I guess all good writing like all successful visual art has to start with observation. Maybe, that’s too sweeping because sometimes we might start with imagination. But I would still maintain that imagination has to feed on observation. My three year old granddaughter ( she’s twenty three now) said on seeing her mother’s shoeless feet in green socks: “Mum you have broadbean feet.” That was a leap of the imagination, but it depended on her having observed broad beans on an earlier occasion.
So it was with a determination to give students in the south west a chance to observe the work of Grayson Perry and then write, that I offered OCASA to do a writing workshop at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol where they are showing Grayson Perry’s :The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever. Although my blurb made it clear this was a writing workshop, not a visual arts study visit, of the eleven people who signed on and turned up, only three were registered for a Creative Writing degree and one creative writing tutor (Nina Milton). One of the Creative Writing students had come all the way from Germany. But then Germany doesn’t do much Creative Writing in art galleries nor is it on offer at degree level.
I wasn’t too concerned about the makeup of the group because I’m sure it’s beneficial for visual artists to write creatively, witness one student who later emailed me with her thanks, though I suspect she is thinking of her art skills rather than her writing skills:
“ I got so much out of it – both in terms of meeting fellow students, hearing your perspective, and the exhibition itself. I wouldn’t have gone if there hadn’t been a study visit, but found myself really engaging with his work – more so than I had anticipated.”
We shared our responses and of course most of the writing had a political or social edge because of the nature of Perry’s work. I found myself in danger of writing polemic rather than poetry but then one of the questions we asked ourselves was in fact if Grayson Perry’s work was polemic rather than art. And if you are dealing with issues like Brexit and the hopelessness of people within housing estates in Skelmersdale, perhaps all art and poetry has to pertain at least in part to aspects of polemic. As I have pointed out in a previous blog, creative people living in unequal and violent societies often claim they cannot afford the luxury of eschewing politics and propaganda in their creative output. (See my blog: Complexity in Creative Politics)
Grayson Perry says he is in the “communication business” so his pots are not just pots, his tapestries are more than just experiments in textiles. I am still waiting for some of the students to send in what they wrote in response to the Grayson Perry exhibits. Maybe the most popular art exhibition ever will elicit some of the most moving writing ever.
Earlier this Autumn I did two other workshops sponsored by the OCA but not specifically for OCA students. One at the Ilkley Literature Festival brought in fifteen students from the Leeds and Ilkley area, most of whom had not heard of the OCA, so perhaps that will have been good recruiting ground.
The other was at the NAWE conference in York. If you have not heard of the National Association of Writers in Education, do go to their website where you will find lists of events, workshops, competitions, job vacancies.
The NAWE conference is the highlight of the writing year and always offers plenty to interest tutors, writers, students, community leaders and teachers. This year we heard Bernadine Evaristo reading her poetry in a plenary session. I gave a workshop based on the idea of tension between the flow that enables you to write and the control you need to make sure the flow goes where you want it. (See my blog)
I also attended workshops by other writers, including one by Billy Cowan who suggested breaking the usual rules may enable you to write more lively dialogue. Still another gave me the chance to learn something of Urdu poetry from Jamila Nabeel; and Tania Herschman offered us the opportunity to decipher difficult poetry, while Pam Thompson got us to experiment with recycling words from various printed sources.
Here is the poem I wrote recycled from titles in the Folio Society’s catalogue and this time the words led into the visual images:
The Folio Society Catalogue
It was nineteen eighty four
and she was ready to reach for the sky.
She set out with the little prince,
the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy under her arm.
She watched Monty Python’s flying circus on the way.
For her it was the great escape.
She listened to the wind in the willows,
brushed aside Charlotte’s web.
She had no need of persuasion, set her back
on pride and prejudice,
determined to have breakfast at Tiffany’s,
or better still in the restaurant at the end of the world.
She waved to the man in the high castle,
heard the singing sands, squeezed a few drops of juice
from the clockwork orange, and avoiding murder
on the orient express, hurried from Russia with love,
said thankyou, Jeeves, and aware of the brief history
of time, stopped for only a second to watch the hundred
and one dalmatians, saw how one flew over
the cuckoo’s nest, and with the blessing of
American gods, she knew she had experienced
life, the universe and everything.
Image Credit: Grayson Perry, Long Pig, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo: Stephen White.