Poet Under Tree, Norwich 1993
When I was at art school there was one day a week that was not to be spent in the studio. It was to be dedicated to what they called complementary studies. At Leeds then that comprised available courses on film, music, anthropology, poetry, sociology and psychology. These courses were taught by people outstanding in their fields, much as the studio art itself was taught primarily by practitioners. Nothing was compulsory, or at least no-one checked whether you were there or not. I stuck with poetry throughout and ignored everything else except the studio where I worked away furiously. Theoretical discussion took place there with the artist-tutors. Got prizes, went to Italy, wrote a dissertation on Giotto, included my poems in the degree show.
The term complementary was appropriate enough.They were intended to complement your development as an artist. The place of these areas of study was not defined in other terms.
By the time I went to Norwich, much had changed. The term, complementary studies, had disappeared as though it had meant something rather amateurish. The idea of including poetry as an integrated area of study within a degree that itself was one remove from visual art or ideas specifically on visual art was a litlte odd. When one of the first generation of students told one of the other staff what degree she was doing, the member of staff sniffed: 'Oh, Ian's tinpot degree.'
There was some suspicion and contempt for the whole package, or, if not contempt, scepticism. Cultural Studies was just beginning its rise and was to be supported, but not when it comprised 'bits of drawing' and 'poetry'. I ask you! Poetry! Madcap amateurism! Hippyish youth under trees told by some airy-fairy poet-tutor to think of beautiful things and write them in a form of lazy, undisciplined, self-expression! Besides, haven't the UEA got all that sewn up at a higher level?
But Ian Starsmore passionately argued for it and the principal, Bruce Black, supported it. It would have to be watched of course, but if it attracted students it would be fine while it lasted.
So the place of poetry / creative writing was not at all assured. It was, like complementary studies, regarded as an oddity, an indulgence in an institution devoted to other things. The age of resident writers at art colleges was gone.
One way of assuring the institution of the value of the new degree was the appointment of highly-regarded external examiners. We had Francis Frascina, the poet-painter John Lyons and the well-known poet Roy Fisher. This was an excellent choice and their reports were intensely helpful.
The degree, throughout its existence, had some first rate external examiners, including Sue Roe, Eva Hoffman, John Lucas, Christopher Reid and late and much loved Michael Murphy. They were vital to the course as a whole - sharp, observant, supportive and authoritative.
Next time: the early development, expansion, and changes to the course.