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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Jean Sprackland

Our blogger Rebecca Hurst reports from Hope Mill Theatre, where Jean Sprackland, winner of the Costa Poetry Award, presented a new sequence of poems, Lock Songs, inspired by a boating weekend along the Peak Forest Canal. 

On Sunday 23 October I made my way through crowds of Manchester City supporters to Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats. The theatre is nestled inside a former cotton mill, and is within spitting distance of the Ashton Canal; a fitting venue for the launch of Jean Sprackland’s sequence of poems inspired by three days boating on the Peak Forest, Rochdale and Ashton canals.

Commissioned by MLF and the Canal and River Trust, Sprackland’s Lock Songs turn a poet’s gaze upon a landscape that is both familiar to any Manchester resident (canals cross the city) and strange (unless of course you are one of the city’s narrow boat dwellers). As a poet whose work returns repeatedly to the themes of place and water, Sprackland was emphatically the right woman for the job of elucidating the Peak Forest canal system. Lock Songs captures what she described as the canal’s fascinating and unique vocabulary, history, contradictions, juxtapositions and contrasts: it is poetry that ‘…opens doors and sets the water free’.

The event began with an account of the ‘slow and gentle kind of adventure’ that is canal boating. Sprackland’s narrative was illustrated by photographs, and provided context to the poetry reading that followed. The narrative, photographs, and poetry allowed the audience to share Sprackland’s journey, the cold and visceral experience she described; especially as the temperature in the theatre began to fall and damp from the nearby canal seeped into our bones.

The sequence of poems launched with ‘Two directions’, in which the poet both evokes and imagines the trip ahead:

I want to lie in my bunk
and feel the heart’s long strides,
the creak of my breath…

This ironic dream of solitude was soon overturned by reality (cold, rain-sodden, populated). It is clear, however, that for Sprackland the experience of wielding a windlass and winding open a heavy lock was far more enthralling than the fantasy of messing around in boats. Far from offering escape, the canal drew the poet deeper into the experiential. And soon the audience was standing beside her, ‘shivering at the tiller / in the narrow basement of the past’ as we stared into the ‘dark vortex’ of the lock water, ‘brushing the mucous brickwork, breathing its reek’.

‘Lock Songs’ is not directly concerned with the history of the canal system. Rather the poems are a personal and compelling account of an encounter with landscape. And neither are Sprackland’s poems explicitly political. They are, however, notable for the steadfastness of the poet’s gaze, and for her refusal to turn away from either human predicaments (as in the prose poem ‘Undercroft’) or the ecological havoc humans wreak on their waterways (in ‘Navigation’). She does this in a way that avoids either judgement or moralising.

In Sprackland’s company we come to share her fascination with the blurred definitions that between-places like canals emphasis. Her poet’s training and instinct is to look closely at things that are not normally focused on. The juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty, the natural and manmade, all resonated as we travelled with Sprackland from the Peak District and along the Rochdale Nine locks into the centre of Manchester. Through the poet’s keenly observational eye we found that we had entered ‘the city by stealth’. And like the water itself, which ‘bears all its burdens equally’, we looked unflinchingly upon both the detritus (a blossoming of needles still sealed in their shining white packets, floating on the ‘gilded water’) and the beauty of the canals, where submerged shopping trolleys glinted like ‘reflected starlight’.

You can read Lock Songs and hear an audio recording of Jean reading the poems on our Commissions page.


Rebecca Hurst is a doctoral student at the University of Manchester. Her work has appeared in various magazines including The Wild Hunt, Magma Poetry, and The Next Review. Her chamber opera Isabella, written with the composer Oliver Leith, premiered in London in 2015. You can find more of her writing here, and follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaHurst70.