Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: From SPL to OPL

In the autumn of 2016, I found myself at a loose end. I was a little lost, staying with my sister in Edinburgh for a few months at the end of a messy year abroad, and trying to find my way back to my own city of Oxford. With no job or structure, I knew I had to find something to fill my time, reignite my creativity, and give me some kind of direction. A friend mentioned the Scottish Poetry Library and I immediately knew I had to investigate.

The SPL did not disappoint. With its bright, welcoming building and bright, welcoming staff and volunteers, I felt immediately folded into its community. I have been a committed reader and writer of poetry since childhood, and I loved that the SPL took as a given the importance of poetry in everyday life. As a volunteer, I saw students, academics, tourists, kids, writers and readers of all ages use the space. The undergraduate scribbling away in their favourite corner of the library seemed to value it as much as the group of older poetry enthusiasts who attended the launch of Lizzie MacGregor’s anthology Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Getting Older. At a time in my life when I felt very disconnected from community and creativity, the SPL reminded me that the value of art and writing is in the people who enjoy it. I was reminded that poetry is not something confined to GCSE textbooks and monolithic, impenetrable dead greats. Poetry, when people can access it (and with a little direction from dedicated, enthusiastic librarians), can stoke the fire of anyone’s heart. When it was time to leave Edinburgh and head back south, I felt determined to bring poetry into the lives and hearts of the people of Oxford. I wanted to bring an ember from the SPL and set up a poetry library in my own town.

Many have assumed or even said to me that Oxford is the last place in the country that needs another library. Oxford, however, is a city of contrasts and contradictions. While it does house one of the biggest libraries in the world, and is a city teeming with academia, bibliophilia, and all-round bookishness, the Oxford beyond the university is another story. The university attracts brains and creatives from all round the world, but its libraries are medieval fortresses, inaccessible by much of the town. Many neighbourhoods in Oxford face all kinds of deprivation, and there are limited resources to feed the cultural lives of the people that live there. I felt a gap – that there was no permanent, public, physical resource of poetry for the non-academic folk of Oxford. Enter the Oxford Poetry Library.

I wanted the library to be like SPL in its promotion of poetry as part of life, that it can be found everywhere and enjoyed by anyone. The best way to do this, I figured, would be to get the poetry physically into the community. I could use the lack of a permanent space or building to my advantage. Instead of waiting for people to come discover the library, I could create a mobile resource which reached people in their own environments. Our collection of 500+ books came from generous responses to a call for donations from publishers, other libraries, and individuals. Before I knew it, we had gathered a wide-ranging selection of exciting contemporary poetry, old classics, local writing, anthologies, and colourful kids’ rhymes and verse. In April 2017, we were ready. With a purpose-built purple cargo bike, I went out into the city to engage people in poetry, get them borrowing books, returning books, talking about what they’d read and what they’d like to read.

At festivals, carnivals, street events, and especially at regular weekend markets, I found people who said they 'never really got poetry', hadn’t read it since school, felt it was frilly or confusing or obscure. The library encouraged them to pick up a book, read a line or a poem, give it a go. It encouraged people to tap into their poetic lives – to see their experiences and emotions reflected in the words of writers, or even just enjoy the odd line or turn of phrase. Many of these ex-poetry-phobes are now regular borrowers. They share with me and my volunteer librarians experiences they’ve had or moments from their day which they think could make good poems, or poems they’ve read which resonate with moments from their day. I am repeatedly reminded that poetry really is everywhere, for everyone.

Now, with a cluster of devoted and diverse volunteers (from students to retired folk, from writers to beekeeping mushroom-enthusiasts) the library is growing in strength and size. It is becoming a resource and platform for local writers, somewhere to sell their pamphlets, books, and zines. We run events: most recently an evening of performance and workshop discussion on feminist poetry, but also open mics and readings from Oxford poets. We collaborate with local homeless drop-in centres and mental health charities to bring poetry to new audiences and work with new communities. Taking a leaf out of the SPL’s book, it is free to register with the library and borrow books, with no late fees or fines. We are determined to keep the resource as open and accessible as possible.

And frequently, at the back of my mind, is the SPL motto 'by leaves we live'. To me, this means that what sustains us is the outside world, connecting to the world and each other, and poetry is an intrinsic part of this connection. People often ask about our plum logo. It’s a reference to the William Carlos Williams poem ‘This Is Just To Say’ which reads “I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox // and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast…” The words in isolation could be a casual note on the fridge left by a guilty housemate, a mundane apology scribbled on the back of an envelope. With carefully placed line-breaks, however, Williams paces the words to create a poignant, lingering poem: “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold”… Poetry is everywhere if you look for it: in the kitchen over breakfast, in books, in conversations overheard on the bus, or at your local farmer’s market on a Sunday morning. SPL-devotees: I hope if you ever find yourself at a loose end in the south, you’ll come find poetry with us.

Phoebe Nicholson
Founder of the Oxford Poetry Library

For more information on the Oxford Poetry Library, click here.