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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Writing in Practice - Vol 1 > A Walk in the Abstract Garden: How Creative Writing might speak for itself in universities
A Walk in the Abstract Garden: How Creative Writing might speak for itself in universities
Author: Philip Gross
Philip Gross's Professorial Inaugural Lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006.

Professorial Inaugural Lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006


Creative Writing is a discipline whose study is the work- (and the writer-) in-progress, not the finished text. Original poems, academic argument and the practical experience of writing each have their voice in this lecture which explores some of the paradoxes of this relatively young subject: a knowing use of not-knowing, an unconventional approach to research, and a subjectivity that aims to go beyond the self.

A Welcome

I want the first voice you hear from me to be that of a poem.

A low table. Two cushions. Two
cups set. And no-one here but me

in a room with no walls,
only thin paper screens,

paper screens beyond screens
hung from ceiling to floor. Light

moves in and is moved among them
from I don’t know where.

If I’m the guest
I’m unannounced or uninvited.

Say I’m the host...?
As if a door opened somewhere

a rustling spreads. Almost
a whisper. I can almost hear. [1]

That sounds to me like a welcome – an ambiguous one, to be sure, with no certainty as to who or what is welcoming whom, but still: an attitude of cautious and curious welcoming is at the heart of what I want to say about Creative Writing. In a writing class, our attitude matters – welcoming students, of course but more than that: we want them to feel that cautious, curious welcoming for the poems or stories they might write.

If I talk about some of the ways in which Creative Writing sits at, shall we say, an interesting angle to academic life – even to our closest neighbours (or is it family?) in English – it is neither to give us airs as something special and precious, to whom whole different standards apply, nor to apologize. I hope this interesting angle – which is incidentally just what one would aim for in a piece of poetry or fiction – might raise questions that anyone might use.

This next hour will be only partly like a lecture. I know that lecturing has always been seen as the first skill of a university teacher, the proof of their knowledge and prowess. Creative Writing, though, has grown up by a different route – from small circles of writers meeting as equals to discuss each other's work-in-progress. Creative writing in this country was a culture – fostered by the Arvon Foundation’s residential courses – long before it was a discipline… and to some extent still is. The basic unit is the workshop. (Not maybe a word I would have chosen, but it's the one that history has given us, (it was used by Iowa State University's writing program as early as 1936) and we know what it means. You might even find me using the word workshop as a verb. You must promise not to wince.) 

Whatever we call it, this is a style of learning that keeps very close to the student's immediate experience – their experience of being writers. They start being writers in the first class of the term, before we've even said our names. Our main set text is their own ongoing work.

We aren't naïve about "experience". We know how it is shaped in part by what a person thinks, and the words they have for it. Our job is to give them fresh angles on it and some fresh words. Most of all, we will ask questions, and teach them to ask questions of their own, especially the ones that start "What if…?"

But still, what we are working with is their experience and the end point has to be what serves their writing best, i.e. what they as writers can actually use. (If we stopped doing that, and being seen to do it, I wouldn't give much for our student numbers next term, let alone next year.)

So: lecturing is not the style that comes naturally. In an ideal world, I would be giving not a lecture but an inaugural workshop. In a workshop, we learn by dialogue: not just between tutor and student but between student/writer and the work itself. I hope to get some hint of dialogue into this talk by giving poems their own voice. And I would be pleased if it left you with questions to ask at the end, or to talk about later.

Most of the poems I read will be my own, and the issues I raise will be ones that I find arising in my own life as a writer. This is not self-advertisement. I hope you will get the same sense I do that the poems bring something different from my ideas and opinions. They are here to speak for themselves, sometimes in spite of me – in a way that an essay or lecture script would not. When I find them doing that, I think: welcome!

A Guest In The Text

… If I’m the guest
I’m unannounced or uninvited.

Say I’m the host...?

This is a poem about beginning (or just before). Where a poem started, what the writer thought back then, is usually less interesting than what it turns into. In the end it matters hardly at all, once the poem has left home and gone out in the world. Most of us agree on that – from the outside reader's point of view. In a writing class, though, we’re inside readers: talking about what is being written. Our job is the process of writing, which ends in the final, written thing. (Once it does, we hand it over to the mercies of our colleagues in English: with luck, it is Literature.) But us, we're working with the experience of writers as they write, i.e. in the present tense, when there are many different things it might become, when everything is still in play… and when, for all we know, there might not be an end product at all. (That’s the chance you take.)


…And no-one here but me

in a room with no walls,
only thin paper screens,

paper screens beyond screens
hung from ceiling to floor.

Where we start is often, literally, the pretext. In this case, I wrote this after a night in which I'd set myself to observe and record my dreams. I might add: I’m no fan of poems about dreams. (We all know that experience at parties, when somebody closes in on you with "I had this really interesting dream last night…") Still, I had set myself to try…

In the morning I woke with a sense that there
had been dreams, many and vivid. I still had a sense of their texture, emotional tone, almost smell… but they were out of sight, and certainly not in words. The harder I tried to force them out into the light, the more they shrank away. I quite often recall and record my dreams, but on this occasion, when I'd set myself to do it, they (or the part of my mind that administrates these things) refused. To use a figure of speech which I won't defend in any way but to say it accurately represents my experience: they chose not to be known. A therapist might disagree, of course, but what interests me isn’t the lost dreams: most of the dreams I do recall are frankly, embarrassingly dull. What was interesting was the sense of their absence – or rather, their peculiar state of being there-and-not-there. That was a powerful presence in its own right, which invited me back to try, to try to write, again and again.

It made things happen.

Ten years on, I looked back at it, and other readings of it seemed clearly there to be had. The fact that those Japanese-style screens were made of paper, for instance… "Only thin paper screens, // paper screens beyond screens / hung from ceiling to floor" The title "House of Paper" arrived at this stage – a recognition that the writing of this poem might have been, in part, about the writing of a poem.

Not only about that, I hope. I'm as wary of the argument that writers can only write about language as saying that painters can only paint about paint. If writing isn't a metaphor for, or a test case of,
communication, in the widest sense, then it seems hardly worth the sweat. But saying that this poem is about writing leaves open the question of whether the presence, the there-and-not-there quality, is called into being by the paper – after all, it's the movement of air in the paper that "speaks" – or whether it's outside, separated from the writer by the screens. That seems to me a good question for a writer to be asking, and more valuable than an answer, either way.

And when I wrote this poem I hadn't yet happened on Barthes' phrase for the writer: "a guest in the text".
[2] Not that that line sums it up, either. But it's a voice I'm happy to have there, as one possible guest, among many.

The Tale of “You” and “I”

"Je est un autre." Rimbaud.[3]

      If ‘I’ is another
      then who is this lover
called ‘You’, this soul-mate, shadow-mother?
      Let’s play I-spy
      on ‘You’ and ‘I’
as they meet by the winding and whispering Wye.
      It’s a strange affair
      as we follow them there
to a shifty hotel in the back streets of Ware.
      We’re quick to spot
      them (too casually) jot
in the guest book: ‘Mr and Mrs Watt.’
      How who touches whom
      in that inner room
depends on the guilts that we presume
      and innocence
      is no defence
against the eavesdropping of Whither & Whence
      (our private eyes
      hired to surprise
the naked truth in this tissue of lies).
      We burst the door
      but find no more
than quotation marks strewn on the floor.
      Our birds have flown.
      We’re on our own
but the doubts conceived that night have grown
      into waifs and strays
      who dog our days
with their questionmark claws and wise-child gaze,
      whom we can’t shoo,
      who will always pursue
the ‘You’ in me... the ‘I’ in you... [4]

The first poem was a welcome, rather formal and courteous. This one is more like flirting, and I'd guess that most working writers are familiar with both states of mind. With whom or what? A writer of a different age might say "Muse". Most of us now would shy away from that word, but the sense of something other in the process is so often recorded, by writers of all shades of opinion and school, that we have to treat it (the experience, that is) as real.

Depending where you stand, you could see it as the voice of Language speaking, or some New Age spirit guide. For me, the interest of the moment is in
not knowing: what matters is that it promises a dialogue, and with a voice that both is and is not my own.

Over the years, I’ve asked students of all ages what the experience of writing is like for them. Ask people to explain it in terms of logic or theory, and you get frowns and caution and anxiety. Ask what it’s
like, and you unlock a flood of similes… many of which are to do with something in the process that is other – not just me:


like an avalanche:
at first there’s nothing, no noise, no movement.
Then suddenly Whoosh!
Everything comes crashing round you and on top of you,
burying you. Then you have to dig your way out…

or, even more excitingly:

like being pushed off a cliff
and sprouting wings
just before you hit the ground… [5]


Aside: Speaking about speaking

It may be too late, at this point, to issue a health warning: this lecture is going to contain more than a trace of poetry. I'm not just being coy by saying that. All but a very small circle of poetry lovers feel a certain chill at the phrase "poetry reading". The fear, often, is that we are being dragged into a hallowed space in which somebody else's ego will be exhibited, before us, like a holy relic. If nothing else this evening, I hope I can hint that the experience, both for the writer and the reader, can be not at all like this: the act of writing has as much potential to take us out of the self as to entrench us in it. At best, it can take us into what we don't, or don't yet, know, or don't yet know we know.

This talk
is a reading, in another sense. Any time I read a poem to an audience, I know what I'm offering is not the poem. What you get is this one reading of it, and the fact that I'm the author does not give my reading, the reading of these poems this evening, any final authority. If you read them later to yourself, in silence, you'll give them other readings.

(I gave some thought to how I might stage this talk – maybe upstaging myself with texts of poems on a screen behind me. I can't think of a way of giving you, the listeners or readers, as many chances for different sorts of reading as I'd like. When I hear poetry read my ideal would be to hear it first, for the voice and the forward movement of it... then to see it for the other quality a poem offers, of being all-there-at-once, a whole shape already on the page… then to hear it again. Both still and moving, or in the words of a poem by Michael Donaghy called "Machines" – about bicycles, as it happens, but also music, and a quality of poise in life, and maybe the poem itself, a thing that

only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move. [6]


Something Other

This next poem is a reading, or re-reading, of two of those answers – one by me, one by a student in a writing class – to the question: What is poetry?


Once he wrote: “It is not
what you think, but less
than that, and more.”
Again: “It is a snow-hole
scraped by a lost climber.
It helps you survive
by being made of what
could bury you alive.
The space
is poetry, the words
the flag to catch the rescuers’
attention.” Thus.
And when we came to find him
in the poem, with blankets
and brandy, ready to deliver him
back to the world,
like midwives, all we found
was this: the hollowed
place, the work of hands
and body heat, which might
have been a perfect mould
of him… except that each of us
in turn found we could lie
down in it, held
for longer than we meant,
and each in turn emerging
seemed not quite himself
but less than that, or more. [7]

The most important thing to say to any new student in Creative Writing is: a poem might start as you speaking, expressing yourself – but if it works, if it's a good experiment, it grows into something other. And as it does that, it can hardly help but think about itself.

Another answer to the question "What is poetry?" the best striptease ever,
peeling off layer by layer of clothes, then
the skin, the muscles, nerves and bones
until nothing is visible but something (what?)
is in the spotlight, dancing. [5]

In the world of academic standing and funding – of the RAE and the AHRC – a lot hinges on whether a creative piece is material from which knowledge can be made or is in some sense "knowledge" itself. Let’s be bold and say: any poem that has stopped being just-me and has grown into something-other is full of questions, implications and possibilities. It is already a step in the growth of knowledge, even before it has been glossed and criticized.

It might embody research by open self-awareness, by being, in effect, an essay on itself. It might do it more implicitly. Any poem that is well achieved will have something to teach us in its form or content or the way one fits the other. Even some interesting and ambitious failures can be full of questions which are, in writing terms, research. Most of us would agree that a creative piece can be a critical response to an earlier piece of writing – in the way Jean Rhys'
Wide Sargasso Sea does business with Jane Eyre. If that it so, then surely it can also be a response to its own meaning and making.

I'm not saying that poems don't need critics. That would be like saying that they don't need readers – the very opposite of what I mean. Some poems can be essays in verse, of course, and read as such, without the line-breaks. But beyond that, there is a way in which a poem can speak for itself – speak not as a statement or argument but as a knot of questions, implications, invitations to respond. (That's where the general attitude of
welcoming comes in – and I don't mean a bland user-friendliness, either. A poem can be a labyrinth of meanings and reference, but still inviting. That’s what good labyrinths do.)

The Abstract Garden

I come back more often these days, where I’ve never been:
            the Almohad garden. The idea of it – cool
                        proportions in the formless heat,

a reticence of arches, the pierce-patterning of shade
            like my great-aunt’s pepper-shaker. Raised
                        paths, sunken ground

kept under leaves, a shared secret, and the pond bed
            dry… with glints, a surface, courtesy
                        of last night’s spiders.

But the aqueducts are crumbling as we speak;
            the hordes of After have let it all go
                        like an unsolved equation,

the court of al-jibr, where the known and unknown
            terms converse, the guests of zero.
                        Imagine it gone,

as good a place to start as any, a ground plan at most
            in the lie of the parking bays out back
                        of the new mall. Imagine

yourself, arriving, tourist in another language,
            to be told you’re years too late…
                        turning away, exhausted

by the flight, by missed connections, misdirections,
            too many faces, camera-flash, screens,
                        windscreens and oh,

the longing to peel off the film-thin veneer
            of your self from yourself and


            it occurs; one moment, that
sufficiency of light through screens, of unseen

                        paths in combinations
            masterful as chess or Go, so simple
you could spend a lifetime in them, ways we might walk

                        even at this late
            date, peaceably, alongside anyone, with
not a common word between us. No, closer than that. [8]


Not just a poem, but as little as one line, one phrase, can have that ability to speak for itself, and pose questions. The words "the abstract garden" arose out of the early drafting of this poem, and recommended themselves as a title… for the poem, and now for the title of this lecture. What was it about these words that spoke to me?

First, the paradox… Gardens, in most of our lives, are dirt under the fingernails and mud on the boots – the very opposite of "abstract". The word "garden" is also rich in reference and association, all the way back to the Garden of Eden – which is not, it occurs to me now, a myth of creation but a myth of coming to
awareness – which is just what I'm saying writing can do for itself.

"Garden" is in anybody's book a fruitful kind of word. But "abstract"…? Creative writers tend to back away from the word "abstract".

It might have sounded so far as if I am here to sell Creative Writing and the special little customs of the tribe. I hope I'm also clear-eyed about the ways that any tribe's customs can become entrenched and… orthodox. (Yes, the most radical theory can become an orthodoxy… especially in universities.) One orthodoxy of the creative writing workshop is the top priority given to the concrete detail… and conversely, an attitude (
cut… cut… cut) almost of ethnic cleansing when it comes to abstract nouns.

Of course, the advice to
show-not-tell, to evoke an experience with concrete sensate detail rather than gloss it in advance with huge emotional abstractions, is very often good advice. But wouldn't it be a loss to teach our students, or ourselves, that ideas – the stuff of a whole sector of our human brains – are out of bounds? When William Carlos Williams, much-quotedly, said "No ideas but in things" [9], he did not mean "No ideas". You only have to read his later poems to be sure of that. One of my favourite book titles of recent years is from a book of poems by Tony Lopez, who also happens to be an eminent Creative Writing academic. "Abstract and Delicious"…[10] There too is a phrase with many rich questions and implications in it – a lot of questions for three words.

abs-tract, the Latin heart of it, is to draw from, drag out of…

The term "abstract art" is maybe a sidetrack, in its meaning as the opposite of representation. I'd rather think of the art of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, which draws its forms
from real landscape and real bodies. The word "abstract" always sends me back to what ideas are abstracted from.

It is tempting to see a university as a garden of the abstract, and many of the people here tonight as gardeners, but let's not pull the title right away from its poem. The garden in this case is an Islamic garden – and for a poem that happened to be written in the spring of 2001 this was a fact that soon and suddenly became more urgent, an aspect of the poem forced into the foreground by world events. The ideals of coexistence and of dialogue it's possible to find in (or abstract from) Moorish Spain became a source of hope, so I can't now read this poem in public without mentioning it.

the court of al-jibr, where the known and unknown
            terms converse, the guests of zero


The concept of zero, which is not just nothing, but a term that makes our mathematics possible, is one we owe to Islamic thinkers. And it's hard not to see a link between this abstract thinking and their non-figurative art – including the decoration and layout of buildings like the Alhambra.

In my mind, though not I think visible in the poem, there is a connection between that garden and the physical experience of Zen Buddhist walking meditation, a rigorous matter of going through paces in a very structured shape – every line is straight, every corner a right angle. Any poetic form, like the one we have here on the page, invites the reader to pace out a shape – though not in this case a square one; here, it narrows in and in, again and again, until that point of nothing, after which its movement is to widen out again. The meaning of a poem is not just
what it says, but how.

The Guests Of Zero

Part of this "how" is the fact that we can hardly move in this garden without bumping into negatives – negatives which are active ingredients like that number zero. The climax is a moment almost not there, indicated by a long pause and that floating "so" (very close in sound to an O). The garden is nowhere I have been. What I imagine, and long for, might not exist. If it does, it's abandoned, then lost. Its one concrete source (and this is my confession, not in the poem itself) is a glance at a photograph of a place I've not only not visited, but which I held back from doing further research on (at least until the poem had been written). That was a choice: to keep it open. Derek Mahon's small epic of a poem, "A Disused Shed in County Wexford", begins: "Even now there are places where a thought might grow." [11] Maybe this was one of those.

And so we come back to
not knowing… This is one of our negative terms which are also an active ingredient. I'm sure, from experience, that a kind of ignorance, or rather, patchy and chaotic knowledge, is one of the writer's tools, almost a material that we work with. That's a curious position for an academic. We are, after all, in the business of extending knowledge. I have already argued that a piece of creative writing, and not just a discursive account of it, can be seen as a piece of knowledge.

And on the other hand, I'm saying There is a time to know, and a time not to know. Not doing my full research… this looks like a shameful admission. Good academic practice consists of mapping out a strictly limited field, then finding out
everything about it. Of course even fiction writers – even poets – tend to know that checking your facts is essential – not getting it wrong in a historical novel is only the most obvious. And most of us know that research is often a wonderful stimulus, too. Generally the more facts you stumble on, the more you imagine. But even then, it is in the gaps between the facts that fiction happens. Find out everything, and what's left to do?

It wasn’t so much the stones
I loved, aged nine.
It was the word archaeology.

It was books pocked with diagrams
like pawprints round the bins
in last night’s snow;

they showed circles complete
with the things that weren’t there:
post holes, lost stones...

like the scene of the crime,
the victim’s parting gesture
plotted on the pavement,

or the files the dentist kept on me
and everyone, living and dead
cheek by jowl in his metal safe.

Like the shudder and thrill
when I read in the paper:
‘They identified him by his teeth.’ [12]

What gives poetry life is often the spread – the apparent randomness, even – of its references. Only connect…[13] And the unexpectedness of what gets connected with what, for example in the knight's move of a startling simile, is the thing that makes us see it new. It's hard to imagine how to advise a writer to prepare for this activity except by recommending the worst sort of academic practice – to read widely, by chance and whim and serendipity, picking up snippets of this and that.

Apart from the usual skills of
research, then, I would tell students to make time for… let's say free-search, reading way beyond your field, with no method or purpose in mind. And working at it. This isn't sloppy or lazy, but a particular tool – the discipline of deliberate indiscipline, you might say.

Another way to put this might be: we as a species are only a few thousand years away (and that's nothing in the scope of evolution) from being wandering bands of hunter-gatherers. Hunting and gathering, our eyes and ears and brains are equipped for both. We can select our prey, keep focus on it, and pursue… and we can scan and skim the landscape, ready to notice anything that might come in useful, anywhere. (If you want to see these skills as gendered – goal-directed hunting male, broad-focus female, fine. All I'd say is that there is the ability for each in most of us, of either sex.) And in academic life the hunting mode is valued highly, so we might need to speak up for the other now and then.

To put it another way, the American artist/musician/animator/eccentric Brian Dewan said: "There are two ways to find a needle in a haystack. One is sort the haystack bit by bit. The other is to roll around in it until the needle presents itself." 

There are times when the very best state for a writer to be in is one of not knowing what he or she is up to. Part of the stock of folk stories among creative writers is the one about T. S. Eliot being asked what "The Waste Land" 
meant. Anyone who has heard recordings of Eliot's monotone can imagine him replying, "Madam, if I had known what it meant I would not have needed to write it."

So I want to recommend (in carefully measured doses, of course) that vital quality of
not being fixed or sure, or not in any way words can express. It might surprise some of our students, just getting used to our asking them to be conscious and articulate about their writing process, to hear me say that at some stages in that process it's important to be neither of these things, to be, in short, a bit vague.

What can possibly be said in favour of vagueness? Well, we could ask William James. His use of the word denoted an equal awareness of all the elements of our experience not yet organized as concepts. In the flux of it lies the possibility of creative thought.[15] (And he saw it as a vital, and neglected, factor in education.) More recent psychologies, like Fritz Perls' Gestalt Therapy, have used terms like the Fertile Void, which looks much further back again, to Buddhist thought. There, the Void is anything but empty. Far from being nothing, it is everything. Studies into creativity tend to show creative people being able to tolerate, even to thrive on, high levels of irrelevant stimulation. And of course Keats had said as much already
: "I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." [16]

I could even put in a word for mistakes. Harold Bloom, in his
Anxiety of Influence [17], names the mis-taking of previous writers as one of the ways a new writer develops. The same sometimes goes for how our own working drafts develop – we mis-read ourselves. Some of our better work gets built in the margin of error. And where would Evolution be, if not for a constant tendency for DNA to make mistakes?

You might feel that students, or all of us, spend too much time as it is indulging in high levels of irrelevant stimulation, not to mention uncertainties and doubts, and mistakes. What makes Creative Writing, and being a writer, a
discipline is that we learn consciously and knowingly to use this vagueness and not-knowing. Before, alongside and (most of all) after the fact, there is plenty of use for conscious, lucid thought.

The thought
before the writing includes not only a lifetime of reading, listening and thinking but writing exercises, which often force the mind to work with unplanned and disruptive elements. It might include the choice to use practised states of in-direction, methods akin to meditation, guided fantasy, free association, automatic writing, games designed to derail goal-oriented convergent thought.

the writing is the management of our own process, the setting of goals, the keeping ourselves to it… but also the conscious use of breaks and in-direction. Ask any writer about the experience of that moment of distraction, giving up on the problem, getting up to make cup of coffee, and click, the answer comes.

In the
after spot comes the most conscious elements of all: the workshopping, reflections on the process, becoming aware of (often having pointed out to you) the whole range of blind spots, clichés and weary old routines.

All this is thinking, as clear and conscious as we can make it… but in the centre of this, the un-formed, un-formulated moment. the
zero which is not nothing, but without which the rest of the thinking would be… well, just words.



And sometimes what I want to say

yes, that pause – it’s a yes
of a pause, like now: I’ve woken early

just as the bird that’s been up sharpening its one note
stops, as the half-grind-half-sigh

of a train across the valley, that I didn’t hear
when it was there, becomes its absence,

with everything stepping back to clear a space
in which the day will be erected when the first

shift clocks on. Now, though: a pause…
or many pauses, leaning all together (I sit up

still sleep-warm, in the altogether)
at one point: a point of balance I can’t hold

but for a moment here between the tip
of my mapping-pen (0.5mm) and the blank

page, and before the first mark (too much
like a full stop, or the pinprick leak

through which the world will start
to seep, then flood in)

here it is. It isn’t nothing. This
is the eye of the needle, and the perfectly

smooth egg of Zero
from which a whole world of number was born. [18]


Theory with a Capital T

This evening started with a tea ceremony – with a welcome and an invitation to walk and talk together in the garden. Whom did I mainly have in mind in issuing this invitation? Anyone is welcome, of course, but in this period when Creative Writing has grown from being seen as a little light relief in smaller universities to a sturdy discipline in its own right the abiding fact has been our relationship with English in particular, and with the critical theory throughout the humanities that has come to be known as Theory with a capital T.

Do we speak the same language? As in the last line of the Abstract Garden poem, are we close in spite of having not a common word between us? Or is it just the opposite: do we deal with the same words, and yet rarely meet?

Let's be honest: Theory (capital T) worries writers. This is not only because it tells them they, the author, are dead, though that's hardly a tactful gambit in a conversation. It is not only because Theory is rarely interested in the one concern that bugs creative writers night and day: how can I make this draft of mine better? (Theory often seems more at ease with minor and ephemeral writing, which is easy to deconstruct, almost falling apart before your eyes. Most of us hope to produce the kind that lasts – not that most of us believe these days in timeless greatness. I mean the kind that endures a history of changing times and changing readings, and still is somehow peskily itself.)

I know, from experience, this encounter has its risks. At university thirty-five years ago I studied English… and stopped writing for ten years. Looking at our students now, I take this seriously.

Most of us are glad to be asked a good, unsettling, fruitful question – by which I mean a question that unhooks us from an old and automatic response, and unlocks a range of possible new directions. As far as Theory does that, we are workmates, even friends. When Theory speaks on a level of absolutes and generality in which I can't recognize my own experience or struggles as a writer, then, however true it is in its own self-referential universe, it is, literally, no use to me. And Creative Writing is at base to do with helping people write.

This is a challenge for the critic and the writer. For the writer, it's a test of what new input we can integrate. It might also be our job to insist, quite stubbornly, on the question:
how does this help me? (Or rather: how does this help the half-formed poem in my hands?)

Where we agree to walk slightly apart might be on the question of not-knowing. Even if perfect understanding of the forces at work in you were possible – I'm thinking now about the age-old argument about Free Will – would it help? Or is the job of the moment (the creative moment) to be as complex and fluid as possible, so that – in ways far subtler than our smartest understandings can administer – those forces can resolve themselves?

Let's eavesdrop on two voices in the garden walking in another strict shape: a villanelle – a good form for a good old ding-dong…


- Speak up. Yes, you. What can you say
apart from ‘Look into thy heart and write’?
- Somebody has to keep the words in play

(play as in Hamlet, or the All Blacks, or the way
a child learns, or what water does with light.)
- Speak up. Yes, you, what can you say

(you as in self, soul, any old cliché
for what it is takes heed, aim, fright or flight)?
- Somebody has to keep the words, in play-

pens, toy-rooms, in a studied disarray.
(I lose my self there sometimes late at night…)
- Speak up? Yes, you. What, can you say

the game’s not up, letters don’t go astray?
The author’s dead! (Yes, you.) - In times of blight
some body has to keep the words, and play,
what Edward Thomas meant by ‘an infinite may’
(not Springtime, but a kinder form of might.)
Somebody has to keep the words in play
and speak up, yes. And you, what can you say? [19]


That's not the end. I want the conversation to go on. We just need to be clear about the somewhat different agendas. Where CW operates is with the work in progress, not the finished text. One discipline deals with creative writing, one with the creative written. For us, the writer is always still there, to change the writing and respond.

The advantage of an abstract garden is that it has no bounds. It can be as large as we like. As long as we keep walking and talking it can expand around us, as far as we can go.

[1] Gross, P. (2001) 'House of Paper' in Changes of Address: Poems 1980–98. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 92.

[2] Barthes, R. (1986) 'From Work To Text' in The Rustle of Language, trans. R. Howard. London: Blackwell, 56-64.

[3] Rimbaud, A. Letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871.

[4] Gross, P. (2001) 'The Tale of “You” and “I”' in Changes of Address: Poems 1980–98. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 123.

[5] Quoted with thanks to the various students and school children quoted here and later. The nature of the exercise was partly collaborative and anonymous, so individual lines could not be traced. The groups agreed in advance that the resulting pieces could be shared in other times and places.

[6] Donaghy, M. (2000) from 'Machines' in Dances Learned Last Night: Poems 1975–95. London: Picador.

[7] Gross, P.  (2006) ‘Thus’ in The Abstract Garden (with engravings by Peter Reddick). Llandogo: The Old Stile Press.

[8] Gross, P. (2006) ‘The Abstract Garden’ in The Egg of Zero. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books,  76.

[9] Williams, W. C. (1944) 'A Sort of Song'; (1946) 'Paterson'; and elsewhere.

[10] Lopez, T. (1982) Abstract and Delicious. Warehorne: Secret Books.

[11] Mahon, D. (1999) from 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford' in Collected Poems. Loughcrew: Gallery Press (and numerous anthologies):

Even now there are places where a thought might grow –
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rain-barrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford…

[12] Gross, P. (2001) ‘A Game Of Henge’ in Changes of Address: Poems 1980–98. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 118.

[13] E. M. Forster. epigraph to Howard's End

[14] This is a close paraphrase, from a presentation by Brian Dewan at a conference of the Society of Authors Children’s Writers’ Interest Group, St Catherine’s College, Oxford, 16 September 2005.

[15] James, W. (1899) ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ in Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to students on some of life’s ideals. London: Longmans.

[16] Keats, J. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 Dec. 1817, in Gittings, R. (1970) (ed.) Letters of John Keats. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[17] Bloom, H. (1973) The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[18] Gross, P. (2006) ‘0’ in The Egg of Zero. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 66.

[19] Gross, P. Unpublished.

Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Wales where he leads the MPhil/PhD in Writing programme. He is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, as well as radio short stories, including the radio poem/documentary Touching Estonia in 2002, plays, and fiction for young adults. His earlier poetry books, up to 1998's The Wasting Game, a troubling and deeply moving account of a teenage girl's anorexia (shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize), are collected in Changes of Address (Bloodaxe, 2001), since when he has published five books with Bloodaxe: Mappa Mundi (2003), The Egg of Zero (2006), The Water Table (winner of the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize), Deep Field (2011) and Later (2013). He has also published ten novels for young people, most recently The Lastling and The Storm Garden. His children's poetry includes The AllNite Café which won the Signal Award, and Off Road To Everywhere, winner of the CLPE poetry award 2011. I Spy Pinhole Eye, a collaboration with photographer Simon Denison, was the English-language winner of Wales Book of the Year 2010.