Conference on Architecture, Urbanism and Culture

It was a pleasure to meet architects, urban planners, artists and performers from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden and the UK at the eurau conference over the last few days. Panels were held at Staffs and at Birmingham City University. The panel I chaired attended to the concerns of art and performance in engaging with the contemporary city and addressing issues of marginalisation and regeneration. Fabiano Miocci considered the historic and contemporary use of collage to imagine and re-imagine the city by juxtaposing images and symbols that relate to the experience of urban space in the context of 21st century Athens. Ludovica Campione and Giovangiuseppe Vanneli, both postgrads at the University of Naples, talked about the relationship between architecture and performative arts in articulating marginalised identities in heterotopic spaces in both conventional theatre spaces and site specific performance. Anna Moro told us about the fascinating new processes and methodologies being used in and around Milan to reconnect marginalised, disadvantaged and fragile communities to the wider city through community arts.

As part of the conference, we were treated to a fantastic meal at the sumptuous Potters Club near to the university and a performance on the last day exploring, through dance, play and multi-media (joined by the magic of the internet by artists from India) the relationship between the body and space. We concluded with a tour of the inspriring Stoke on Trent British Ceramics Biennial.

A new project has been conceived as a result of the conference. A Psychogeography of the 6 Towns will explore the polyvalent nature of Stoke on Trent’s historic six towns through urban exploration, architectural history, poetry and urban theory. The participants will be Maria Maria Martinez Sanchez (urban planning and architecture), Martin Brown (urban and architectural history), Lisa Mansell (geo-poetics) and Mark Brown (urban cultures and theory). We will deploy Situationist techniques to explore the centres, margins and inbetween spaces of the city to plot and map its history, culture and future.

Baudelaire and Birthdays

On Baudelaire’s two-hundredth Birthday I am with my mother-in-law for our weekly French lesson. It is her birthday too, today.  As the occasion demands, we read a few passages from ‘Spleen’, which was first published in Fleurs de Mal [Flowers of Evil] in 1857.

Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1862 (Wiki Commons)

Baudelaire wrote on the cusp of literary modernism—one hand in velvet-strewn Gothic Romanticism infused with Poe’s influence and symbolism, and the other in realist naturalism: documenting life as it really was in almost medical detail.  His use of form too is caught between two movements.  Baudelaire, the inventor of the prose poem, evolved his use of long lines from the alexandrine; the alexandrine was to French literature what iambic pentameter was to English verse—ubiquitous poetic signature of a nation, but also the prosodic status quo: the old poetry of an old world.

The blending of Gothic and Naturalist imagery can be observed on the following passage, from the third part of ‘Spleen’:


—Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune,
Où comme plus de morts se traînent de longs vers
Qui s’acharnent toujours sur me morts les plus chers.

—I am a graveyard by the moon abhorred,
where, creeping, like remorse, the long worms spread
their train to feast upon my dearest dead.


Here, the symbolic moon and the graveyard set the gothic scene followed by the bathetic realism of the corpse-eating worms below. But reading this in French drew my attention to something new—something I had never noticed in translation.   The phrase ‘longs vers’ first read to me as ‘vers’ as in ‘vers libre’ and not ‘vers’ as in worms. Could it be that the poem metatextually reflects on its own composition on this double-sensed ‘vers’?  In this metaphor for poetics itself, the persona becomes the landscape, the graveyard (I am a graveyard/ Je suis un cimetière) and the long lines(verses)  feast upon the dead which all together divulge a cryptic allusion to a self-conscious shift from the Gothic Romanticism (the graveyard, the dead) via Baudelaire’s innovative ‘long lines’ freed from their alexandrine constraint, and towards a new poetics–towards modernism.

200th anniversary of the birth of Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire - Wikipedia
Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867 – the poet’s poet

Today is the 200th anniversary of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire – a poet associated with the emergence of literary modernism and the figure of the urban wanderer; the flaneur.

The flâneur is the prime urban walker and recorder in literature.  The flâneur’s impression of the city is formed through walking and is thus shaped at street level, through the confusion and immediacy of the urban sensual phenomena of the crowd.  From the crowd emerge the individual ‘urban types’ that populate Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).  Baudelaire’s poetry is that of the flâneur (along with other marginal figures), who has, in some form, inhabited the city in literature since Edgar Allan Poe.  One of the most famous statements on modernity and the modern metropolis is in Baudelaire’s essay on the artist Constantin Guys in  ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: ‘modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other half being the eternal and the immutable’. 

Baudelaire isolates the ragpicker and the flâneur (along with the prostitute) as types with whom he associates himself as a poet. The ragpicker is the epitome of human misery in the city, collecting rags to be used in industrial processes.  The affinity between the ragpicker and the poet arises from a coincidence of activity – as Baudelaire also sees himself collecting social refuse from the city street and fashioning it into a precarious living. 

Baudelaire’s flâneur occupies a very particular time and place and is of a class that is able to indulge in strolling as a pastime.  His arena is initially that of the boulevards, but with the advent of the arcades he finds his perfect environment.  Here he can be an observer, and a peruser of the commodities in the arcades, as well as a commodity spectacle to be observed.  He is a man, according to the 20th century critic Walter Benjamin, who goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt’ and who is at home in the street. 

            Baudelaire’s poem ‘To a Passer-by’ invests the crowd with a potential to offer exciting but fleeting metropolitan encounters.  The poet describes a brief and anonymous encounter with a beautiful widow who is borne to him and away from him by the crowd.

To a Passer-By

The street about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;

Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

 ‘What this sonnet communicates is simply this:’ Benjamin writes, ‘far from experiencing the crowd as an opposed, antagonistic element, this very crowd brings to the city dweller the figure that fascinates. The delight of the urban poet is love – not at first sight, but at last sight’.  The way in which the crowd conveys this mysterious beauty to the gaze of the poet illustrates both the anonymity and the fascination of the crowd.  However, Baudelaire’s attitude to the crowd as ambivalent. It is Baudelaire’s very status as a poet that prevents him becoming fully immersed in the city; both his class position and his professed role as dispassionate observer must separate him from the mass. 

            The complexity of an environment emerging from these conditions requires a mode of expression equal to its volatility.  Consequently, Baudelaire’s poetic project was to create a prose adequate to the metropolis of his age.  Baudelaire as a poet, seeks an urban poetics adequate to both the rational and the phantasmagorical elements of urban experience.  In an echo of the two parts that constitute modernity, he wrote of his own poetry:

Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and the sudden leaps of consciousness.  This obsessive idea is above all a child of the experience of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.

What Baudelaire seeks is a mode of representation that engages with the eternal and (seemingly) immutable physical metropolis in terms which at the same time are able to capture the ephemeral and fugitive interrelations he finds so compelling.

Staff Picks for World Poetry Day

Our English and Creative Writing lecturers pick some some significant poems for World Poetry Day

Kate Tempest: Brand New Ancients (2013)—The New Waste Land.
If you invest in just one poetry collection this year, get Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest. In fact, it is not a collection—rather, a long poem which bounds with vociferous energy over its forty-seven pages. The book begins with an aphoristic inscription: “This poem was written to be read aloud”, and to read it alongside a recording of Tempest’s virtuosic spoken-word performance is enthralling.
The text begins with a meditation on myth:

In the old days
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves.
But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves,
the things we’ve made ourselves into,
the way we break ourselves in two,
the way we overcomplicate ourselves?

But we are still mythical. (Tempest, 2013, p.1)

Note the lexical stride of ‘ourselves’ as it shifts its syntactical position in each line, much like the shifting of our own subjectivity, culture and the passing of time: a civilization taking one step forward and two steps back.

In this next passage, assonant sonority meanders through these phrases like a soundwave where ‘your’/ ‘distorted’ and ‘moss’/’emboss’, ‘rock’/work’ curl subtle filigrees against the more stoic, conventional rhyming of ‘loathing/clothing’ at the lines’ end. Generous, round vowels evoke gravitas and the echo of deep, ancient time:

[. . .] Kevin, your altar is covered in moss,
the inscription distorted, embossed long ago, it said once—
stay true, even if others do not.
He breaks through the rock of his silent self-loathing,
climbs into his clothing
and heads off to work. [. . .] (Tempest, 2013, p.8)

Tempest is not the first poet to gaze into the antique past, to myth and the Classical world, in order to explain ‘ourselves’. T.S. Eliot’s monolithic poem, The Waste Land (1922), too is a collage of intertexts which crisscross through Dante, Shakespeare, ancient Buddhist scripture, but also popular songs and lewd limericks. Part II of the Waste Land, ‘A Game of Chess’, dramatises the unhappy marriages of two couples, inflected with allusions to Anthony and Cleopatra, Dido and Aeneas, Elizabeth I and Leicester. Tempest, in her narrative poem, renders the relationships of two families with Eliotian pessimism, but not in the manner of pastiche. Tempest layers her own careful palimpsest of lyric pathos, dramatic epic, and their modern-day reincarnations: street poetry and rap. She glissades easily between speech, recitative and song in stiches so rhythmically complex they defy traditional scansion.

Brand New Ancients is, perhaps, the Waste Land of our age.

Lisa Mansell

My grandma died on the 16th of March 2017 and it was a strangely hot day. It took her a long time to die. And while I waited I read a lot of poetry.

I wrote a creative non-fiction essay in part about her death called ‘The Familiar Absence of Words.’ Here is a brief extract:

I stayed with grandma for most of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between. I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

This was one of the poems I read as my grandma lay dying.

Detail
Eamon Grennan

I was watching a robin fly after a finch — the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase — when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

You can read the full essay ‘The Familiar Absence of Words’ here.

Hannah Stevens

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

The renowned critic, Terry Eagleton, argues of this poem that ‘the imagery … is largely at a tangent to the poem’s official subject’, and goes on to say how much he dislikes it. But isn’t this to miss the point of Thomas’s refusal and the anti-elegiac ambition of the verse? We have here 4 tightly structured sestets of rigid line-length and rhyme structure, giving the feeling of the conventional poetry of famous elegists such as Milton and Shelley. We become aware of the challenge to the conventions of the form in the long first line that takes us, breathlessly, from the opening, resistant ‘Never…’ into the 3rd stanza. It is only here, in the 13th line of the poem, that the girl killed by the fire bombing of London becomes the subject of the poem; this line becomes the pivot of Thomas’s contemplation of time and loss. Once acknowledged, the site and manner of the girl’s death, in the underground stations where Londoners sheltered from the bombers, she becomes London’s daughter, buried with the city’s innumerable dead and the earth of the city takes her back as a mother. The symbolism of the poem draws attention to the condensation of time into these moments of loss: Thomas records how he enters the ‘Zion of the water bead’ and ‘the synagogue of the ear of corn’ to show how nature contains all of time.
Thomas defers the lamentation of the dead girl to the second half of the poem to illustrate the futility of attempting to capture the tragedy of this loss – one of so many in the war – in the form of a poem. He ‘shall not murder’ her again, he insistently tells us, with an ‘Elegy of innocence and youth’.
Dylan’s anti-elegy records the loss of the girl in the blitz but as her death is insignificant in the scale of the war and the immensity of time, he is unable to offer consolation.
Mark Brown

Here is a great old-fashioned Romantic poem by Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush. I love this poem because it spoke to me when I was about 12 and in no way a reader of poetry. When I say ‘spoke to me’, I mean it spoke of things that had, up till then, been only the vague and unfocused experience of my own life. It was a surprise to read, for example, that ‘The land’s sharp features seemed to be the century’s corpse outleant’ and to realise that somebody else (a dead poet) had once felt a rocky landscape, like the ones I knew from the Welsh mountains, to be an ancient body. The ‘century’s corpse‘ gives this image a stronger connection with human life (our artificial slicing up of infinite time into hundreds of years). And this corpse is then made even more human by the addition of cloud and wind: ‘His crypt the cloudy canopy, The wind his death-lament‘.

That ordinary landscape could express the whole drama of human life so clearly and directly seemed magical to me. And that is just in one of the verses. How about the next bit: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’? What is the ‘ancient pulse’? It doesn’t exist, except in our own sense of what life is. Dylan Thomas, in another great nature poem, called it ‘the force’. The title alone is a poem: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. Learn these two poems and they will stay with you for life: every winter, every spring, you’ll communicate with these two long dead voices.

The Darkling Thrush

Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

Margaret Leclere

World Poetry Day and in/fertility

We are publishing work from our students for World Poetry Day.

Here, Layla tells us about the work she is doing with a health website and brings us a poems on the theme of IVF.

I am writing and recording a series of poems on the theme of infertility for a media company. The poems are based on interviews with people who have experienced fertility issues, as well as research into how those affected sufferer mentally and emotionally.

The poems are part of an ongoing creative project with the company to creatively explore the complex emotions, fears and prejudices around the issue of fertility.

The poem “Game of Hormones” is performed by actor Eddie Bammeke, who is a film student at Staffordshire University. It was written for the Tiktok app, so it’s exactly 59 seconds long.

The prose poem “Just” was commissioned by a company that makes fertility probiotics to explore the advice that their customers are given at various stages of their life.

Layla Randle-Conde

Just

Just don’t come home pregnant, your dad will lose his mind. Just remember to take your pill every morning. Just don’t sleep around & you won’t have to worry about it. Just slow it down, don’t get too serious too quickly. Just remember, you have plenty of time for all of this.

Just don’t ruin your life like she did. Just her and the baby in that tiny flat. Just a waste of potential really. Just threw her life away.

Just focus on your studies. Just get your qualifications first. Just get to know each other.
Just save up and get a house before you start worrying about babies. Just wait another year for the promotion.

Just got married have you? Just don’t keep us hanging around too long for grandchildren, OK?

Just relax, you’re overthinking it. Just go on holiday, it’ll happen. Just keep trying, that’s the fun part! Just enjoy the peace while it lasts! Just enjoy your lie-ins while you can. Just hurry up a bit though, time’s getting on.

Just get that checked out. Just to make sure. Just sit tight, I’ll ring the hospital. Just don’t blame yourself, that’s all. Just try to breathe. Just remember, everything happens for a reason. Just try again when you’re ready.

Just a bit of advice, don’t keep that photo on the side like that. Just a bit morbid, that’s all. Just need to move on. Just need a holiday or something. Just the two of you.

Just do some yoga. Just lose a bit of weight. Just lose a bit more weight. Just cut out alcohol, caffeine and dairy. Just get him checked out too just in case. Just get yourself fit. Just don’t overdo it with the running though. Just don’t get too thin, that’s all.

Just talk to the doctor. Just choose a clinic. Just do the IVF. Just a needle, that’s all. Just your hormones. Just have another cycle as soon as you can. Just save up! Just borrow it off your Mum. Just take out a loan. Just sell the car.

Just use donor eggs! Just, I don’t know, get a surrogate like that woman off the telly did. Just adopt! Just playing Devil’s Advocate, that’s all. Just saying. Just give it another go. Just my opinion. Just give up. Just a waste of time. Just accept it. Just too old. Just wasn’t meant to be then, was it.

World Poetry Day – the pandemic and social media

We are publishing work from our students for World Poetry Day on March 21st.

Here is Chloe’s poem, meditating on the effects of the pandemic on her generation. Thank you, Chloe, for your contribution.

Generation Lost In Satellites

We are the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Caring more about comments
on our social media than the fact
that an empty packet of
crisps can kill the environment.

We’re restless.
We have no wars to fight,
Stonewall has been rioted.
Women got the vote.
The Bastille has been stormed.

We are the restless generation.
We have nothing to do.
There’s nothing left for us to do.

We’re just sat on this
floating rock, drifting in an infinite
loop until the sun expands
and we all burn.

We’re restless.
There are no new worlds left to conquer,
Everest has been climbed.
Slavery was abolished.
There are footprints on the moon.

We are the restless generation.
We have nothing to do.
There’s nothing left for us to do.

But that’s not entirely true…

Now we face a new foe,
a new enemy to be vanquished.

Now we have a war to fight,
one we fight together.
With doctors and nurses on the front line,
while everyone else is told
to stay inside.

This time there are no evacuees,
no bomb shelters to hide in,
no air raid sirens to listen out for.

Although the industries have been revolutionised,
there is still lots of work to do.
with new vaccines, a ray of hope,
a light at the end of the tunnel.

But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Who cares more about comments
on our social media than
whether or not we
should say please and thank you.

What do we know?
With the world on pause,
and the stock market a minute away from crashing,
the queue to the jobcentre is
longer than the list of jobs available.

But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites,
what do we know?

We live in a world that revolves
around diet plans and phone updates,
where nobody can say what
they mean in fear of offence.

But we are just the generation
that got lost in satellites.
Who cares more about comments
on our social media than
whether or not we meet
with people outside in real life.

Chloe Birchall, March 2021

The Last Beat – Lawrence Ferlinghetti

(Mark and Lisa)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a friend and a publisher to the writers of the Beat Generation, and an influential poet who was both critically and commercially successful. His bookshop, City Lights, became the epi-centre of the San Francisco phase of the Beat movement when it’s major figures, particularly Ginsberg and Kerouac, moved from New York to the West coast. City Lights has been open in the same premises since 1955 and along with Shakespeare and Co in Paris – which had been an inspiration for Ferlinghetti – is one of the best known and most inviting bookshops on the planet. San Francisco was an enclave of non-conformist culture at the time, possibly because of the siting of a camp for pacifists and conscientious objectors nearby during the war. Once released back into society, these renegades fostered a community of radicals and rebels. Ginsberg and Kerouac were drawn to San Francisco by the promise of literary freedom and like-minded artists. The little black and white covers of the Pocket Poets series have become a design classic and have remained unchanged for nearly 70 years. The shop, too, remains a beacon to poets, travellers and those with a love of the writing of the Beats.

The City Lights Books Pocket Poets series was thrust into the glare of publicity by Ginsberg’s collection, Howl and Other Poems. Ferlinghetti had seen Ginsberg read the title poem at a now famous reading at the Six Gallery in October 1995 and contacted the young poet to arrange to publish his work. The content was scandalous for the time, a period of political and social conformity enforced by a Cold War culture that valued a narrow consensus that privileged an anti-communist, white, middle-class, male hegemony. Ginsberg’s famous opening lines, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’, challenged everything that the mainstream cherished. His portrayal of angelheaded hipsters ‘with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls’ attracted the attention of the SFPD, who failed to have the book banned for obscenity and succeeded only in bringing a radical new poetry to the attention of a much wider readership. The Beats became internal exiles, attacking what they saw as America’s conformity, inequality, consumerism and warmongering. The Beat writers were in search of ‘IT’ – the soul of jazz, orgasm, the freedom of the streets, the heightened consciousness of drugs – and Ferlinghetti was an important guide on that journey. Ferlinghetti was himself a poet of some note and he toured the world with Ginsberg, bringing Beat poetry to the Beatniks and hippies of the 60s – including a famous reading at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965.

Ferlinghetti’s iconic 1958 collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, remains one of the bestselling poetry collections.  (link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/aug/19/revisitingconeyislandofthe) .  It is a masterwork of lyricism and realism which weaves together motifs of music and the clothes-pegged, telegraph-wire strewn cityscape.  In many ways, this collection is about lines: telegraph lines, poetic lines and musical lines reaching from the improvised line of jazz, to birdsong, to more classical structures of phrase and cadence:

The poet’s eye obscenely seeing
sees the surface of the round world
                         with its drunk rooftops
                         and wooden oiseaux on clotheslines
                         and its clay males and females
                         with hot legs and rosebud breasts
                         in rollaway beds

City boundaries and lines which demarcate social spaces are blended and problematised in the ‘plastic toiletseats tampax and taxis’ (note the generous texture of internal consonance and alliteration) which nestle amoung ‘stemheated cemeteries’ and ‘protesting cathedrals’ to form a ‘surrealist landscape’.  The projective, ‘open field’ lines which arc across the page architecture the poetic space and unleash a ‘wired’ energy through this opening sequence of twenty-nine poems.

Ferlinghetti lived in the bohemian North Beach area of San Francisco up to his death last week at the age of 101.

Queering the Curriculum

LGBTQ+ History month promotes equality and diversity by “increasing the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT+”) people, their history, lives and their experiences in the curriculum and culture of educational and other institutions, and the wider community.” Some institutions represent this diversity in programs and modules such as Queer Studies, and while it is important to highlight this field of study as a distinct discourse of significance, at Staffordshire we promote inclusivity of diversity and teach the literature of LGBTQ+ writers all the way through our curriculum.

Here are some of the novels, stories and poems English and Creative Writing staff have been reading, researching and teaching at Staffordshire University.

John Cage (1912-1992)
Dr Lisa Mansell

John Cage (1988)
Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most people know John Cage as the somewhat cheeky, avant-garde composer of 4’33”, but fewer people know the significant contribution he made to poetry and poetics, recorded over several collections including M: Writings ’67–’72 (1973), Empty Words: Writings ’73–’78 (1979), and X: Writings ’79–’82 (1983).

Cage was a pioneer of procedural, constraint-based and algorithmically generated poetics: a kind of poetry which is composed within a strict confine of rules. One of these algorithmic techniques, called ‘writing through’, entailed a process of selecting the letters which spell out the name of an author then using them as a ‘code’ for selecting words from a novel written by that author, according to strict rules. Cage deployed this procedure for his five ‘write-throughs’ of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, (Cage mischievously said of this novel, “it’s my favourite book I’ve never read.”) Taking the letters ‘J’ ‘A’ ‘M’ ‘E’ ‘S ‘J’ ‘O’ ‘Y’ ‘C’ ‘E’ as the code, he then applied the process of ‘writing-through’ to Finnegans Wake. The poems were then presented via a reinvention of the ancient mesostich form (pronounced MESS-oh-stick), which Cage called ‘mesostic’. Readers may be already familiar with the acrostic poem, where the beginning letters of each line in a poem form a message or spell out a name; a mesostic does the same thing but with the spelled-out message in the middle of the line. (In case you’re curious, if the code letters are at the end of the line, it is called a telestich).

Cage was also interested in algorithmic process as chance procedures. This time, ‘writing-through’ Thoreau’s Journals. Cage divided the text up into five kinds of material: letters, syllables, words, phrases, and sentences:

“A text can be a vocalise: just letters. Can be just syllables, just words; just a string of phrases; sentences. Or combinations of letters and syllables (for example), letters and words, et. Cetera. There are 25 possible combinations.”

‘Empty Words’, p. 11. (1975)

The next stage in this process, after assigning numerical values to these lexical parts, was to use the I Ching, to produce aleatoric combinations of these words, syllables, letters, and phrases. This results in some of the most strikingly avant-garde and beautiful (in my view) poetry which challenges the way we think about language structures, meaning, and representation.

Aiden Thomas, Cemetery Boys (2020)
Amy Blaney

Book cover, Cemetery Boys

“I’m currently reading Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys as part of a buddy read with some friends. It’s a YA fantasy novel that follows a trans boy – Yadriel – as he attempts to prove himself to his traditional Latinx family. Yadriel’s family are involved in an unusual line of business – the brujos look after the Latinx cemetery and ensure that the souls of the dead pass over and don’t turn maligno, whilst the bruja use the powers gifted to them by Lady Death to heal. Determined to prove himself a brujo, Yadriel sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set him free – although things don’t go to plan when he instead summons the spirit of local bad boy Julian Diaz – who then refuses to depart this earthly plain until his own unfinished business has been dealt with. Cue the two boys having to learn to work together to defeat an evil that threatens both the world of the living and the dead, all set against the backdrop of a vibrant Latinx culture and featuring heaps of excellent LGBTQIA+ representation. The book is a brilliant mosaic of culture, acceptance, and personal identity (although trigger warnings for instances of dead-naming and misgendering) and I’d strongly recommend it, even to those who don’t normally read YA. 

I’d also recommend a visual novel called If Found. It’s available on Steam and Nintendo Switch which focuses upon the experience of a trans woman – Kasio – and her return to her family in rural Ireland. Again, trigger warnings for instances of dead-naming, transphobia, and misgendering – things get very rough for Kasio before they get better – but personally I found this a deeply moving and emotive story that touches on several important LGBTQIA+ issues and examines identity, cultural acceptance, found family, and family relationships in a moving and sensitive way. It also has some gorgeous artwork and a wonderful soundtrack. If you want to find out more about it, you can watch Aoife from Eurogamer conduct a chilled playthrough of the full game at https://youtu.be/nfJLXoGG5PI.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)
Dr. Mark Brown

FightClub CleanieClub
Lunadabayboys, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fight Club was published in 1996, with the film catapulting Chuck Palahniuk and the novel into the cultural spotlight in 1999. Once the film was released, there were many media reports of men taking the fight club – and its famous rules of secrecy – as a blueprint for a version of masculinity constructed around male companionship, violence and heteronormativity which functions as a visceral and authentic contrast to the artificiality of the intense commodity culture in which the IKEA catalogue (remember them?) has become the new pornography. This interpretation of the novel and the film, based on a surface reading of the first section of the narrative, was problematised by Palahniuk ‘outing’ himself as gay on his own website to prevent an interviewer doing it for him in the press.

In the novel, an anonymous narrator unconsciously escapes into the alter-ego of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film), a figure who embarks on a passionate relationship with Marla (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and establishes the fight club where men punch each other in basements, which then morphs into Project Mayhem; a carnivalesque anti-capitalism and counter-cultural movement.

In the introduction to the American edition of the novel, Palahniuk explains that he constructs a homo-social space because women find this easier, with ‘quilting and mah-jong societies’, but men are limited to sports. While we should be wary of using the author’s biography to interpret a text, there is clearly a willful misreading of the novel by those men who interpret it as a manifesto of physical and sexual dominance, for the establishment of ‘real fight clubs’ and for the ‘pick-up’ culture of the 2000s.

Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (2017)
Dr. Melanie Ebdon

Dr. Melanie Ebdon has been reading Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (2017), which depicts several lesbian relationships which are ‘just normalised—there’s no big deal made—they’re just relationships”. Dr Ebdon reads a section from “Mothers” in which the protagonist imagines an idealised future with her new partner. Listen here.

Staff and students at Staffordshire can read the full collection in an ebook, online here.

English and Creative Writing Students Support Each Other to get Industry Experience

Most students wait until they have graduated before they seek work experience, but others are keen to get straight into their chosen industry. One of our second year students Kudakwashe Phiri was hand-picked for a paid internship with a media company, before she’d even finished the first year. She has just had her first article published in the commercial sector.

Her ongoing internship for a media company in the fertility niche, includes researching articles on law and medical issues, writing book reviews and scientific articles, and even appearing on the company’s Tiktok account. You can read one of Kuda’s book reviews here.

Kuda was talent-spotted in class by a fellow student who also works for the company because of her thorough preparation for lectures and teamwork ethic.

Kuda said: “I thought I would be working a normal job through university, but this is bringing me straight into the industry. It’s just a few hours a week, but it’s paid and I am learning how to write for the commercial market. It works really well with my studies, and I can translate the skills I learn in the classroom directly to a work environment.”

The company, Best Fertility Now, is a startup led by a former BBC journalist. The fertility niche is a rapidly expanding market, and a combination of lifestyle, medical and technical knowledge is needed to navigate it.

The CEO of the company said:

“Kuda is a fantastic addition to the team, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how she develops as a writer.”

Kuda’s love of writing and literature clearly runs in the family as her mother, Edna, also received a degree in English from us just 2 years ago.

Course leader, Mark Brown, said: “we always encourage our students to get their writing out there and get real-world experience. It’s even better when they are able to encourage and support each other.”

(Layla Randle-Conde, 2nd year English and Creative Writing)

Edna and Kuda: the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2022

A Tribute to Storm Constantine

The English and Creative Writing Department were saddened to learn of the recent passing of the author, Storm Constantine.

Over the years, Storm was a ceaseless supporter of our students and offered meaningful and transformative work experience to our young writers at Immanion Press leading to, for many, publications of their own, further postgraduate study and careers in creative writing.

Storm was a frequent visiting lecturer at the department and her no-nonsense ‘warts and all’ insight into publishing, both large-scale, commercial and independent was of immense value to students learning their craft.  She encouraged our students to see the options available to them in modern publishing—an ever-changing industry.

In 2016, Storm Constantine published and co-edited (alongside Paul Houghton) a collection of stories called Dark in the Day:

“The idea for this anthology originated during one of my regular sessions as a guest lecturer in Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. I often speak about the day to day running of an independent press, explaining to students how books are created and all the work that goes into them once the actual writing is done. I thought it would be an interesting idea to involve the students in the creation of a book and what better way than to publish a short story collection that included some of their work?” (Constantine, 2016, p. 7)

And so a beautiful collaboration was born. Professional and polished stories composed by our own students nestle seamlessly alongside more seasoned hands like Rosie Garland, Tanith Lee, and Nicholas Royle. Storm never treated our students quite like students, but as professional writers, and Dark in the Day stands as a testimony to the hard work, care and compassion she generously extended to them—and to us as colleagues.   

Storm will be very greatly missed by us and by our writers past and present, and long may she live in the work she leaves behind—in over thirty novels and nonfiction books.  She is perhaps best-known for her Wraeththu trilogy (1987-1989)—influenced by Birmingham’s ‘Goth scene’ in the ‘80s—and in words ever-resonant today:

“Wraeththu. I shiver to say the word. Something has happened to them. Where did they come from? How did it happen? Why is it spreading like a plague? I have seen what they do. I have seen their faces. They always take their dead with them, always. There is a secret. Don’t you understand? A secret. Wraeththu are not what they seem. They are more than they seem.” (Constantine, 1987)