Copyright © 2017 Emily Willis
I am glad to be back posting again now that the dissertation deadline is over and I have exciting news! My poem, [You], has just been published on Cadaverine. You can check it out here: http://www.thecadaverine.com/?p=11562.
Also look out in Ink, Sweat and Tears for my poem Happi–ness— to be published in the Autumn. http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/.
Finally, my poem Getting from A to B will appear in issue 16 of Lighthouse published by Gatehouse Press. You will be able to purchase a copy at a very reasonable price shortly from their website: http://www.gatehousepress.com/lighthouse/.
It’s finally finished. I pressed submit on UEA’s evision portal at 23.02, and watched the blue wheel of doom make its stilted but irrevocable revolution into cyberspace. My MA dissertation was an oral psychogeographic epic poem, walking the coastline from Seaham to Redcar exploring the interplay between the region’s industrial past and the present day, using objects washed up on the beach as spring boards for fictionalised voices and weaving poetry with photography. Written predominantly from the perspectives of women, the poem was also a critique of the perceived gendered connotations of canonical psychogeographical texts.
Once uploaded, I felt the inevitable rush of relief from the stress of the last three months: the sudden surrender to Peroni and Kit Kats. Yet, also, a flooding sensation of trepidation. This piece of writing is the culmination of year’s study, of a considerable amount of self-doubt and an unprecedented sense of creative pride; I wanted—I want—these emotions to dissolve into a good grade. But is that all that validates the degree? I’d like to share my thoughts on the past year.
This is not an article about the practical applications of a degree in creative writing versus the sciences. (That is a whole other debate.) It is, rather, an exploration of some of the benefits an MA in creative writing can bring to a writer. The most frequent scepticisms about creative writing degrees I hear come, surprisingly, not from scientists but from other writers, and the most popular argument is that creative writing can’t be taught, only developed through good practice and extensive reading in your genre. The second contention is that you have to subjugate your writing principles and, by extension, your integrity, to the perceived preferred styles of a particular school or vogue.
Whatever the reason for the feeling of resentment some writers harbour towards the formal study of their craft, I think a lot of the concerns could be dispelled if we altered our approaches. What if it were called Creative Immersion? Let me explain.
The Positives: Time to Write.
Thanks to the student loans that are (for the moment) still available for postgraduate study, I was able to finance setting aside a year to pursue my writing seriously. I was lucky enough to do this without the responsibility of a full time job, without anyone to look after. I recognise that this opportunity is not possible for everyone and that it is a position I will never be in again.
I wrote early in the morning after my run along the Wensum. I wrote between seminars at Frank’s Café, in the shaky-handed rush that comes from good espresso. I wrote late at night, under the slightly hallucinogenic effects of the amitriptyline I was on briefly for insomnia. I spent my days in the winter on the top floor of the library ensconced in my grandma’s jumpers, watching the slow colour of the sky, and nodding at Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, its toes peeping over the edge of the roof, as I left through the automatic doors. (I never knew if the statue was designed to be an angelic or suicidal presence.) I had never been so productive.
Opinions of Other Writers.
The second aspect much in favour of studying creative writing is the supervision by writing professionals and opinions of peers. Tutors suggest reading on an individual basis which helps with certain aspects of your work. You have free access to all of these resources in the library. The workshops are good practice for accepting criticism and editing of your work and even rejection when you submit it to publishers. It’s important to know what’s working and whether people react to your work in the way you expected, whether they pick up on certain metaphors, when the structure and form are working with the content, when things are too cryptic or, by contrast, when they need to be toned down. One person’s cliché may be another’s epiphany.
These informed opinions are inevitably useful, and I am believer in reaching the limit of what you can do on your own and seeking advice. You can take or leave this advice, depending upon how much you think it speaks to your work. I learned to separate myself from the work that is so personal to me: to see it as just another poem, which helped me in turn to edit on my own.
Exposure to Other Writing Styles.
This is not to say that any genre or writing ideology is “correct” and another is “incorrect”, or that one should adhere to what they think might be the tutor’s preferences because they are marking it. A good course will encourage experimentation and accept that we are privileged to live in a time where there is a proliferation of styles which have developed over the centuries at our disposal and that innovation continues; these courses will endeavour to give students the confidence to experiment with styles which they might find work well for them.
One of the big arguments in favour of creative writing study is the practical application of the degree. UEA has its own publishing programme: NewWriting (http://www.newwriting.net/), and teaches a module in publishing in partnership with Egg Box (http://www.eggboxpublishing.com/). Students can get involved in editorial and design for this press, producing an anthology of work from MA students. The Norwich Writers’ Centre (http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/) holds many literary events, often in collaboration with the university. All of this offers students the chance to introduce themselves to writers and publishers and raise their profile. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it confers an advantage, but a combination of factors from the past year has resulted in me getting my work published.
This is the cheesy part where I say that creative writing is so close to the heart that in studying it you inevitably learn things about your mental approach: how you deal with self-exposure in the potentially brutal situations of having your work dissected, both in workshops, by publishers, and on stage when participating in poetry readings. But I am much better at these things now.
I’ve also learnt more about my creative beliefs. Rather than voicing a tentative feeling that I have not thought through, because we’ve been encouraged to write our own manifestos and blogs, I can have a good-natured debate with someone whilst still enjoying and being open to their style of writing. In summary, you become more confident in your opinions, yet less totalising (hopefully!)
It was about this time that I decided to swim across the river. (Vile really when you think about the pollution). The idea came in the shower: Strong Body. Strong Mind. Perhaps it was the residues of something instilled by the sailor. Or the opposite: the need to break with people.
The first time I jumped in was late autumn. I’d thought it would be cold but this was everything-will-drop-off cold. Strong Body. Strong Mind. I kicked out to the other bank. But even at this narrow channel the current dragged me to the centre. Fortunately, the old lady on the barge about a mile down was very understanding and gave me a towel and a cup of tea.
When the river is like this it spews winter clot-
ted at everything with a claim to reflection. Listen,
I have carried heavy things for you dead things.
I swallow benches no longer benches but playgrounds
for the dark daisies of the deep. I poke
statues’ eyes with reeds so they can witness
themselves disembodied. I drink up the medieval halls,
the riverside bars. I will take that old woman’s neat pile of leaves
and plaster them all through her house, leave a note on the fridge
The trees pay homage, when the river has stolen
its archaeology, hoarding the quotidian colours as quiet
dripping treasures somewhere high up a bicycle wheel
a child’s sock a version of Shakespeare
and that unspeakable thing prized from the birch.
The river accompanied me. Water was feeding halfway across the bridge, submerging the padlocks. I had a flask and a long coat but had to curl my fingers against the Raynaud’s. The river was up to the top step at the end of my road and I was contemplating whether to go home and move my furniture, but wanted to be there to try to calculate the exact moment when he crossed from Tinder to tangible space.
He had social anxiety and had put off the first date for some time. Like me, he lived in the conditional tense. “Does your brain ever feel tight?” He’d texted. “Like swollen? Can you imagine if thoughts had a physical shape? Wrote themselves through our skin? Everyone would have a wall and each day would add bricks to make space for next week’s thoughts. If we were searching for something, a memory maybe, all we’d have to do is walk back along the wall.”
I was disappointed he didn’t materialise so we could continue this conversation. It felt like I wasn’t interesting enough for him to risk the fear. But I knew that’s not how anxiety works. Still, the blankness of my phone was infuriating. I wanted to put a face to the words. A physical face.
I dropped a stick into the water and splashed to the other side of the bridge, but the river was too fast.
I thought maybe he was a great burner of omelettes and we would have discussed how an omelette can only ever be overcooked, leading to carcinogens, or undercooked, leading to salmonella. We’d talk about how useless a non-stick frying pan is without the “non” and how mine as a result of a tussle with an overbearing cafetiere no longer cooked omelettes without holes in the middle and how it might be a good idea to patent this culinary feat dubbed the “bagel-omelette”.
Was this streaming character more immediate than the people passing in the cycle lane to whom I’d never spoken? I think realising his untouchability had a curious sensation of the opposite. A lot of what I have blogged about regarding Tinder is sadness, and although being stood up would (and did) seem that way, the experience was also incredibly freeing. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought up these stories, had he turned up as someone else; as in Manchester, Tinder opened something creative in me. It was like light diluting shapes, everything slipping into the next.
At the end of the bridge a small terrier appeared and made its way purposefully along the benches, pushing its head between the bars. I wondered if it had seen the stick and what had happened to the owner. It didn’t have a collar. And what is it seeing when it sees its reflection? Another dog to chase?
I thought of the peculiar phenomenon of dog suicide reported at Overtoun bridge. Are dogs confronted with this same paradoxical sense of the unknowable? Psychologists called it “the other ich” or, “the call of the void”, the sudden urge to go beyond which some ignore and others don’t.
When it plunges through its reflection does it understand the air above and the water below?
Needless to say, this was how I acquired Skipper.
I was tempted to call it off. I’d been between archives among pipes and cabinets all day. Whilst there was a refreshing, rhythmic order to letters divided up, it was so nice to be out, veins still dilated against my wrists. The cafés were both languorous and electric, all the colours of the evening streets with the heat falling off them gradually.
Maybe it was the thought of his peculiar glasses, or maybe I was missing the sea, the desire to be faced with something semi-crystalline. But I ran.
I cut sandal portraits into my feet. Buildings oscillated and the dress twisted into unprecedented shapes.
“Pre-Raphaelites”, he texted.
Art student. 6ft 2. Lover of colour and wanders. Lover.
There were lots of art students in the Pre-Raphaelites. I looked around, remembering the eyes. What a prat I’d make of myself if I marched over and tapped the wrong one.
As it happens, he was easy to recognise. He had a penchant for tweed: it crept into most of his photos, and now he was thoroughly tweeded, even his eyes in that light seemed to have a bit of tweed about them. Perhaps he painted this way alone in his studio flat, fully suited.
I didn’t shake his hand. He only half-turned from Sibylla Delphica.
“You know, Burne-Jones has a monopoly on orange” he said, “you can’t quite look away.”
I looked. The priestess did not look back. One eye was focused in space, like it wanted to swivel round her head, fixing something back.
“Well that’s nice. I like the colours.”
I braced for him to laugh at my glaring lack of knowledge, or the inability to talk about it as if I knew.
Instead, he said “I know this might seem weird since I hardly know you—”
Here was the proposition…
“—I wondered if I could photograph you?”
“I’m doing a project about digitisation. It shows how art crosses into reality and is filtered back out in subsequent eras. So, in Burne-Jones’ Sibylla, look at the laurel, what is she seeing?”
“Well”, I started, ready to debate the positing of what was real and what wasn’t—
“It’s prophecy, but also her reflection. I could put you here, holding your phone. People won’t know if you’re taking a selfie or a picture of me photographing you. Meta! Also, you’re wearing orange. And you’re pretty, that’s why I swiped right.” Still fiddling with the camera. “Oh, and I’ll write ‘Flame’ on you.”
“I don’t know much about art… but it seems that there’s a lot you could exploit to do with gender. Have you read Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema? She follows Springer’s idea that ‘violence substitutes for sexual release’, epistemically for detached viewers and physically for the characters.”
Still flicking. “Yeah, I guess. Not really the aim of my project though. Will you do it?”
I was covered in Flame. I felt him writing it. The heat of the evening framed behind me. The heat of Flame in my eyes. Flash was not supposed to be used.
People were watching. I took picture after picture and he took picture after picture and I felt excited and then angry at myself and then angry at myself for being angry. All the time was Flame in capitals and orange.
“This is fantastic.” He looked up. He really was incredibly beautiful. Sculpted.
“Do you fancy going for a drink? Or, you could come back to mine. I could show you more of my portfolio.”
I felt he’d already used me up, but not in the way I’d expected (planned? wanted?) Rather than highlight the levels of representational violence, the way he’d present the selfie would perpetuate it. People with the proclivity to judge would comment…
It was then I noticed a small plaque commemorating the Suffragettes who, in 1913, had smashed the painting, to protest objectification. Someone in a hat and leather gloves stared at me, dressed for court. The caption read:
Annie Briggs. Lillian Forrester. Evelyn Manesta.
He was still wittering, but his face shifted. I was already running back, room after room, thinking of the poem.
Since she was brought here
Sibylla looks back more often than forwards
watching Apollo through the laurel—
Daphne’s skin snags, a peeling mesh of nerves,
muscles become bone-tight, spittle
sticks the lips into another line by which to tell her age—
Sibylla is called back by hammers
that puncture the womb. Doubling
up, she catches Annie, whose eyes englobe
I only meant to smash the glass…
She sees her wooden, photographed
Through the crack, Sibylla, much dispersed
sheds laurel into flame
The night guard swears he saw
her eyes lock his, the lip twitch
I took some time out after the terrifying events of my last blog. Upon returning I was confronted not as before with the dangers of inadequate information, but rather how personal Tinder exchanges are and the risk of mishandling this information.
I received a message. It said “tell me three interesting things about your life.”
Recently, I’d detached myself from the interactions and watched them with the curious interest of an observer. It was quite liberating. The Nausea didn’t come as often.
“I’m writing a novel. I can map the UK rivers. I managed to get up before 8, so today is a win!” Safe bet: interesting–quirky–funny.
He was Greek, a naval soldier and had studied history. I made the mistake of mentioning I played tennis for my college, and he suggested we go fell-running. Joint running inevitably involves someone adjusting their pace and I envisaged him chatting away and me hulking phlegm, mobility scooters overtaking.
I developed “plantar fasciitis” and was unable to go… suggesting instead a short walk around the walls.
It was busy with tourists and we had to climb onto ledges to get by. He knew a lot. “…originally built as a roman fort in 71AD, turned from wood to stone in the medieval era…” I loved watching his face, that of anyone who is passionate about something.
I was distracted from his tour by jazz. Trills bled into failing light and crept along the trees. It sounded like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black from Under Milk Wood. It reminded me of when I used to play. I looked through the thin apertures designed as cruciform arrow slits. Squinted my eyes until everything was watery.
“Shall we follow the jazz?” I asked.
He grinned and said why not.
We picked through remains of daffodils. The sax grew louder and more sombre. A few cars turned slowly in the street and moved off. The notes twisted through alleys, emerging in front of the cathedral, where someone was sitting on a bench. What at first looked like a saxophone was a terrier sitting on the old man’s lap. The music had stopped.
My date preferred it that we didn’t find the saxophonist and I understood that it would remain for him in this way magic, some kind of ideal.
On his windowsill was a row of very convincing plants which surprised me given his love of the outdoors and all things organic.
—He was never there to water them and didn’t like to watch things die.
That summer was hot; late August we came down the tow path in the rain, which was welcome, the kind which drips down your neck and gets into everything. The wheels flung up sycamore seeds and I felt the miniature helicopters stuck to my ankles. I cycled slower approaching the house.
There was no softness to him: even his toes were strung with muscle. And it made me self-conscious about, well, all of me. The first time, I had the urge to punch him in the stomach and see if my knuckles broke.
But my own body had hardened into something strong enough to weather his unforgiving.
This is what was said. Feeling was weakness. He would be away for 8 months. What was the point in being faithful to an idea? For him personally, his job was not a job, but a mindset. It enabled survival in conflict. But in the conflicts of the small and quiet surrenders sweated out beyond the straining of the body, what then? He rolled over and showed me his “job” look.
I made him leave then. (And sent a torrent of texts which I now regret.)
He’d been right that it was a thing of ideas; I was dispatched in my own way to writing things and when I got angry with his suggestion that the conversation might end up on some forum maybe I was a hypocrite. I wanted him because I wasn’t done writing him and my only fear about the forum was the taking of things out of context, the fact that it wouldn’t be my telling. I scoured the internet, split between Action–me and Sleep–me. I thought about the plant I hadn’t had chance to give him.
Last night, she took the alpine phlox
which had lost most of its heads,
grasping either side of the pot like a face
it went dripping across the floor,
the spilling yellow moon was pissing into the wind.
Phlox feeds off water, it quivers
in the waterfall, runs up fells. In the kitchen
it gave the faintest impression of movement
like the river on a dry day.
She returned and said nothing. I heard
scrubbing and drains. In the rising water
her nails were black, she saw the plant, drowned,
its silvery spots staring up accusingly
borne back like the wind in the moon’s face
to soil her.
When I finally went down in the morning the helicopters were still stuck to the shoes, staring up through the skylight.
I’m going to tell you about fear.
It’s so easy to categorise people on Tinder; as I explored in my last blog, in some ways it takes the pressure off. But it’s also easy to cede complete control, to speak to someone because a pop up tells you, coaxes, encourages, or derides. And it’s easy to forget that it can’t tell us who lies and if the lies pose a threat.
Danet in “Text as Mask” writes that online “people explore previously unexplored personalities… [perhaps dark ones] much like wearing a mask at a carnival.” Whilst these people can be completely innocuous in person, the reverse is also true.
It came in through the paisley blind and gave everything in the room rosacea. Must have slept through most of the day. I dressed in what I thought was orange, but out in the sunlight even the dress was red.
Quarter to. The boat was quiet, strung with thick lanterns stretching their limbs. It wasn’t too late to walk back along the tow path and feel Nausea subside. Instead, I did breathing exercises.
The boat was empty apart from an elderly man with a grey-ish beard at the window.
“Hello, you must be her.”
“I’m sorry I think you’re mistaken.”
He seemed amused. “I could have sworn we arranged to meet here, last night, when you talked about your interest in water.”
“…that can’t be.” I didn’t have to check my phone to know the date was a 22-year-old, suntanned hipster whose favourite novel was tbc. I remembered him variously surfing and studying (complete with tank top).
He reseated himself and began cleaning his glasses. “All that’s true (except the picture). So, what you have to ask yourself is this: would you have come to meet me if I’d disclosed my age?”
“That’s not relevant. You lied; there’s a difference between omission and actively assuming someone else’s identity.”
“Are you accusing me of shallowness?”
“I am suggesting that Tinder is somewhat ageist. It interests me, as an academic.”
The boat bowed and the gathering engine signalled we were no longer moored.
He gestured to the chair. “Look, we’ve 90 minutes. Why don’t you tell me more about yourself.”
I yanked out the chair. He waited patiently until I spoke, asking him who he really was.
“I’m a professor of renaissance literature.”
“At the university?” I didn’t remember him. But it could have been the other uni.
He spoke then, quickly, like he’d been chewing on something inedible and needed to spit. He’d written a controversial book about “high-level corruption” and had been imprisoned and tortured by an unknown group whose motives he never found out. When finally released he discovered his wife had left, taking everything except the manuscript.
It seemed ridiculous.
But, his urgency, (and the online news article) gave substance.
“In the cell, I had a lot of time to contemplate water.” He looked out the window at the spring showers. He was so close he wouldn’t have seen a reflection, only the coming darkness on the other side.
“The thing about pain, is that it breaks the body. It hates the object that commits it. Personifies it. But at some point, the mind gains power. The object changes. Have you read Elaine Scarry?”
He took another swig and set the glass down, where rain pooled. He pointed. “I like it, despite everything. So emphatic. The moments where it endeavours to start upwards as though it wants to be light and falls…”
He became aware of his nose, hastily wiped the smudge.
I laughed. Perhaps he was lonely. Perhaps this was not a dichotomy of true and false, depth and surface, but an inveigling space where selves are both.
“Did you decide on a favourite book?”
“An impossible question. Recently, I have enjoyed Fifty Shades.”
I spat out my drink.
“I’m not joking. It’s the most feminist novel I’ve read in years.”
“The most feminist novel? You’re a literature professor.”
“It’s about time someone wrote about the pleasures of S and M.” He picked the lime out of his glass and sucked it.
“…Well I guess some people are into that, and good for them.” I looked out the window. I hadn’t noticed us turning. How far upriver were we?
“Yes, some are.” An alcohol rash was spreading over his cheeks.
I wondered how fast the river was.
He had a list. Things that began in a space where pleasure and pain oscillated between consenting open-minded adults, and rapidly moved into darker spaces, culminating in something unimaginable.
As the boat pulled in I jumped, hitting my knee. The bruise flowered on the bus.
When I got there the department was dark and I cornered the staff list, scanning the red lettering. His name was missing. I searched for the article he’d shown me and stared—
“Page not found.”