Friday, 30 April 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College 2

John Wonnacott: The Norwich School of Art 1982-84 (Tate Gallery)

From 1973 to 1992 I was teaching in schools of various sorts, sometimes as a fractional member of staff but from 1975 to 1987 as a full-time head of art and art history departments. The children were young and this was the time I began the 5am rising regime that helped me maintain my reading and writing.

It might have been in 1990 that Ian Starsmore, who was then head of theory at the art school in Norwich (the art school has been through four names so far so I'll just call it the art school), having invited me once or twice to do lectures in the past, primarily on the Starwheel Press, that C and I were running in the eighties, asked me to run a day or two in poetry for some students, funded by the regional arts board.

Soon after that he asked if I would like to write a poetry course for a proposed BA in Cultural Studies. The course would be five terms long and I could assume 12 weeks in each. I was not going to write a chronological Eng Lit course though I would have loved some time of systematic historical reading, so I constructed a course based loosely on genres across time periods. I didn't know of any precedents. Each genre would be a term, with an introductory term where an element of each would be studied. The genres were Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Discourse (meaning ideas generally), and Poetry as Reports on Experience. Each genre was subdivided into various subgroups. Songs of celebration, songs of sorrow, songs of work, songs of love etc. Examples of each kind were read next to each other across chronologies. This would then be the basis of a practical exercise. The course proposal was accepted (it included some passages of prose) and I was taken on on an hourly contract basis to teach it.

The Cultural Studies degree also comprised visual art - there was a parallel course run by the painter Graham Giles, and, of course cultural studies itself as the main part. But this form of cultural studies was not the standard combination of marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis, building on structuralism and post-structuralism. It also involved culture in a more local sense: the exploration of Norwich and Norfolk history, sociology and myth.

The whole made a rather marvellous idiosyncratic mixture that employed very few resources. Everything was taught in one room that had constantly to be adapted. Was it intellectually coherent? Probably not, but it was exciting.

As concerns the creative writing - or rather just poetry then - I was anxious as I had never structured a course like it before, had never delivered anything like it, and had not actually taught on third level education at all. The first day I turned up for a staff meeting I was welcomed as one of 'our new academic colleagues'. I had never thought of myself as an academic. I had gone to art school not university. I feared I would be out of my depth.

There were over two hundred applications for 16 places in the first year according to the then course secretary. The first year was tentative for me, though I could see there were three or four talented students. I taught on blind faith and by sheets and sheets of photocopied text in, sometimes, microscopic print. (I still have the masters of most of these). It was a relief to get that first year over. I would drive the two hours to Norwich from where we lived and back. The next year, when there were two years of the course, and a new set of students, I would stay overnight with old friends P and M on the far side of the city.

In the third year, in the autumn of 1994, I was appointed to a half-time fractional post as senior lecturer. That was when we moved up to Norfolk. Son T was about to enter his third year at Bristol, daughter H was about to start at Oxford.

It was from that point on that the poetry course began to gather flesh and creative writing started to develop a prose component too.


Stephen F said...

I was a student who began in the 4th year of intake, so I saw the degree shows of the first cohort of graduates a few months before I enrolled. There were collections of poems and stories (or were there?) and tapestries with text sewn in and installations of words and images. It was a kind of magic which, in the way of magic, I didn't understand.

The following three years were the best of my life. I remember George introducing himself to us, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room at the far top rear corner of that photograph in the main post, the whole of the group circled round him. There were twenty-four or us. George was talking eduditely and I was looking at the gap between his sock and the top of his trousers thinking, Wow, I'm not painting and decorating any more.

At the beginning I was writing 'your' when I meant 'you're' and 'there' when I meant 'their'. At the end of those three years Faber and Faber offered to publish my short stories. Now I'm a professional writer, which I prefer to being a painter and decorator. Cultural Studies was a home for people like me - individuals who didn't exactly know what we were or might be, access-course returners, odds and sods, but people who shared a sort of un-focussed creative curiosity and who could feed from both the course itself (effectively, the tutors) and from each other. There are many, many success stories amongst the graduates. The degree has been closed down now by the wisdom of the Art School management, the opportunity that I had has gone for ever for others.

I think George might get on to that.

George S said...

I think George might get on to that.

You bet your life he will.

Diane said...

I also taught at the Art School (as we all called it then) but before George (1972 - to end 1976). It was a magical time in English art education. Curricula and assessments were relaxed, if they existed at all. I taught a mix of art history seminars and one-on-one conversational enquiries one day a week. There seemed to be few boundaries between the learners and the "teachers". It was, indeed, a matter of pride that staff were "practising" in the arts first, and "teaching" the arts in order to buy beans and bread, and only one or two teachers worked full-time (i.e., to the exclusion of their own work). I had to leave my one day/week post when I went off to Minneapolis for most of 1977 with a man I subsequently married. And by making that decision, I also lost the opportunity to take up the offer of a post at Winchester Art School (1977). But the experience of teaching at Norwich Art School was a bright star in an otherwise frequently tedious career for many years thereafter.

As an American, I have always praised that period of art education in this country, its generosity of spirit and its commitment to experimentation. And in the late 1990s, as a Reader at a nearby university, I was able to be involved with Norwich Art School again -- as it developed postgraduate work (PhDs pursued by practising artists).

Norwich Art School also taught me a bit of sartorial experiment -- two earrings in one ear.