October 12, 2010

Surrealist Workshops at Northampton University and Cardiff High School.

While I was on a month-long trip to the UK recently, I managed to give two workshops on Surrealism and poetry, one at University of Northampton and the other at Cardiff High School in South Wales.

I worked as an academic at University of Northampton for many years, researching and teaching English Literature and Creative Writing. I am now a Visiting Research Fellow at the university, and I gave a workshop on Surrealism as part of my first visit as a Visiting Fellow.

I have also built a strong relationship with Cardiff High School. One of my first jobs after my undergraduate degree was working as a classroom assistant at Cardiff High School.

The workshops took similar formats: they involved reading some Surrealist texts such as the Beatles song, I am the Walrus , André Breton’s poem Free Union , and my own Magritte-inspired poem ‘Lonesome City Dweller’. I spoke the groups about the magazine Polarity for which I am contributing editor, and we discussed how polarities are at the heart of the philosophy of French Surrealism.

At Northampton, it was really touching to see some of my old students, and to notice how they are developing as writers. They were able to produce some remarkable Surrealist poems. I have chosen three that I liked particularly. Take for example Matt Bushell’s poem ‘Laddering Shot’:


Laddering Shot

Inbetween you sing
your arms a laddering shot

waving to the hello of timeless music
decayed by bones and fleshy fingers
whose words grip you like a gun
with a cantata tongue
licking your card houses
and match-stick battle ships
built and destroyed
by your love

by Matt Bushell

I love the way in which Matt works with words – it reminds me a little bit of another Matt – the Birmingham poet Matt Nunn. As in Nunn, the language in this poem is muscular and bold and ultimately convincing.

Amberley Turnell approached the task in a different way producing a narrative that is both public and personal:

Cue Applause

Forced blooms from a steel barrel
point teeth to camera 1.
“Listen,” he slams,
“I do this for your
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

For. Our. Freedom.
I beat in time with purple stumps
lacing butterfly wings so they stay.
Sweet tea blisters into quavers;
music from my mother’s frown.
I roll to sit and the cat sweats.

By Amberley Turnell

I like the unexpectedness of many of the images in this poem: how the decorous blooms jostle against the hardness of the steel barrel and the teeth. A flash from a political broadcast leads us on the thoughts of a maimed and sadistic narrator, who find painful blisters rather than soothing tea. Debilitated by the guilt indicated by the ‘mother’s frown’, the narrator ends signalling that s/he is debilitated – shut up with the cat in his/her damage like a sweat box.

Like Amberly, Ruth Gasson mingles the personal and political in her poem ‘Kunar Province’:


Kunar Province

She reaches for the salt
knocking the pot and spilling crystals
into the warzone.

Singing of roses and rings
as the shots call across windows,
her salt drying to tears.

He sings of pies and plums
as he holds the monster close
stroking it to climax.

The scent of cinnamon blended with tar
suffocates, as she watches his face
explode into paint.

By Ruth Gasson


What I like about this poem is the mingling of familiar symbols of war with words and motifs that are peculiarly British e.g. the reference to British nursery rhymes in ‘He sings of pies and plums’. Kunar Province is, of course, a region of Afghanistan, but what Gasson seems to be signalling in this poem is the influence and attitudes of the people at home. The monster mentioned might be war, but it seems far from real, just as the exploding face bursts into paint, not blood.

There were other interesting poems that I am not able to deal with in so much detail here. Joseph Marion Bunn (laureate for Northampton this year) wrote some amusing pieces; Chris Davey presented a post-apocalyptic scene; and Chris Fordham presented some memorable images in his poem ‘A Common Song’, especially his description of ‘Bomb / pretty melodies spilling like blood’.

The students at Cardiff High School had less time to complete their Surrealist writing, but, nevertheless, they came up with some remarkable images and phrases. The students’ writing was based on a number of polarities which I stole from the themes of issues of Polarity: death versus taxes, arms versus song, and purple versus white. (These were made up by the clever editors: George Ttoouli, Neeral Bhatt and James Brookes.)

Working on the theme of death versus taxes’, Elliot Stockford wrote about ‘money moving with great stillness’, while Rose Malleson imagined fingers ‘stained with the Queen’s ink’. Livia Frankish described ‘money trees burnt and shrivelled’, while Michael Dunn conjured a sinister taxman whose ‘hat is the shape of regret, his jacket made of poor men’s tears’. Finally, Peter Davies pictured a tax office as ‘a room full of hats, each one finely rimmed and mounted on top of one another’. Ethan Wood, asked:


Which of these men ,
wielding sword or pen,
will lead us to the stars?
One breaks necks, the other nibs.


Fewer students worked on the theme of arms versus song, but a few did. Harry Greening described ‘a small black room, covered with secrets’ where a man is tortured by sound. Exploring sound and silence, Jacob A. Bryning offered the memorable line: ‘A black hole knows no rhythm’. More students worked on the theme of purple versus white. Dan Nicol described purple as something


that starves you up
laughs and carves
and spills your cup.


Amy Giles saw an illicit relationship in the theme describing ‘a painter’s hand smudged on her gown’ and the canvas ‘which holds no excuses, tells all’. Katherine Churchill offered a sensuous exploration of colour with ‘royalty rich colour running across me on the ground’. For Kathryn Roberts, the colour white is a prison:


The pure white walls and
Pure white floors glistened.
He sat not able to move.


Altogether, both of the workshops were inspiring and enlivening, and it was great to be back teaching Creative Writing again. I hope to have inspired a few more people to go back to French Surrealist writing, as well as more modern Surrealist texts.

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