Casting a glance at a bygone literary scene

Scrawling on the megalith

Mark Cantrell remembers a group of writers who placed themselves at the heart of a vibrant local literary scene

First published in the the Yorkshire Journal

Joe Ogden, Ruth Malkin, Howard Frost at the Priestley
"QUIET in the cheap seats," Howard Frost growls. He turns to glare at the motley collection of writers gathered around the table.

Eventually they pay attention, like a bunch of unruly school children, and settle down to listen to the words of a fellow scribe.

This ritual takes place every Tuesday in the downstairs bar at the Priestley Centre for Arts (formerly the Bradford Playhouse), when the members of the Interchange (Bradford Writers Network) gather for their workshops.

Don't let Frost's mock stern nature fool you, it's a friendly and informal group. Unusually, it deals with just about every form of the written word: poetry, short fiction, novels, theatre and film scripts, memoirs, journalism as well as catering for singer songwriters. The group is as eclectic as it is gregarious.

Interchange is one of several literary groups operating in the city. Members flit between them in an almost incestuous excursion that helps to feed the vibrancy of the city's literary scene.

Nick Toczek
"We believe that no matter who you are, if you write then your voice, your input, your words matter," says member Ian Reed.

Frost agrees and adds emphasis when he says: "Interchange has always been about helping people find their own voice, value that voice, and help it to grow stronger by having a wider audience."

An audience is important to any writer, regardless of whether their main purpose is to develop their work for the performance circuit. The typical image of a writer is of someone working in isolation, sweating blood over piles of paper in their garret. Sometimes that image can be true, but for those who step outside the musty room, they find a vibrant world of fellow scribes waiting to share their literary needs.

It provides an environment of support and positive criticism that helps the writer to develop. Even the process of reading work and gauging people's response can work wonders to develop a scribe's words as well as confidence.

Maintaining this kind of environment is of crucial importance to the group. It consequently has few rules; the main ones being that only constructive criticism is allowed and there is no self-deprecation. The onus is on the words and on honing them as close to perfection as is humanly possible.

At time, it seems anarchic and chaotic, but there is method operating within its lack of structure. Whatever the magic, it seems to work and has held the group together until it has become one of the longest established in the city.

Interchange was formed 15 years ago as the Bradford Writers' Workshop. It emerged from an event called 'Poetry Live' that was organised by Nick Toczek and 'Wild' Willi Becket. Using the event as a focal point for attracting writers, they assembled the first motley collection to form a permanent writers' organisation. To their delight, they discovered it worked.

Lynette Shaw McKone, Joe Ogden, Alex Krysinski
Writing under her married name of Mellor, Alex Krysinski wrote in the foreword to the group's first anthology, Flakattak (1993): "In no time at all [it] turned into the equivalent of AA. People could come and confess their addiction to pen and paper and hardcore word processor punters could offload their guilt, helping each other to take control of their mutual habit."

True to its aspirations of developing literature in the city, it has expanded beyond its weekly workshops to organise performance events at a number of venues.

Initially, it performed at the Love Apple Cafe, but in the Summer of 1998 the group moved to its current monthly venue at the Melborn. To mark this move, the group relaunched itself as Interchange.

Today, this is one of the group's main performance events and it takes place on the last Wednesday of the month. The second main event takes place at the Monkey Cafe Bar in Wakefield (in conjunction with the Black Horse Poets), on the first Wednesday of the month.

Both are open mic events, where performers can come along and take the stage by storm. All they are asked to do is arrive from 8pm to sign up. Performances begin at 8.30pm. These have become regular and well-attended venues on the city's arts scene.

Along with the regulars, the group has organised a variety of one off events and taken part in festivals throughout the district - and further afield.

In 1999 six members of the group - calling themselves 'The Bradford Six' - self-published their work both in book and audio CD format. Not content with a UK audience, they took Release to the States to perform in cafes, bars and festivals.

Later in the same year, the group supported member Karl Dallas in a multi-media celebration of the Russian October Revolution.

Karl Dallas, Red October
Despite some misgivings about the 'political' nature of Red October (as it was called), the group was inspired to help stage the event by the selection of literature.

To music and a back-drop of computer-generated slides, the performance included works by Akhmatova, Bertholt Brecht, Hugh MacDiarmid, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Lenin, William Morris, Pasternak, Yevtushenko and J B Priestley's They Came To A City.

The centrepiece was a dramatised performance by Karl Dallas of Alexandr Bloc's controversial poem The 12 (1918); a warts and all depiction of a squad of Red Guard patrolling the streets of St Petersburg, who find themselves following the figure of Christ bearing the red flag of workers' revolution.

It was a challenging performance, for which the 'actors', particularly Dallas, benefited from the theatrical experience of director Howard Frost.

"It's always a challenge to do a one-man show," Frost said at the time of rehearsals. "The challenge has been to create something worth watching for its own sake without overtaxing the abilities of the actor. I think at the end of the day we'll both be able to say we achieved what we set out to do."

When the audience subsequently trooped out of the Priestley's Studio Theatre, both men, and the other performers, were indeed able to say just that.

With the turn of the century, the group decided to herald the New Millennium in verse with the Festival of 2000 Voices.

This was a year-long event, taking in a host of specially organised events, along with the regular gigs. The aim, by the end of 2000 was to have that number of poets and writers perform their works.

Each performer signed a 'performance book' to mark the event, along with a giant banner that was displayed on the last gig of the year.

As well as celebrating the Millennium, it was also intended to promote performance poetry as a distinct form, as well as find new voices.

Ruth Malkin, who organised the event, said: "I think of performance poetry as the popular form of the genre. Rather like the distinction between 'popular' and 'classical' music. The two can co-exist and just as in the music world there is some overlap. Funders of poetry and literary academics sneer at performance poetry, but they also reap the rewards of its popularisation of poetry in general."

Howard Frost, Monkey Bar Cafe
Alongside the Festival, the group was also working on its second anthology: Love, Sex, Death & Carrots. Published at the end of 2000, and formally launched at the first Monkey event of 2001, it presented a host of old hands alongside the new.

Highlights of a busy group. Along with these have been other one-off events as well as the activities of individual group members. Within this varied activity, the core of the group - its very heart and soul if you like - remains with the weekly workshop, where talent is nurtured and developed. Fifteen years on from its inception, the group still shifts, grows, evolves - just like the writers themselves. It's hard to imagine Bradford's already vibrant literary scene without Interchange.

"People have come and gone, some to extinction, some to glory," Krysinski added in Flakattak. "The workshop remains like a megalith, awesome and covered in graffiti."

Despite a change of name, the same can be said today.

First Published In The Yorkshire Journal #37, June 2002.

Footnote: That was then, this is now, and all good things come to an end. So it was with Interchange (Bradford Writers' Network), which finally dissolved several years after the initial publication of this article. Many of the 'old hands' remain active in the literary world, however, so you might say it lives on in spirit.

Photos copyright (c) Mark Cantrell

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