All entries for Tuesday 12 October 2010

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.

Panel on Representing Rape and Abuse at 'Writings of Intimacy'.

Writing about web page

Representing Rape and Abuse: Papers from Binswanger and Samelius, Hallam and O’Hara.

Chris Binswanger and Lotta Samelius talked on ‘Palimpsests of Sexuality and Intimate Violence: Scripts as Transformative Interventions’. Binswanger and Samelius discussed scripts as having negative and positive potential, being fixed behavioural patterns and ways of rewriting or interacting with those patterns. Working out of Gerard Genette’s 1982 definition of the palimpsest and Abraham and Torok’s (1980) idea of cryptic incorporation, the presenters explored how survivors of violence that were interviewed used palimpsest techniques or layering to express their stories. Most interesting in this paper was the idea of public transcripts versus hidden transcripts whuch was taken from the writings of James C. Scott. Hidden transcripts were indirect, interior, personal, such as imagined speeches created after the violent event.

The next paper by Michael Hallam was on ‘Rape, Torture and the Language of Violence in the Writing of James Hanley’. James Hanley was a working class writer, sometimes thought of as inarticulate, though Hallam denied this criticism quoting Hanley’s comparison of the mind ‘like great forests to endless seas’. Hallam described Hanley as a chunky realist and discussed the psychic and physical invasions in the book No Directions. This book features a number of male rapes including that of a thirteen year old boy. Hallam described the power of rottenness in Hanley’s writing, which reflects the violence and shame of the violent acts described.

Finally, Sharon O’Hara spoke on ‘An Intimate Assault: Rape in the Writing of Joyce Carol Oates’. O’Hara gave a strong account of the kinds of rape myths that haunt Oates’s writing – usually myths that blame the woman for the violence that she suffers. O’Hara focussed in particular on the characters of Teena Maguire in Rape: A Love Story and Mary Ann Mulvaney in We Were the Mulvaneys. O’Hara argued convincingly that, in both books, Oates reveals the complex and biased machinery of blame that these women encounter.

Screening Intimacy Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'.

Writing about web page

Screening Intimacy: Papers from Peacock, Reed and Schaller.

Steven Peacock’s paper focussed on how within the big architecture of film, scenes of intimacy could emerge. He looked at two great films; The Age of Innocence (dir. Scorsese) and The Insider (dir. Mann), and he argued that the narratives of the films were presented in a way that made them extensive and intimate. For The Insider, Peacock analyzed the first meeting between the producer Lowell Bergman and the insider on US tobacco, Jeffrey Wigland, and he discovered a tension between intimate spaces of enclosure and dangerous spaces of openness. Particularly interesting was Peacock’s discussion of The Age of Innocence, in which Newland Archer is to marry May Welland but instead develops an attraction to the disgraced family member, Elena Olenska. Peacock analyzed the scene in the box at the opera in which Elena’s gestures are both declamatory and intimate. Elena extends her arm to Newland to be kissed, but her hand hangs there while he hesitates. They start to make smalltalk and in discussing her experience of the opera, Elena extends her fan over the spectators. When she does so, she is expressing her fondness for the place, yet it is also a gesture that claims dominion. In detailing the precarious relationships of Elena, Newland and May, Scorsese focuses on gestures that are both intimate and public.

Clare Reed from University of Reading gave an entertaining paper on representations of lesbians on TV. The paper was titled ‘The Kisses of Her Mouth: The Invisible Intimate Lesbian in Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Reed argued convincingly that lesbian kissing is absent these programmes, or if it is present it is exploitative playing on men’s sexual fantasies. There are lesbian characters in Friends: the lesbian couple Carol and Susan who are made safe by the fact that they are mothers (Ross is the father).Carol and Susan are financially secure and professional and they do not conform to the butch-femme dynamic of some lesbian relationships. Reed analyzed the episode, ‘The One Without the Ski Trip’, which shows Carol taking a hair (pubic?) out her mouth, but nothing more graphic is shown. She also looked at ‘The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss’, which features an exploitative kiss between Rachel and an ex-college friend. In Buffy, Willow and Tara are the sole gay couple; they are not ‘visually obvious’ lesbians and they are aesthetically similar. Reed analyzed the episode ‘New Moon Rising’, where the lesbian kiss between Willow and Tara is hidden when they blow out a candle. ‘Touched’, too, shows Willow and Tara in bed but nothing intimate is shown. Reed highlights that the women are only seen in a sexual way in ‘Restless’ when Zander has an erotic dream about them. Overall, Reed seemed to suggest that TV representations of lesbians are still not very progressive. It is interesting to note, however, that she only looked at American TV and in particular at programmes which had their hayday in the nineties. It would be interesting to consider whether British TV of this period has any more progressive representations of lesbians (e.g. Queer as Folk?). It might be interesting too to consider American TV of the noughties which features lesbians, and I am thinking particularly of characters like Keema Greggs in The Wire. I am not so sure about Reed’s demand for visually obvious lesbians on TV, e.g. butch and femme identities. Perhaps the idea of a ‘visually obvious’ lesbian needs questioning – do butch and femme stereotypes need to be subverted too? – but I am with Reed in condemning the striking avoidance of honest, genuine scenes of lesbian intimacy.

The final paper on this panel was by Karen Schaller of UEA and it was on Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, ‘Dead Mabelle’. Schaller put forward an argument that Bowen writes this story in a language of the cinema that works with gaze, lighting, camerawork. Written in 1927, the story tells how Williams falls in love with a dead film star, and it describes the process of watching her films until he comes to her last. Mabelle’s films are not enduring art – her film reels are later melted down for patent leather. She is, however, a femme fatale whose excess of presence represents a lack. My notes on this paper are not absolutely complete, but Schaller’s analysis of how the cinema and the short story ‘accelerate together’ was especially fascinating.

Diasporic Intimacies Panel at 'Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries'

Writing about web page

Diasporic Intimacies: Papers from Houlden, Ramone and Wolfe.

The first paper by Kate Houlden from Queen Mary was titled ‘Post-Colonial Intimacies: Andrew Salkey, Same-Sex Desire and the British Home’. In particular, Houlden studied the novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which, she argued, presented the figure of the “respectable homosexual”. Houlden noted that Salkey was black and gay and that the hero of Escape to an Autumn Pavement, Johnny, is middle class and Jamaican. Salkey’s specific perspective on British culture creates disorientations, according to Houlden, and it questions nature, home and belonging. The context of the novel was outlined in the light of 1950s moral panics and the tendency in this period to figure homosexuality as a threat to the nation state. Houlden mentioned the 1961 film Victim and Rodney Garland’s novel The Heart in Exile (1953). Having outlined the context of Salkey’s writing, Houlden mapped out how the gay couple in Escape to an Autumn Pavement aspire to heterosexual norms within the home. For example, one character, Dick, is described as having ‘brisk housewife movements’ (p. 52). Although, the conventional heterosexual norms of the British home do emerge in the lives of Salkey’s gay characters, Houlden argued that they are still victims of coercive language. What is clear, however, is that experience of repression by gay and black subjects are not exactly the same, and that, in the novel discussed, Salkey emphasizes different kinds of prejudice and resulting behaviours.

The next paper, ‘Spilt Ink: Retelling and the Motherly Body in Postcolonial Diaspora’ was presented by Jenni Ramone from Newman University College in Birmingham. I was really glad to see this paper as I missed it when Ramone was presenting it at the CWWN conference in San Diego in July of this year. Ramone’s paper focussed on a number of texts: Hanan Al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiogrpahy of my Mother and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Kincaid’s pseudo-memoir tells how the Xuela’s mother died the day she was born, and later she aborts her own child viewing the motherly body as dangerous. Ramone is keen to note that Xuela is not diasporic, but is an alternate self for Kincaid: a self that stayed in the Caribbean. Ghosts in theses novels represent not only foreignness and the state of being an outcast, but the narrators themselves are ghostly witnesses in autobiography. So Ramone went on to discuss Hong Kingston’s memoir of growing up ‘Among Ghosts’. In this context, it is the American Chinese community who are ghosts, and Ramone describes how Hong Kingston’s women struggle to grapple with Chinese traditions in the context of the USA. Consequently, the woman warrior of the book’s title hides her maternal body and so lessens the prospect of marriage. Perhaps the most interesting text discussed was Al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird, a book which expresses her ambiguous feelings about her mother, Camilla. Al-Shaykh is resistant to making the maternal body tangible and describes herself as having been given birth to by a voice. In thinking through her mother’s turbulent life and her attitude to it, however, photographs play a significant role. The first photograph shown seemed to display a group of children, but, in fact, it is a picture of Camilla, the child bride and mother, alongside her own children. The second is a picture of Camilla with her lover, and next to the figures are two deep scratches. Al-Shaykh tells that her mother scratched her and her sister out of the photograph, banishing them from her relationship with her lover, or perhaps hiding her shame at having taken her children along to one of their meetings.

The final paper by Jesse Wolfe (California State University) was titled ‘Intimate Passages to and From India’, and it was being developed out a book that Wolfe is writing on the influence of E.M. Forster. Wolfe focussed particularly on Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia focussing on Karim’s interracial eros and comparing it to the queer relationship of Aziz and Fielding in Passage to India. My notes on this paper are somewhat incomplete.


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