Photography by Reeco Liburd and Katie O'Neill
Shirley May is a poet from the Speakeasy Collective in Manchester, which she co-managed for five years. She is also director of 'Young Identity' - a writing collective which works with 13–25s in the Manchester area. Her own work has been published in several anthologies
Shirley is one of the best known and loved performers on the Manchester poetry scene and has performed at many well-known venues in the UK and internationally, including appearances at the Nuyorican Cafe in New York and the Calabash writing festival in Jamaica. Shirley has recently received an honorary fellowship from the Royal Society of Literature for her support work for young writers. She is a visiting fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and poet in residence at the Race Archive - Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust.
Shirley believes her role is to make both performance and page poetry accessible to young people in Manchester. She has worked for 18 years to promote a culture around performance poetry to make it "cool" and happening by mentoring and supporting new writers in schools and community groups.
Shirley performing at the Manchester International Festival in 2019 (Photo: MMU)
Shirley's acclaimed poetry collection ‘She Wrote Her Own Eulogy’
Shirley published her first poetry collection ‘She Wrote Her Own Eulogy’ in 2018 to great acclaim, in which she explores her family’s Jamaican heritage and the Black-British experience with deep emotion and lyricism.
Shirley and her team of young writers and mentors believe that the voice of young people in writing is as valid as adult writers. She seeks to free "de inna voice." She has worked alongside great names in poetry, offering a platform for their work at the many events she has organised.
She’s a motivational speaker and through her work, she tries to inspire, challenge and give tailored advice to groups and individuals, especially around creating personal goals and advising ways to achieve them.
THE SHOOT: Whitworth Park, Manchester
Throughout Shirley's life, the park and the art gallery have been her haven for contemplation and recreation.
Q: Where and when were you born?
A: I was born in Stretford Memorial Hospital, which just happens to be at the bottom of my road; well, in fact, it's on Seymour Grove. Now, it's become a site up for sale; I suppose if I were a millionaire, I would buy the site and turn it into Old Trafford's first theatre. I am a 60's child at this stage in my life, and it is my prerogative as a female not to give you my age. I will say I'm born between 1960 and 1969. I'm not sorry for being evasive.
Q: Which schools did you attend?
A: As a child, at 5, I went to St Marys on Moss Lane East. My parents had a house just past the brewery; our home was a ten-room house; they used to run the local shebeen, an after-hours drinking place and a café.
Then we moved to Withington in the late 70s, and at seven, I went to Old Moat Primary School. I was one of three black children in the whole school. I spent six weeks outside the headteacher's office with a clenched fist because I punched anybody who called me the n-word or sambo. Within about six weeks, I became Shirley. I don't remember the name-calling transition; however, it happened as quickly as my arrival in the school. When a new boy came to the school, all the girls thought he was Donny Osmond after that he was it! And everything was okay. Life was wonderful at the school, and I made some great friends. I remember that Love Thy Neighbour was a TV programme on at the time and it was racially charged with these two neighbours who were at each other's throats but secretly had a love for one another. I believe that difference is a huge thing in people's minds, but love and respect start to replace difference once you get to know someone.
The last school I went to was Whalley Range High; I was a uniform brown girl; I had a great time at the school and the most significant influence on my life was a teacher named Elizabeth Collins. I spent a summer writing to her. She gave me a huge panoramic view of the world that grew me as a person in my final year before leaving and going to Abraham Moss to sixth form college. There I met members of the band Simply Red. Sylvian Richardson and I were in a band for a short while with Diane Charlemagne RIP, who was a part of the Urban Cookie Collective (52nd Street). My life as a band member came to an end when I went to Manchester Polytechnic, where I studied Fashion and Design.
Q & A with Shirley May
Q: Which different areas of Manchester have you lived in?
A: I have lived in Moss Side, Withington and Old Trafford. All of them uniquely different, all of them impactful. Each area has helped mould a different decade of my life. Not just the areas, but the people and neighbours who we lived next door to. Many shaped me as a woman. In Withington, I remember a woman who lived on Bridgelea Road called Mrs Bradshaw; she had a massive library in her house and had a colour television that we watched Elvis Presley films on my sister and me. She was wonderful. She worked at the university as a lecturer, and she just used to invite us in.
When I lived in Moss Side, that's probably the only time we really were a part of a community. Everybody knew each other, and everyone was mostly migrants from Jamaica, Africa and Barbados with some old Irish families and Indian families living close by. It was a proper neighbourhood before the Manchester City council knocked all the houses down. 'It's a real shame my mother used to say how could you replace some of the grand houses with the bull rings of Hulme.
Where I live now in Old Trafford is really diverse and the neighbours are great. We've even got a WhatsApp group that we started when Covid began. We try to check on the elderly neighbours, those we knew to be vulnerable, who live on our road. It's added a community feel, making it more welcoming. We have lived there for 25 years. I would say Covid has made us lookout for each other more, the Community has changed since the road became multi-Cultural.
Q: When did you first start to write poetry?
A: I started to write poetry at 34 or 35; I woke up with a poem in my mouth.
"The heart is the organ that encounters pain, the place that always peace should reign; it's the place that makes a father stand up to provide and a mother hearing a distant child's cry, the heart is the organ that encounters pain, the place where always peace should reign."
And I haven't stopped writing since. I never finished the poem above because it was what I woke up with. However, the poetry began and invaded my life like an occupying army.
Q: Why is Whitworth park so important to you?
A: Whitworth Park was the posher park on Moss Lane East because the Rec was across the road from my house, however sneaking off with my brother and sisters to Whitworth, avoiding chores, was my escape. When I went to Manchester Polytechnic as an art student, Whitworth Park and the museum was a haven, somewhere to contemplate, sit quietly in. I used to love going in there and watch the Andy Warhol painting, which hung there for years. I enjoyed checking out the roving exhibitions as I was interested in textiles and fabrics. It was definitely a place for an art student to gravitate towards. As an adult, I have made it a place for my grandchildren and me to go to and I guess you can guess my age now.
Q: Why is Manchester such a special place?
A: Manchester is where I believe my creativity has been able to live and breathe and strive, even when I left Manchester Polytechnic. I used the knowledge gained to create extraordinary wedding dresses, paintings, arts and crafts. I've always found people interested in my creativity and have supported it at different stages, right up to being the founder of Young Identity and Wordsmith Awards. The love for this city stems from the fact that I believe it is a creative hub more than a powerhouse. When you think of all the different artists and underground scenes that coexist beside each other, I think it is an absolute privilege to live in this great northern city. Watching it change and grow is also beautiful; it feels like a butterfly emerging from the Industrial Revolution's chrysalis.
Student reflection: Reeco Liburd
I was grateful to be given the opportunity of working with the Poet and Community Champion Shirley May. She was a very lively and charismatic lady who fills her surroundings with laughs and smiles. This shoot was a very fun and rewarding experience as it was very inspiring to work with such a figure who overcame dyslexia to write a book. It truly shows that you can make something great of your life regardless of what others think. I am honoured to have been given this opportunity to work with Shirley May on the Greater Mancunian Project. I appreciate her giving us time out of her busy schedule and hope our paths cross again later in life.