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%

 

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.

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