Imagining Imagined Spaces

This review of a book of essays exploring the range of forms possible within creative critical thinking was supposed to appear in a briefer form sometime last year but, for whatever reason, did not. It acts as a sort of counter-argument to the premiss I put forward in relation to Why I Write Poetry – that this kind of essay was primarily an extra-academic form. Here the Creative Writing unit at Dundee University have taken the sensible approach of setting aside such assumptions about the borders of the campus, with the result that they have situated the academy in a dynamic and engaging manner within that broader cultural discussion.

If I were capable of bringing my self-contradictory views together more coherently, I’d vote for the discipline of Creative Writing to be not exactly at but more by the centre of such debates, ie to exist in an eccentric manner in relation to them, working with the writing community, and writers and publishers in the community, as one element in three. In general at present it still prefers to ‘validate’ writers through its conferral of degrees. This is partly because such degrees help validate the credentials of the institution itself in terms of its capacity for ‘outreach’ – a term which reinforces the very division it supposes itself to be stretching across.

But what Imagined Spaces suggests and goes some way toward demonstrating is that there is a further space where university and writing community and the wider world (with such writers in it) all overlap, but that this is beyond the ‘jurisdiction’ of any one of those bodies (its capacity to state what is or is not ‘the law’) – that is what makes it both fraught and joyous, a space that some would police jealously precisely because it is such a pleasure to join: all you have to do is try and set aside everything you suppose is true about art, fail to do so, try again, and keep right on failing…

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Imagined Spaces, ed. Gail Low and Kirsty Gunn (The Voyage Out, 2020), 224pp, £14.99

As Creative Writing settles into its fifth decade in a university near you, issues about how and whether it can be taught now seem like the province of shouty naw-it-alls and yestermen. Even the matter of practice-based research appears settled, as institutions realise the status of creative publications.

The attempt to measure the ‘impact’ of these outputs, however, is still largely conducted in terms which reflect academic monographs and scholarly editions. But in the last decade, not-entirely-academic writers have been considering how to write in and to the academy, deploying a range of discourses which enable staff and students to address the distinct nature of creative research, thinking about process and influence as much as theory and citation.

Self-reflexive commentaries, bridging chapters, creative criticism – all these approach the condition of the essay. That, then, is what is being explored and celebrated in this anthology from Dundee University’s enterprising press, The Voyage Out.  

Just as there were assumptions about teaching, then research, then impact, so too there are expectations about the essay. Any book that would embody this discipline must surely contain: allusions to Montaigne; an essay that sets aside its discourse to speak personally (Montaigne-ishly), and thereby shed new light on that discourse; an essay about the essay; an essay that just happens to be about this very essay, i.e. itself. As Philip Lopate warns in his entertaining taxonomy of the form, ‘I would just like to caution that we essayists not take too seriously our own defensive propaganda, or adopt too smugly [a] self-approving, narcissistic, idealising portrait of the form.’

While Imagined Spaces includes examples of all the above, in most cases it moves beyond idealisation into a formally exciting demonstration of the contemporary essay’s merits. Further, it interweaves individual pieces with a series of intriguing dialogues, sometimes maintaining, sometimes merging their authors’ identities (as in the lively introduction).

These include dialogues on home, depression, and drawing; a fascinating exploration of what Glenn Gould termed ‘The Idea of North’ by Orkney-based Duncan MacLean and the writer and naturalist Kenny Taylor; and a discussion of the influence of civic thinker Patrick Geddes between architectural theorist Lorens Holm and artist Paul Noble. These amount to an argument for the range of the democratic dialogue (as opposed to the hierarchical interview).

To return to Lopate’s constantly expanding definition of the essay, it is interesting to note he stumbles over ‘the hybrid cross-breeding of non-fiction and fiction’, a category one might have thought hard to distinguish from the essay’s use of the apparently personal. But, as he says, ‘The contract between essayist and reader is based partly on the assumption that the essayist is levelling with us…’.

This is the criteria which marks out two pieces which exemplify what the essay is capable of. One is a exploration by Susan Nickalls of the thinking behind Kengo Kuma’s V&A building on Dundee’s shorefront; the other, a study of mortality by Meaghan Delahunt. Noticeably, these draw on spiritual practice – Zen shaping Kuma’s aesthetic, and Tibetan Buddhism having a strong bearing on Delahunt’s meditative approach to her mother’s death and her own mortality.

Nickalls pinpoints Kuma’s fascination with Rennie Mackintosh as key to his engagement with ma or negative space in the museum, where the Oak Room locates an interior in an interior, thus underscoring his comment, ‘My stance in every field has been to be sceptical of any logic that does not have gaps.’

Similarly, Delahunt is drawn to a point of weakness in her sense of self. Through losing her parents and then her mobility, her identity as a writer feels like it’s being taken from her. Crucially, she finds a way to engage us with this loss, beginning with the intellectual realisation that ‘Major life events and relationships are bardo states. So too are the shifts of circumstance throughout a life – beginnings and ending, accidents, and lucky breaks.’ 

By keeping to her end of the contract as Lopate describes it, she carries us through crisis to a scene in which, having set aside her need to be a writer, Delahunt becomes instead scribe in a hospice to a mother and daughter undergoing their own moment of extremis:

‘In that moment S is not dying and leaving this child and her older children behind. In that moment, we are all deep in the bardo of life and creating something beautiful and transient, something which has meaning.’

There, it would seem, is a definition of the essay we might try and work with.

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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