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.
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.
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:
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.
A group us from our English and Creative Writing group attended the New Vic Theatre on Monday 6th February to watch Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a play adapted by Deborah McAndrew and directed/composed by her husband Conrad Nelson. Deborah was instantly recognisable to us all as a regular in Coronation Street in the 90’s, as she played a character called Angie Freeman. Cyrano was performed by the award winning Northern Broadsides in a round theatre. Different props and lighting were used to set the scene for a variety of different places in Paris: a playhouse, a bakery, outside Roxanne’s window, the frontline and a nunnery.
Cyrano is set in Paris around 1640. Cyrano is a poet and is madly in love with his cousin, Roxanne. However, he is reluctant to tell Roxanne of his feelings due to the fact he has an enormous nose! Cyrano becomes acquainted to Christian who Roxanne confesses her undying love for. With Christian’s good looks and the use of Cyrano’s poetic words he manages to marry Roxanne. However, with Cyrano and Christian both off to war, who will survive to win Roxanne’s heart once and for all. Will Roxanne ever know the truth about Cyrano’s feelings or will Christian run out of words. Cyrano is a musical musketeer marvel. With poetic readings mixed with swashbucklers, bakers, and nuns, expect a journey into the unknown. The actors that were exceptional were Cyrano and Monfleury as they both had heavy dialogue mixed in with singing and playing musical instruments. They were entertaining, comical, and dramatic. That nose is not to be missed! (Lynn Statham, 1st Year English and Creative Writing)
image New Vic and Northern Broadsides
On Friday evening I was at Denstone College (think Hogwarts in Staffordshire) to help judge a round of the English Speaking Union’s Churchill National Speaking Competition for Schools. The ESU is “an international educational charity and membership organisation that brings together people of different languages and cultures in over 50 countries …[running] educational programmes, competitions and cultural exchanges to develop confident communicators, critical thinkers and empowered citizens.”
5 teams from 4 schools spoke on and debated subjects as diverse as driver-less cars, the rights of the elderly, and civil rights and terrorism. The quality of the debate was spectacular, and I congratulate the winning team (from Repton School), the runners up (Denstone), the contributors whose achievements were recognised on the evening, and all the young people who took part. I had a great evening.
To Liverpool last Wednesday, originally to get some live-experience of Pre-Raphaelitism (on our list of topics in my Level 5 and 6 module Painting the Town Red), through sampling the holdings of Pre-Raphalite paintings in the Walker Gallery, around the corner from Lime Street Station. However, we broadened out the brief of the trip by opening it up to all English and English and Creative Writing students on our Staffs Awards. Also, we did not just do the Walker Gallery, but also Liverpool Central Library, Tate Liverpool by the Albert Docks, and much this, that, and the other besides …
As it turned out, we ended up a fairly small, but perfectly formed little throng of 15 +, a cross-section of really nice people from all study-levels, with some joining us along the way, and also leaving at various stages of the programme, for one urgent reason or another. (One student had actually gone to the length of driving up with her lil’ toddler son to meet us at Lime Street station; she had to leave half way through, but – as we heard from her the next day – spend more than 5 hours on the motorway on her way back: so not lucky!). A sizable part of the group made use of the opportunity to check out the watering holes and eateries in up-town Hope Street area, after the bugle had been sounded that ended the official part of our venture. One of these night birds, at the ‘Career’s Fest’ next day (a man, who shall remain nameless), had the deep bass-baritonal timbre of voice that normally follows a bout of alcoholic abandon….
At the station we were also joined by Greg, one of our Level 5 ‘mature’ students, dyed-in-the wool scouser and guide extra-ordinaire from whose expert knowledge we beneffitted all day long. He led the way, and also led by mature example as some of us frequented the more insalubrious establishments of town, in between watching the High-Art display in the two Galleries, and then later into the night….
After coffee we looked around in the Walker, starting with C19 Victorian painting. Their Pre-Raphaelite holdings are not as extensive as in he Birmingham or Manchester galleries, but we saw a couple of paintings which we had actually discussed in class, particularly Millais’s Isabella; remarkable also, a picture that we had not so far looked at on the module, one of my favourites, Brett’s Stonebreaker, which exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelites’ obsessive attention to meticulous detail (the picture shows an abundence of plants, all botanically identifiable, and much geological detail): ‘truth to nature’ is the motto; the human, here labouring, part of the cycle of things; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is in the air…
The next station was the newly reconstructed and modernised City Library, right next to the Walker Gallery. Greg pointed it out to us and suggested we go in. We took a look at the old rotund Reading Room, reconstructed and absolutely glorious, not unlike the old Reading Room of the British Library in London, then housed in the British Museum.
We took the above group picture on the Viewing Platform on the top floor of the modern new part of the library, whose interior compares very favourably with the new Birmingham Library, but here, of course, the modernist interior design is very well hidden behind the early C19 facade behind which it is inserted, whereas part of the splendour of the Birmingham Library is also in its multi-culturally inspired exterior design: Orienalising (?), filigree….
Greg then led the way through town towards the Albert Docks. We got a good whiff of the Mersey sea air (with the weather wildly oscillating between misty, rainy gloom and bursts of sudden sunshine). The tide was half in, and the water over to the Birkenhead shore was like a grey mirrror, reflecting clouds and the high buildings on the other side.
Some of us went for a liquid pub lunch, others for more solid food in the Gallery’s café.
Tate Liverpool had provided us with a living guide, who, for a fee (Mel, extremely kindly, forked out on all our behalf!) talked us through Tracy Emin’s Unmade Bed, as an example of a ‘Self Portrait of the Artist as a Troubled Young Woman’ (very convincing!), and tried to draw parallels (perhaps not so convincing!) with the 25 or so William Blake etchings, drawings and paintings which Emin had chosen as context for her own artistic bed-statement. The Gallery has been following through for some time with their laudable project of connecting conceptually seemingly very different art works by exhibting them side-by-side.. With Blake and Emin (Mel and I talked about it afterwards) we were not so sure whether the connection worked, even though the guide, John Hughes, did his best to draw out the links. For example, the contrast of the soft toys by the side of Emin’s bed with the depressing adult chaos of the bed he connected with the contrast of Innocence and Experience in Blake’s poetry and painting. (He also interspersed his substantial talk with amusing limericks of his own making characterising ‘the essence’ of various artists: Pollock, Dali, Emin, Blake, etc..) In any case: both the Bed and the Blake were well worth looking at.
All in all, a good day out with very nice things to do, in the company of very nice people (on an otherwise depressing day, with Fascism looming in the Anglo-American world).
I enjoyed myself tremendously.
This week we welcomed back Kerry Ann (pictured) and Louise, who graduated in 2009. They came to talk to the current students about completing their degrees and going on to employment after graduation. They have remained close friends since their undergraduate days.
After finishing at Staffs, Lou taught creative writing at a further education college, gaining a post-14 teaching qualification at the same time. She is now doing a creative writing Phd, working at Staffs uni, and publishing her work.
Kerry Ann went on to a graduate management scheme with a high street retailer. She left to take up a more personally fulfilling role with the children’s library service. Here she realised that helping children with their personal and educational development was her true vocation, and she trained as a teacher. She has risen quickly through the profession, and in just 5 years is a senior teacher with a school leadership role.
Thank you to Kerry Ann and Lou for their inspiring insights. What I will take away from both of them is that intellectual curiosity, both at uni and in the world of work, will create new and sometimes unexpected opportunities – fortune favours the brave!
‘Masters of Art and Sport’, currently showing at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, yokes together art and sport as part of Stoke’s European City of Sport 2016, with a nod to UK City of Culture 2021. This conjunction has an august heritage, as the Ancient Greeks, originators of the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus, believed in the capacity of sport to build moral character and celebrated its glories in their plastic and decorative arts.
Aird, who was at one point taught by L. S. Lowry, speaks on camera of throwing off the shackles of ‘figuration’ in favour of a dynamic, performative abstraction – experiments in colour and texture – from which elements of the figurative may still emerge.
The central work was created with 2004 Olympic gold medallist, Darren Campell, for Manchester World Sport 08. It symbolises aspiration and success in the colours bronze, silver and gold, and the journey taken by both sportsman and artist in achieving their goals – in this case the technical challenge presented by Aird’s unusual chosen medium (resin and oils) applied to a dark canvas.
The exhibition of twenty numbered canvases also functions as a retrospective showcase for Aird, who died last year.
Proffitt’s work, which alludes to cubism and sometimes surrealism, here presents a nostalgic view of the Beautiful Game (though he also has a professional interest in baseball and ice hockey). Trained as an illustrator, Proffitt has recently been in considerable demand by football clubs nationally and is sold locally through the fantastic Barewall Gallery in Burslem.
These two artists may well divide taste – as did the Lowry-Berry exhibition last year. However, in this case there exists a link between Proffitt’s figurative nostalgia and Aird’s more challenging abstraction in the form of the short-lived Italian movement, Futurism (not featured in the exhibition). The Futurists celebrated not only the speed and violence of the machine age before WWI, but also human athleticism.
Here Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 work ‘The Dynamism of a Soccer Player’ (MOMA) illustrates this stylistic bridge. The moving figure in its environment is translated into a collection of planes and geometric shapes – the cubism alluded to by Proffitt. At the same time, the dynamism, composition and near abstraction of this image, in which elements of the figurative remain discernible, echo Aird’s more organic neuron-like shapes.
Events such as City of Sport/Culture are required to reach beyond the customary consumer and to leave a legacy. A paying art exhibition does not necessarily do this, though here the organisers have recruited four Ambassadors of Art and Sport to spread the word. What it does do is to lead the viewer from a thoroughly accessible art form to a more intellectually challenging one. One can also discern a grander aspiration to re-establish the more comfortable relation between sport and high culture enjoyed by classical civilisation. Good luck!
Today is National Poetry Day, and I spoke earlier on BBC Radio Stoke about my poem, ‘Kith and Kiln’, which his written from the point of view of a pot-bank. Viewing Stoke as an outsider, I am always struck at how uniquely elegant these structures are. They remind me of grand old ladies watching over us, keeping us in check, asking us to mind our manners. Here is the text of the poem and a link to the broadcast:
Kith and Kiln by Lisa Mansell “Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there. ” ― Aleksandar Hemon. Am I still here? Do you see me notch the oxide sunset like an ancient etching? I've always hunched here, under rain or low-scud cloud-- heard distant Hanley goose-honks; watched unhusked skinheads in a drunken slump stumble to their midnight dhansak shank and I used to dream of gathering the crazed hem of my brick-skirt (a drey of cindered mesh that cloisters my nesh in winter) to waltz at the moon in blousy damask and tease the bone-ash stars: to fang their quartzy flux. If I could speak I would talk in round vowels of wom and dome, and I'd ask you to stay-- but my throat is damp with rain without the rasp of caulk-smoke from my clayfire belly. If you must leave me, then do it quick before you see me untruss myself brick by brick 'til I am just a spill of sheeded powder whispered on history's lips like a cipher. Do you see me? Am I still here?
I also asked colleagues and students to submit their poems today, and these poems show that we are all different; our poems are different are as different as we are. We have poems here that are political, historical, formal, informal, experimental, observational; there is always time for poetry. I hope that you enjoy them:
EL SALVADOR (1979) by Margaret Leclere (Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting) Oh El Salvador What do I know of it? Pictures on TV Darker people dying, Suffering and crying. What do I see of it? Flesh wounds are a blur A stain of red, a wail of dread Gunshots whistle over whose head? What do I feel of it, Cuddled on this couch? My cigarette is out, Uncomfortable, I shift about. A young man tells his tale, sharp-featured, Torture too terrible. They always suffer, those with dark eyes, They always have. They hardly feel it. We’ve seen too much of it. I wish I could get comfortable. What does it do to me, El Salvador? There’s a pain on my poor face, I see no pain on yours: You’ve seen too many faces crushed by the wheels. You don’t wring your hands, Hands bound by the thumbs or with fingernails pulled off. Those eyes plucked out were bright before, Legs cracked moved swift before, Lips so swollen kissed before. How stupid the sad clown, or the happy clown. How despicable our sentiment. Blubber lips, wet eyes, near tears, Hangdog, slouched, insomniac. Poor kleptomaniac, megalomaniac, Poor pre-menstrually tense, agrophobe, claustrophobe. Poor me. Deprived, depressed, oppressed, obsessed. Despised. Long pig. El Salvador. There would be pleasure in the cry Did it not stick at my throat. I would love To pad gently through Noddy’s bubble world When the giant has made the soft snow fall And call, scream, blow it all away With the cry – El Salvador. Lamposts would fall, engines would stall, Pretty lace curtains would crinkle and curl And a crack would travel up the wall. The dome burst, for El Salvador.
[p.s. Margaret wrote this when she was a student in response to the 1979 events in South America.]
Vogue Brides by Kerry Jackson (Level 4 English and Creative Writing) Vogue brides blushing since 1910. Each dress, each decade just as dramatic. Girls still scarpering, now and then. Designers faultless, flaunting and charismatic. Roaring twenties birthed Bara, bobbed brides. Forties gowns were war filled simplicity. The Valium lovers of the sixties, veils headlined. The naughty women wore bold for publicity. Beneath the twenties were unseen rompers. Forties barely seen girdles revolutionary. Maidenform the sixties liberal enough for an encore. The thongs of this decade everyone but he would see. Nearly virginal, probably pregnant, almost reluctant. At least she got to wear a dress so decadent. [Inspired by the title Brides in vogue since 1910]
Writer and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Paul Houghton offers his thoughts on his favourite poem, “Memories of West Street” by Robert Lowell
It’s worth it alone for the line ‘Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.’
But it’s a great poem about middle age disappointment, crime and hospital incarceration! I love its stories within a story structure and blazing images.
In 1990, when I was staying in Boston, I met Lowell’s best friend, a wonderful man – a painter named Frank Parker. He had sad but fascinating stories about Lowell excitedly reciting his poems in the kitchen while he (Frank) and his wife were trying to retire to bed!
Memories of West Street and Lepke Robert Lowell Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning, I hog a whole house on Boston’s “hardly passionate Marlborough Street," where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is “a young Republican.” I have a nine months’ daughter, young enough to be my granddaughter. Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear. These are the tranquilized Fifties, and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime? I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., and made my manic statement, telling off the state and president, and then sat waiting sentence in the bull pen beside a negro boy with curlicues of marijuana in his hair. Given a year, I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short enclosure like my school soccer court, and saw the Hudson River once a day through sooty clothesline entanglements and bleaching khaki tenements. Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz, a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”) and fly-weight pacifist, so vegetarian, he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit. He tried to convert Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood pimps, to his diet. Hairy, muscular, suburban, wearing chocolate double-breasted suits, they blew their tops and beat him black and blue. I was so out of things, I’d never heard of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird. “No," he answered, “I’m a J.W.” He taught me the “hospital tuck," and pointed out the T-shirted back of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke, there piling towels on a rack, or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full of things forbidden to the common man: a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm. Flabby, bald, lobotomized, he drifted in a sheepish calm, where no agonizing reappraisal jarred his concentration on the electric chair hanging like an oasis in his air of lost connections. . . .
From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.