The ‘Art of Nottingham

-Reviewed by Adrian Slatcher

It used to be only UEA who anthologised its creative writing students, but the explosion in undergraduate as well as postgraduate courses, as well as the increased availability of affordable professional printing technologies, means that most faculties will at some point offer their students a chance to have a first taste of being ‘in print’.

I’ve long supported such initiatives, as there’s much to be said for writers working collaboratively towards an anthology, as well as the practical aspects of typesetting, design and distribution. It’s not that the writing itself is secondary, more that such books will always be variable in tone and quality – in some ways, the pleasure from an outside reader is to get a sense of the mood music of a place, time and generation.

The ‘Art of Nottingham which appears to have had an open submission policy for students at the University of Nottingham is a handsome A5 perfect bound book of 136 pages which features poetry, fiction and art work, as well as interviews with the tutor/writers Nicola Monaghan and Jon McGregor. Avoiding biographical detail, we have a large number of writers and artists many of whom have a number of different pieces. Generally the layout of the book is pleasing, though I noticed that the line-spacing on some stories varied. Every inch of white space is covered as well, which allows more to be fitted in, but perhaps doesn’t aid readability. That said, it’s a nicely, readable volume, that I’m sure most of the contributors will feel impressed to be part of.

The Art of Nottingham University anthology

There are some common themes amongst the stories – which are frequently in the first person – and almost without exception well written. The stories tend to be localised, hermetic family or relationship stories, that are mostly suburban in setting, sometimes concerning an unexpected or unexplained death or loss. (The death count in the average short story anthology could probably rival most slasher films!) As for the poetry, it tends towards the impressionistic, sometimes seemingly closer to song lyrics or with a slight gothic sensibility. I’m assuming the majority of the students are in their late teens or early twenties – its interesting how compared with depictions of that age group in programmes like Skins and Misfits, the young people themselves are often far more conventional. Yet without biographical information on the writers, I’m making assumptions about age and background which isn’t always played out. Huey Shan Lum’s ‘Red Rose, White Rose’ for instance is a powerful page and a half about sexual desire; whilst Andrew Henley’s ‘An Untrue War Story’ creates a brutally metaphorical Vietnam tale, that offers ambition, even if its not entirely (as the title implies) plausible.

The poetry in particular seems to be a little nascent, and it would be interesting to know how much contemporary poetry the poets are reading, as in general it seems stuck a little in conventions of form and language. Then you suddenly get an outlier like Deborah Stevenson’s ‘On Upper Parliament Street’ which hits the nail with both language and subject -:

“The men who prey on the vulnerable women
At AA meetings are nick-named ‘pigeon-fuckers.”
Clive, top ‘pigeon-fucker’ has hands like sycamore tree.
These women haven’t seen trees in daylight.”

Or poems by Ioney Smallhorne and Panya Banjoko, which though a little raw around the edges, have a pleasing directness and originality with language.

Jon McGregor, a writer adept at fusing the domestic with the unexpected, offers the advice to his students to ‘stop checking the word count…turn off the internet’. In general he’s right, but I was surprised, given our information age, how new writers are as hermetic as I was when an undergraduate nearly thirty years ago. In some ways, this is what’s interesting about a book like this – that creative writing is something that needs time, that has to be worked on. I remember when first writing fiction that I felt I knew how to write, but I hadn’t got anything to write about, and somehow you’d have to conjure up people, places and incidents out of thin air. That job, at least, hasn’t changed. Is it really a surprise that at the start of our writing career that we talk about childhood, family, relationships and death?

Editors Alexandra Adamson and Bethany Sirl have put together a varied, enjoyable publication, that is pleasant to look at, and enjoyable to read, and the collaborative nature of the book, with some arresting images from Fine Art students works particularly well. I’d have hoped to have seen a little more adventure in the prose, and perhaps more of an awareness of contemporary practice in the poetry, but remembering my own undergraduate work, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have the pressure of publication to provide a platform to work towards.