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Creative Writing

In November I was part of an event held at the Enitharmon Bookshop for the Being Human Festival, Being Writers: A Collaborative Conversation.  The evening centred around conversations on the relationship between creative and academic writing. The fabulous Enitharmon poets Hilary Davies and Nancy Campbell were interviewed by myself and another research student from UCL, Jess Cotton, on subjects as diverse as the environment, spirituality, translation, and poetry’s role in communicating history. We wrote a blog post reflecting on our insights from the evening for the Being Human festival website. A slightly expanded version of my thoughts can be found below.

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On the back of Hilary Davies’ third poetry collection, Imperium, the blurb-writer claims that in her poetry Hilary ‘draws from her historical sequences a rich, invigorating music.’ But how exactly can we take our research and make the sources sing? And can the poetic process of researching and writing teach academics anything about their own writing practice?

As I began to read Hilary Davies’ poetry, both the collections I found in the Southbank Poetry Library and the glimpses she sent me of sequences from her forthcoming book, I discovered a richness of historical detail and cultural reference that offered an immediate response to the concerns of the Enitharmon event. Hilary is a poet for whom research is an essential part of the writing process.

Hilary Davies’ poetry struck a chord with me, partly because of our mutual love for the twentieth century poet and artist David Jones, but also because her work spoke to a recent concern of my research: that is, the relationship between poetry and scholarship. After a summer spent in the archives of the National Library of Wales, reading the notes made in the margins of David Jones’ collection of scholarly resources and curiosities, I had been thinking a lot about how poetry might perform contemporary scholarship and creatively rewrite it. But the question I had failed to articulate before the event was what role subjectivity might play in this transformation of scholarly knowledge, and whether this subjectivity can ever be critically productive.

The Story of Nelson for Being Human

Denise Levertov writes of an ‘authentic source of myth in poetry [… where] scholarly knowledge is deeply imbedded in the imaginative life of the writer’ so that it becomes ‘an extension of intuitive knowledge.’ During my conversation with Hilary I was interested in unpicking the threads that had woven meticulously researched detail (like the recent archaeology reports that Hilary said informed one of her sequences, so that her poetry actually became more current than the current scholarship) together with Levertov’s ideal of an ‘intuitive knowledge’ gathered over a lifetime of reading and experience. What is the relationship, for example, between the actually loved and known of Hilary’s Catholicism, and the research required to write a sequence of poems based on the liturgical hours, or the story of Heloise and Abelard?

In his ‘Preface’ to his long Modernist poem The Anathemata, David Jones wonders ‘what may be owing’ to, amongst other things: ‘a small textbook on botany, a child’s picture-book of prehistoric fauna, the text of a guide to a collection of Welsh samplers and embroideries, or a catalogue of English china or plate;’ presenting us with a treasure-hoard of bound papers whose influence may be so obscure as to be untraceable. For Hilary Davies one such piece of treasured ephemera might be the Ladybird ‘Adventures from History,’ The Story of Nelson, a book that she described as having ignited her childhood passion for Nelson, Napoleon, naval history, and the frequent pilgrimages she made as a child from her home in Southwark to Greenwich. Its influence on the two historical sequences in her third collection, ‘Imperium’ and ‘Southwark,’ may be invisible to the eyes and ears of her readers, but beneath the surface-weave this childhood reading still resonates.

The conversation with Hilary made me recognise the complexity of this entangled relationship between research and our own personal experiences. In her poem ‘Faultlines’ Hilary writes: ‘the river banks/ we’ve walked ravel backwards in the night,/ Like lost highways.’ How much of ourselves ends up in our research? Perhaps like the lost highways of ‘Faultlines’ our readings are steps that can never be completely retraced; this doesn’t mean that we never made the journey.

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This blog has been rather silent for far too long, but that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a proliferation of creative and critical activity keeping me busy.  So here is a very brief introduction to some recent publications which I have been involved in, in various ways.

The Still Point Journal #1

Issue #1 of The Still Point Journal launched a few weeks ago. It exists in a printed, perfect-bound edition, complete with a spine and the delicious, freshly-pressed smell of paper and ink (it’s a slim little book!). It can also be enjoyed from cover to virtual cover online and will be making its repeated debut at various venues and events across London throughout the year.

A year in the making, Issue #1 is a veritable feast for the senses: filled with creative prose, fabulous poetry and beautiful artwork and illustrations, it is begging to be enjoyed!

 

‘The Distant Star’ – The Nottingham Review

A couple of months ago, my short story ‘The Distant Star’ was published in the first issue of the digital literary journal, The Nottingham Review, which can be read online. The journal includes some really excellent and provocative short fiction and is well worth a read. My story is about academics, artichokes, and feeling out of place in other languages. It’s the first of my stories from the Chilean series to be published, so look out for more in the future.

So the anniversary of Bolaño’s death falls now within a kind of crazy hot bliss, extenuated by thirst. Bolaño himself might have enjoyed the bitter poetics of it. The chance to torture his protagonists, to prolong their discomfort: the critics chasing their dead writer. This hot Valparaíso, enjoying its stagnant second summer: the toilet bowls stinking of urine; the frustrated, choked, gurgling of taps; the water trucks circling neighbourhoods with industrial tankers of mysterious liquid; and our hands sticky with a soap we can’t wash away. This Valparaíso greets Latin America’s finest, most astute academics: the rich smell of sweat and sex palpable on dirty streets.

 

‘Paranoid Lights’ – With Regard To Light and Dark

Back in August I also had my short story ‘Paranoid Lights’ published in the literary zine With Regard To. The zine features twelve short stories and eight pieces of ambient music written and composed for the theme of light and dark, and you can purchase a copy online. My story is about the colliding trajectories of two strangers on the streets of London.

But I see no theatrics, no cinematics: only the cold glow of artificial lights on the surface of the fountains. There is no coincidence in the gathering of that smile and its weakening shadow. If you track it, it is no longer a random act of fatal London.

 

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The Still Point Twitter Cover

Along with other PhD researchers at King’s College London and UCL, I’ve been working on a new literary journal which will be a forum for creative, tangential thinking and writing related (however loosely) to our research. We’ve released our Call for Submissions for the journal we will be producing over the summer, but in the meantime we are also working on some teasers for our blog to inspire the kind of thinking we are interested in exploring.

One of our short features for the blog is the ‘The Secret Autobiography of my PhD’, a kind of confessional space in which we encourage people to reflect on what compels them to do their research and the autobiographical stories which might underlie the endless footnotes and bibliographies of their thesis. I began the series with my own confessional, something of a revelation in which I stumbled upon what Seamus Heaney would call my ‘thole-pin’ – my local and vernacular claim to the old language I study.

The other week my flatmate stumbled into my bedroom and surveyed the chaos. “Your room is filled with so much paper” she said as she looked in wonder from the books arranged anarchically across the shelves and puzzled together on the desk, to the gatherings of bills and letters, the postcards pinned to the walls, the mind-maps and the folders of work popping with paper-weights. I feel like my life is an increasingly unruly paper trail: paper breeds paper it seems, every book ends with a Borgesian bibliography which propels you towards an infinite library of more books. But my relationship with texts and with stories began before collections of material papers, before bindings. It began with my mother’s voice.

Read the full piece, as well as the first of our PhD Playlists, on The Still Point blog: https://stillpointldn.wordpress.com/.

And here’s a little of our Call for Submissions to whet your appetite too:

The Still Point Journal is currently seeking submissions of creative non-fiction, short fiction, poetry, and visual artwork, for its inaugural issue and web journal.

 A new literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers in London, The Still Point aims to be a forum for dialogue, collaboration and experimentation, and offers a space for creatively writing through ideas in original forms.

 The Journal will feature short fiction and poetry although its particular focus is on non-fiction writing, related – however tangentially – to our research and the kind of rich thinking and exploration we do during the course of this research. These informal articles and journalistic pieces, free of footnotes or bibliographies, should feel more like a collection of conversations had with fellow researchers over coffee than academic papers. You might tell the story of a visit to an archive, or a pilgrimage in search of the traces of a writer or artist, or simply mull over some inspiration which came from an unexpected source…if you have a story to tell, we’d like to hear it.

 ‘The still point’ reflects our experience of being new researchers and represents those moments when we take time out of our days for deep thinking and reflection: when the world gets quiet but our minds are still racing. For the first issue we invite submissions in response to the quotation from T.S Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, from which the journal takes its name. Responses can be as creative and as broad as you like, and we are particularly interested in seeing work which blurs the boundaries of form and genre.

brainofforgetting A little piece of my flash fiction appears in the inaugural issue of ‘Brain of Forgetting’, a journal which aims to create a dialogue between past and present, and encourage creative reflections on scholarly knowledge. I’ve always had an unnatural (or perhaps peculiarly natural) passion for stones and so couldn’t resist the call for submissions when I saw that it appealed directly to my slightly niche obsessions.

The title of the journal is drawn from the Irish legend of Cenn Fáelad, who lost his ‘brain of forgetting’ when his skull was split open by a sword-blow in battle. Cenn Fáelad developed a photographic memory for historical and legal information, which he wrote out in verse and prose on tablets. The journal includes some beautiful photographs, many many poems, and some select pieces of short and flash fiction. For more details on how to get your hands on a copy of the journal visit the Brain of Forgetting website: http://www.brainofforgetting.com/issue-1-stones.html

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