Tuesday, 5 August 2008

How to define writer and text

I am reposting part of a comment made by Ruth Ben-Tovim at Encounters, a really interesting looking organisation based in Sheffield, because I think it's worth considering in more detail and would be really interested in other people's ideas. She says:

"Really interested to read about this site and think it's important to champion the role text and writing could have within regeneration and public realm work. I'd like to see the definition of 'writer and 'text' be widened though. At the moment in the examples you give it seems as if the emphasis is on the idea of writer as a primary creator, someone who shapes others' words or works with people to listen/ absorb but then creates a new authored work. I think that there is of course a place for this work but I think there is also a huge scope to use and work with Verbatum text. For the last 5/6 years I've been delivering temporary public art work/performance work collecting memories and stories linked to specific places within a neighbourhood, journeys people have made to live where they live, and answers to broad questions that explore what it is to be human. We've used these 'collections' to create print, exhibition and performance work and in those processes see myself as a Dramaturg/ curator or even organiser of this text, a very creative role but not the 'author'. We're now looking at projects where text from collections such as these could work within permanent public artwork."

I think this is a really interesting point. I guess from a personal point of view I am interested in the idea of collaboration, so a writer working alongside (and on an equal footing) with a group of people who wouldn't define themselves as 'writers', to create new, challenging work. Perhaps this fits in with the idea of Dramaturg/curator/organiser - but then do you need a writer to do this, or not? Am I too keen to pigeon hole people, I wonder?! I suppose I've spent a lot of time trying to think about what it is that makes writers interesting/relevant people to work with in this context, and trying to think through how writers can keep their identities and use their skills as writers in a community/participatory context. I'm not pretending to have any answers!

I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this....


Ralph Hoyte said...

I get the impression – correct me if I am wrong – that Urban Words equates ‘place’ with ‘people’ ie that for an artist/writer/poet (admittedly three synonymous terms as far as I am concerned) to convey genius loci then one needs to be involved with the people who inhabit that place. Yet ‘people’ – relative newcomers in this corner of the galaxy - constitute biologically only a tiny fraction of the flora and fauna of Planet Earth, or of what used to be called (perhaps still is) ‘Creation’, even in ‘urban spaces’. So why people? Is not what the grass thinks equally valid? The point of a poet (could that be ‘the poet of a point’? Or the pint of a poet?) is to listen to the grass, the rocks, the sea, and then report back to the humanoids. This is an essential role, in the absence of which we Terrans face the grave danger of disappearing up our own fundaments where the sun don’t shine. It could even be argued that people actually obscure the genius loci with our perpetual freneticism - noise, clamour, self-absorption, whining, beating of our collective breasts: general background static. So, to paraphrase Pope, the proper study of Man is grass - not Man… indulge me while I quote the relevant bits:

From Alexander Pope. An Essay on Man. As reproduced in Poetical Works, ed. H. F. Cary (London: Routledge, 1870), 225-226.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

‘He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest’ indeed. As to Ruth Ben-Tovim’s statement that she would “like to see the definition of 'writer and 'text' widened beyond the writer as a primary creator, someone who shapes others' words or works with people to listen/ absorb but then creates a new authored work”; well, the writer/poet is by definition ‘the primary creator’ and this role encompasses universes, of which nothing can be ‘wider’; our role is to birth The New, which does not exist before we birth it. Creation is an individual act, and, as Zadie Smith has it, “… writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.” The strange thing is, that in ‘expressing accurately our (individual) way of being in this world’ we also completely express and speak to communality: Mozart wrote out of his individual inspiration and need ‘to the greater glory of God’ (and of his aristocratic patrons too, of course) – yet 220 years after his death his works still speak to millions (which reminds me – why don’t we bring this phraseology back as a justification for Art – it’s to the greater glory of …? That’d sort a load of PR issues on the spot: why’d you write that poem, Ralph? Well, it’s to the greater glory of Calliope, the Greek Muse of Declamatory Poetry … dunno if there was a specific Muse of Urban Poetry, tho’… perhaps we can designate one). Then, of course, there is Yeats, who said, “we make art from the quarrel with ourselves, mere rhetoric from the quarrel with others.” I would perhaps substitute ‘the confrontation with ourselves’ rather than ‘the quarrel’, but his basic thought is sound: Art is the product of the confrontation with ourselves, the rest is rhetoric… Also, in ‘selecting’ and ‘organising’ what others have said to one, or contributed to a project – is not this informed by an individual’s ( a curator’s or similar) aesthetic, too, and therein resides the artistic impulse, namely an individual one masquerading as an altruism?

Anonymous said...

What occured to me reading the comment from Ruth Ben-Tovim was that we should celebrate and promote the fact that writers are being employed and involved in regeneration projects as writers, for the skills and knowledge
they have, regardless of whether they are the authors of any actual text that is created. It seems to me really important that we recognise that a writer is an individual with skills that are not private or individualistic,
but that are communicable and utile just like the skills of the architect or designer.

The Word Hoard

Sarah Butler said...

Ralph, first off, apologies for having taken forever to respond to this. No excuse other than working on too many things at the same time…

Yes, I do equate places with people in the work I do. I’m not claiming this is the only way to look at it, but for me, cities are about the people in them and how they create and inhabit spaces. It’s not that I don’t value the grass, or don’t see the value and beauty of the natural world, it’s that – in the context of urban regeneration, which is my particular interest – I think we need to pay more attention to how individuals and groups of people operate within spaces.

The thing is, I approach this with two agendas, and am trying to find a way to marry them. The first is a social, political agenda which is very much about people and community development and looking at how we can make places better for people to live in (which very much incorporates the natural world), with the belief that place and behaviour and emotion and relationships are all closely connected. The second agenda is about writing and the value of writing in society – the ability and ‘duty’ of a writer “to express accurately their way of being in the world”, as you quote from Zadie Smith. I absolutely see the value of that, and I want to create more recognition of the value of writing and the unique skills of writers, and make opportunities for writers to work in innovative and powerful ways in our cities. My personal challenge is how to find a way to work with both agendas and find out where the two might meet.