Non-Standard (4)

(Much has changed since this final section was written, not least the formalisation of the live literature campus into another aspect of the rethinking of the arts as a calendrical round of festivals and an administrative round of grant applications. The notion of the gift advanced here, for instance, has been conceptualised by the Academy as ‘Impact’, and Creative Writing has proven very valuable to it on these terms.

But the relationship between what writers do in their own work and what writers offer the institutions they join is as subject to the niceties of interpretation as ever, and, it seems to me, the metaphor of translation remains as relevant now as it was then.

Incidentally, the book discussed below was later published as A Balkan Exchange (Arc, 2007), and the method by which it was produced, dialogic translation, led to other projects and other publications for me in Chinese and other languages, and is much discussed elsewhere on this blog.)

I’d like to conclude by briefly discussing the third area in which the poet’s role in the academy has an impact: the active cultural life of the campus. Since coming to Newcastle I have been asked to organise a number of different kinds of literary events from small-scale readings to a week-long translation seminar, and I’d like to outline what I feel is the point of having such a programme.

Lewis Hyde, in his brilliant book on creativity, The Gift, poses a central question for the writer in our society:

How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market? … Like the Jew of the Old Testament who has a law of the altar at home and a law of the gate for dealing with strangers, the artist who wishes to lose neither his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market. And then…if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.

Just so the poet who allows him- or herself contact with the academy is temporarily putting their true vocation second to the vocation of teaching, profoundly valuable as that is in both senses of the word. Their employer may not see this as much of a sacrifice, but be in no doubt that the writer constantly and jealously counts up the hours and the weeks. Therefore a wise employer allows their writers ample space to set up the altar not just at home but on the campus. After all, the Academy itself had similar origins as an olive grove sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom.

To the extent that this is possible, it is also possible to share out what Hyde calls the gift wealth of creativity. To the extent that this is done, the school, college or department is admitted into a creative space. To the extent that it is coopted, quantified or controlled, it becomes commodified like any other product intended for the marketplace. This in itself is not a terrible thing: most authors wish much of their work to be published, and the fundamental contradiction between sharing and selling has long been internalised. The important factor is that all parties understand what they are negotiating about, otherwise integration simply turns into another type of exploitation.

At Newcastle, we try to programme from the regional microcosm to the international event, so in addition to local writers launching books, we have talks and readings featuring the likes of Anne Michaels or John Kinsella. We have the annual Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, always delivered by a poet. But we also look at the format of the poetry reading itself, and utilise the dozen or so writers associated with the School, including Northern Rock winner Gillian Allnutt, to organise readings on public themes including the Gulf War or Holocaust Memorial Day. We work closely with a dramaturg to make these dialogue readings, without introductions, where text can speak to text. We work with the School of Music to put on events combining poetry with music – at the moment I am organising a launch reading for Jackie Kay’s new book at The Baltic which will involve the Scottish jazz group The Spontaniacs.

In all these activities a critical eye is being applied to re-examine conventional structures, and creativity itself is at once providing links between different parts of the university, and drawing onto the campus members of the public.

But one event brings together all the themes I’ve been discussing. In 2003 I and a couple of other writers went on a reading trip to Bulgaria, organised by the British Council. We read in Sofia Prison and Sofia University – and believe me we could tell the difference. We worked with an exciting group of Bulgarian writers and realised that we wanted to extend the link. Last year I and a fellow poet, Andy Croft, went back to Sofia to teach these writers Creative Writing techniques – skills for which there was little or no provision there – and this course was accredited by Newcastle University. Last month a group of four poets came over and worked with us on producing a book of translations of their poetry, the first such grouping in English for fifteen years.

In the course of our discussions we had much need of notions of foreignisation and domestication, and not in a metaphoric sense. And so the academic discipline of Creative Writing provided the link between these artists and an innovative project: this catalytic role is the one the poet in the academy should be called upon to fulfil –not an excluded, disaffected Bartleby, not just a teacher, but, in Sidney’s understanding of the term, a mover. Just don’t ask us to be shakers too, unless you mean in the spiritual sense…

At one point during this week I and a colleague were sitting typing up the day’s translations. Suddenly we paused, looked at each other and agreed that this was the best job ever. That was the moment at which all the different roles I am called upon to play in the academy – writer, teacher, facilitator – coalesced. It may be the only such moment I have amid the usual floods of admin and cunning undergraduate excuses, but I am nonetheless profoundly grateful to have experienced it.

The act of translation is so fundamental to the kind of cross-disciplinary lives writer lead in the academy – and the academy leads in them – that it is often possible to overlook that it is happening. To do so, however, is to let one discourse, usually the most powerful, dominate all others. When the academic drowns out the poet in you, you know that something fundamental to both writing and teaching has been lost. The translator, thankfully, knows that communication is performative, self-scrutinising, and – in the academy especially – must be ongoing.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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One Response to Non-Standard (4)

  1. Roger White says:

    I’ve been scanning your flurry of blog posts and need to return to them for a more thorough read but your work with Bulgarian writers prompted a non-literary memory from a few years earlier than your contact. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism the EU funded various study tours of Bulgarian officials and academics to the West to learn about democracy. Working in a Scottish council I was asked to explain ‘Local democracy in Scotland’ to one such group. They had an excellent interpreter with them but my presentation was perforce rather slowly and disjointedly delivered. Towards the end, when I thought I had given a nae bad explanation of it all, one of the visitors asked a question which was interpreted as follows – ‘He says who has the executive authority in your villages?’ I had a sudden vision of an almost complete disconnect between me and the society and life that gave rise to the question. It even had a sort of beauty about it.and it went into my notebook for my own amateur scribbling at some stage. As to the practicalities of the question and local administration, I don’t think I gave a very good answer.

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