coffees in preparation for hearing from the finalists and bearing witness to the opening of the auspicious envelopes bearing the names of the winners of both the £10,000 Poetry Prize and the MMU Bursary awarded to the Manchester Young Writer of the Year.
All the finalists were of a comfortably high standard; we heard poems from Judy Brown, John Wedgewood Clarke, Michelle Kern, Clive McWilliam, Lesley Saunders and Jack Underwood. Michelle Kern is based in New York and was unable to attend so her two poems were read out by Lavinia Greenlaw. Listening to the finalists read I was struck more by similarities between their work than by the differences. There was a consistent return to concerns about the relationship of nature to culture that revealed something of a shared attentiveness to the natural environment among some, if not all, of the poets.
Before the winners were announced, judge Simon Armitage returned to the lectern to crack some jokes about football, but also to contextualise the competition in terms of the poetry community and in terms of the role and ‘state’ of poetry in a global, media-driven world in which it offers ‘a counterweight to all that guff’. He named a visibly overwhelmed Judy Brown as the overall winner of the £10,000 Poetry Prize, and Michelle Kern as the Manchester Young Writer of the Year. Kern had sent a message from New York thanking the judges and organisers, and to say that she ‘could not survive as a writer without the support of a community’.
That slightly worse-for-wear community warmly approved the winners with a hearty round of applause before sloping off into the drizzly darkness of Oxford Road replete with food and verse.
by Katie Popperwell
Katie is a freelance journalist living in Manchester.