Michaela Butter (Attenborough Arts) chaired the panel and invited them to “Raise the roof on Leicester’s writers.”
Bobba Cass spoke about how poetry and rhymes had been important to him growing up in Seattle with an English father and American mother. He came to the UK via Nigeria, carrying those poems with him. He felt it important to honour the moment of discovering creativity. He spoke about how inspirational he felt some people in Leicester were which had inspired him to set up PInng…k!, now in its seventh year. He mentioned Carol Leeming, Word!, Lydia Towsey and Tim Sayers’ work at Bradgate Hospital, Michaela Butter, Corinne Fowler, Magnus who ran Galleri Gastur, Alison Dunne, Keith Allott, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Liz Grey, Marcus Joseph, Vijay Mistry (2Funky Arts), Rob Gee, Louise Katerega, Mellow Baku, Peter Buckley, Richard Byrt, Kishan Anand (Anerki) and Dave Donnau.
Emma Lee introduced Leicester Writers’ Club who meet every Thursday at Phoenix Square in Leicester’s cultural quarter. Leicester Writers’ Club’s core business is feedback on works in progress and sharing publishing and marketing tips. The latter becoming more important as publishers are expecting writers to do a lot more marketing – gone are the days of long lunches and publishers putting together marketing plans. The Club also offers advanced masterclasses, talks from industry speakers such as literary agents, social events and a writers’ retreat. Members are novelists, poets, short story writers, scriptwriters and spoken word artists who are widely published in the UK, Europe, North and South America, Africa and New Zealand. Members have been shortlisted for the Carnegie Prize and Philip K Dick awards and prize-winners in, e.g. Writing East Midlands Aurora and Leicester Writes competitions. Members have also judged short story and poetry competitions.
Leicester Writers’ Club Is not insular. The Club itself has held events for Everybody’s Reading, Leicester Writes and takes a stall at States of Independence. Members have performed at most of Leicester’s spoken word nights including Shindig, Word!, Anerki; Novel Exchanges, Cultural Exchanges, The Journeys Festival and supported Refugee Week programmes. Members teach at Writing School East Midlands, lecture in Creative Writing at De Montfort University and two members have set up a writers’ development service to help writers achieve their goals, The Writers’ Shed.
Two Club members have supported Leicester Writers’ Showcase from its inception and all 12 events have featured at least one Club member.
Despite all this the Club and its members feel overlooked and invisible.
Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Publishing, Leicester Writes and The Asian Writer, spoke of the incredible talent and humility in Leicester. She tries to harness a community where anyone can join in. Dahlia Publishing has provided opportunities, e.g. “Welcome to Leicester” poetry anthology and “Lost and Found: stories of home from Leicestershire writers” short story anthology. Writers should be celebrated a lot more. Leicester Writes monthly meet-up at Bru started in May 2013 and provides an informal space for moral support and to share news. Novel Exchanges, which meets quarterly, features established writers alongside local writers to create a nurturing environment. Leicester achieves a lot despite lack of funding and support. She created a writer’s residency at Bru to disrupt normal writing commissions which focus on history or cultural traditions to try to break down barriers to getting people involved.
The Leicester Writes Short Story competition was set up with support from BBC Radio Leicester and the Bristol Short Story prize. It had a Leicester launch and, of 102 entries, 50% were from within Leicestershire. Local talent stood up in comparison with national talent. Leicester can acknowledge that Leicester writers are talented. Initiatives like Leicester Writes Short Story Competition enables Leicester’s talent to see how it is doing and shows there is talent here. Leicester Writes Festival was set up to celebrate that talent and offer workshops for local writers. It also brought meet the publisher/pitch your novel events to Leicester by inviting London-based publishers and agents.
Dahlia Publishing champions regional and diverse voices. She concluded, “It’s a shame to feel invisible.”
Matthew Pegg of Mantle Lane Arts and Mantle Lane Press based in Coalville talked about how they had started as a group who organised festivals, went into schools, libraries and worked with community groups but felt they’d become too diverse and lacked identity. After Matthew had completed a Creative Writing MA at Nottingham Trent University so felt writing would be a good focus. Set up the Red Lighthouse project offering writer support and development, creative writing community projects and a small press publisher aimed at children’s and Young Adult writers. Created two writing for children events, Wolves and Apples including readings and masterclasses. The third Wolves and Apples event will be on 17 March 2018 with Celia Rees and Linda Newbery at Ramada Encore in Leicester aimed at beginners. Also looking to set up a training course for writers in participatory work, e.g. going into schools, libraries, etc. Started a songwriting project for people with dementia which will lead to a CD. Undertakes playwriting in schools with Curve and assistance from Rob Gee which will end in a showcase event at Curve. Mantle Lane Arts is also setting up a literary festival in Coalville with Joanne Harris as the main guest. Mantle Lane Press started with an oral history and branched out into small format books, a good size for poetry pamphlets and novellas, and anthologies. A third anthology and two further small format books are planned so far. The press was an interesting learning curve, especially on marketing. Non-fiction books are easier to market based on the topic. Fiction and poetry heavily rely on author involvement. Mantle Lane has supported the recent exhibition in Coalville about the first 50 volunteers who signed up to join the First World War and is undertaking a project with the National Trust based in the West Midlands.
Michaela Butter liked Bobba Cass’s idea of not being tied to the page, that the Leicester Writers’ Club were not insular, Leicester Writes’ creating space for anyone, disrupting models through commissions and inviting national organisations to come to Leicester, and Mantle Lane Arts reaching out to children.
Discussion from the floor talked about the cross-over between literary arts and other arts such as visual arts and music and recognising those talents in writers. Leicester was felt to be vibrant but lacked local support, e.g. it was easier to get a book reviewed in the Washington Post than in the Leicester Mercury. There was a mention of paying artists properly; there was a heavy reliance on voluntary work to organise events which meant performers weren’t always paid. Leicester has an eco-system of beginners to professionals. Farhana Shaikh talked about how she’d got funding to do a series of workshops in a local library because travel costs can deter people taking part in central events. Emma Lee said that if writers approached Leicester Writers’ Club and it was clear they didn’t have the experience to join, the Club pointed them in the direction of other, more relevant groups and Writing School East Midlands. Matthew Vaughan of Leicester Libraries talked about the libraries having an intern and one of the intern’s jobs would be to create a directory of writers’ organisations in Leicester/shire.
After an interval, during which a significant number of the audience left because it had begun snowing, the panel reconvened.
Henderson Mullin, CEO Writing East Midlands talked about WEM and its role as a catalytic organisation which worked to help writers help themselves. There were limitations due to funding and WEM having the equivalent of 3.5 full time staff. WEM offers writers one to one advice, mentoring, critical reads, Writing School East Midlands, writers’ conference and residencies. He briefly discussed the literary scenes in Norwich which highlights internationalism supported by UEA and its UNESCO City of Literature Status. Edinburgh is focused around its festival. Manchester is lively and recently won UNESCO City of Literature status. Birmingham’s scene was growing stronger, especially in Moseley. Nottingham was coalescing around its UNESCO City of Literature status. Derby had a book festival and was developing their spoken word scene through a couple of collaborative and motivated individuals. The common thread in all these successes was a sense of identity and strong theme. There were questions: did these initiatives benefit everybody, who gets prioritised, who controls projects, how these effect diversity and multiplicity and whether literature can become part of the city’s culture, e.g. involve universities and local authorities?
James Urquhart Relationship Manager Arts Council England (ACE), talked about the richness and diversity of the scene in Leicester. ACE’s mission was achieving art for everyone and he was positive about the role of volunteers. He asked how writers can reach out to new audiences and felt raising the profile of writers relied on developing and sharing audiences and sharing and promoting each other. He cited the example of a project done by Maria Taylor where three “page poets” and three “stage poets” were invited to share a stage. He mentioned looking at creating partnerships and looking at non-arts organisations and potential funders, reaching out to Leicester’s twin cities and investigate touring and/or inviting festivals to Leicester. ACE were not there to tell artists what to do, it was down to artists to approach with ideas. He finished by asking, “Who are you invisible to?”
This last point provoked a discussion about organisations such as ACE reaching out to artists who might feel they couldn’t initiate contact either because they didn’t know what the organisations could do or felt jargon was a barrier. James Urquhart responded that, like WEM, he had a large area to cover and didn’t have the resources to do outreach as well. The point about funding bodies not being directional was mentioned. James was asked why ACE didn’t recognise stand-up comedy as an art, a question he couldn’t answer.
It was felt Leicester needed more confidence in what it was doing to create a joined-up picture and perhaps this event could create that forum. At this point the meeting was wound up – it was 9.30pm and the snow was getting worse.
There will be follow up meetings likely to take place in July and December 2018.