Martin Kratz: Manchester Poetry Library and the Poetry of Childhood

Credit: Simon Haworth

In the novel Mutterzunge (Mothertongue), Emine Sevgi Özdamar writes: “In der Fremdsprache haben Wörter keine Kindheit.” A rough translation is: “In a foreign language, words have no childhood.” But really, it says something more like “in THE foreign language, words have no childhood”, because Özdamar is thinking here in particular of the bilingual experience—a person’s other tongue, as opposed to their mother tongue.

While it’s untrue to say I have no childhood in English at all, there are certainly gaps in that upbringing. I grew up speaking mostly German. These days, English is by far my stronger language; and, like many others, I now have to make a concerted effort to engage with the language that was once my only one.

The Tree is Older Than You Are, A Bilingual Gathering of Of Poems and Stories From Mexico, Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Occasionally English words and sentences, which have been layered over a foreign foundational grammar, will buck and move according to that other logic. I sometimes find basic linguistic reference points, expressions and phrases simply aren’t to hand. I’m conscious of it too when speaking to friends about what was read to them as children. I didn’t read those books. They weren’t part of my early childhood literary landscape. They never informed my sense of language.

Wordygurdyboom! The Nonsense world of Sukumar Ray, translated by Sampurna Chatterji

All this simply to say, what an amazing opportunity it is now to be working in mapping out that foundational landscape. I work as project manager for Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University—opening this year. The building is built, the first books are on the shelves and we’ve been connecting with people through our online programme. We’re now waiting for things to get to the point where we can put books, space and people together.

We’re one of several Poetry Libraries in the UK which have a close relationship. Like the other poetry libraries, we’ll be open to the public and our focus is on 20th and 21st century poetry. Specialisms include poetry in recording, Manchester’s 200+ community languages and poetry for children.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find a focus on poetry for children here. The library grows out of the Manchester Writing School under the Creative Directorship of Carol Ann Duffy. Her own writing for children and her Laureate education projects (such as the Mother Tongue Other Tongue Competition) not only have a home in the library but are part of its DNA.

English-Chinese Bilingual Poems and Quotations for Children, Selected and Translated by Slow Rabbit

In 2020, we invited the poet Mandy Coe to co-curate the children’s poetry section. If you read her story of this process [The Adventures of Co-Curating a Poetry Library Collection for Children by Mandy Coe – CILIP: the library and information association], you might understand how pleased I was that she mentions my particular passion for poetry in translation; because of course these different specialisms don’t exist in isolation from each other. We hope for children’s poetry both in translation and in recording too. (The images in this blog are recommendations from Mandy’s report.)

What Mandy’s brilliant work has done is set the ball rolling, when she reached out to individuals and organisations for their recommendations. We continue that work. So, allow me to take this opportunity to reiterate our call: if you have children’s poetry book recommendations, please get in touch. And while I have this platform, if you have recommendations for children’s poetry in translation, in your mother tongue or another tongue in particular, let us know. Better than a library that captures THE landscape of childhood on its shelves would be one that is home to as many landscapes as possible.

Martin Kratz

Martin Kratz is Project Manager at Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also a poet and translator. His most recent translations from the German appear in Modern Poetry in Translation, ‘Clean Hands: Focus on the Pandemic in Europe’. You can contact him at M.Kratz@mmu.ac.uk.

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