Ian Harker looks at the poetry scene in Leeds
Keith Waterhouse was one of the children sent at the expense of Leeds Corporation to the Poor Children’s Holiday Camp at Silverdale, Lancashire, in August 1936. In his autobiography, City Lights – one of my favourite books – Keith describes an almost religious experience that occurred during his two-week stay at the seaside, an experience that would stay with him (and, I think, inform his writing) for the rest of his life. He writes:
“Late one night when I got up to spend a penny I crept out onto the verandah and behold, the sky across the bay was ablaze with a dancing aurora borealis of red neon, and in the forefront was a wide arc of fairy lights twinkling like an illuminated necklace. I stared at this vision, mesmerised, until I began to shiver in the chill night air, when I went to bed and dreamed of the enchanting prospect of my once and future city, so accessible yet so tantalisingly out of reach. That became a recurrent dream, and I have been experiencing it regularly ever since, for over fifty years, but with a difference. I am still there on the Silverdale clifftop but that is no longer Morecambe across the bay. I have outgrown Morecambe. My Mecca on the opposite side of Morecambe Bay has become an amalgamation, an accumulation, of all the cities I have come to know and love. Shimmering there in the heat haze are the Chrysler Building from New York, the Sears Tower from Chicago, the Sydney Opera House … a jostling architectural cornucopia linked to my side of the bay by the Golden Gate Bridge. But the bridge is too high up: from my perch on the clifftop its near view looks like the towering underside of the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t reach it, can’t get up to the Golden Gate Bridge to cross to my golden city.”
A blue plaque to Waterhouse was unveiled in 2020 as part of that year’s Leeds Lit Fest programme. Up until the previous year, Leeds was missing two things that the fourth-largest city in the UK really should have had: an annual literature festival, and a mass transit system. Not many people round here are holding their breath for a Manchester- or Sheffield-type tram network, especially since PM Rishi Sunak clarified that the promised Leeds tram system was merely an example of the sorts of things the money saved on the scrapped Northern leg of HS2 might be spent on – like a serving suggestion on a tub of ice-cream. But five years ago a coalition of interested organisations came together to solve the Lit Fest problem. I joined the steering group a year later.
It’s been a busy year for the city, with Leeds 2023 running a year-long, city-wide festival of culture in defiance of the Brexit-means-Brexit puncturing of the bid for European City of Culture
LLF is now well-established, and has twice won a Saboteur Award for Best Lit Fest. I’m not sure why it took Leeds so long to arrange an annual festival of literature. There’s certainly plenty going on – maybe that was one reason a festival took so long to emerge, because people were working independently of each other, focussing on their own projects, in their limited free time, on a shoestring, out of their own pockets. Running a regular writing group or open mic is hard work, but I can’t imagine what life as a writer would be like without indie poetry projects. I can’t imagine what kind of writer I would be without them, or even if I would even be a writer at all.
I started writing poems in my first year at university in Leeds. I didn’t study Creative Writing or English Literature. I just shared work informally with one or two other students who were also writing. I was the only poet, though. On graduation, we went our separate ways, and while lots of people I knew were in bands, there didn’t seem to be many writers, or any poets.
So I googled ‘writing groups in Leeds’ and came across the Leeds Writers Circle. It took a couple of weeks to pluck up the courage to go along to my first meeting, and another fortnight before I plucked up the courage to read a poem. Fortunately, everyone was really friendly, and I quickly realised that this was the group for me (even if the Tetleys was flat). They have a constructive, supportive, but practical approach, looking at how each piece of work read to the group might be improved. They were just bouncing back from a rocky patch with a dwindling membership, struggling to find somewhere suitable to meet in the city centre. But fortunately for me, the organisers were determined that the group (founded in 1928 and the oldest, as far as they can ascertain, in the country) should continue. Now, the Leeds Writers Circle is thriving, with many social evenings, workshops, and competitions held every year.
All this has the potential to make Leeds famous as a great place to be a poet, developing home-grown talent and attracting it from across the world
One of their old membership cards states that the purpose of the group was to offer ‘comradeship’. It was this that I needed more than anything else, and still do. It’s been a busy year for the city, with Leeds 2023 running a year-long, city-wide festival of culture in defiance of the Brexit-means-Brexit puncturing of the bid for European City of Culture. The BBC’s Contains Strong Language festival came from Leeds this year; the Forward Prizes were hosted at Leeds Playhouse; and in the longer term there are plans to open British Library North at Temple Works, creating one of the largest reading rooms in the world. Fellow Yorkshireman Simon Armitage describes the creation of a National Poetry Centre in Leeds as the flagship project of his laureateship.
All this has the potential to make Leeds celebrated as a great place to be a poet, developing home-grown talent and attracting it from across the world. Unlike his creator, Billy Fisher never made it to his golden city, the Big Smoke. But Alan Bennett did (although he comes back regularly). Tony Harrison moved to Newcastle. Barbara Taylor Bradford lives in Manhattan. Will we keep subsequent generations of poets?
Well, there’s more reason to stay than ever before. The internet has changed everything, of course. Major projects will continue to work with communities across the city to inspire people to write and perform. Just as important, though, are the groups in pubs and caffs and community centres and libraries, where writers and poets go to share successes and rejections, encourage each other, and develop their work and how they perform it, united by comradeship and passion.
Poetry in Leeds: a guide
Leeds Lit Fest takes place from 2nd – 10th March 2024
Peepal Tree Press is an independent press founded in 1985, and now publishing around 20 books a year
Strix magazine is a magazine of poetry and short fiction
Runcible Spoon runs a regular poetry events with guests and open mic
Wordspace runs a monthly open mic on first Wednesday in Horsforth – prose, poetry, comedy and music
Subjective Silhouettes is a Leeds based arts collective which runs regular open mic events
Bone Down is a ‘literary affinity’ group organising experimental spoken word / poetry events
Rhubarb at the Triangle is a monthly spoken word event at The Triangle in Shipley
Getting Gobby in the Lobby is a monthly poetry and comedy open mic night in Wakefield
GRAND PLANS (and tiny inklings) is a monthly poetry and prose open mic night in Huddersfield
Beehive Poets runs poetry events in Bradford
Photo of Leeds by Gary Butterfield