Sunday, July 17, 2011

Poetry Is / Is Not / An Option

[found at Sainsbury's in Edinburgh]

My first encounter with Napier University's creative writing program was not auspicious. I opened their flyer only to see this headline: POETRY IS NOT AN OPTION. Since I am teaching one of the two poetry workshops for the University of New Orleans in Edinburgh, and we are the guests and fellow travelers for a month of the Napier University program, my poetic heart turned to stone. As if poetry were over-valued in western culture! As if all my colleagues taught poetry! As if everyone read the stuff! When I turned to an interview with the founders of the program, David Bishop and Sam Kelly, I found more on poetry's absence.

I read that you took the decision that poetry would not form part of the course. Is this unusual for an CW MA?

DB: Yes. We have a motto on our MA: Poetry Is Not An Option. If you want to explore that, there are plenty of other courses to scratch that itch.

SK: For readers in Scotland, the Creative Writing programmes at Glasgow and St Andrews have outstanding provision for poetry. I admire and applaud, but am resolutely focussed on different ends.

This programmatic slam against poetry is so broad that we're forced to read the word "poetry" in poetic terms: what role does the word serve in this program's self-definition? Why might it be considered an "itch" to scratch, rather than a vocation? The answer tells us what is at once most innovative about the program, and most paradoxical about it. This is a vocational program more than a craft-based one; it's less literary than commercial. It's about making a living with your work. One of its founders, Sam Kelly, comes to Napier from a career as a literary agent, not as a scholar or writer.

Or is it really non-literary? This is where the program gets tricky in a fascinating way. Begun at a former technical college, which lacked a program in the humanities, it dispenses with that tradition right off the bat (the BBC reports laments over Americanisms such as those based on baseball, but there you have it) and opens up study in genre fiction: sci fi, crime writing, fantasy, and so forth. This is an area where we have increasing demand at UHM, but no one much to teach it. Napier's curriculum also opens up more practical areas: how to deal with agents, how to approach publishers, how to do the legwork toward publication and marketing.

But then I attended Sam Kelly's workshop on experimental fiction yesterday and came face to face with many of the techniques I pass on to students: automatic writing, noun plus x writing, invention of language, surrealism, OuLiPo. We had a rollicking three hours of playing around with these techniques. Most importantly, however, Sam demanded that we use our techniques toward ideas, and not in a vacuum. When she'd said to me earlier in the week that she was seeing a lot of creative writing but not much contemporary literature, I sensed that this vocational training was more than seemed advertised. It's vocational training that demands knowledge of theory, and it's training that demands a keen grasp of the avant-garde. It's as if the Buffalo Poetics Program were to trade in poetry for sci-fi, but remain much the same otherwise.

When Sam began talking up the avant-garde, while also addressing the necessity for vocational training and practical results, I asked how the avant-garde's anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist ethos (she loves the Situationists, by gum!) squared with her emphasis on making money with your writing. She held up a volume (or two, or three) of China Mieville and declared that I was talking about the traditional avant-garde. What we need is a new avant-garde, she declared, one that might not fit that mold. That led to a discussion of ways in which writers like Mieville invent--or supplement--languages in order to enact their worlds for the reader.

As a poet whose work is "not an option," I hold out for a space in which the writer and publisher are free not to make money, not to write what it takes to get a contract, not to have to thread that needle always between innovation and sales. But I admire Napier's emphasis on the poeticity of genre fiction, of the need to write science fiction, let's say, that intervenes in the culture, its assumptions and ideas. If it does not include poetry, then, poetic thinking is central to this program. If they were to expand, my suggestion would be to include performance poetry and what Joe Harrington calls "creative non-poetry" or documentary work. Docupoetry would make an excellent testing ground for investigative journalists, for example. (Are there any left, in the era of late-Murdoch?) Let me add that Sam Kelly and her husband Stuart Kelly, who leads our bus tours of Abbotsford and Stirling, are wonderful intellects and spirits, deeply engaged in the world and its words. The trip would be much poorer for our not having encountered them.

At the end of our workshop, once Sam had gotten down off the chair she was perched upon (she explained another time that, like the Queen, she is short), she passed out packages to each of us. Large white paper bundles, wrapped in white string. Each one contained an antique looking volume of Sir Walter Scott, along with two small brushes and four little pots of paint. The instructions are to "intervene" in the text, as Tom Phillips did in Humument, and then to surreptitiously place the volume in a used bookstore in Edinburgh. When Sam finds the book you altered, she will email you.

Here is a photograph of my bundle:

Scotland is full of wonders. Here are just a few literary discoveries I've made in our two weeks here:

--Dorothy Alexander. We met her for lunch at a kebab place. She wrote her dissertation as a mixed genre book on dementia, using Scots language and Cage-ian techniques. She recommended--

--Wordpower Bookshop on West Nicolson Street. It's the best bookstore in the city, a combination of Revolution Books in Honolulu and Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC. They've agreed to distribute Tinfish Press publications in the UK.

--Tom Leonard's outside the narrative and a cd of his work. Backwards, I know, but he reminds me of a Glaswegian Gizelle Gajelonia, infusing the traditional canon with a heavy dose of the vernacular. The linguistic/cultural/nationalist politics here are fascinating and run parallel to Hawai'i's in many ways. That should be ballast for another blog post soon.

--Scots dialects. I wish Facebook were Earbook, because the images of Scotland do not do justice to its sounds: the seagulls trumpeting in the early morning, the train that runs by our flat, and the Fife accent of our bus driver the other day. I looked to find audio of an accent like his, but the Fife dialect memer was not nearly so lively as the young man from Glasgow, here, who attacked the meme itself, even as he explained insects, Scots culture, and his own way of speaking to the camera.

--Sir Walter Scott as explained by Stuart Kelly, who wrote the book on him. As we stood beside his house in Abbotsford, thunder clapped and hail fell. Enough to make a poor poet turn to genre fiction right then and there.

--My seven students, who come from Vancouver, Kentucky, Madison, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, bearing their own regional accents with them . . . who are eagerly writing on, next to, through, and with documents they brought from home. Maps, a college transcript, an old thesis, Christmas card list, dialysis machine, travel guide: they're opening their lyrical worlds up to the prosaic one. Napier! Let us in!

1 comment:

Hazel said...

i am glad you posted this. poetry is not an option but a necessity for a civilized world.