Wednesday, 23 May 2012

REVIEW: Mary Shelley, Northern Stage

(The review below, written for the Evening Chronicle, can also be read here.)
Known as the author of the early nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley lived a life of anxiety and pursuit that would eventually lead her to write one of the most complex novels of all time. With Mary Shelley, a play new to 2012, the Northern Stage brings her tale to life.

When sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin falls in love with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she is delighted to find that he is equally fond of her. However, when Mary’s father, William Godwin, disapproves of their relationship, Mary is heartbroken. Torn between doing right by her father and listening to her heart, drastic action is taken. Is Mary to live a life her mother, radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, would have approved of?

I cannot think of another time when I have seen a play that has unfolded so captivatingly, the progression through the narrative allowing us to understand why Mary desired to imitate the love she craved from her father by building a family with Percy Shelley. The pace of the play cannot be faulted.

It’s widely understood that the writing of Frankenstein came about after the Shelleys spent time with Lord Byron at Villa Diodati in Switzerland, in 1816. There was a slight chronological alteration with this significant moment in the play, changing the setting and timeframe in which Mary’s harrowing nightmare occurred. However, the story does otherwise display accuracy, if not for a few minor tweaks, to allow it to flow more easily as an art form.

Each cast member brought their characters to life. Credit is due all round, however two specific actors stand out: Kristin Atherton portrayed Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin exactly as I feel she should be – ambitious and adventurous, with passion in her core – while Shannon Tarbet provided an excitingly energetic Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont, with character traits that match those commonly known to have been displayed by Clairmont herself.  Weather is at the forefront of a lot of the emotion projected. As snow falls, you can almost guarantee that tears will too. The use of lighting to create darker stormy scenes, the stage often coated in a layer of Gothic-like mist, heightens the Romantic sensations that are conjured. With the occasional comical line weaved into the script, penned by Helen Edmundson, the play is balanced perfectly.

Anticipating the possession of your soul for the evening, the play will capture your attention in ways barely imaginable. With its talented cast, a creative use of lighting, and the capabilities of reducing you to tears, Mary Shelley reaches into the very heart of one of the greatest stories ever conceived.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Ambition, Adventure, and Achievement: The Makings and Markings of MA English

In one of his recent publications, Amazing Psychic Stories (2006), medium Derek Acorah expresses that "the more a spirit experiences during its physical lifetimes, then the more it grows and progresses" (p. xvii). With this idea in mind, I'm always looking to leap into new adventures. Although I'm an opportunist, I'm also a great planner, and have every intention of embarking upon the exciting path that is MA English in a few years' time. Ahead of this postgraduate study, I spoke with Dr Alison Younger, programme leader for MA English at University of Sunderland, to see what is in store for prospective students:

Other than a greater depth of knowledge of the topics studied, what does studying MA English provide that English at undergraduate level is unable to?
Dr Alison Younger
AY: Ahh, the interviewer’s chestnut: the obvious answer to which is that it equips students with a range of research skills so as to allow students successfully to complete a research led dissertation to be submitted at the end of the degree. This training in independent research also equips students with the necessary skills required to continue their studies at Doctoral level – an opportunity many take in the thriving research culture at theUniversity of Sunderland. That’s the official answer, but it’s so much more than that. Students have to make a significant conceptual leap from undergraduate to postgraduate. From learning to analyse they learn to philosophise and develop an independent critical voice in relation to text and theory. There is nothing more gratifying than an impassioned and informed debate wherein students are developing the confidence to challenge scholars in the field (MA staff included). The subject matter doesn’t only allow for this intellectual development; it positively encourages it. Far from the stereotypical (and if I might say jaundiced) view that studying literature is just ‘so much chatter about Shelley’, studying postgraduate English makes us think politically, it makes us philosophise; it changes us as people. Perhaps this would be as good a time as any for me to get off my soap box…

How flexible is the programme? Does it cater to a wide selection of interests within literature, or is it driven by a few specifics epochs/genres?
AY: It is entirely flexible. Its modular basis offers maximum flexibility in that it allows students to combine the study of Literature with those of Linguistics and Creative Writing – sometimes within one module. It’s also constantly evolving as our research does. The MA development group are singularly devoted to improving provision. It genuinely matters to us. Our degree is book-ended by research skills modules that are second-to-none. Other than that we offer a rolling portfolio of modules including a number of brand new ones. In the current academic year, for example all of our modules were newly written and ranged from ‘Early Humans in Fiction’ (where else could you study that?), to Creative Writing and Theory – a fantastic hybrid of critical thinking and creative thinking which students have adored. In September we press the regionalism button with ‘Writing of the Anglo-Scottish Borders. I’ll come to my own new module in due course, but the point I’d like to make is that we study ‘Literatures’ from Bombay to Berwick; from Ancient to Postmodern, and from the points of view of textual scholarship and High Theory. Where else could you do that?

What makes the MA programme at Sunderland stand out above other universities, specifically those in the North East?
AY: Ha! How many academics from other universities have you seen dressing up as ghouls to promote an MA programme? Seriously, I have the greatest respect for other programmes that are running in other local universities. I think we differ period, or specific subject focussed MAs can be summed up by what we’re aiming for: that is research led relevance. What I mean by this is that all postgraduate degrees should be research led; in other words you should be learning from the cutting edge research of those who teach you. That’s certainly the case at Sunderland. All of the people who teach on the course are experts in their respective fields, and have published work in them. Does that differ from other universities? I would hope not. I would certainly be using ‘dissemination of research’ as a yardstick when choosing an MA place. Where I think we do differ is in range and relevance. Academics, by nature are single-minded people, and we all think that our own research is fascinating to everyone. Let me give you an example (a hypothetical one, I should point out). I might have spent years studying the placement of commas in Byron’s Don Juan, and have come to the conclusion that the bold Lord was beating out a Satanic rhythm in morse code with the intention of world domination. It might be relevant to me. It might even be true (as it happens, I don’t think it is), but could I base a whole course on it? I don’t think so. It’s too esoteric. While we are aware that cutting edge research is the core of a good postgraduate degree, the MA English team have looked at what is relevant to prospective students and are tailoring our modules to address this. 
So, for example we work on special topic modules which are of relevance to prospective students which will give them the skills to develop their own ideas in the area. I think Alex Pheby put it best when he said that our MA is ‘edgy’. We’re not afraid to push boundaries, and we’ll develop modules which combine our research strengths in new and exciting ways, but ways that are aware of students’ career prospects. This is where our ‘Spectral Visions’ conference came from. We know that many students want to go into teaching; we have the research expertise in diverse areas relating to Gothic, and we saw that Gothic 
Necessary preparations for Spectral Visions...
was a central theme on A’ level syllabi. We realised that we could aid the continuing professional development of teachers, and give our prospective students some added value for teaching applications. The rest, as they say is history…

One final thing: our students are encouraged to engage in the symposia and conferences we hold at 
Sunderland. This means that they are engaging with eminent experts in the field on a regular basis. Let me give you an example: we are home to NEICN (North East Irish Culture Network) which is about to hold its tenth international conference. In past years we’ve had speakers such as: Terry Eagleton, Robert Welch, Luke Gibbons, Ailbhe Smith, Kevin Barry, Siobhan Kilfeather, Shaun Richards, and Lord David Puttnam, to name but a few with readings from Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Bernard O’Donoghue and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. Students have had the opportunity to be exposed to these massively eminent academics, and writers. Added to this, look at the academic juggernaut that is your Visiting Professor: Willy Maley. His list of publications reads like the Book of Kells. So, within and outwith the University students are offered a constant stream of intellectual brilliance and cutting edge research. This extends to our newly developing network, ‘SIN’ Scottish Irish Network which we hope will do the same with Scotland that we’ve done with Ireland. Watch this space…

What will obtaining a Masters in English do beneficially for employability?
AY: Of course ‘English’ doesn't have a clear ‘vocational’ label but the skills you will obtain from it such as writing and thinking clearly and creatively will equip you for many professions. It has been said that English will help you to: ‘develop the insight of an artist, the analytical precision of a scientist and the persuasiveness of a lawyer.' In other words it offers you transferable skills. This may seem very much the register of the sector, but the fact is that our students do develop many skills they wouldn't think about putting on a CV. Take exams, for example: these make students expend time and effort on developing skills and knowledge which they would otherwise not have taken the trouble to master. If I were going to put down the transferable skills I’d learned from exams in a job application I’d probably include: the ability to operate under controlled pressure; to think very efficiently in a controlled crisis; to formulate difficult issues much more simply; to draw conclusions which I would never have reached under other circumstances; the ability to prioritise and perform; the ability to think on my feet… All of these things are potentially very creative forces and engender the types of skills that employers look for. The same can be said for assignments. I’d employ a graduate from our programme in a heartbeat!

Beyond this, I think it’s important to say that we encourage our students to take ownership of their programme, and to be involved in the promotion, and organisation of events, symposia and conferences. In doing this students are gaining skills in events management, organisation, liaising with outside bodies, promotions. I could go on and on…

What do you find most enjoyable about being programme leader for MA?
AY: Watching the programme, and the students evolve and develop. We learn from students as they learn from us. I stick by the old adage, often attributed to W.B Yeats: ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire’. I’d like to think that my role as programme leader is the fire-starter, ably assisted by the rest of the development team who develop the incendiary devices (aka modules) to inflame our students.

Which modules taught at postgraduate level do you personally prefer? Are there any topics not covered on the programme that you'd like to be able to teach?
AY: Goodness! I teach a number of Irish Studies modules which range from Ancient Gaelic ‘fabliau’ (in translation), to contemporary political drama and poetry. That said, I ran my ‘Late Victorian Gothic’ module for the first time this year (based on some work I’ve been doing for SIN on Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde), and I’ve loved it. So have the students. I’ve published on Melodrama and Music Hall, so popular cultural forms spring to mind also. I’m currently working on a collection entitled ‘Celtic Connections’ with Willy Maley, and I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘Archipelagic Literatures’; in particular Scottish and Irish Gothic. I’d love to develop something in that area. I’m also developing a module on ‘the Fantastic’ with Alex Pheby which will cover critical and creative writing. It’s a reasonably extensive wish list, but our MA is big enough, and bold enough to accommodate it.

Do you find that many students choose do study MA English at University of Sunderland, having done an undergraduate degree at a different university prior?
AY: More and more do. What we find at Sunderland is that we get numerous students who come to the university as undergraduates thinking it is perhaps less ‘prestigious’ than our Russell Group neighbours, but not wanting to leave at the end because of the excellent provision they’ve received. That message is starting to get out to students of other universities, not only in the region, and the country but internationally. I’d match our MA against any other, anywhere. That’s the message we need to get out to people, and I think it is getting there. We’ve had a massive surge in applications this year; many of them from other universities. If I were me, I’d certainly apply for it…

What do you look for in a student of MA English?
AY: I feel I have to rise to the challenge of the fantastic blog you did with Willy Maley, and follow the alliterative antics of the Professorial punster, so I’ll say intelligent, innovative and inspired by the subject – or perhaps erudite, engaged and with enquiring minds. In short I’d say people who are creative minded and willing to think beyond the box.

What advice would you give to somebody considering applying to study MA English at Sunderland?
AY: The graduate job market is so competitive right now, an MA can give you the edge to land that perfect job, or to pursue research. It’s an investment in your future. With that in mind, (and bearing in mind how fantastic our MA is) I’d say, work hard, read lots and follow your dreams.

Thanks, Alison!

I think it's fair to say that we will all be rushing to apply for MA English at University of Sunderland as soon as we can! As much as I'm looking forward to the next two years of BA English, I cannot wait to sink into the MA waters. I do hope you'll all be joining me on what is quite clearly to be the unmissable adventure of a lifetime. 

Amy x

Creative Writing at Sunderland...

One of the things I love most about the English department at Sunderland is the mixed bag of personalities who take the shape of  the lecturers. I caught up with Dr Alex Pheby, Head of Creative Writing, during a gap in his busy schedule to see what he had to say about the university and the courses on offer.

What would you say are some of the assets of the English department?
AP: The department is full of staff who know their stuff; we're all experts in our own fields. It is also quite small, and we all have something important to add to the programmes that we run. People are very interested in reading students' stories. Everybody is fully committed.

Why did you choose a career as a lecturer?
AP: I like teaching students who study English as they have appreciation for the written word and literature. It's a rare thing nowadays. I've heard people proudly declare they've never read Joyce!  It's great to be around people who share similar interests.

Tell me a bit about the creative writing course at Sunderland. Why should people choose to study here?
AP: Well, it's better in the North East as it's largely more flexible, I think. There are the possibilities to do a lot of things here that perhaps other departments are too rigid to attempt. For example, we’re looking at producing a book for the second years, and this is something that’s going through at the moment. Some of the second year work that’s being produced is excellent, and there’s no reason, providing you’re on top of the distribution chain, where we can’t actually get this work out and published. At the University of Sunderland we try to not only give people an education in English, but also an education in writing, and on top of that an education in how to use that writing outside of the University setting. We’re people who try and do the best for our students, largely because we understand the problems that people are going through, in terms of getting out in the world, and the kind of things people are interested in. It’s a BA in English and Creative Writing, so our graduates get the best of both worlds.

Which module/s within the creative writing programme do you enjoy the most?
AP: I’m not a poet. I don’t tend to write poetry myself, but the one I enjoy the most I think is ELL231, which I’m not teaching this year which I’m a bit sad about, The Art of Modern Poetry. That is great because you get to do a lot of material that you’re not always familiar with yourself. The way that I teach poetry involves a lot of non-literary material, so in weeks on rhythm for example we listen to a lot of music, and act as if the lyrics to songs are poems, and listen out for the beats behind those. Producing that kind of thing fora a class for people is good fun, because they act completely differently that they would react if you asked them to sit down and read them a poem and work out its metre for example. We use a lot of visual images to as a way of kind of driving the idea that the poem is a kind of visual form. Because it’s not in my normal run of expertise, I have to do more work, so that brings me into contact with loads of material that I otherwise wouldn’t have looked at, which is fun for me. I often think now that the only time I ever learn anything is when I have to teach it
I’d like to do some more modules around creative non-fiction, things like life writing and travel writing.

Do you find that people tend to write in the style of the literature that is most popular?
AP: Yeah! I try and force them not to by the structures of the stuff that I do. I tend to make people write on various topics, to get them out of that sense that they’ve got to rewrite Twilight and rewrite Harry Potter. I think often people find it quite liberating. To be honest, there is no room for another Harry Potter or Twilight.  You’ve got to do something different , because those things are already there. You don’t need to do those again.  You need to think of things that only you can do, and you can say.

Where do you find your own inspiration from? Are there any specific authors you admire who you'd always recommend?
AP: It’s always a difficult question. I like anybody who says something unusual. I find myself going outside the canon of straight English. People like Patrick Hamilton I’ve been reading a lot recently. Anybody who’s got something interesting and unusual to say, I think. The good thing about working in the English department is that you’re never short of somebody to lend you a book to read. Everybody walking around has always got something interesting to say. In general though, if it’s got a boy wizard in it, I don’t like it. If it’s got a vampire in it, I don’t like it – unless it’s Dracula!

If you had to write a novel about life as a lecturer at Sunderland, which genre do you think it'd fit into?
AP: Horror! Crime! There’s a genre of writing called campus novels – David Lodge has written a series of novels based around a university campus, so it has its own genre. The University has an interesting mix of people.  You’ve got a lot of students, and the kind of anxieties and experiences that young people have, and then you have the, generally, almost exclusively, eccentric crowd of lecturers, who have been…not driven mad  by their subjects, but are kind of on the verge of being obsessed  with their material, which any good academic is. Academics aren’t really normal people. They’re, by definition, people who have become obsessed with one particular area of knowledge, and that just marks you out as somebody who is not usual. Generally, people are more rounded than that. In order to be an academic, you have to be over too focused and too driven for the real world. One step away from care in the community!

What do you look for in a student?
AP: Hard work is a big one. You can pretty much get over any inadequacies of talent or failures of being interested in just by working really hard at it. You can develop all sorts of skills just by working hard. Talent’s good, being interesting in the world is good, but hard work is better. Commitment is the other thing. Providing you’re committed and you’re willing to work, then I’m happy.

Finally, what advice would you give to anybody thinking about applying for one of the English programmes?
AP: Do it sooner rather than later. Once the cap is met, we have to stop letting people in. Be proactive. Get your applications in as soon as you can. Get good A level results, and fill the form in correctly.

Thanks, Alex!

Needless to say, the English department here is absolutely fantastic. I'll echo the above statement, and encourage you to apply as soon as you possibly can. I can't imagine where I'd be now if I hadn't been accepted onto the English programme. I certainly wouldn't have it any other way!

Amy x

(Blog also published here)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

'Sleep no more: the dark side of Macbeth'

"Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron, boil and bake..."

Professor Willy Maley
As you sit there cackling along to the incantation, allow me to draw your attention to further Shakespeare delights. Providing a taste of the subject he will be addressing at the Spectral Visions conference on June 26th, Professor Willy Maley (University of Glasgow) shares some thoughts on Macbeth, discussing both its  Gothic and Scottish elements:

Do you think that there is a tradition of Scottish Gothic as distinct from an English tradition?
WM: I think there is a distinctive Scottish Gothic as well as a distinctive Irish Gothic, and colonialism and religion are among the markers that set them apart.

Despite the fact that Macbeth is a sixteenth-century text, and Gothic is generally accepted as a nineteenth-century genre, is there anything about Macbeth we can label Gothic?
WM: I don't know if Gothic is generally accepted as anything other than a highly contested category with very deep roots. Attempts to historicize it may fail to grasp its transhistorical nature.
Terry Eagleton describes the witches as the heroines of the piece. What's your opinion of this?
WM: Terry Eagleton is an old hero of mine, but I think he's better on the Brontes than the Bard.

Would you say Macbeth deserves the description of 'butcher' and Lady Macbeth 'fiend like'?
WM: Butchery is in the eye of the beholder. Macbeth is a hero when he butchers for the state, and a villain when he kills the king. Fiendishness likewise. Lady Macbeth has a conscience in the end. I'm still searching for Tony Blair's.

Do you think the Celtic provenance of the story has any importance to our understanding of it?
 WM: Yes, and that 'Celtic provenance' has Irish and Welsh analogues too. I think calling it the 'Scottish play' has been a piece of stage superstition rather than an invitation to think seriously about its national contexts – in the plural. The Scottish context matters and has to be taken into account. That is annoying for formalists and for Anglocentrists. That's a wee shame.

Dr Alison Younger
Programme leader for MA English, and
Spectral Visions' chief Fallen Angel.
Photographer: David Newton

Why do you think Shakespeare changes the ‘historical’ Macbeth from a ‘good’ king according to the stands of his time, into an evil, usurping regicide?
WM: Does he? I like the readings by critics like Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Goldberg and David Norbrook that find a more complex character and a republican undertow. 

In your opinion, would you say that Macbeth provides a greater experience when read as a script, viewed on stage, or watched on screen? Do you find this to be typical of all of Shakespeare's plays, or are there elements of Macbeth which allows it to work better in one format over the others?
WM: I like reading texts, but every reading or performance is an interpretation so it depends on the context. I saw a performance in Washington in 1995 with key roles played by black actors that made me think about the play in a different way – suddenly the Scots language allusion  to a cream-faced loon stood out in stark relief – so particular productions can bring new elements to the fore.

 How much does Macbeth add to the genre of the Gothic? What impact would you say it has had on literature in the more recent years?
WM: It's a big bloody brooding bird of prey in the background so I'm sure it feeds into and feeds on what's darkest and richest in the Gothic.

Is Gothic symptomatic of a given society's anxieties of the Jacobean period?
WM: It can be to some extent about the hauntings and unhingings – the out-of-jointness - that come with dramatic change, yes.

Why should students attend Spectral Visions? What do you think they will get out of it?
WM: Spectral Visions are the only ones worth having. The rest is zombification.

Click here to find out more about the Spectral Visions conference on 26th June. Places are limited, so make sure you email Colin Younger on to secure your place today!

Photographer: David Newton