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!

Continue reading

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

 

I spent a fantastic afternoon with the Year 10 English class at Streetly Academy in Sutton Coldfield this week. In a poetry masterclass we looked at structure, rhyme scheme, imagery, language and punctuation in Robert Browning’s ‘Meeting at Night’ (a surprisingly subversive poem!).

Then we ripped it up into little bits and made our own poems out of it. We borrowed from Tristan Tzara’s 1902 poem, ‘How to Make a Dadaist Poem’:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

 

I managed to capture a couple of great examples before the poems got swept away:

large gray voice quench

pushing from fiery hearts

the sea and beach,

night and sand

waves and ringlets appears

the little joys   each startled fears

low fears, its pushing the sand.

appears: loud, less long land

These are great poems, but whose are they? These are Browning’s words (everybody’s words?), arranged to a method proposed by Tzara, but by the hand of today’s young poets!

This ‘cut-up’ method was later used by the Beat writer, WIlliam S Burroughs, and by David Bowie.

My grateful thanks to the students and the English staff at Streetly for their warm welcome. We are looking forward to your visit to Staffs next term.

City of Glass in Manchester

HOME Manchester, Lyric Hammersmith and 59 Productions are staging an adaptation of Paul Auster’s novella, City of Glass.

City of Glass is the first of 3 metaphysical or postmodern detective stories collected in The New York Trilogy, which is Auster’s best known novel and the one attracting the most attention from scholars.

The production coincides with Auster’s new novel, 4 3 2 1, and his visit to the UK to promote it – he’s been on Radio 4 and Newsnight in recent weeks, and read from his novel at, among other venues, HOME.

The metaphysical detective story employs the conventions of the traditional detective mystery – a crime, clues, investigation, a detective, a suspect, a femme fatale – but along the way the detective finds himself contemplating complex and foundational philosophical ideas. In City of Glass, the detective figure finds himself investigating language, identity, writing, narrative and literary form. I use the term detective figure here because Daniel Quinn is a detective writer who takes a case meant for the Paul Auster Detective Agency.

HOME’s adaptation is stunning in how it realises the claustrophobia of Auster’s metafictional central character, isolated from New York society by tragedy and his writing, Continue reading

Dark in The Day book launch

Some 50 members of the public attended the Dark in the Day Book Launch at City Central Library on February 7th. The book publishes 8 Staffordshire University creative writing students (6 undergraduates, 2 postgraduates) alongside established writers in the field of ‘weird fiction.’ The project came about when guest lecturer, Storm Constantine (author and publisher) suggested to creative writing lecturer, Paul Houghton, they might work on an anthology together with the students. The format for the evening was six contributors reading six-minute extracts. Before that, co-editor of the book, Paul Houghton introduced the event which began with a particularly luscious and surreal poem by Dr Lisa Mansell, ‘Angels of Anarchy’, inspired by the work of Leonora Carrington. The first story excerpt was by final year undergraduate, Jack Fabian, who read from his eerie story, ‘A New Womann’ about an artist inspired by a disfigured woman. Next up was Sian Davies, another final year undergraduate, with an equally chilling tale, ‘Post Partum’, about a new mother who believes her baby is not her own. She was followed by PhD creative writing student, Paula Wakefield, who read from her story, ‘In Touch’, a psychological zoom-lens analysis of an intense relationship. After a break for wine-bipping, bookselling and chat, lecturer Paul Houghton read an extract from ‘The Strange Case of Quentin Wilde,’ a black comedy which details a dummy’s first night out. Novelist and publisher, Storm Constantine read from ‘The Secret Gallery’, a luscious, dream-like story set in the mysterious Galleria Buiocuore. The surreal tone was continued by guest author Rosie Garland, who read from her dramatic and equally poetic story, ‘An End to Empire’ which has become even more poignant in the light of recent political events in the U.S. Rosie also gave an impassioned speech about the inspiration and importance of public libraries.

After more wine, book sales and chat, a happy audience filed out in an orderly manner.  It was great to see so many people there, even a few former students as well as library users and curious people. Many thanks to Emma and all the lovely staff at City Central Library for all their work and support.

Dark in the Day, edited by Storm Constantine and Paul Houghton is available here:

www.immanion-press.com/info/book.asp?id=492&referer=Hp

World Book Day

On World Book Day, the English and Creative Writing staff have been pondering the books have shaped them as readers:

I fell in love with Narnia when I was about 7. I must have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a dozen times. The mesmerising combination of real-world childhood anxieties and the magical world of Mr Tumnus and the White Witch transported me from a humdrum suburban existence to a place of imagination and adventure. Later, I would reflect on the Biblical allegory and genre convention of portals to fabulous worlds which taught the children in children’s literature how to deal with the uncertainties of growing up, being part of a group, and the looming responsibilities of the adult world, but I will always remember the escape to a magical kingdom of talking animals and good and bad.

Right now, I’m reading Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, Zero K, a meditation on intersection of capital, technology and death.

Mark Brown

I can’t think of a more touching and fascinatingly conceived book than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Written at the end of C19, it brings to an end, to an extent, the ‘Age of the Victorian Novel’, climax of that great tradition and swansong at the same time. Tess is a radical novel. Hardy eschews the compromise of marriage that seals the trials and tribulations of the female protagonists in most of the women-authored Victorian novels (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch). With tragic inevitability Tess, a pure child of nature, walks into her own doom. Every move she makes to get out of her pickles only tightens the noose around her neck. The agents of her destruction are Time, Circumstance, the trappings and falsehoods of modern civilisation, and of course – men! (Hard to understand that this was written by a man!) Hardy had been working some time on transposing the tragic conflict of Greek Tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles) into the modern novel. In fact, his intention had been, (Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge are cases in point), to demonstrate that the novel was the only adequate artistic medium under conditions of modernity to render the notion of life as tragic. Tess is the most archaically wild one of the three late tragic novels, with the main character drawn so sympathetically that it is difficult to follow her plight without getting emotional. Hardy called her ‘my Tess’….

Martin Jesinghausen

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967).  This book is about…….everything: all human life is here.  It’s labelled as magical realist by the literary-critical establishment (although that’s not a term Marquez liked).  For me, the magic is so breath-takingly brilliant not because it is extraordinary, but because it is presented as so very ordinary.  My favourite line from this book is “Children and adults sucked with delight on the little green roosters of insomnia, the exquisite pink fish of insomnia, and the tender yellow ponies of insomnia.”

What I am reading at the minute: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (2016) – and loving it.  This fictional novel is set in present-day Cumbria.  The narrator is a woman who is an expert in wolves and is overseeing a project to reintroduce them to the UK, on a large country estate.  So far, the novel is raising lots of ethical questions about the human/animal divide and about the human alteration of the ecosystem.

Melanie Ebdon

My book would be the enduring cult classic Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – a one-off as great as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. It may be set in a freak circus but it’s about so much more: family life as we’ll never know it – and as we know it! A wild and transformative read.

Paul Houghton

The best book in the world (except for the ending). Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, in case anybody doesn’t know). I didn’t read this most famous of books until a few years ago, and I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not a children’s book. It’s life on the river, but what a life, and what a river. The language flows like the river, and you float along with it, on the raft with Huck and Jim, one hand trailing in the water

Margaret Leclere

Review of Stratford Trip

Our English and Creative writing group had the fantastic opportunity to go on a Shakespearian adventure to Stratford-Upon-Avon. On Friday 20th January, we set off at 3pm to the town of Alveston where our youth hostel was situated. When we arrived at Hemmingford House we were allocated our dorm rooms. We only had time for a quick freshen up as our departure to Stratford was imminent. We took a short journey into town and managed to locate quickly a nice local pub for some refreshments. After feeling restored we headed on down to the Royal Shakespeare Company to watch The Tempest. We were situated down the right-hand side of the stage and the view was particularly good. I personally had no previous knowledge of the play, so I was expecting to struggle with the plot and dialogue. However, I was proven wrong. The actors and actresses performed The Tempest clearly and dramatically. They made full use of the staging; hidden plinths arising from the stage floor and wooden trees that could even resemble a ship depending on the scene. Their use of technology should not be overlooked either as the sound and lighting effects produced larger characters and brought beasts to life. The play itself is set on a remote island where a sorcerer and his daughter have been stranded for 12 years. He then uses his magic to conjure a storm to shipwreck the men responsible for his banishment. Romance, comedy, and tragedy are all added along the way of the sorcerer’s journey back home. We all thoroughly enjoyed the play. As a first timer to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I can assure you I will be going again.

After some post theatre drinks, we retreated to our dorm rooms. The following day we headed back into Stratford where we split up into groups to do some sightseeing. Amy, Becky, and myself decided to go and see Anne Hathaway’s house which was a reasonable walk out of town. When we got there, we walked through the gardens to the cottage where she lived with William Shakespeare. On arrival, there was a female tour guide who was telling us that William Shakespeare would often come to the cottage and write between plays. He would often leave his wife and children behind when he went to London due to the poor living conditions in the overpopulated city. She also told us the average life expectancy in London at that time would be around 20-30 years old, whereas in Stratford it would be much longer of around 40-50 years old. She went on to say that this was because of the clean air in the countryside and that they were living from their own land. After a brief question and answer session we explored the rest of the house.