Rob Cowen

Rob Cowen Banner

Rob Cowen is an award-winning journalist and writer. He received the Roger Deakin Award for his first book Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild, and read for us this week  from his second, Common Ground. He began with a reading ‘from the beginning, which is a very good place to start.’ His reference to Alice in Wonderland set us burrowing into his own wonderland that was to follow, of March Hares (male and female, not male and male), Tarka the Otter, anthracite hills and silvergold sunrises.

Reading One


Common Ground is a book about the liminal, circling around Bilton, a patch of edge-land just outside Harrogate. It also seeks the subliminal, excavating layers of existence:  the human layers of railways, royal hunting grounds and redundancy in the recession, in a ‘world where fractions of other fractions being bet against other fractions by guys in a glass tower in Canary Wharf’; of watching a fox and documenting its smells, movements, and motivations; of lying in a hollow, senses alive to sunlight and sound, eroding the distance between human and nature in a visceral, fragile moment of connection with a roe deer; of discovering, through becoming a father, that the distance between the green of ‘nature’ and the pink and red of flesh and blood is non-existent.

Fox Reading


Seeking a place of retreat, Cowen ranges off to ‘relentlessly’ explore his edge-land; not to journey as a pilgrim, nor as the writer of a field guide, stating the density of hair follicles on an animal’s fur, Latin names for plants, or specifying species, but as a forensic investigator of place, as if divining by sense and words what had flowed through there before. He wrote, he said, 150,000 words of notes before even beginning the book. In this next reading, we hear him tracking a fox on a cold January night.



Following the fox, the map became ‘cluttered, complicated and different.’ Cowen talked with enthusiasm throughout, from comparing the paired “Twit” and “Woo” of Tawny owl calls reverberating around hills to ‘something from a Phil Spector record’, to seeing the land as a ‘prism’ through which to view ‘different times and human conditions’ of life past and present, whether it be animal, shrub or person. This merging of of viewpoints draws ‘new maps’ of connections between people and nature, and Cowen finds these by going through the edges, whether psychological, geographical or historical.  His final reading enters the realm of humans-as-animals and animals-as-humans, while rejecting a ‘Disney’ anthropomorphism; he enters the mind of the deer that jumped his body, and then allows that deer, in turn, to embody the man that hunts it. The book goes beyond the classifications of genre (something of a running theme in this term’s Reading Series), blurring the bounds and edges between memoir, fiction and non-fiction.

Afterwards there was time for questions and Cowen explained how, in Common Ground, he was looking to ‘pull about’ the dividing line between man and nature. He pointed to plant pots, paintings of landscapes, and nature television programmes to demonstrate a need to be close to nature and of how the line is not finite and concrete, if it even exists. He repeated his desire to write a ‘sense of place’ rather than a guide to viewing it. He went to extemporise on Hares, Easter eggs, land legislation and the birth of his child.

Cowen described the difficult process of reducing words down, of chiseling at them with hard work to make them into the final book. He finished by talking of the metre of a line of text, and of how if it doesn’t deliver a sense of the place it is describing, it has no purpose. This desire to communicate a rich and textured sense of a place is what energised his prose and his energetic, informed and passionate discussion of the book.



Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins

CWRS at Studio 3

CRWS Studio 3

This week’s Creative Writing Reading Series took place in Studio 3 in the Jarman Building. This was our first time in this venue and thanks, along with  a plug, are owed to Katy McGown. The thanks are for her organisation and hospitality on behalf of the School of Arts, and the plug for the ‘In Conversation’ event at the gallery on the 8th of December, with a feast of art and mince pies promised. Bookings can be made here.

In addition to the our immersion in the Stuckism exhibition in Studio 3, we were treated to film, poetry and prose from our guests this week, multimedia polymaths Rod Mengham and Marc Atkins.

Mengham Atkins banner

Rod Mengham is on the academic staff in the Faculty of English at Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books on Henry Green, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and contemporary fiction, including The Writing of Iain Sinclair (in Contemporary British Fiction,Polity Press, which he edited). He has published several volumes of poetry, including Still Moving Veer, 2014, for which Marc Atkins produced photographs.

Marc Atkins is an author of poetry, including the two volumes Logic of the Stairwell and The Prism Wall, he has published several albums of photography, including Liquid City, with Iain Sinclair. Atkins trained in Fine Art and his website has exhibitions of his  work, links to his films and a full bibliography.

Rather than describe the texts, there are links below to recordings of the readings from the evening. Below these, there are links to the short films that Atkins and Mengham produced.



Listen to Rod Mengham reading from his work on our Soundcloud page.


Listen to Marc Atkins reading from his work on our Soundcloud page.



Click on either image to be taken to Vimeo, where the videos can be viewed in full.

Filmstrip 2Filmstrip 1



Peter Riley

Peter RileyLogo CWRS black

by Dorothy Lehane

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (Shearsman, 2015). A
collection of his “Poetry Notes” columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes. He is the author of fifteen books of poetry including The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry.

Riley read from Due NorthDue North, a fascinating collection of philosophical landscape poems that present the reader with a series of images
of people walking on earth, travelling away from home; of returning soldiers, of those going out and coming back. In the Cordite Review, Mark Dickinson writes ‘One of the ways in which poetry functions within this paradoxical environment is to return to the body and to simply walk out into the world. By being in the world, through an intimacy of a thorough immersion, the poetry can radically re-engage with otherness and begin to propagate alternative ways of seeing and occupying place.’ This is precisely what occurs in Due North. The thematic continuity is autobiographical; the writing began on the eve of Riley leaving Cambridge for Yorkshire. These poems are concerned with the North of England, but more broadly with walking, how people travel though different atmospheres, cultures, how ‘things stick to your coat’. The journey is through landscape; people negotiating and moving through worlds. As Riley writes: ‘what clings to us, also falls off us.’

This isn’t the first time Riley’s work has focused on landscape: In his letter to Tony Baker dated 1991, Riley considered the impulse to include notes in his collection Alstonefield, ‘And a writing was needed, an interlinear commentary, to work the self through the fairground of its purpose and throw a shadow image back to all the rest of the known.’ (Riley, 2003, 2) These notes provide access to the author’s mind through sources and citations. Riley’s commentary in Alstonefield was a necessary supplement and offers a more thorough engagement with landscape, but common adoption of referential or explanatory footnotes risks devaluing the importance of the reader’s freedom and struggle for meaning. In Due North, language and themes are not all tied up, but instead hold echoes of things already said. Riley’s intention was to allow those echoes to continue through the whole piece, and yet the language and themes are often embedded elsewhere. This brings to mind a passage from Riley’s essay “The Creative Moment of the Poem” (Poets on Writing): ‘The poem is neither transparent nor opaque but itself a body of light. It conceals because it supersedes the light before and after it. And in this concealment it also carries: images, concepts, percepts, messages across a time gap.’


Dorothy Lehane and Steve Noyes

A poet and a novelist: Dorothy Lehane and Steve Noyes are two current PhD (Practice as Research) students at the University of Kent, both in their second year. Following on from the series’ previous readings of visceral and cerebral geographies, from roadkill to Freud, and on to the corrupting influence of the city in Montreal, our readers this week traversed the terroir of health and its private and public boundaries by utilising very different modes of textual transport.

Dorothy Lehane’s research explores social, ethical and perceptual questions surrounding permission and authorship in representational poetic practice. Her poetry examines questions concerning cultural encounters and embodied responses in the practice of disability poetry.

Steve Noyes read from his second novel, November Radio. The novel talks of cultural difference, mental health, artistic performance and corruption through the character of Wendy, in China, and Gary, in Canada.

Dorothy Image Bar

Dorothy Lehane is the author of Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, 2014) and Places of Articulation (dancing girl press 2014) and she is the founding editor of Litmus Publishing, a press exploring the intersection between science and literature.

She has read her work to audiences at the Science Museum, Wellcome Trust, the Barbican, the Roundhouse and BBC Radio Kent. Recent work appears in the SALT anthology Best of British Poetry 2015, Shearsman, and Tears in the Fence and she has work forthcoming in datableed and Long Poem Magazine.

She opens with Strömen , a German term that is used to designate flow or argument in theoretical papers. She then goes on to read, as a precursor to her final reading, Debriefed, which talks of interacting with another person’s trauma with an acute empathy. The final reading, With Your Permission, features in a forthcoming Long Poem Magazine, Dorothy’s tour de force reading left the audience hushed, and somewhat stricken.

Audio Files of Dorothy Lehane

These open in a new window.



With Your Permission

In the discussion following the readings, Lehane spoke of the dual aspect of theory and practice in her PhD work, how these can occupy distinct temporal spaces and can also interweave. She admits to enjoying writing conference papers (her ‘Xanadu’ perhaps being a non-stop conference!) and how she has drawn on this in her poetry. She discussed her interest in science and poetry: not as a means of ‘explaining’ but a desire to reframe science in a new language, as well as mining scientific discourse for its own embedded metaphors.

Steve Image Bar

Steve Noyes has published nine books of fiction and poetry, and more than a hundred journal publications in Canadian literary magazines and newspapers. His second novel, from which he reads tonight, November’s Radio, was published this year by Oolichan Books.

He is currently working on a long novel for his PhD concerning new age religion and systems of belief. Over the years he has worked at many jobs, including editor, parking lot attendant, printing press grunt and disabilities advocate. More recently, he has taught English in Chinese universities several times and spent more than a decade as a policy analyst in the BC Ministry of Health.

November’s Radio juxtaposes two narratives: Wendy’s, an artist who has abandoned her lover Gary to seek fulfilment in China, and Gary’s, left behind in Canada and struggling with anxiety. In the first reading, Wendy meets with two Chinese performance artists, who she will go on to work with on a moving hologram installation; in the second, Gary meets the sinister Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Wellbeing, where he works. Noyes points out that he was interested in the different ‘styles of corruption’ in Chinese and Canadian cultures, and that this informed the comic tone and satirical intent of the book. He uses his knowledge of statistical methods, drug studies and the politics of the treatment of different illnesses to inform his work.

Audio files of Steve Noyes

These open in a new window.

Audio of first reading (opens in new window)

Audio of second reading (opens in new window)

In the discussion following the readings Steve was asked why he wanted to do a PhD. He explained that he wanted to get out of his job in the Ministry of Health (it turns out his satirical ‘Ministry of Wellbeing’ is not so far removed as we might think), and to spend more time on the literary strand of his life. He also had an idea for a much longer book (700 pages so far!) and wanted to pursue writing with more time to edit, and to think in more detail about both the structure and the intellectual underpinnings of this complex work. He also wanted to visit England as it’s where his father was born.

Both writers welcomed the opportunity to read to their peers, and have been warmly welcomed to the graduate community at Kent.





Rowena Macdonald

Following Professor Iain Sinclair’s reading last week comes another author whose reading and conversation touches on the relationship of story and place, and also on the working life of the writer. Rowena Macdonald gave a very generous reading at the Creative Writing Reading Series last Tuesday evening comprising a reading of ‘The New Chef’, a short story from her collection Smoked Meat. The book is set in Montreal and are linked with themes of how the city can corrupt a person and also by characters appearing in various cameos throughout the whole.

Following Professor Iain Sinclair’s reading at the Creative Writing Reading Series last week comes another author whose reading and conversation touched on the relationship of story and place, and also on the working life of the writer. Rowena Macdonald gave a very generous reading on Tuesday evening of ‘The New Chef’, a short story from her collection Smoked Meat. The book is set in Montreal and comprises a set of stories linked through setting, theme, and recurring characters.

Her reading features Sean, the new chef at Chez Nannigan’s (MacDonald apologised in advance repeatedly for what turned out to be a respectable approximation of an Irish burr):

Alternative link to audio

Macdonald explained that the material for the book was gathered while she lived in Montreal, working without a visa for cash-in-hand, and written when she returned to England, finding it easier to exorcise her experiences having formed a distance from the place. (Conversely, she had written a novel set on the Isle of Wight, where she is from, while in Montreal.) The stories take place in the ‘demi-Monde’ of Montreal’s bars, restaurants, galleries and the down-at-heel neighbourhoods where her characters can afford the rent; she explained that Montreal at the time was a cheap, bohemian place to stay, and she wanted to ‘capture the particular milieu that [she] was living in.’ She spoke of the routine sexual harassment she experienced from staff and customers while working as a waitress, and of being an alien, working illegally amid the multi-cultural milieu of the city.

The book does not follow a single narrative, but adopts a close third person point of view throughout. Macdonald explained that the book was not through-composed and she didn’t set out to write interlinked stories when she began. She started with ‘Down to Rue Beaudry’, which ended up fourth in the collection, and worked towards the final story of the book, ‘The Life and Soul’, which she described as an homage to James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

The reading was followed as ever by questions. MacDonald explained that she had also written two novels, one of which is currently with her agent. She put forward that novels are far more commercially viable and perhaps the place she should have started. Her view of the short story is that it is perhaps perceived as a more ‘high brow’, more writerly form than the novel, which is a ‘big immersive experience.’ She went on to say that prefers stylistic writing and writers to plot, citing James Joyce, again, and Katherine Mansfield as examples.

She spoke about the perseverance needed to succeed as a writer, restating maxims she had heard along the way and found useful, such as getting to the desk to approach writing as work. She quoted Margaret Thatcher, with reluctant enthusiasm, as saying, ‘It’s amazing what you can get done in an hour’. She described at length the determination needed to find agency representation and subsequent publication, dealing with rejection and and not expecting ‘lucky breaks’; and, echoing Professor Sinclair’s advice last week, she urged upon budding writers in the audience: ‘you have to really want to do it.’

Rowena Macdonald has a new collection of stories due for publication by Influx Press next year.


Iain Sinclair

Professor Iain Sinclair at the Creative Writing Reading Series, 13th October

Picture of Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair, who joins the School of English as our first ever Guest Professor of Creative Writing for the next three years, took us on a journey last Tuesday through the writer’s territory, reading from his books London Overground: A Days Walk Around the Ginger Line and Black Apples of Gower. But the evening was not simply a book reading, nor reminiscence, nor an inside look at his method, although it was all of these things; Professor Sinclair’s talk spanned dimensions of past and present, shamanic caves and dead pigeons, the warp and weft of his seemingly extempore narrative taking in text, analysis, cultural history and personal anecdotes, from his beginnings in self-publishing in the 1970s to his current position at Kent.
He opened with a question of positioning; where would his books appear in a book shop? These days he most often ends up in travel writing, but his approach to writing remains the same as it was when he wrote books described as ‘novels’: to tell a story, and to do so in unexpected ways that resist generic categorisation. Regardless of any notion of genre, he aims in all of his writing to avoid the manipulation and conditioned reflexes associated with familiar narrative patterns.

He referred to his book London Orbital as an exorcism by walking, and of taking enormous, gigantic walks that define life. He outlined his writing as being in four movements: the first looks to start placing the reader somewhere physically which allows them to adjust to the microclimate; the second begins some kind of quest or movement and momentum; the third is a ‘dark night of the soul that tries to undo the simplicity of the journey’; the fourth is ‘getting away from what you’ve created or, generally, thinking into the next book—so there’s a kind of eternal project and the obligation to write for this thing goes on: one book is only an incident along a long chain of incidents that inform a life.’ (He tells us that London Overground had begun as a pilgrimage to Canterbury and he had ended up following the railway line instead, before ending at a place that took him to his next book.)

Audio of reading one: opens new window

He goes on to quote Pynchon, ‘riffing’ in a similar vein:

Off they go on a tour of the inexhaustible galleries of New York annoyance, zapping loudmouths on cellular phones, morally self-elevated bicycle riders, moms wheeling twins old enough to walk lounging in twin strollers…

In the case of London Overground, which he walked with his friend and collaborator the film-maker Andrew Kötting, Sinclair was going from the known to the unknown, from the microclimate of East London via the Overground to the parts of London he is less familiar with. He recalled passing the front door of Angela Carter and then remembering how, while he was working as a book dealer, he had visited her and been shown her stash of unsold books that had been returned by her publisher; she signed a sackful for him which he sold off to fans and ‘cultists.’ This story is emblematic of the movement and energy of the evening; providing layered and interleaved insights into the changing urban landscape of London, the shifts and vagaries of the books market, the writing process, and a long and deep-seated commitment to a writing life. It takes a ‘special kind of energy’ to pursue and persist in being a writer, he explained. When it works well there is ‘an otherness’; there must be a seriousness to storytelling and a desire to take readers along for the journey.

His next reading departed from the sinister dune structures in Milwall, where nobody can be seen except a ‘few people walking pitbulls’ against the ‘whispering presence’ of the railway.

Audio of reading two: opens new window

We journeyed from hipster-ville present to Freud’s Hampstead, to Virginia Woolf and Sherlock Holmes, via the caves formed by the railway arches around the ‘Ginger Line’. He delivered an anecdote of visiting the house where Rimbaud lived with Verlaine. Another example of curious and incongruous layering: he stepped inside to see a huge poster of Margaret Thatcher, only to be assured by the house’s current owner, ‘Dont worry, Im not Conservative, Im UKIP, Im UKIP.’  Sinclair commented on this vignette: ‘He has turned again this house into a museum of this moment.’


Audio of reading three: opens new window

This reading, like the other two before it, was delivered with great energy and urgency. He went on to admire this same trait in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel London Bridge, commenting that it contains a “mad energy” that no English writer has got near to since Dickens. He described London Overground as neither fiction nor essays but ‘a kind of docu-fictional seizure’ placing it within a formal tradition that harks back to Bunyan—a journey which is at once literal and figurative, an exploration of self as territory.

His fourth and final reading, from Black Apples of Gower, took us far from London to the Gower Peninsula. This book concerns a landscape that is ‘very primal, very savage and very unknowable’, a place that allows the release of identity, in which he explores an idea that he had in London, of our ‘cave of origin.’ Black Apples of Gower is named after a series of paintings by the artist Ceri Richards, and Sinclair recounted how he walked the limestone coastline, seeking a way in to Paviland Cave, which he describes in his reading.

Audio of reading four: opens new window

With the closing of his fourth reading, we were left in the cave as he finally attained it, but also, in this fourth movement of the talk, invited into the next book, as if the next may well be our own, an invitation to continue our own Eternal Project of writing.

David and Iain

With time for questions, Professor Sinclair was asked by a student what his role was to be at the School of English.

‘I’ve been to Kent a couple of times and found that it has a much better vibe, as we used to say, than most places I’ve been to,’ he said. ‘There’s something good about it. It’s the presence of poets and the nature of the things around and its pitch, if I can call it that, of looking towards Europe—and all of those things are attractive.

‘The job is to be available to anybody who feels they can respond or get something of use from my presence and what I’ve done. And I’d be very happy to engage either one-to-one or in groups. I mean, I’ve only been here for two days: I’ve given two talks; introduced a film; and took a seminar in poetry where there was one poetry student; and a seminar in fiction. I’m learning a lot! What can I bring? We’ll see. I’m here for three years.’

If this reading to Kent students, staff and members of the public is anything to go by, it was well worth the wait for his pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Chris Scott