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Teaching by provocation.


ONE OF THE THINGS I’ve noticed from running creative writing classes over four decades is how constrained aspiring writers have become in their reading. Having come of age in the 1960s and 70s I’m quite at ease with some fairly experimental and downright weird kinds of writing (not to mention music and visual art). My contemporaries and I were brought up not to be fazed by cultural outlandishness, which is quite something when you consider our parents and most of our teachers tended to be conservative in their tastes, even those whose politics leaned to the left. If they ever got sniffy about things we could just remind them they liked the Goons.

What many students are uneasy with is literature that doesn’t fit into neat boxes: poems whose syntax is unusual or fiction that has no discernible genre or narrative, that sort of thing. Poetry remains something of an outlier so it is easier to get them into dealing with it. I make it plain that there is no money in it and no fame either, so some playful stretching of language and form is acceptable as long as you accept permanent obscurity as your fate. Luckily this often works and ups the conversion rate.

The situation is a little better with prose. Students have more definite ideas about fiction, which they tend to want clearly defined into genres and directed at making money in the marketplace. Science fantasy, dystopian apocalyptics, children’s and young adult fiction are the popular genres these days. Popular, however, means highly competitive, and the marketplace is brutal. The desire to emulate market leaders and the commercial pressures to conform to compartmentalised formats narrows the imagination, in my opinion, and is partly responsible for this monocular vision of writing.

So who are the authors I pitch into their consciousness to disturb their conformist mindset? Usually it’s Richard Brautigan, Gertrude Stein, B S Johnson and, until recently, Cyril Connolly. Connolly’s the oddball here given that he was establishment to the core, but the work I’ve used is The Unquiet Grave.

Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America is one of my favourite books. It’s short (always a bonus), madly imaginative, playful, funny, clever, and far-out, man. It has no plot, no discernible protagonist in any traditional sense and has as much to do with trout fishing as Captain Beefheart’s classic album Trout Mask Replica does.

I like to inform people that a sub-character, Trout Fishing in America Shorty, has a crater on the moon named in his honour — “Shorty” — a name suggested by US astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972; a fact which suggests that if a mentally solid type of chap who gets sent to the moon and drives a vehicle around on it has read the book then any pampered twenty-first century arty type should be able to do the same without flinching.

Then there’s Gertrude Stein. I love old Gertie. I give trainees a section from Four Saints in Three Acts (a libretto, believe it or not, set to music by Virgil Thomson) in which she goes on about pigeons on the grass, alas.1

It’s great fun reading it aloud and watching peoples’ responses. As Stein herself said about the conflict between meaning and understanding with regard to her own work: “You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have the habit of talking, putting it in other words, but I mean by understanding, enjoying it. If you enjoy it, you understand it.” A common reaction to pigeons on the grass is that a) it’s nonsense and b) anyone can do it – because it’s nonsense. You can imagine what I tell them to do next. Yes, write a piece about the swans on the Brayford as if you were Gertrude Stein. Not “in the style of” but as if you physically and mentally were old Gertie. They learn pretty fast that even writing “nonsense” is harder than they think.

There is another reason I use Stein, which is that the great humorist, James Thurber, was as dismayed by pigeons on the grass, alas, as anyone else and wrote a brilliant piece in response, called “There’s an Owl in My Room”. I recommend Thurber to anyone who is serious about wanting to write, since his style is brilliance itself. Two hits for the price of one, except with those who don’t appreciate Thurber’s humour, which is just unspeakably sad.

How about experimental British writer, B S Johnson? I usually show people his last film, Fat Man on a Beach, which of course defies categorisation. Johnson, the titular fat man though clearly not fat in today’s perception of it – more “on the plump side”, as we used to say – potters about on a beach in north Wales, talking about his past, fiction, poetry, the terribly accidental nature of life, and all sorts of things. In terms of resistance to these writers, Johnson is on a par with Stein, perhaps even a little ahead some of the time. Some appreciate it, particularly for its humour, but whatever the consensus I make sure everyone understands its preoccupation with the idea of randomness, structure, artifice and the conscious direction of the viewer’s/reader’s attention.

Finally Cyril Connolly and his odd little work, The Unquiet Grave, described by Simon Heffer as “an unsatisfactory collection of apercus ridiculed by Evelyn Waugh”. I don’t think it took much to qualify for ridicule by Waugh but I can understand why he disliked this. Connolly himself called it a “word cycle”, which is as apt a description as any. It’s like a prose version of Eliot’s The Waste Land but more sentimental and self-obsessed. I first encountered it at school. It appealed to my intellectual curiosity (or pretentiousness, take your pick) and I have always had an affection for it. I’ve abandoned it, though, not so much because its form is so difficult for current readers but because it is stuffed with cultural and historical references few of them recognise, and too many quotations from Latin and French.

Pitching these creative outliers to trainees is important: I believe in provocation of this sort as a necessary component of education, whether it’s academic or creative. People go on about thinking outside the box and being creative when most of the time they’re happy to sit firmly inside their box and mistake repetition for creativity. It’s hugely rewarding to see them break out now and then.

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

  1. Here it is:

    From Four Saints In Three Acts

    Pigeons on the grass alas.
    Pigeons on the grass alas.
    Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
    large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
    If they were not pigeons what were they.
    If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
    heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
    If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
    grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
    magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
    grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
    They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
    Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily
    Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.

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