Sunday, March 20, 2011

Questions: Square Pegs

How valuable is it for a poet to have an education in creative writing/poetry/English?

I've somehow managed to go through most of my life without having acquired either an English degree or a degree in Creative Writing. This had something to do with an instinctive feeling that if I studied English I'd somehow not become a writer: fear of the inferiority complex perhaps. Was I right? Does a creative writing degree encourage poets to basically follow a roughly similar course or does it encourage experiment, accidental discoveries, individual paths, in between learning lots of theory, reading set texts and writing essays on semiotics and poetic theory?

It's the thing that worries me about young poets: are they being encouraged to find their own path, or are they being directed into the acceptable path? Could a poet as different as Geraldine Monk or Tom Raworth come out of a creative writing degree? I know some people who have done creative writing degrees and come out the other side as non-mainstream writers: Tom Jencks, Mat Dalby and Tony Trehy to name three; though Tony was probably there already. One doesn't arrange a festival in which the star readers are Ron Silliman and Geoff Huth without some prior knowledge.

I think there's enough of a breadth of poetry to say that the effect of all those creative writing courses hasn't been to make everything monotone, at least. As the Rialto young poets features showed, there's everything from fairly mainstream to non-mainstream: poetry has lots of balls in the air. But I still worry: if a teacher comes across a student who's literary tastes are very different from their own, how do they seek to engage with them? Do they try and fit square pegs into round holes, or do they look for the right shaped hole for that poet? And how do the students themselves feel about it?

My own experience of being a square peg in a round hole at various poetry groups makes me sensitive to this. I was recently described as 'eccentric' by one young performance poet. In terms of international modernism, I'm squarely in the middle of the pack; put me up against Ron Silliman or Bob Cobbing, I'm not even particularly experimental. Only in a nation that thinks Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin are 'great' poets could I be described as 'eccentric.'

So what is it like to be a young experimental poet? Do you feel like square pegs?

1 comment:

Philistine Press said...

I think it very much depends on which creative writing course you take. Some will be much more open to experimental writing, while others are very conservative and corporate. If you're going to do it, it's definitely worth doing your research and finding out what the focus of the course is before applying.