Friday, 18 May 2012

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)

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