Roma Havers: What happens when you let children tell you what’s in your library?

What happens when you let children tell you what’s in your library?

It was this question that helped me imagine a structure for our first group of children to visit The Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had been working on a Poet in Residence project with the Comino Foundation and, as part of this project, were asked to host a session in the Poetry Library with ten Year 9 pupils.  Manchester Met student and Poet in Residence for St Gabriel’s High School in Bury, Hannah Robinson-Wright, had taken the group to the National Football Museum and wanted to inspire them to write poetry that will be displayed on a football, in the Football Museum and then in the Poetry Library, over the summer. 

This was the first group that I had led around the library space, in my new role as Learning Manager for the Manchester Poetry Library. It was an appropriate one to help me frame this role for myself.

Image: Hannah Robinson-Wright

My job title is Learning Manager not Teaching Manager and I’m interested in facilitating learning. Often empowering other people gives opportunities for me to learn, too. To host the first school visit in the library was an opportunity to be open to them leading their own exploration. I devised a ‘Scavenger Hunt’ that would allow them to discover the library for themselves… and they did. The group was fantastic, giving thoughtful responses to our questions. It was an incredible test of what the library says without us having to explain and, as hoped, the library spoke for itself.

We then invited the students to pick a book from the shelf that they were drawn to, based only on the cover.  They described what they thought the book would be about without opening it. One of my interests is in supporting the library to develop an offer for teen readers that doesn’t limit them to Young Adult targeted writing, so this activity gave me lots of insight into what younger readers expect from a poetry book, and what excites and disappoints them once they open the book. I’m excited to see what we can build by listening to the groups that come into the library and what their expectations can tell us about how to provide for them.

Image: Sarah de la Hoyde

The following week we hosted a second visit for the Comino Project, this time a primary school, Sacred Heart from Bolton.  Again led by a Manchester Met student Poet in Residence, Sarah Walker, who brought 60 excited Year 5s onto campus. Kaye Tew, our Education Manager, ran this session, while I supported and observed.

Image: Sarah de la Hoyde

There was a magical moment at the beginning of the session when Kaye began to rub her hands together, the room quietened and with no instruction 60 Year 5s made a rainstorm soundscape together.

The children were then given a masterclass from Kaye Tew on poet Dom Conlon’s book Blow, Wind,  Blow, part of the ‘Wild Wanderers’ series by Graffeg, illustrated by Anastasia Izlesou. The children responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to make up their own title for a new book in the series, using the format of the Blow, Wind, Blow title, coming up with many variations, the most  memorable suggestion being ‘Dance, Shrek, Dance’.

These two visits have been an incredible introduction to my role in the team and, for me, have opened a world of possibility for what we, as a library, can offer to young people.

The Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University opened to the public in September 2021. There are 10,000 books in our collection including a growing children’s collection co-curated by poet Mandy Coe, who reached out to children’s festivals and other organisations across the world to develop a diverse starter collection for us to build on. Anyone can become a member for free on our website https://www.mmu.ac.uk/poetrylibrary/. I hope to meet you there sometime soon.

Roma Havers

Roma Havers is Learning Manager at The Manchester Poetry Library at Manchester Metropolitan University and is a poet and theatre-maker.

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.