Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Writing Workshop Debate

The British & Irish Poets List began a debate on the function of writing workshops, creative writing MFAs etc. I found myself rewriting my experience at UBC 68-70:

I'm going to crawl out from under my philosopher's stone and add my tangle to the thread. "Workshops Saved My Life!" Well, maybe not, but my stint onthe Creative Writing MA at the U of British Columbia ( 68-70) certainly changed it.

It got me out of the UK academy (by chance more than design) and plonked me into a new environment, gave me time to write, plus a tiny pittance and afocus on the actuality of writing. "I'm gonna thrash your Oxonian ass," said Prof J Michael Yates, my supervisor, "if you don't buy a fucking TYPEWRITER!" I suppose that was an early form of career development.

There were furious debates between West Coast Neo-Surrealists ( my faction back then), Regional Ruralists, Black Mountaineers, and Concretists. There was a seminar when I presented a poem intended as a vatic probe into deep space-time, where I ended up howling with hysterical laughter along with the rest of the room. There was a translation workshop where I made 123 mistakes in ten pages of a text by Andre Breton. There was the prompting to try new forms of fabulating and signifying. There was a campus radio station where Igot to play with tape recorders. There was a group script-writing project that spawned a rhythm and blues show, which actually made me a living on real radio for a while. There were marathon readings - to full auditoria - and much partying (with the occasional fight) And of course, there were the workshops, weekly psychodramas, a kind of cerebral battle of the bands.

Energy levels were high.

In retrospect, the ritual of the workshop was less important than the fact that writing was meant to be central to one's existence and that people actually read it and argued about it. One-to-one sessions were more useful, especially with one tutor's more reflective and laid-back explorations." I enjoy our talks, Paul. But I'm not sure if you were supposed to be my student?" Assessment was flexible. I was once assessed on Form in the Novel in the Faculty Club, orally, over several large whiskies.

It was, of course, a time of cultural upheaval and the Dept was relatively new and raw, in relatively uncharted territory. Iowa had been running for some years but there was nothing like this in the UK.

There were odd paradoxes. When I interviewed Jackson McLow for local radio (can you imagine interviewing him for local radio now in the UK?) it was under the aegis of Warren Tallman in the English Dept, which had an uneasy relationship with Creative Writing and its allegedly European tendencies, fostered by Yates. I think the usual campus politics were at work.

So what did it all mean? What became of us all? One of my contemporaries stayed on and rose thru the ranks to become Head of Dept and Poet Laureate of Vancouver. A couple of others got teaching posts in other universities. One guy became a successful radio producer. Another was last heard of pushing a miracle diet food. One chap attempted to murder his wife. One guy

went to jail in a dope bust, came out and wrote a successful memoir and relaunched a journalistic career. Yates quit academia altogether and worked as a prison guard for a few years ( not in the same joint) He wrote a memoir too. I blundered back to the UK and foolishly stuck my head in the jaws of the further education system.

UBC certainly helped me to to teach myself. But there are no gurus, no magic( or even magick) shortcuts. You just have to lurch onwards and sideways.

As I face the start of a new academic year, I can't help comparing my lifeexperience at UBC forty years ago with the kind of micro-managed bean-collecting that now represses teachers in UK further ( and sadly higher) education. Brother Peter Philpott, a great worker in the mill of avant-poetics, puts it well: the utterly reductive target-culture which dominates all aspects of British education, and distorts everything within education.

Next week I have to record my "continuing professional development" for the Institute For Learning which monitors "good practice" in teaching and learning. I can't help wondering if it isn't yet another tool of surveillance and control...

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