New production from Claybody Theatre

Claybody theatre launched their new site-specific production this week. Dirty Laundry will be performed in the evocative China Hall at the Spode Factory in Stoke from October 11 to 21. The play, according to its creator, Deborah McAndrew (winner of the UK Theatre Award, best new play for An August Bank Holiday Lark), explores the effects of the industrial environment through the inter-generational tensions in a typical 1950s working class home. Rueben Moth is dying, and a secret hovers just beyond the grasp of his daughter, Nora.

The set, designed by Dawn Allsopp, will sit in the cavernous industrial space, and convey a sense of pot-war austerity and gloom.

At the launch, Conrad Nelson (director) introduced the professional cast and explained how the audience will be transported back to the 50s by local amateur actors, before entering the auditorium through the set itself, in a gesture that brings the audience into a much closer relationship with the drama than in a conventional theatre space. Some performances will be followed by panel discussions involving academics, theatre folk, and local people.

Many thanks to everyone at Claybody for an enjoyable evening at the Spode visitors centre. We’re really looking forward to bringing a group of students to a performance.

Click here to visit Claybody’s website and find out more.

John Ashbery, Poet. (1927-2017)

We wake to the sad news that one of our greatest modern poets, John Ashbery, has died aged ninety.

He was a leading figure of the New York School of poetry in the 1960s, a group influenced by modernist and contemporary art (especially abstract expressionism and surrealism). The work that emerged from this movement was wide-ranging; forms of pastiche, non-narrative and anti-narrative text, a simultaneous return to and rejection of form all problematised the discipline of poetry—and in a good way. Complex new poetry for a complex new, postmodern world. An interest in contemporary culture provoked poems about the banal, every day, sometimes the throw-away. Art is life, and sometimes, life is dull. No more grand subjects and narratives, just life.

This is neither an obituary nor essay; it’s a remembering of my first encounter with Ashbery, and not an easy one to recollect since his poetic work has been so prominent in the study of contemporary poetics, but I think I can pin it down to a balmy late September in a seminar room when our tutor gave us crumpled photocopies of “The Skaters” (1964):

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

The direct address, themes concerning sound and music and the rush of rich images made this early encounter with Ashbery’s text a meaningful touchstone for much of my later research concerning poetry, music, sound, and the every day. I return to Ashbery again and again in reading, research and in teaching (some of our students will know well the famous “Popeye” sestina: “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”).

For more information about Ashbery, explore the online collection archived at the Poetry Foundation
To read and listen to, in Ashbery’s own voice, “The Skaters” visit the archive at Penn Sound.

National Student Survey (NSS) Success

The results of the 2016/17 NSS have been published, and English and Creative Writing at Staffs have done particularly well again.

We are particularly pleased to score 100% for our teaching and to score between 90 and 100% for assessment.

Some highlights are listed below. Many thanks to the Class of 2017 for showing their appreciation of the work put in by the English and Creative Writing team to ensure that their time at Staffs has been exciting and productive.

English and Creative Writing degrees

The teaching on my course     100%                                                                                                                   

Staff are good at explaining things                                         100%                                                                                      

Staff have made the subject interesting                                100%                                                                                      

The course is intellectually stimulating                                  100%                                                                                      

My course has challenged me to achieve my best work         100%                                                         

My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth                                                                            100%

My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics                                  100%

                                                                                                                  

Assessment and feedback                                                       95%                                                                                                 

Feedback on my work has been timely                                   100%                                                                                      

I have received helpful comments on my work                      90%                                                           

Academic support                                                                   97%                                                                                                 

I have been able to contact staff when I needed to               100%                                                                  

I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course                                                                                                  100%

Overall satisfaction                                                                 90%

 

“It’s not at all grim up North” –

At the end of June I attended a one-day interdisciplinary conference at York St John University: the title of the conference was “Uplandish: New Perspectives on Northern England’s ‘Wild’ Places”.  The topics which people presented on were very varied and included: film-making, the cultural mythology of the Moors Murderers, the history of Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s most famous home), and the work of the National Trust in securing UNESCO World Heritage status for the Lake District.  My paper was one of a handful of literary-critical papers that day – it was titled “Sarah Hall’s Wild Women of the North”.

My 20-minute paper gave a brief analysis of the idea of wildness in three novels by Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2006), The Wolf Border (2015) and Haweswater (2002).  I focussed on the presentation of central female characters as embedded within the Cumbrian landscape of all three texts, its ecosystem and the contestation of traditional stereotypes that this entails.  My paper gave a broadly ecofeminist reading of the literature, and made the point that the association of women and nature is not at all retrogressive in Hall’s writing but, rather, is presented as a source of radical energy which enables the women to intervene in political history, as opposed to seeing them excluded from it.

My paper concluded with a question: these novels seem to fit in with a trend in contemporary literature to access the authentic, ecologically-implicated, animal self – an identity which stands in sharp contrast to our increasingly technologically-mediated existence; does this represent a genuine cultural turn developing in the new millennium, or are these just consolatory fictions which we can shut off from when we close the book?

I very much enjoyed giving this paper, as well as the discussions over coffee with other delegates, in particular another academic – Dr. Justin Sausman of the University of Hertfordshire – who also presented on Haweswater.  Another personal highlight for me was having the opportunity to quote a small section of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon (yes, it was relevant to a discussion about the literary history of monstrosity and the moors!).

York is just lovely – you should go, especially if you really like a bit of Viking history mixed in with your organic cafes and high-end clothing stores.

My thanks to the University for funding my trip.  Next stop: a conference on Eco-Gothic in Dublin, Trinity College, late November – yey!

Dr Melanie Ebdon

 

Congratulations to the Class of 2017

The Class of 2017 graduated at the picturesque Trentham Gardens this week.

Congratulations to everybody who completed their degrees this year. We were all so proud to share your day on Monday. Congratulations, too, to this year’s prize winners; Sian Davies, Ben Underwood and Susan Ecclestone. Here’s some of the pictures we managed to grab (see the facebook page for more).

History as a text – Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

In her Reith lecture recently, the double Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, said:

“history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”

Hayden White, somebody who we might characterise as a ‘postmodern historian’, similarly claims that all history is text, and is subject to the same subjective interpretative understandings and misunderstandings as any other piece of writing. In addition, the historical record is often in the hands of those wishing to put their side of events, and it is history’s winners whose version gets to become the ‘official’ history. White identifies how events don’t always fit into the comforting structures of narrative, how events don’t always lend themselves to a beginning, a middle and an end. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, he argues that:

‘But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be. …The lateness of the invention of historical discourse in human history and the difficulty of sustaining it in times of cultural breakdown (as in the early Middle Ages) suggest the artificiality of the notion that real events could “speak themselves” or be represented as “telling their own story”…. It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that narrativization is so difficult.’

History then, as Mantel identifies above, is an unreliable witness to the events of the past, and we can never recover them with any objective clarity. As Mantel says, ‘history …. is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ The unreliable nature of history, and who controls the official record, have concerned many great writers of recent years. Toni Morrison has explored the legacy of slavery in black communities, Tim O’Brien has wrestled with the un-tellable story of Vietnam, and E L Doctorow has fictionalised the histories of those marginalised and ignored by the official historical record. From these writers, I teach Song of Solomon (but Beloved is probably Morrison’s finest achievement), In the Lake of the Woods, and The Book of Daniel. From these texts, we learn that history has competing interpretations of the past, and the un-official histories of the unvoiced has an equal claim to be heard.

You can listen to the Reith Lectures on the BBC iPlayer.

Readers and Writers – new Distance Learning MA in English Literature and Creative Writing

On the English and Creative Writing degree at Staffs we are dedicated to demonstrating to our students that the best writers are also well-informed readers. The conventions that shape literature go back to the epics and tragedies of ancient Greece and were first classified by Aristotle, and every student of the creative arts must know what traditions she or he is writing out of or against – whether they are classical drama, the Shakespearean sonnet, or modernist poetry. When we teach the Beat writers of 1950s America, for example, we show our students that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and their fellow travellers were not just iconoclasts, tearing down the walls of literature, they were deeply aware of their literary outlaw forebears who had been the rebels of their day.

 

Colm Tóibín, writing in the Guardian recently, explores similar ground. In exploring evil in the contemporary world, contemplating the Northern Island Troubles and so-called Islamic State, he has reworked the Greek story of Clytemnestra who killed her husband, Agamemnon, to explore the personalities of those capable of great cruelty. One of the characters he struggled with was Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, who goes on to kill his mother in revenge for his father’s death (the daughter is Electra, so you can see what a dysfunctional family we are dealing with). Tóibín, unable to conjure Orestes’ voice, looked to other male figures in literature capable of murder. “As I went through other novels and some plays, and indeed my own experience and memories, trying to find a shape for Orestes,” he writes, “I  looked carefully at the figure of Hyacinth Robinson in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, who is all passivity and ambiguity. I thought also about Adolf Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and even Hamlet, or Iago, or Macbeth in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Duncan.” Like all great writers, Tóibín is deeply aware of the debt he owes to his literary predecessors, and it is to earlier writers that he turns for inspiration. Iago, Macbeth and Hamlet are written into our cultural DNA and provide touchstones of violence or madness in the pursuit of vengeance or power. James’s and Conrad’s figures are less well known (Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s best-known figure of evil unconstrained by social conscience), and are more recent examples of the inquisitive reader finding raw material in the wealth of our literary inheritance.

To encourage writers and analysts to locate their creative and critical practice in relation to recent literature we have, here at Staffordshire University, recently introduced a brand new Distance Learning MA in Modern and Contemporary Writing. This innovative post grad degree will introduce students to key writers, texts, compositional methods, literary movements and critical perspectives of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The modules are arranged around key thematic and narrative concerns, paradigmatic shifts in American writing, global writing, and emergent theoretical and critical perspectives, such as eco-criticism. Uniquely, the assignments allow students to explore critical or creative approaches to the literatures of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. As a result, this MA will help students develop as critics, or creative writers, or both. All students take the dissertation or creative project module at the end of their studies. If you take the creative project, you will be supported by the Writers’ Workshop module to prepare you for the task ahead and to give you the opportunity to produce a very substantial piece of creative work. English dissertation students can use the Contemporary Critical Approaches module to identify and explore the critical or theoretical perspectives they wish to employ in their research project.

Because it is Distance Learning, students can organise their studies around their other commitments.

First year perspectives from Cathryn Hurd

What a Year!

It might sound strange calling a blog post “What a Year” in the middle of June but my academic year has recently drawn to a close. Today I received the results of all my hard work, tears, often shouted “I can’t do this” and head-stuck-in-a-book weekends. I passed. Not only did I pass but I averaged a 1st for my first year at university doing my English degree. I’m completely over the moon, ecstatic and somewhat amazed at myself.

A year ago, I was counting down the weeks until I started uni. Nervous about whether I would: –

  1. Understand what the lectures said or whether they did actually speak in a foreign language that everyone else would understand except me.
  2. Be able to read all the books on the course and understand them!
  3. Fit in. This was a biggie for me. Being a “mature” student, the worry was that I would be in a classroom full of young people who would look at me like an uncool old fart!

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Bonkers and Brilliant

Stoke on Trent celebrated submitting their City of Culture bid with an open air spectacular in front of Haney Town Hall. The performance involved drummers, an opera singer on the roof, fountains and fireworks. If this is the sort of entertainment we can expect in a City of Culture, 2021 will be a fantastic year.

The show was called ‘There’s Something in the Water, Duck’ and it was presented by Avanti. My pics don’t do it justice, so click here too

 

A Trip to Bronte-Land!

Haworth Parsonnage – home of the Bronte family:  On April 1st-2nd, a few Staffordshire Uni English and Creative Writing students went on a trip to Haworth.  On the Saturday we visited Haworth Parsonnage, home of the Bronte Family.  On the Sunday we walked a total of 9 miles along the Pennine Way to Top Within: this now ruined farmhouse is said to have been the inspiration for the house called Wuthering Heights in Emily’s novel of the same name.  Well worth it – and we had a lovely fine day.  With thanks to Cathryn Hurd for many of these photos and for driving us!

This is where the magic happened: the table at which Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and Emily wrote Wuthering Heights.  The museum information described this desk as “One of the most important literary artefacts of the 19th century” – I’d say it’s one of the most important literary artefacts ever.  The table was purchased and brought back into the home in 2015 at a price of £580,000.  The family who sold the table to the Bronte Museum had used the table for their Christmas dinners…!

Everything stops for tea (and a coconut slice)

Getting into the Victorian vibe – what a lovely couple!

Setting off on a ramble up the Pennine Way towards Top Withen (why does this remind me a bit of the Tellytubbies…?).

Approaching Bronte Bridge

Gaining a little altitude – almost there!

The pen-name signatures of all three published Bronte sisters