As published in Poetry Wales Spring 2020.
Growing up in Swansea in the 1990s, one of our local libraries was a leaky
demountable building, situated just off a roundabout on a road that played host to multiple high-speed chases each night. The poetry section of this particular library consisted of a handful of musty old collections and anthologies, with nothing even close to being something you could describe as ‘contemporary’. In hindsight, the librarians must have been doing the best they could on a shoestring budget, as librarians are almost always required to do. Limited though it may have been, this small selection
was, crucially, free to read. It provided the catalyst for a lifelong love – leading not only to a continued reading of poetry, but also to the writing of it too. And later, the founding of The Crunch, the small poetry collective that ties the two of us together.
Although its current incarnation takes the form of an online poetry magazine, The Crunch began life as a Swansea spoken word night. Held twice a month between 2008 and 2012, the night built up a fair-sized group of regulars – most of whom would stick around after the main event had finished. With the focus transitioning from performance to discussion, a
favourite topic was libraries. Or, more specifically, poetry libraries. Why didn’t Wales have one? Where should one be established? Who should be involved? Typically the conversation would conclude in one of two ways: enthusiastically agreeing to boozy plans to open a poetry library ourselves, or reasoning that someone, somewhere, must already be doing something.
It’s likely that the latter is an assumption made by many operating at a grassroots level. Wales, after all, has a number of prominent arts organisations and universities – surely at least one of them has something in the pipeline? Cardiff University, for example, might begin by turning its library’s existing poetry section into a separate poetry library, giving it an appropriate bilingual name. Or an institution such as Ty Newydd, our National Writing Centre in Gwynedd, might decide to open up its private collections for full public consumption. Of course, without knowing the inner workings of such places, it’s not fair to presume that these solutions are viable. But, even if they are, perhaps the housing of a poetry library in a writers’ centre or on a university campus would create an unintentional barrier anyway. Many universities are already generous with their facilities, and allow the public to use their libraries for reference. However, even if we’d known that just down the road, shelves upon shelves of poetry were waiting to be read in the library of Swansea Uni, it’s unlikely we would have left our leaky demountable to go there. Though they may actually be free to use, some spaces can still feel like they aren’t for everyone.
A visit to the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last year brought the lack of a similar establishment in Wales into painful focus. Tucked away on a side street off the city’s tourist-laden Royal Mile, the glass-fronted SPL is a haven of words and light. Simply the act of entering the building – leaving the bustle of Canongate behind you – feels like sitting down in a comfortable chair, opening up a book of poetry and tuning out the rest of the world. And then, beyond the Welcome mat, there are over 30,000 actual poetry books to leaf through. As a lover of poetry, the SPL is a place that can conjure up such overwhelmingly positive emotion – but for Welsh visitors this can be tinged by uglier feelings, among them envy and, to a certain degree, resentment. It’s not a response unique to our nation; on a trip to the library in its early years, the Czech poet Miroslav Holub lamented that there wasn’t somewhere like it in Prague. It’s likely that many international visitors feel the same way; the SPL’s website suggests that it’s the only
purpose-built poetry library in the world.
Characteristically, the other nation we share this island with has not allowed itself to be outdone. Although they aren’t purpose-built, England is home to no less than two significant public poetry libraries. At the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth, borrowing is free as part of the Northumberland library system. With 15,000 publications to choose from, the library holds England’s largest collection of post-World War II poetry outside London. Established in 1968 (sixteen years before its Scottish counterpart roughly 100 miles to the north), Morpeth was a welcome open-access alternative for those unable to make the long trip south to the English capital and its National Poetry Library.
Founded by the Arts Council in 1953 and currently housed in the Southbank Centre, the National Poetry Library in London boasts the ‘largest public collection of modern poetry in the world.’ In 2020 England will gain a third public poetry library – this time in Manchester, one of the UK’s UNESCO Cities of Literature (another thing Wales is regrettably lacking in, but perhaps that’s best left for a different article).
With the established poetry libraries of Scotland and England recently enjoying silver, golden and diamond anniversaries, it’s clear that Wales is playing catch up (in fact, we’re still back at the starting line, sizing up the hurdles ahead with trepidation). The magnitude of the task is overwhelming: how can such an establishment be created out of thin air? Pub talk to purpose-built poetry library is quite a jump, and needs the sober minds of not just poets, but arts councils, funding bodies, city planners and perhaps the Welsh Government too. It’s no wonder that this mammoth has yet to be taken by the reins. Walking back from the Scottish Poetry Library to our lodgings in Edinburgh’s New Town, the sheer weight of the endeavour means that our dreams of establishing a Poetry Library for Wales are, once again, shelved. But then, a glance down a side street in Stockbridge changes things. At the front gate of one of the area’s tiny colony houses is a library, housed not in a glass-fronted building but a glass-fronted wooden box. Unsupervised, this mini library works on an honesty system of ‘Take a Book, Return a Book.’ It’s not something that can be replicated for a specialist collection (the box is filled with mass market paperbacks that won’t be too missed if stolen), but the size of the library does plant a seed.
The Scottish Poetry Library began life in a single room in Edinburgh’s Old Town, with just a desk, a rug, an electric heater and four shelves of donated poetry. Not quite a wooden box attached to a gate, but humble beginnings nonetheless. Though it’s likely to have always been a haven off the Royal Mile, it took the best part of two decades to transform it into the Canongate establishment we see today. And what does a library need, beyond a collection of books and a place to house them? People to read them? Certainly. People to look after them? Yes, those too. But everything else is non-essential. Optional. Desirable. What the business world would describe as ‘nice-to-have.’
A library must begin with books. The room, the desk, the rug, the electric heater, the catalogue, the directors, the volunteers, the school visits, the outreach programme, the purpose-built glass-fronted building – these all come later. Of course, it’s important to have plans and dreams in place for more than just a collection of books, but ultimately a poetry library cannot exist without them, and so this is where we have decided to begin.
With a view to establishing a Poetry Library for Wales, we are looking for poetry collections, pamphlets, anthologies, magazines and other associated publications (such as biographies of poets, books on poetic theory, etc.). These publications may be brand new or second-hand, in Welsh or English, and by writers from anywhere in the world. If you would like to donate to this collection, please get in touch with us via www.crunchpoetry.com/contact. We will of course be waiting until the world is safer again before encouraging postal donations themselves. But please do contact us now so that we can record what you’re planning to send.