Given out sheet by sheet, hand to hand around the Northern Quarter for nearly three decades, Carol Batton’s poems are an everyday, but unique, part of Manchester’s cultural fabric. They have the ability to surprise you, to make you smile, and generally make nicer the experience of living in the city. They’re part what gives a place its individuality.
Today Carol turns sixty but, rather than using this interview (which took place a few days beforehand) to reflect on that milestone, she’s keen to find a new, original angle on her work. After I sit down at a table in the Night & Day, where we’ve arranged to meet*, she decides that this should be anti-technology diatribe and comes up with an impromptu list of criticisms:
“Computers and mobile phones are something you pay to get rid of. I can’t see why people want the following:
Phishing with a ‘P’
Fraud (credit card)
Emails from people who may want to destroy your computer
‘Sorry you can’t have that page’
Emails about the health service and what they’re going to do to you.”
A keen gardener, she concludes indignantly: “I would rather be watering a plant than giving a computer power.”
Despite this, and not even having an email account, she has used a family computer to search for me online, and recognised me when I walked in because I have joined the Carol Batton appreciation society on facebook (388 members at the last count).
Although she is the Northern Quarter’s unofficial resident poet (she explains “ninety per cent of people in Manchester have been to the Northern Quarter and it’s a creative area. I wouldn’t hand my poems out in Marks and Spencer”), Carol came to poetry relatively late, prompted by being prescribed lithium in 1983. This was a pivotal moment in her life: “I went on medication; first it sent me to sleep and then I started jotting down poetry.
“The medication is by far the worst thing that ever happened to me but it gave me poetry.”
Carol has an impressive range of hobbies and interests, and has experimented with a range of career options, including studying art at teacher training college: “I knew I wanted to be famous when I was at school. I tried tightrope walking at twelve and ballet dancing in the garden — anything to be famous! I didn’t want to be a hairdresser!”
She’s also enthusiastic about hill walking, dancing, tai chi and rare birds and can name all the flowers, trees and fungi, explaining she writes about “anything apart from love, surprisingly”. She says: “You have to be a polymath to be a poet. You have to know what you’re writing about if it comes up.”
Making up for the late start as a poet, Carol has been extraordinarily prolific. At one time she was writing up to a poem a week (now it’s more like one a month) and she estimates she has distributed 100,000 sheets of poems around Manchester, first reproduced by risograph and now photocopied at Marc The Printers on Edge Street.
“This is a how a poem comes about. I’m looking out of my window or I’m walking along in the rain. I’m looking at flowers and I’ve got a first line which is usually very good and I take a second or third line and if it’s looking good I take out my notebook — I’ve usually got two or three. Then I try it out with a couple of friends and they say ‘wow wow wow’ or ‘no no no’.”
The final poem is turned into a master copy, either typed or handwritten on paper (so “it cannot vanish out of existence easily”), which Carol refers to as CRC (camera ready copy) ready to be printed. These pages then comprise ‘stock’, added to poems from the past ten to fifteen years which have proved popular and stood the test of her time, which is kept in the Oklahoma bag she carries with her — something Carol describes as ‘like my shop’. As the thick pile indicates: “There are an awful lot I can lay my hands on.”
Carol is well-known for giving out her poems on the street: “I accost people and it’s very random but my poems give me a form of recognition for a stranger, they’re a ‘hello’, an introduction that establishes me. There’s an astonishing reaction to stuff. People like the short poems on card and they like the long, lyrical poems. I get accosted by strangers three times a day. ”
Carol once described herself as a samizdat poet, drawing a parallel with clandestine self-publishers evading censorship in Soviet states under oppressive regimes. “It is mass produced but it is not formally processed. It is handed out individual to individual. It is hand made and passed around by hand — I manually control it. It is self-publishing, my style.”
In 1990, Carol started memorising poems and performing at an open mic night called the New Troubadors, amongst a group that also included Bryan Glancy who was the inspiration for the title of Elbow’s album The Seldom Seen Kid. She has also performed at the Royal Northern College of Music with Stephen Fretwell, but she admitted: “It scares me. People think you just stand there and feel important but you’re panicking. You have to throw poetry in the air and catch the audience.”
Although Carol claims ‘TV and the newspapers don’t want me’, she has also been published in many magazines and appeared on two records. In 1999, Carol met Andy Votel of Twisted Nerve Records, who recorded her for the spoken word compilation Twisted Words, where she appeared on vinyl in the company of Billy Childish and Malcom Mooney, and for the album Folk is Not a Four Letter Word.
Carol has been looking forward to turning sixty: “I’ve waited for it and I deserve it!” But she has acknowledged it’s time to slow down, and is returning to planting seeds (“I very much like flowers. I’m digging them in as fast as I can”), deciding this is a good note on which to end our interview:
“I’m going from poetry, printing and publishing to petunias, planting and pansies in my old age.”
* Grateful thanks to my friend Richard Barrett, poet, writer and fellow Carol Batton fan, who first offered to interview Carol Batton for the Shrieking Violet some time ago, then decided I should interview her, then patiently set this interview up whilst we umed and ahed about who would do it.