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

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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.’


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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.

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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


Carrie Etter


Carrie Etter – who as well as being an acclaimed poet, is also senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa and editor of the important anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets – read last Wednesday from her third collection, Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), some of the poems of which were part of a pamphlet from Oystercatcher called The Son, which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.

This collection of prose poems reflects upon giving up her son for adoption when she was seventeen – though, Etter said, she wanted to find her way to writing of difficult emotional experience that wasn’t confessional. She used, she said, in her early twenties, to write confessional poems – and confessional poems on this subject – but she has since found that by focusing on direct personal narrative, which often focuses on event– the hallmark of the confessional – she was not able to achieve her aim, that of bringing consciousness of the day-to-day experience of loss through in the collection. There is also a concern for the reader’s ability to access or feel, emotion, in works that are explicitly concerned with it. The best way, Etter said, to let the reader into emotion is not to tell of the emotion but evoke it for the reader to be able to experience it for herself.

This is achieved in the collection by a carefully structured pattern of four ‘Imagined Sons’ poems – in which meeting between herself and her son are imagined, sometimes told in a direct realist style, as in ‘Imagined Sons 11: The Friend (Part 1)’:

Coming out on the other side, I’m surprised I see no people, no one visible in the distance,      only low sones, tablets of grey and black, occasionally a white cross, and I apprehend this is a –

And often filtered through fairytale, and, particularly Greek myth, as in ‘Imagined Sons 16: Narcissus’:

I break into sobs, and when the water of my tears laps at my feet, I know I’m here to drown us both

In other places, this refraction through myth becomes more riotous, as in the surrealist ‘Imagined Sons 9: Greek Salad’, a modern Metamorphoses in which her son, transformed into an olive tree for raping the keeper of the god’s olive grove, appears as an olive in her Greek salad. Having listened to him start to talk about the emotional neglect of his now keeper, Etter cuts him off, mid-whine, by eating him:

‘Delicious,’ I say to the waiter, swallowing the small olive whole. ‘Just delicious.’

The poems have their own logics, avoid any singular way of seeing or thinking about the experience of imagining encountering her son – she was surprised, Etter said, by the fact that she ate the olive – she hadn’t started the poem intending to, yet she was sure about it’s psychological accuracy, the way it followed through the logic of the poem.

These imagined son poems are then carefully divided by ten ‘Birthmother’s Catechisms’, so that every four imagined sons poems are followed by a catechism, which also bookend the collection. These catechisms came later than the imagined sons poems – it took a long time, said Etter, to realize that the question and response form of this genre of religious instruction was the right form to raise questions not only that weren’t able to be explored in the imagined sons format, but which were raised by that format. Consequently, these catechisms constitute a form of self-questioning (rather than, as with the religious model from which Etter takes her form, a mnemonic for learning answers by rote):

How did you let him go?

A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?

In a collection that scrutinizes many imagined sons and encounters with them, these poems of self-scrutiny are, I would say, necessary. Etter too thinks so, saying that one editor who loved the imagined sons poems didn’t like the catechisms, thought they were a ‘mistake’. But Etter found them, not only necessary, but necessary as a regular structuring device, giving a more complete sense of the day-to-day experience of loss a birthmother has. This very careful ordering, led to questions of editing and ordering, which Etter impressed was far more necessary than many people would often think – the order of poems, whether in a collection, magazine, or anthology, affects how, and whether they are read. Don’t, she said, start any publication with a twelve-page poem.

Etter and Patricia Debney, who was hosting, also talked about the form of the prose poem – a form in which Kent runs the only module in the country. Coming to a definition of poetry that focused on sensibility, rather than forming words into lines – they suggested that the difference between a lyric poem (including a prose poem) and prose was down to whether you were interested in telling a story or in investigating ideas – which, they agreed, was the work of the lyric poem.




Amy Cutler


In what was one of our highest tech readings so far, Amy Cutler provided an excitingly interdisciplinary event, applying poetic techniques of collage and erasure to film, text, diagrams and graphs: most frequently, though not exclusively, putting the disciplines of geography (her PhD, in geography, was on the coast and forest in modern British poetry) the philosophy of memory, an interest in materiality and in gender in conjunction through her practice. The result is a poetry that is intelligent and thoughtful about its own processes, with an impressive sense of scope – every project was different, employed different media and processes, – and an accompanying sense of depth. These works, both individually and taken together, are focussed and important, providing different ways of investigating, for example , and this was the thread that ran clearest for me through the work , the processes of memory.

Cutler’s first piece was a film and text montage that put pressure on the gendered subtext running through her source material, and the language of memory: –she said, of the French films she was using: ‘the hunt for memory in these clichés is also a hunt for a woman, recherche femme, the woman for whom Ridder becomes the subject of a time loop experiment in Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), for whom the man journeys back to the still image of his own death in Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and for whom X dreams of Marienbad’. ‘Toast’, which Cutler read later, published in Litmus magazine, also focused its interests on the clichés of romantic memory and in aphasia, the speech condition in which impedes your ability to select the right word:

Language leaks through various holes in the skull / who’d have thought

we’d still be trying to be faithful/any of us can live on if we try / let’s say

any one of us / with one drink left on the late edges of a very cold night

Another poem, ‘Chanson’, riffed on two lines by Jacques Brel: Cutler explaining an interest in memory paradoxes through the words ‘I’ll never forget you’: which, whilst true when said in the moment of saying, has its truth invalidated by later loss of memory.

Next, Cutler read from an erasure poem: an erasure of the index of first lines of R S Thomas’s Later Poems. She was inspired, she said, by finding what she felt was a brilliant few lines of poetry:

cutlerc text

on reading the index. The idea, she said, was to ‘make a love affair’ from them – to develop a love story out of the quite often religious texts of Thomas and of his love affair with the landscape of Wales, a love affair that talked to the idea, and this is why the later poems were used, was concerned with memory, with looking back at the end of life.

R. S. Thomas’s actual poetry, of course, is the antithesis of the sort of process-based practice that Culter puts his words through – which is part of the fun of it – she was interested, she said, in the strange figure that gets constructed in his poems which isn’t there in his poems – the way a different kind of poetic can emerge, by happenstance, out of what most people would regard as the material around his work, rather than the work itself. She enjoyed, too, the way in which the internal logic of the generic form she had chosen to inhabit, the index, created the movement of tone in the poem – which changes according to the alphabet – particularly, for example, around the letter ‘I’.

The materiality of the book, and its paratexts – marginalia and appendices, is of particular interest to Cutler, both in her research and in her marginal remarks around the readings of her poems. She talked about sharing experiences of making books as children, about her clear memory of the first time she ever encountered a footnote (-in the Moomins – it told her that if she didn’t understand a particular part of the story, she should get an adult to explain it to her. As no adult could offer an explanation beyond the understanding she had of the text – as she had fully understood it – this footnote created for her the sense of there being inaccessible knowledge that she was denied access to). This interest in paratext provides the form for an exhibition Cutler is curating in Leeds in June, called, Forest Expectation Sites, in which a series of artists and poets will create responses to the work of the poet Peter Larkin, creating a contemporary and artistic collections of adversaria, a Renaissance term for scholars’ annotations.

Cutler then read a collaborative piece that had been written in 2014 for the Polish Cultural Institute in protest against the fact that polish bishops had recently announced that all mothers should breastfeed, and that there was no way of distinguishing between sex or gender in Polish. Taking a polish instruction manual for breastfeeding, she and her co-translator translated and retranslated until the text started to deconstruct and critique itself, often in very amusing ways.

Again showing an interest in the relationships between languages, and in cultural memory in the guise of fairy-tale, Cutler read a poem of names for Rumpelstiltskin . The tale exists in many different European countries, but Rumpelstiltskin, whose power resided in his refusal to tell his name, is called by a different name in every language – not just a different name, but names with entirely different etymologies and meanings.

I’ll go with Shortribs, Sheepshanks, or Laceleg: a poor girl’s milling tune. I think

I’ve forgotten him now. Dear, it’s not possible to kill off anything in rumpled words

The latter part of the reading was more obviously concerned with Culter’s interest in geographical science and in the potentials of interdisciplinarity. Talking about Douglas Oliver’s diagram poems, she said diagrams (and this offers really interesting potential for understanding how her interest in translation relates to her other interests) are ‘machines of translation’, they enable you to move between disciplines, to create new thought. What is also important in this creation of new thought, is the bringing together of different media, creating new ways in which they communicate with and inflect off one another – Land Diagrams,  an online series, curated by Cutler, in which writers respond the same visual encodings of landscape, is one example of this, and it is the crucial operation of her chapbook Nostalgia Forest (which she closed her reading with), from Oystercatcher Press  in which dendrochronological (tree-ring reading) diagrams are put against fragments of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (2000).


Here the interplay between the diagrams displaying how the history of a tree can be read from its physical form – rings, scars, incline – and a text on the functions of human memory poses questions about the materiality of memory, how the past is experienced in the present. Both diagrams and text are ‘found’ materials – it is in the moving between that new thought is created.





Linda Grant

linda grant

Linda Grant was at the Creative Writing Reading Series on Wednesday to read from and talk about her latest book, Upstairs at the Party, a campus novel set in an new university in the early seventies – a university that, though unnamed, is clearly the University of York, where Grant herself went as an undergraduate in the early seventies – it was then, she said, eight years old, with only 2,700 students.

Though Grant dismissed the tendency of critics and interviewers to search for autobiography in her books – describing it as a ‘modernish idea about authenticity’, this novel, given its setting in time and place, clearly has a quasi-autobiographical setting, even if the events – leading up to, and then exploring the repercussions of, a tragic event that happens upstairs at a party – are not necessarily – though it seemed to me that they perhaps also were closer than Grant explicitly said. However, this seemed needful to Grant in this novel – which seemed to be focused around trying to understand her generation – and finding that to do so, she needed to go back, in her own words to the intimate place in people’s lives they return to, their formative influences’. She was interested, she said, in her generation’s idealism and what became of it – and the novel, and her thoughts on it, seem permeated with the ideologies of the early seventies.

She described this time, at first. as the dead period between the sixties and punk, but it soon became clear that to her, and for many, this was in intensely active time, a time of heated left wing politics among her generation – of feminism, Marxism, explorations of gender and sexual identities – a time when Peter Hitchens could be found on campus hectoring fellow students into taking the Marxist pamphlets he was handing out. Grant now, and in the novel, her narrator, maintains a skepticism towards the fervor of these ideologies – it is clear that this was a time of political experimentation with identity – which is perhaps why she describes it as dead – its experimentation and ardor being both something potentially damaging to individuals, and something that has had long term societal legacies. The age perhaps needed, she said, those that would experiment with and discover the boundaries of these ideologies and identities, and those who fall off the edge.

This, she said, was what differentiates her novel from other campus novels – it is the opposite to Brideshead, the novel, she said, that they were all reading at the time, because, at York, the halls of academe didn’t really exist: the students themselves were actively creating the mythology and themselves. York, she said, was fascinating, in its ideology that totalitarianism could be defeated by the amalgamation of arts and sciences in a collegiate system built from concrete and centered around a plastic-bottomed lake. There wasn’t, she said, really any pastoral care, its students were left to sink or swim on their own. And many of them sank.

Asked about the relation of her work to the historical novel – given that Upstairs at the Party is, like her other novels, set post World War II – that is to say in the relatively recent past, Grant replied that she is far more interested in in what she feels she thinks of as modern times – with WWII providing a cut off point – she wouldn’t she said, ever write a novel set during WWII, she’d find it too like dress up, but the legacy of that war, and post world war reconstruction is something that very clearly she thinks of as part of what h some to define modernity.

She was asked too, about likeable characters – citing Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist as an excellent example of a brilliant novel with no likeable characters. The popularity of the likeable character, of someone you can root for, she dismissed, saying the questions you should ask of your characters are: are they alive? are they interesting? is their monstrousness interesting? do you recognize their flaws/mistakes? If you want to make friends, she said, don’t go to fiction, go to a party.



David Nicholls


David Nicholls kicked off the Creative Writing Reading Series for the Spring term, reading and discussing his novels and screenplays to a room packed to standing room only. David started the evening by reading the first page – and the first chapter – of his latest novel Us (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014): Douglas Petersen, Nicholls’s narrator, is woken in the middle of the night and told by his wife that she is leaving him. A grim end to start with, though the tone was resolutely comic – the way shocking news can often fail to register, being so outside daily experience that it can be incomprehensible, was deftly observed: Douglas at first thinks his wife is, as she often does, asking him to check for burglars, and so dutifully checks the house for intruders before she has to repeat herself to get the message across.

This beginning puts us in rather different territory to Nicholls’s previous novels which, though they similarly often focus on relationships, track the beginnings of romance in younger couples – as was the premise in One Day, which followed the protagonists’ relationship over twenty years from university into their early forties. Us, said Nicholls, is an older book – citing a mixture of parenthood and the fact that he didn’t feel as confident, now in his mid-forties, in writing as convincing a contemporary twenty-something as he could when he was twenty-something. This was the first time, he said, he had tried to write someone older than himself: Douglas is in his mid-fifties, and not only the birth of Nicholls’s children, but the death of his father – which occurred some months into the writing of Us – have clearly had their impact upon it, the novel’s emotional core turns, with a turn in point of view, to the father-son relationship between Douglas and his son Albie.

Pressed on this potential correspondence between life and art by Alex Preston, Nicholls talked in some depth about the relation of his father’s death to the final shape and focus of the novel – which is dedicated to him. Whilst insistent that his relationship with his father – though difficult and troubled – was not identical, or even particularly similar in fact to Douglas and Albie’s relationship, this did raise the question of whether it is possible to write something you haven’t thought or felt. Nicholls’s conclusion on this was to say ‘there isn’t a single moment [in the novel] where I could say ‘that happened’, yet [his relationship with his father] overshadows the writing’. He also pointed to his use of incidents, thoughts or emotions in his own life which he has used in his novels, but transposed, projected onto other characters, scenarios and relationships – if one cannot write something alien to one’s thoughts or feelings, those emotions are always twisted, or disguised, by the operations of fiction. Although his characters, he said, were hardly ever based on people he knows, ‘little bits of myself come through’. When he does use others, he said, it is often actors – because what he takes in trying to create a character isn’t so much incidents or personalities but performance, mannerisms or rhythm – a physicality. He gave the example of Rafe Spall, who inspired some aspects of Ian in One Day, then later played him in the film.

Despite this being in some ways an older novel than his previous books, this distinction is not altogether straightforward – Great Expectations, Nicholls pointed out (Nicholls’s referents and roots are in clearly in the nineteenth century realist novel, which can be seen not just from his content and style, but his epigrams – James, Hardy, and his screenwriting CV – adapting, among others, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd for television), is always thought of as a book of youth, but it’s narrated by a 55 year old man. Similarly, Nicholls described Us as ‘a travelogue in place and time’: it has two presents at once. If we start in a point of time and space – Connie telling Douglass she is leaving him – we then get two stories, one about this break up, and one about their relationship, from when they first met.

Nicholls talked about how he had consciously attempts to keep himself on his toes following the successes of his previous books – if you have a success, he said, the temptation is either to do the same again, or to do something entirely different – the trick is to try to do something in between. In order to avoid predictability, and this was a point as much to do with genre as his relation to his other books, he has to play games with structure, to misdirect – which he often does with time structures and point of view. Point of view is clearly something that preoccupies him: Us is his second novel written in the first person, the first being Starter for Ten. Nicholls’s aim in Us for this point of view is the exact opposite of his previous use of it: whilst Brian in Starter for Ten has similarities to Nicholls, Douglas is rather different, Douglass’s character and occupation as a scientist allowed Nicholls to challenge his ability to write in the first person – he was interested, he said, in writing, in the form of fiction about someone who didn’t value fiction, in writing about art through someone who wasn’t confident doing so. In some ways, also, Nicholls said, he wanted Douglas to be an anti-Dexter, the male lead character in One Day, and writing him in the first rather than third person helped him create those distinctions. Nicholls talked too about the difficulties in narration of One Day – a narrative written in the third person past tense, which put pressure on his writing. In the first person, banality is allowed; the narrative is a reflection of a character’s personality. Third person doesn’t allow for this. A first person novel, however, requires a getting into character, the assumption of a voice. Tellingly, Nicholls said this was his quickest novel to write – nine months, but that it took him four years of writing to get to those nine months. The novel started out, he said, as a much more spiteful and angry book about father and son.

The book is written rather differently, too, from his previous novels, comprising of 180 short chapters- Nicholls said he wanted to aim for a series of vignettes, or snapshots, creating an impression like flicking through a family photo album. This particular form would seem to be heavily influenced, not only by the content of the book, but by Nicholls’s background as a screenwriter – your average screenplay, he said, comprises 180 short scenes, ruthlessly edited: in screenwriting you are constantly being asked by others ‘do we need this scene?’ – it is clear that he sees screenwriting as something which has given him concision. And plotting too – Nicholls talked about how, in adapting his books into screenplays, he would immediately give his team a scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter breakdown of action, something they seemed surprised to get from an author. But these plot-breakdowns seem to be essential to Nicholls’s writing: he can’t, write, at least well, he said, without having first prepared structure and plot – which also goes some way to explaining the time proportions of the planning and writing of this novel!

It was clear that Nicholls credits screenwriting with developing much of his ability and style as a novelist – he claims to be influenced by Woody Allen as much as Dickens – and he sees many of his authorial techniques as equivalent to filmic devices. He described his epigrams, for example, as equivalent to captions in a movie – suggesting a tone, creating a distance from the action. His dialogue, he said, is also more immediately sharper, improvisatory, and requires less editing than other aspects of his writing. However, he also talked about the difficulties he had in adapting his own books into films. Asked by a student what the goal is in adapting a book, he agreed that often fidelity is the enemy of a good adaptation – that you need to make something that works with the potentials of its own medium. For example, he said, during a scene where Emma and Dexter have an awful dinner in One Day, in the book, one can access Dexter asking himself why he’s acting like this. In a film, of course, this is unmanageable – you have to rely on the actor to do the novelist’s work, and if the screenwriter is too tied into the novel they perhaps won’t see how to make the transition work. He also expressed discomfort around genre – saying that initially he found it uncomfortable that he was pressured into changing the ending of Starter for Ten for the film into something that more closely resembled the genre of romantic comedy – in his novels, he said, he always tries to avoid, or play with, the expectations of genre. However, he said that the also feels the film needed to end that way, the expectations and structure of film demanded a different ending to that required by the novel. He’s wary, for example, he said of someone making a speech that changes someone’s mind, of the last-minute airport dash – no-one’s mind, he said, is ever changed by this in real life, but then, he said, this isn’t quite real life. Novels, and films, give meaning and structure to a life that doesn’t have that – one of the reasons that he often tries to undercut the reader’s expectations – sometimes, as in One Day and Us, very dramatically. We didn’t get to find out, in the case of Us, how dramatically, so we were left, as I now leave you, on a cliffhanger.


Open Mic

The last Creative Writing reading series of the term offered us the chance to hear some of the current undergraduate and postgraduate students read their work at the open mic night.

Duncan MacKay, first-year PhD student, artist and poet (his work can be found at Poetsdoos, Enigma, PN Review and ZONE magazine, his artwork is held in collections at CERN and NASA and exhibited locally through the Lilford Gallery) kicked the night off by reading three short lyrics. Duncan is also a research fellow is astrophysics, and his poems use innovative poetic techniques to interrogate scientific methodology, and scientific language to disrupt poetic form, though he also has a more lyrical – what he described as ‘Zen-y’ – mode, which came across in ‘Refuge from a Sudden Shower’.

Polina Orlova read a poem responding to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land called ‘Water’, which investigated many of the tropes of the original poem.


Olivia Pinkney read a poem called ‘Body’, which interrogated the objectification of the female body, and women’s relations to their bodies – the repeated refrain ‘my body is not my own’ morphing by the end of the poem into ‘I am not my body’.

Katie Szyszko got the prose readings off to an excellent start, reading a tautly-written prose piece which explored childhood memory, family relations and diaspora experience in both funny and moving ways – reflecting upon her changing relation to her Grandparents’ orthodox faith.


Joe Hill read one of the lightest ‘Dirges’ I’ve yet to hear: a response to his mother telling him that he would have to have children or face being alone, his poem, which started out by seeming to be about his inability to relate to children used a perfectly pitched repetition to achieve a humorous twist at the end of the poem.

Tom Parsons read a poem-critique of Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood, examining the premises of identification and universality that he sees as underpinning the film of ‘this young man with memories you could own’:

I wanted to see him mainline heroin

Or kill a friend

Or just alienate himself from others

In a way that wasn’t cool or introspective


Neelam Saredia read two new poems – Neelam is a very accomplished performance poet whose clever observational poems are delivered with energy and panache  – she’s always an enjoyable poet to watch.


Chris Scott, a second year PhD student, read two scenes from his novel Intermission – the first a dialogue, and the second a visually descriptive piece which used short and, most particularly, sentences composed of three adjectives, to great effect.


I read some new Sappho translations out with Molly Bloom in January & which will be performed more fully at the Centre for Gender, Sexuality & Writings LGBT week from the 16-20th February.


Maryam Ala Amjadi read an excellent poem ‘What meets the eye may run from the mouth’, soon to be published in the next issue of the feminist magazine Hysteria, which also offered a feminist reading of the body and perception.

Then, after wine and mince pies, it was time to wish each other a merry Christmas and say goodbye until next term, when we have another fabulous rostra of writers lined up for the series.


Mark Waugh


This week the Creative Writing Reading series welcomed Mark Waugh, author of the cult novels, Come and Bubble Ententre,  and a writer who also has his foot very firmly in the modern art world: he is currently Head of Innovation and Research at DACS, Chair of Spacex Gallery Exeter and board member of Photoworks and Brighton Photo biennial. He is an associate advisor of SUUM and Producer of the International Curators Forum.

Waugh is an experimental, bold and highly amusing writer – if his interests are highly theoretical – a close understanding of not only what Derrida meant when he said ‘there is no outside-text’, but what that continues to mean in our daily lives was very much in evidence – they are only so inasmuch as this helps us understand the culture in which we live – and an Waugh’s eye is always on consumer culture, on drug culture, on porn. This places high value on text, of course, as a form of intervention into culture – Waugh’s main aim, he says, is to ask what a text means after we’re immersed in text as our means of navigating the world.

His books are experimental in very different ways – 1997’s Come is a deliberately small, square book, with irregular typographical layout and non sequential sentence that end in very different places to where they began. The layout, Waugh said, was intended to encourage the reader to feel that they could approach the whole novel non-sequentially – just picking it up and looking at a page, then putting it down perhaps flicking to another – illustrating an interest in deconstructing narrative that perhaps owes something to his involvement in the production and practices of art-books, and the production of images. The layout, he said, is a game with the reader

2009’s Bubble Entendre, too, has its relation to the art book – the Semina series, published by Book Works, publishes experimental prose and is named after the series of nine loose-leaf magazines issued by Californian beat artist Wallace Berman in the 1950s and 1960s. Berman is considered by many to be a pioneer of assemblage art – the magazines mixed collaged artworks with poetry by Allen Ginsberg, Jean Cocteau and many others. The design of the book itself reflects other concerns – that it is a yellow book was deliberate – a nod to another leading light in the history of avant-garde publishing – though the image is, of course, rather unlike the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. Waugh seemed to take some joy in this disruption, and the disruption the books cover must cause to its reader’s experience – would you take it on the tube? he wondered.


Come has a particular interest in club and drug culture – and the question around these – as with Waugh’s interest in porn – is always in the question ‘what is the significance of this? ‘, & the novel explores the wider political and social implications of fashions in drug culture – MDMA for example, Waugh said, came into fashion post-AIDS, and this trend for a drug which generates pleasure without stimulating sexual desire thus registers late twentieth-century anxieties around sexuality, non-mainstream community, and pleasure.

With porn, Waugh is both interested in how the concept of porn sits historically – in a lineage from De Sade through Bataille – and how a book operates differently to the internet – a transcription of youporn in a book will be a different thing to the video – not merely because of a difference between motion picture and text, but due to the object of the book, and the differing ways in which both mediums are policed and relate to questions of authority. Waugh recounted a story of how Book Works’s copies of Bubble entendre, destined for the New York book fair, were confiscated by the New York customs on suspicion of being a manual for terrorism. Conversely – the domain – at least printed – of porn – Penthouse magazine – has, perhaps because of the relation of porn to concepts of taste ad morality – has proved, at least historically, more open-minded to aesthetic innovation than one would expect – publishing some of Waugh’s more experimental fiction along with his partner’s art work.

Why might the New York customs office have suspected that Bubble Entendre was a manual for terrorism? The book – more traditionally plot driven than Come, although this plot is played with and chronologically disrupted and overlaid in order to disturb the reader’s sense of temporality – is set in a 2012 takeover of Claridge’s during the Olympics, putting, Waugh said, our fear of terrorism alongside the tedium of sport. Set in a time which is in our past, but at its writing and publication a point in the near future – the novel’s setting produces an odd glitch in time- a future already a past: Waugh said his aim was to create a dystopian novel set so closely in the future that it would very quickly become ridiculous by its own standards – when that future arrived differently. Half the fun, then, for the reader as well as for Waugh reading back with hindsight, is to see what in 2009 looked liked the landscape of 2012 and read it with a knowledge of 2012 – a scene, as Waugh points out, where one character asks another if they haven’t seen their face in News of the World has a completely different force given the events of 2011, and creates a surrealism completely beyond the author’s control. Which, it seems, is something he particularly relishes.