Saturday, 1 May 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College 3

Beside the course itself there were three other important elements in developing the writing.

Birdsuit 1

1. Birdsuit
From the very first, the creative writing element of the Cultural Studies BA was producing annual anthologies. I have the first eight years volumes next to me on the table. Money for these, as also for visiting writers, was somehow found by the extraordinary Ian Starsmore. The anthologies were called Birdsuit after the new art school logo (the figure of bird in a suit, volant). It was an autocratic affair, I'm afraid, but then there wasn't anybody else to be asked, only in the following years. I consulted about the name but probably just decided in the end. I drew a Max Ernst-like figure entering through the door, as above. I designed cover and contents, edited the book, typed it up, and set it, complete with art work elicited from students and staff (students and staff of the whole college that is), then handed over the camera-ready copy over to the printers.

I also wrote an introduction, just as I was to do for most of the series. There I referred to the example of Martin Bell at the art school in Leeds who produced an anthology called just Anthology, in which I had had a good number of poems. The Leeds approach was the model: all that happened was a development from what Martin had done there.

What is exciting about an anthology, I wrote there, is not the voices it controls but the voices it releases. There were some promising voices released there, who were to work their way through successive anthologies.

This first issue doesn't have a number on it because we didn't know if there would be a second.

2. Open Writing Workshop
Not all the contributors were from the course. We didn't want it to be a college magazine but a proper book. In the same year the course began I started a lunchtime Open Writing Workshop that was open to anyone, not only in the college, but in town. It was free. Mostly we looked in depth, for just under an hour, at a single piece of writing by one of the attenders. There were photocopies and discussions. Open Writing Workshop continued the whole time I was there. There was some marvellous work by a range of people. Some were out of work, some were professionals who had retired, some were on other courses or pursuing higher degrees. Some were members of staff. In fact the half - sometimes more - of the attenders were not from the course since our students had regular workshops of the same kind. I was learning to be a kind of ringmaster. But then I had done similar things at the schools I had taught at, so it was a matter of level and tone rather than procedure.

3. Visiting Writers
I could not begin to speak of the splendour and numbers of visiting writers! Imagine it - we had six a year for the first several years, two in each of three terms, mostly poets then joined by novelists. We paid them a basic £100 and the students got it all for free. The visiting writers were then asked for a poem or two for the anthology and they generously obliged. Not that their readings were always necessarily well attended. A list should follow, and will, but in any case, the first set of writers included Anne Stevenson, Kit Wright, Peter Scupham, Lawrence Sail and Jane Griffiths. They were all represented in Birdsuit 2 the following year.


I am only speaking of the writing at the moment but the course title was Cultural Studies, and cultural studies in fact formed the core, the biggest part, of the degree, and there was the obligatory visual component too, equally weighted with the writing. Furthermore, in this part, because it's about the writing, it seems to be just me. I apologise for that. But that's how it started. Soon there were others - a terrific collection of writers and teachers.

The remarkable students were, however, the chief glory of the course. They too will follow, as will the staff and the various changes of location and direction, as well as the slow squeezing, then throttling, and finally dropping of the course at the end of this year.

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