News | Tuesday, 22nd October 2019

Let the Artists in! Roma Havers

Roma Havers talks to Martin Kratz about her experience as poet-in-residence with Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Dennis Yang from San Francisco, CA, USA [CC BY 2.0 (]
Dennis Yang from San Francisco, CA, USA [CC BY 2.0 (]

Roma Havers was one of three poets chosen to be a poet-in-residence with Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2019. To celebrate the residency, Manchester Poetry Library has curated a three-part digital exhibition, in which each resident responds to their residency in different ways (essays, an interview and photography). A special publication about the residency will also be accepted into Special Collection's holdings. Here, Roma reflects on her experience as poet-in-residence in an interview with Martin Kratz.

Transcript: Fragments of a Conversation between Roman Havers (RH) and Martin Kratz (MK) 

MK: What happened after the training day finished and me and Malika went off. We all had lunch and then you all went back to the archive. What happened next? 

RH: So that first day, my thinking was quite scattered because there were so many different routes to go down. I just sort of let myself be distracted by lots of different things—because I think sometimes what distracts you should be the thing you actually should be paying attention to in that kind of way. It was a later date when I went back and it was just me and I spent the day in there. And I found this book by Winifred Norling who’s a children’s writer from the 1930s, who seems to have disappeared from memory completely but was apparently very popular at the time and quite prolific. She had written this book called Jennifer Wins Through and on the opening page, there was an inscription from someone called Theobald or Leopold. We couldn’t work it out. A handwritten inscription with just Leopold or Theobald, which ever it was, and then an ellipsis and then an address that was the address of maybe ten houses down from my best friend when we were growing up. So, I’d walked past that house millions of times in my life. 

MK: And this isn’t Manchester is it? 

RH: No, this is Reading, which I also haven’t been back to for four or five years. So, for me, it was interesting in the sense that anyone else … it wasn’t a particularly interesting inscription. I went back and looked through loads of different children’s books in particular because they quite often have inscriptions because they’re quite often Christmas presents or birthday presents especially the older ones when maybe you’d get one book a year and it would be a really special present. So, there were a lot more interesting ones, but this was a very personal collection for me. Also, because it was set in a girl’s school and I went to a girl’s school in Reading and they’re very closely attached. So, then I was looking at personal history and I was trying to trace these people.  

MK: So you actually went to try to find the person who it was dedicated to and the person who’d made the dedication? 

RH: Well, it seemed more like a child had put their own name in. So, I was trying to trace Theobald/Leopold and Winifred Norling, because I couldn’t find very much about her. I emailed old schools, I emailed vicars in Reading, I put call outs to people I hadn’t spoken to in years. And everything was a dead end.  

MK: So, nothing came of it? 

RH: No. 

MK: Nothing came from the initial inquiry, but something’s come from it because you’ve told me about the series of poems you’ve ended up writing. Do those relate to what happened? Or did you just go, that’s happened—I’ll do something totally different now? 

RH: No, they’re really related. I’ve used sort of scrappy, verbatim things from the texts that I did find, from emails that I sent out, dead end responses that I got and tried to rework them and see how they happened, I wrote a bit about Reading as a place, I wrote a bit about that kind of strange girls’ school children book that has gone quite out of fashion as well, and that sort of genre. I wrote a little bit about Winifred Norling because I did find one section about her. 

MK: Can you tell me anything about her? 

RH: Basically, I couldn’t track anything else except someone who’d done quite and in-depth biography on her Good Reads page. And I couldn’t find anything to back this up and I have no evidence that this wasn’t just someone making it up. But it seemed so specific and so set out that it seemed like it was probably true. It was like where she was born, what her parents' names were, that she had left school at a certain age, and then she met this woman, this baroness, and they’d lived together for the rest of their life in Brighton. And that’s when she’d written these books. She’d never got married. Which to me, who quite often when I go into these spaces I’m looking for hidden queer narratives, I was like, this feels a little bit queer to me. And then there was a picture of her that I also got a little bit of queer energy from, that I then was like I wish I could find some more about this person.  

MK: Do you think you’re going to try and find more? I mean who knows what might come about because of this? 

RH: Because even if it’s just someone vaguely remembering reading one of her books. 

MK: So are you interested in carrying on with the project if more comes up. 

RH: Yeah, I think so. 

MK: OK. That’s good to know. So, whoever’s listening to this, you heard it here... 

RH: If you’ve read a Winifred Norling book or you know a Theobald from Cavasham.  

MK: Seriously get in touch! Write to us at and I’ll put you in touch with Roma. I really really really hope something comes from it. I want to quickly talk about this idea of dead ends, because I’m quite interested in linking that to what you’ve told me about the form of the poems, but perhaps you should just describe that again, what’s happened, because they’re quite formally interesting.  

RH: So, there’s a series of, I think it’s ten, but I added another one this week and I can’t remember if ten is the final number. It’s a series of short poems that are in three columns, so they look a little bit like a school newspaper almost. I think normal newspapers don’t quite do it in that way anymore. They look like a bit of prose, but you can read down-down-down or you can read across. And there’s something slightly off about reading across, but they have a sense to them if you do them that way.  

MK: So, the reason I linked that to the dead ends, is that that’s a way of countering that idea of the dead end, that you’ve got on the one hand, this clear narrative possibility of beginning, middle and end, but then you’ve got all these kind of sideways approaches that you can kind of do it and recombine it, and things like that. And you might not have been conscious of that. And you might completely disagree with me. Because you also mention the word ‘threads’, and the threads too seems to have a clear beginning and an end, but actually you’ve, I don’t know, you’ve avoided the dead end by allowing the text to reconfigure itself.  

RH: Yeah, I think at first it was just a formal experiment, just to see what would happen, but then I become conscious of how well it reflected that sort of several layers of interpretation, they’re quite self-conscious of the imagining they’ve had to do. But also I’ve been reading a lot about time in relation to queer history, because so much of it has to be done through imagining, or through personal histories, or through a sort of lens of labelling people in way they might not have labelled themselves at the time because of language change. So, I was really aware of those things as well and actually there’s a sort of reconfiguring of time if it makes you want to read it twice as well, and something different has happened.  

MK: What do you want to do with them next?  Because initially, like I said, this has been a journey for us to learn how to do this residency, the thing that came across when we did our training day, was the feeling was that whereas a residency is open ended, a commission is kind of set... And we combined the two, and I don’t know if we would do that again in future. I think now we’re moving towards creating something that goes into Special Collections, and we’ve achieved a sort of moment of ‘oh, that’s what it was about’, in my head at least, that's the outcome and we can make of that whatever we want. But what do you think you want to do with those poems? And I’m kind of interested in do you see them also being performed, because actually they feel like quite a written thing, because if you perform them then you’re taking away the possibility from the reader to make what they want to do with it. Does that make sense? 

RH: Yeah. I think I found a lot of freedom in this project of me saying I'm not going to purposely write for performance. Let’s see what I can make that I can’t perform. But then I might go back to it and say how can I perform this unperformable thing?  

MK: Do you think there’s anything else you think, that we haven’t covered, that you feel about the project that is worth mentioning? 

RH: I think what I found a lot of was actually I didn’t want to be the person who went into the space and was like oh I’m looking for this particular thing. But I think that I’ve actually found that I’m often looking for queer histories in places and that excites me because there isn't a way of labelling that within the system, because a lot of it doesn’t label itself in that way. So, I’m interested in how you would further map Special Collections maybe in that way, or how you would map other spaces to find a way through that, that it doesn’t always have to be a stumbled upon thing.   

MK: What happens then though, when it is no longer a stumbled upon thing?  

RH: I know it’s interesting, because I think there’s always going to be opportunities for stumbled upon things.  

MK: I think also that’s why, in retrospect, that’s kind of the difference between this idea of a residency... should allow for that, it’s precisely about that kind of stumbling upon. And it’s yeah...I don’t know...I don’t even know what I'm saying. 

RH: I mean I had the same trouble with it and its part of what that text is now about because I had more connection to it because it’s an almost not a defined thing.  

MK: And think of how easily you could have missed that. 

RH: Easily. 

MK: Like all the things that were important in that inscription, it's so unassuming. It was about you finding that. And this is why we’ve got three poets in residence there, and they’ve all ended up with totally different things, but actually all pretty personal. There doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid that, like it’s kind of that...yeah... Why do you think that is? Because that seems to be pretty clear to me. And I don’t think everyone would do that, but in this case everyone has.  

RH:  I think the way that we think about things is personal, so even if you don't choose to put it in the work, the reason why you were attracted to what you were attracted to is a very personal thing. So, I was looking for books with pictures of tennis players on them, that’s why I picked up that book. Which is another project I’m working on in different things. But that was another personal lens that was coming through in a particular way.  So, I think it’s like a self-consciousness thing, that actually if you lean into the fact that quite often the reason why you choose things isn’t the most logical, or reasonable reason for choosing it, that actually what you create from that is actually more interesting. Because you chose it for an instinctual thing.  

Roma Havers, 24, is a Manchester-based queer poet and performer, whose current work explores, failing bodies outness and how poetry can shorthand memory into something new. While working with Young Identity she has been commissioned by HOME, Manchester Histories and Manchester International Festival. She has also performed on radio, television and festivals including Hay Festival and  BBC Contains Strong Language.You can follow her work on twitter and Instagram at @amorbackwards.

Let the artists in! is a project from First Draft, which commissions brand new work inspired by collections in museums and libraries across the north of England. Let the artists in! is generously supported by Arts Council England and The Writing Squad.Let the artists in! is a project from First Draft, which commissions brand new work inspired by collections in museums and libraries across the north of England. Let the artists in! is generously supported by Arts Council England and The Writing Squad. 



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