Q&A - Professor Jess Edwards
On April 26th, the 2022 Percival Lecture is set to take place.
This year, our members-only flagship event is presented in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University.
Ahead of his talk, we had a chance to ask Professor Edwards — Head of the English Department at MMU — some questions about Manchester's literary output, as well as his own research. To find out more about the event, please click here.
Please note: Booking closes on the 19th April. If you're interested in joining the Lit & Phil, you can browse our membership options here.
Q: Hello Professor Edwards. We’re really looking forward to the 2022 Percival Lecture in collaboration with MMU.
Your lecture will be focusing on the new Poetry Library at MMU, and Manchester’s bid in 2017 to be recognised as a UNESCO ‘City of Literature’.
In your opinion, why did Manchester deserve this prestigous title? What do you believe makes Manchester a cut above other cities in terms of its literary output?
A: Well, this will be the subject of the first part of my presentation, so I’ll try not to give too much away! But the case that we made to UNESCO focused as you’d expect on literary heritage, from Gaskell and Burgess to the great writers living and working in the City today, including Man Met’s own Carol Ann Duffy. It also focused on the literary assets of the City: the ecosystem of organisations, from libraries and theatres to publishers and festivals, that support literary activity here. And it celebrated the sheer volume and diversity of this activity, across forms, cultures and languages, the written word and performance. UNESCO were convinced!
Q: How did plans to develop the Manchester Poetry Library develop? Could you tell us about some of the content that the library houses, and perhaps even your personal favourite asset that the library contains?
A: The idea of a Public Poetry Library for Manchester was first suggested to me around six years ago by our Professor of Poetry Michael Symmons Roberts, who pointed out the gap in the Northwest between Poetry Libraries in London, the Northeast and Scotland. I pitched the idea to our Vice Chancellor Malcolm Press (as he often reminds me, at a chance meeting on Oxford Road) and he encouraged me to work up a proposal for the new building which was then under development. We convinced the University to invest, building on the strong foundations of poetry in the Writing School here, under the leadership of former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and the rest is history!
The Poetry Library core collection features modern and contemporary poetry in English, but also features specialist collections of poetry for children, poetry in recording and poetry in a number of the major languages spoken in Manchester. The languages collections are unusual in being co-curated with poets who speak and write in those languages and we will continue to develop them with the input of users of our library.
My favourite asset has to be The Manchester Poem: a digital ‘living’ poem displayed in our foyer featuring verses written by Manchester residents in over 70 languages and still growing.
Q: Why do you believe literature to be so important when considering the identity of a particular place? In asking this question, I’m thinking of Tony Walsh’s reading of ‘This is the Place’ from 2017 following the Manchester arena attack.
A: Lovely question, and very much an interest of mine! I think literature has long played a major role in creating what gains wider acceptance as a location’s ‘sense of place’. I would argue, by the way, that it creates, rather than simply evoking an inherent sense of place, as the idea of ‘genius loci’ implies.
A while ago, when the Portico Library relaunched its famous prize, colleagues in the Centre for Place Writing, based in my Department, worked with them to curate a series of talks titled ‘Rewriting the North’, and the reborn Portico Prize celebrates writing which creates not just one spirit of the North but many. Part of the project of Manchester City of Literature, and indeed the Manchester Poetry Library, is not just to reflect back to us the City we already know, but to help us to discover new versions of that City.
Q: What do you believe to be Manchester’s best kept literary secret?
A: This question leads nicely from the last. I think there are many secrets here waiting to be discovered. One of my favourites, that I’ll use as an example, is that the poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945), a legendary figure in her native land, known as the ‘Polish Sappho’, is buried in Manchester’s Southern cemetery.
Q: What does the future look like for Manchester’s literary scene?
A: I think the future looks very bright indeed. Everyone we consulted when we wrote the UNESCO bid talked about the richness of the literary scene, and also the challenge of realising its potential given how fragmented it all was, and how challenging to grasp and represent. The UNESCO project has given us the opportunity to connect, communicate and coordinate with one another, and we’re at the beginning of realising what we can do together.
Q: Aside from teaching at MMU, what exciting projects are you currently working on?
A: My life at present is pretty dominated by my managerial work as a Head of Department, and any spare capacity I have tends to go into supporting colleagues with City of Literature and Poetry Library-related projects. I’m planning to take some time over the next two years to write about some of these, and the Percival Lecture is an opportunity to take a step back from all of this activity and reflect on the journey we’ve taken, and where we might go next.
Thank you to Professor Edwards for taking the time to answer our questions!
'Manchester, UNESCO City of Literature: Culture and the Sustainable City' takes place at 6:30pm on Tuesday 26th April, at the Grosvenor East Building, Manchester Metropolitan University. More information about the event can be found here.