ONE 9 • Conversations: Kirsty Gunn & Martin Belk

Kirsty Gunn is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Dundee. Her novel ‘The Boy and the Sea’ was awarded the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award.
James Kelman, friend of Kirsty Gunn, included an afterword in the new edition of his short story collection An Old Pub Near the Angel where he relates the story of how in 1974 his father, a picture-framer and gilder to trade (7 years of an apprenticeship and continuing application as a journeyman), was no longer allowed to practise picture restoration because it was suddenly deemed that a University degree in Fine Art had become the only suitable qualification for his craft.
Kelman suggests that a similar institutionalization has occurred with literature and publishing in the UK and worldwide, with the advent of formal Creative Writing courses. He observes:
“It is preferable that the practice engaged in by the students is not described as ‘creating art’. That is too ambiguous, not only does it imply ‘freedom’, it suggests a distinction may be drawn between literary art and what they themselves practise…Conformity, convention, homogeneity at all costs; arise Ye Standard English Literary Form. The values being stamped as a template within this field of endeavour, ‘Creative Writing’, act as though designed to destroy diversity. […] For all I know, ‘Creative Writing’ has its roots in a 1950s CIA/M16 propaganda project relating”
These insights formed the basis for a conversation with ONE Editor Martin Belk, joined by Udith Dematagoda and Stewart McCarthy.
MB: So you were talking about Dundee…
KG: Yeah, what I wanted to do there- this is a really gorgeous Scottish word: scunnered – I was scunnered with Creative Writing programmes. A bit like Kelman talks about. You know this thing of putting kids on track to publish their wretched novels. All they care about is a publishing plan and being published for the sake of being published. Whatever became of being an artist? So what I said was, I went along to my interview at Dundee and I said I don’t believe in Creative Writing Programmes, which I don’t. But what I do believe in is that you can create a creative environment in which art happens. One in which people
can make writing that, yes, sometimes can be published, but that’s not what it’s entirely all about. Do you know the Black Mountain school?
MB: No.
KG: Carolina. You should know about this…
MB: Oh Black Mountain! Yes!
KG:…and what happened at Black Mountain, there was a bunch of
runaway teachers and artists who became very disillusioned with the way art was becoming a commodity, was becoming something owned by the academy. They ran away and took over a beautiful youth hostel association building in Carolina and they set up camp there. And they made the most important work, some of the most important work that came out of the Modernist period. So Twombly was there, Motherwell was involved, the most gorgeous poets: Crowley, Creeley and John Crowe-Ransom.
KG: I know we were talking about New York earlier and a lot of that new vigour came out of that Black Mountain thing because it was all about Modernism, about creating something live and making it happen then and there and that became something valuable in its own right. So, all of these things I talked about at my interview. I’m not interested in Iowa workshops or workshopping. Yuck! Don’t we hate it when nouns turn into verbs? And the idea of a bunch of kids sitting around workshopping their prose, to my mind, is creating literature by committee. So we don’t have a single one of those kinds of workshops at Dundee. What we have, and Stewart can talk about this better because he’s been blooded on the programme at Dundee, but what we have are these really practical, highly creative workshops where kids create material. I’m always aware that I talk a lot so just…
MB: Well I’m letting you go because I’m from the south and if somebody takes the pulpit over and the choir’s ‘amen’-ing, I’m ‘amen’-ing.
MB: I was aware of the Black Mountain business but because my parents were very conservative Presbyterians from the south I was sheltered from a lot of that. So my working knowledge artistically really started in New York, more in New York. But I actually came into my consciousness of art with more of the David Wojnarowicz crowd. The Joe Spence conceptualist crowd. The first woman to videotape her own death through cancer. When you mention these names I’m aware of them but I feel so removed from all of that stuff. There’s a reason because of some of the educational avenues I’ve taken.
KG: Yes
MB: I’ve gone through courses myself and there are people who speak about being free and open and it sounds good but then they don’t do it. My education was at SUNY Empire State College which is for people who fell through the big cracks at the big uni’s, and you take responsibility, write your own degree plan, defend it in front of a committee of 12 and if they approve it then you go to work. So my experience is around the bend, it sort of plugs in to what you’re saying.
KG: I think both of us nevertheless are talking about privilege and process over some kind of perfect end result that’s somehow linked to the market.
MB: Pot of gold. The notion of it, it’s useless.
KG: And you know what, I can’t even go near, can’t even go near a gallery that’s shown Damien Hirst once in its history.
MB: Let me throw this out: Everyone in the liberal crowd criticizes me because I was just inspired; I read Allen Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind a long time ago.
KG: Allen Bloom?
MB: Allen Bloom. He is the subject of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein.
UD: He was the instigator of the Neo-Conservative movement.
MB: To a point. He was also a closet homosexual. He was a lot of things. But in terms of talking about creativity, education, higher education and art I think he was right on. Basically what he suggested was from a classic education every student, no matter what the programme needs to be challenged in all areas and make them absolutely uncomfortable about what they want to bring forward. We don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable in coming forward. Like you’re saying with these Creative Writing Programmes where you come in and you learn your little craft and you go out and you have expectations to earn 60 grand a year as a staff writer…In a way I think that’s more abusive. In a way I think Bloom was on it – I’m paraphrashing here – his suggestion was that the more we create in a vacuum and call it freedom the more removed we become.
KG: I want to be clear that when I’m talking about this freedom I’m talking about creative freedom. I’m not talking about a lack of intellectual rigour. At no point am I throwing the canon out because in fact the opposite is the case; I’m a traditionalist. I was educated at the time I.A. Richards and the New Critics were still paramount, I believe in close reading, I believe in the canon. And I’m actually horrified at a lot of students who come through many of the American programmes and now increasingly in the UK, they don’t know what a sonnet is, and that’s not ok.
SM: I think you do. It’s less volitional. It’s not a finishing-school for some kind of career. There is no carrot.
UD: But there are other ways of reading than New Critical methods. There is a dominance of a naturalistic paradigm. That’s the standard model which is taught.
KG: That comes straight out of Iowa. Everyone’s using Iowa as their map.
MB: Well but it’s fair if you look politically at the mid-west look what it’s done for the politics of the United States. You’ve got this sweeping landscape of bourgeois culture at its worst. ‘Oh look, someone’s happy, it must be good’.
SM: There’s almost no point in handing in your work in that environment. You can pretty much predict the feedback.
KG: But also the work that you produce starts to become cookie cut. I don’t play this game any more but when I was living in New York and writing my short stories and so on and sending them out and getting floods of rejections back I would play this cruel wicked game with myself and I would go into a bookshop and start to read a story and think ‘I bet this is an Iowa story’ and sure enough the writer had been to Iowa. There are a lot of programmes that have that same signature stamp…
…So we’re talking about New Criticism and, yes, there are certain functions of close reading that go on in these workshops but when I talk about close reading I talk about being impeccably educated. So that you know what a good book is. And then when you want to write your piece of avant garde beautiful-out-there-thing you can absolutely stand by it and argue for
its credentials.
SM: Full-time writer? Is this a redundant term?
MB: There are two types of writers in my book: there are the people who take words and put them into a machine and crank them out the other end themselves. Like in advertising. There is a space to fill and they fill it. Unfortunately I think that’s spilled over into the market. It’s fine, but it’s completely separate to what we’re all about here. Writing as a process, writing as a reflective medium, writing as an informed approach to the society you live in. I don’t think it’s up to us to shoot down those people who want to subscribe to writer’s digest and crank out 10000 words.
KG: Course not. I’m always talking about the beautiful Katherine Mansfield distinction between art and entertainment. What I talk about is art. What I’m interested in is art. The benefit of an undergraduate course is that you can talk about and inculcate these kinds of ideas. Once you have a fee-paying postgraduate then they are the customer and what they say goes. So again if we’re talking about general programmes there are a lot of programmes that are defined by the needs of the customer, often the North American customer, who want to come to the UK, get a PhD in Creative Writing so they can go back…
UD: And teach creative writing.
KG: Yup.
UD: So, ultimately, do you think there exists any valid form of objective academic criteria for judging creative writing?
KG: Everything can be measured. Aesthetics. Aesthethics, aesthetics, aesthetics. I was talking about this with John Carey who wrote a very wicked, rather wonderful book called What Good are the Arts? a couple of years ago. And like all his work it’s great fun, it’s a polemic, and he’s basically saying ‘art’ is a shifty, tricky word to pin down and there’s no way it can be really judged. Saying all these naughty things about it. And he and I have had a discussion of it ever since because what he ignores – wilfully – from his argument, is this word ‘aesthetic’. As we all do, because we’re living in this horrible dumbed-down culture where you can’t even use the word ‘art’. I go around purposefully using the ‘art’ word in places that you just know they don’t want you to say it.
MB: Oh absolutely!
KG: This is the truth: you can use a word like aesthetics and it can be measured- how something is made and whether it fulfils its intention.
SM: Martin, do you use the
word ‘aesthetic’ in the Young
Offenders’ Institution?
MB: Absolutely. I have students there that actually can hear. They don’t have other distractions. In a classroom you’ve got mobile phones, bad attitudes. These guys are put to bed at nine. They are woken up at 7 and fed. I love it. So we sit in there and all I have to overcome with them is their scepticism of why I’m there. I sat there one day, 15 guys, they were unruly, it was one of those rough days. I just started reading. The room fell silent. I thought I’m going to keep reading and see how far this goes. An hour and a half later they came and said it’s time to go. They sat absolutely still and impeccably quiet and listened to everything and then were asking questions like ‘wait a minute, that character…’ They started using words like character. So if you come into a space that isn’t presumed to do all this art or isn’t resistant or talking about criticism it’s easy. Calder found this out when he took Romeo and Juliet out to Easterhouse in the 50s. The other side of it is, I took Worstward Ho, Beckett, I took a bunch of copies with me. I didn’t quite know what we were going to do with them. I passed them out and said ‘Ok, read this’ and this one boy, he’d had about 5 days of education in his life said, ‘this isn’t a story’, and I said ‘what is it?’ he said ‘they’re just talking’. I almost fell out of my chair.
KG: Oh magic.
MB: And I said really, what are they saying, and he went through it…
KG: We need to define Aesthetic though: It’s how something is made, the principles of its construction. The definition of aesthetics is the structure, the making, the works of the thing.
SM: So extrapolating from what you’re both saying is that certain people are more receptive, have a better sensibility, to aesthetic, than those who have had a standard University education and especially a creative writing education?
KG: Absolutely Stewart. I also think it’s this, Harold Bloom talks about the ‘Anxiety of Influence’. When I turned up for my first tutorial at Oxford with John Carey I felt I could barely speak because he had edited the Fowler and Carey edition of Paradise Lost, a work that I adored and had read since I was sixteen and here is the editor with those awesome footnotes so how can you pipe up and say what you think about Paradise Lost? So I feel I understand another subtle twist on it, it’s not only to do with not having a fighter outsider spirit which gives you a fresh insight – though it is about that too – but it’s also to do with being educated with that body of knowledge behind you and being aware of where your areas of empowerment lie. One unlearns that too as an artist. But if you’re not an artist with a certain kind of background and a certain kind of education you might be silenced by that kind of authority.
MB: When I went over to Edinburgh Uni and walked into a class I never misrepresented the fact that I went to art school, I was an art director for 20 years, a mature student. I was doing this on the seat of my pants to see how far I could take it. I had a great experience with all this undergrad stuff and I came over here to do a Masters. The promise was you’ll leave here with this piece of paper and experience and blah blah blah. I’ll be paying for that piece of paper until I’m 90.
SM: Look where it got you.
MB: What it got me was pissed off to change things, because nothing else happened over there. We went into a class, there was a man sitting there, we were reading, was it Atwood? It was foreign to me. I made a suggestion: what if this is all a dream sequence? The reaction of the crowd was dismissive. This was the first 10 minutes. Then we went into another class. We had a room full of tutors who were moonlighting trying to make their own careers who never showed up on time.
KG: So much of that.
MB: Anyway there was a discussion about Twain’s Twins. I said is this not a parody? And one tutor looked at me like you’re looking at me. The rest of the time I had no fun in class. So we’re talking about rationalisation of western culture and Adorno and all that and we were shunned, basically told not to engage.
KG: That’s a particularly venal model you sketch there and I guess the reason we all continue to love Oxford – and models are still created based on Oxford – is that Oxford still celebrates the virtue of the individual. The notion of the Oxford tutorial is ‘what have you been reading this week? And what did you think about it?’ So I’m intrigued by all these things you’re saying and what I think we have to do, all of us, is infiltrate systems of power in order to bring about change. So you come in and take on the guys who have power and you uproot from within because there’s no power to be had from waving a pitchfork outside the palace door.
MB: The work isn’t intimidating, it’s the people presenting the work who are intimidating. It’s the fact that there’s some kind of untouchable model for discourse which isn’t the case.
KG: Quite. F. R. Leavis: ‘Turn opinion into knowledge’. That’s what education is all about. Bring education to lead out, get a pile of books, read them, and tell me as I lead you out into this world of books what you think about them. Turn that subjective response into something almost objective. Anybody can do that.
MB: Absolutely. If you unpack it a little bit, and you’re talking about subverting, well my dirty little secret is what better place to build an army than in a jail full of people who have got nothing to lose.
KG: Haha. Gorgeous. That’s so beautiful.
MB: You were talking about how to reach these people. Baldwin: ‘This innocent country sets you down into a ghetto, in which, in fact, it intended you to perish.’ That’s the mantra that I use. I think if we can get this – and this is all again cognitive, I can’t think of a better word – this cognitive teaching environment where we’re all the same. That’s the point of no return.
KG: Then you can bring the world in. Everything is then laid on the table. Let’s get back to this intimidation thing. What concerns me now about the way literature is taught is the predominance of theory and that’s intimidating. I mean, I’m intimidated by it. The idea that there’s a language that goes with it that has to be spoken…that to me is a whole lot different to my experience of sitting down at 17 and being confronted with a bit of Shakespeare.
MB: What about the formats you’re expected to communicate your knowledge back by? There’s no discussion anymore. Ten minutes of class time or of tutor time every few weeks and you’re supposed to put out 10000 word reviews. I used to put little bombs in my stuff all the way to see if anyone would notice. Nobody noticed.
KG: There’s something going on which is about flattening out.