Book launch: Other People’s Countries, by Patrick McGuinness, 6pm Wednesday 19 March 2014, School of Art, Margaret Street, Birmingham

The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing and Writing West Midlands warmly invite you to join us for a reading and wine reception to mark the launch of Patrick McGuinness’s new memoir, Other People’s Countries, published by Jonathan Cape.

Disarming, eloquent and illuminating, this meditation on place, time and memory, could only have been written by a poet, or a novelist, or a professor. Happily, Patrick McGuinness is all three, and Other People’s Countries is a marvel: a stunning piece of lyrical writing, rich in narrative and character – full of fresh ways of looking at how we grow up, how we start to make sense of the world.

This book evolved out of stories the author told his children: stories about the Belgian border town of Bouillon, where his mother came from, and where he has been going three times a year since he was a child – first with his parents and now with his son and daughter. This town of eccentrics, of charm, menace and wonder, is re-created beautifully – ‘Most of my childhood,’ he says, ‘feels more real to me now than it did then’. For all its sharp specifics, though, this is a book about the common, universal concerns of childhood and the slowly developing deep sense of place that is the bedrock for our memories.

Alert and affectionate, full of great curiosity and humour, Other People’s Countries has all the depth and complexity of its own subject – memory – and is an unfashionably distilled, resonant book: unusual and exquisite.


Born in Tunisia in 1968, Patrick McGuinness is the author of The Last Hundred Days, which was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel Award and won the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award. His other books include two collections of poems, The Canals of Mars (2004), and Jilted City (2010), He is a Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where he lectures in French.

Patrick is a Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University.

Time/place:      6pm, Wednesday 19 March 2014

Venue:             Lecture Room G01, School of Art, Margaret Street, Birmingham

Cost:                FREE, but please email to book

‘Break, Blowe, Burn and Make Me New’: John Donne and Benjamin Britten – Words into Music

You are warmly invited to join us for this special event next week, hosted by the Birmingham Conservatoire in collaboration with the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, School of English:

‘Break, Blowe, Burn and Make Me New’: John Donne and Benjamin Britten – Words into Music
Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire
£6.50 (£4 concessions)
18 Feb 2014 (7:30pm)
Booking Information:
Tickets available on the door
James Geer tenor
Ronald Woodley piano
Kate Kennedy, David Roberts and Gregory Leadbetter speakers
Benjamin Britten The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35
Benjamin Britten’s settings of nine of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne are some of the most intense, thoughtful, and at times disturbing of all his songs. They were composed in the summer of 1945 in the immediate aftermath of visits to the newly liberated concentration camps while he was on tour in Germany with Yehudi Menuhin. This evening’s event in music, words and images will explore these profound works from the perspectives of poetry, interpretation, musical setting, and the composer’s life, with contributions from Britten literary specialist Dr Kate Kennedy (Girton College, Cambridge), and Professor David Roberts and Dr Gregory Leadbetter from the School of English.
The settings will be performed by James Geer, former Britten-Pears School Young Artist, with Professor Ronald Woodley from the Conservatoire’s Research Department.
We very much hope to see you there.
Dr Gregory Leadbetter
Director, Institute of Creative and Critical Writing
Director, MA in Writing
School of English
Birmingham City University
Birmingham B42 2SU

ICCW Day, School of English – Wednesday 5 February 2014

The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing is delighted to announce two excellent speakers for the first of its ICCW Days of 2014, on Wednesday 5 February 2014, in rooms B614 and B609, Baker Building, City North Campus. All current students in the School of English and all Birmingham City University university staff are invited to join us.

1. At 11am Alan Mahar will give a guest lecture on literary fiction in room B614: ‘The Beautiful Line – and Beyond’. There will be time for questions and answers at the end, and the event will conclude by 12 noon.
2. At 3pm Peter Sansom will give the ICCW guest seminar in room B609, on his life and practice as an editor, publisher and author – and how to forge your place in literary culture. Peter will speak for 45 minutes, before opening up to 45 minutes of discussion with those in attendance.
Alan Mahar was born in Liverpool in the first half of the last century, studied English in London, worked as a library assistant alongside Philip Pullman and moved to the West Midlands to teach English in FE Colleges, which he soon stopped as he rashly thought he could make a go of writing. Years of learning to write stories, reading, reviewing and teaching creative writing culminated in the publication of a bundle of short stories in prestigious magazines. He struggled to write his first novel, but Flight Patterns was published by Gollancz in 1999 followed by After the Man Before (2002, Methuen). In 1983 he founded Tindal Street Fiction Group and was one of the people who set up the prizewinning publisher Tindal Street Press, of which he was Publishing Director from 1997 -2012. During that time three of its books were listed for the Man Booker Prize, two for the Orange, and the Press had two Costa First Novel winners and three nominations for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Alan is now a freelance writer working as an editor and a reader for The Literary Consultancy, a visiting lecturer in creative writing at several Midlands universities and pushing on with a novel for which he received a major Arts Council Prize in 2002. He is excited that he’s just started writing short stories again after a decade doing publishing instead of the proper stuff of writing.

Peter Sansom is a poet and tutor. His publications include On the Pennine Way (Littlewood, 1988) and Everything You’ve Heard is True (Carcanet, 1990), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His poetry commissions include The Guardian, The Observer, Radio Three, The Big Breakfast, a billboard in the centre of Lancaster and The Swedish Club (a Marine Insurers in Gothenburg). Over the last 25 years, Peter has led writing workshops in hundreds of schools and workplaces, been Writer in Residence for Marks & Spencer and The Prudential and regular tutor for the Arvon Foundation. He taught the MA Poetry at Huddersfield for 10 years, was Fellow in Creative Writing at Leeds University, and leads monthly Writing Days and the advanced Writing School course at The Poetry Business. He is a director of The Poetry Business in Huddersfield, and co-editor of The North Magazine and of Smith/Doorstop Books.

Both events promise to be fascinating.

Gregory Leadbetter, Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing

‘Europa’: Caroline Jester on Multilingual Collaborative Theatre

In this blogpost, ICCW Fellow Caroline Jester reflects upon her experience as the dramaturg behind Europa, a theatre project that brought together four European theatres: Birmingham Repertory Theatre (UK), Dresden State Theatre (Germany), Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz (Poland) and Zagreb Youth Theatre (Croatia) – and four leading playwrights from each country – Steve Waters (UK), Lutz Hübner (Germany), Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk (Poland) and Tena Štivicic (Croatia).

This revelatory piece of theatre set out to explore the possibilities of collaborative playwriting, to produce a single work that is multi-authored and multi-lingual. Drawing on first-hand accounts, including memories from the 1930s up to the present day, the playwrights have collaborated to overcome language barriers and weave their separate languages into one single dramatic entity.

Caroline’s blogpost follows up on the public seminar, hosted by the ICCW on 17 October 2013, in which those involved in the project came together to discuss its evolution, its methodologies and its cultural significance.

Gregory Leadbetter, Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing


As a theatre practitioner I should feel disheartened when a piece of work I’ve initiated receives the reaction: ‘this is not a play’. On the contrary, however, this excites me. As a living artform, theatre is founded on change and having to find new ways of overcoming obstacles, whether in the form of a character having to find new paths to achieve her objective or a playwright having to rewrite his fourth draft.

Where are the rules, written in stone, to which we must adhere, to make ‘a play’? Believe me I’ve tried to find them. But if anything can be called a play, it is a piece of theatre that has a life of its own. It is something unpredictable, that allows us to discover something new by being part of an experience that allows us to see stories told in new ways. I hope we’ve moved on from checking Aristotle’s Poetics to decide if a piece of theatre lies within this framework.

‘Europa’ began in the unknown and I hope has ended without prescribing a fixed direction for where things should go. It was collaborative, not solely in the context of theatre as a collaborative medium, but collaborative in its story creation with four playwrights in four different languages. Europe itself can be described as a work in progress and when a play fails to offer a chance to change itself, when it is described as a complete play, then it might not be true to its own identity.

In 2009 I became aware of the growing rhetoric around national identity versus European identity in the run up to the last general election in the United Kingdom. This wasn’t unique to this country but could be witnessed around Europe and the increasing crisis within the Eurozone. Multiple languages were competing for their voice, seemingly fighting against a union that had been established, in theory, to stop the resurgence of such behaviour.

As a dramaturg I’m fascinated by finding new ways to tell stories and experimenting with form. The process of embarking on a new collaboration is where the fear of the unknown begins and ultimately where something new can be discovered. I had developed multiauthored work before but only in the one language. In a country that has over three hundred languages spoken I felt it was time to challenge the single language play through playwriting. Multilingual work isn’t a new phenomenon, and the methodology involved can be described as postdramatic theatre. These things had previously been applied to existing texts, however. Where this process differed from what had gone before was by using playwriting as the starting point for the collaboration.

Four leading writers – Steve Waters (UK), Lutz Hübner (Germany), Tena Štivičić (Croatia) and Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk (Poland) – indulged me in this idea and we embarked on a journey with four leading theatre producers: the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Dresden State Theatre, ZKM, Croatia and Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz, with support from the European Commission.

We were fortunate to have a seminar at the end of the project hosted by The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing and all four writers described the trepidation they felt at the onset. Lutz Hübner, who has written over forty plays and is the most produced living German playwright, asks himself what is different when he embarks upon any new play. He tries to have a new challenge with every project and with this process he saw four or five and felt it was a mission impossible because of its unpredictability. It was the very unpredictable nature of the idea that excited him, however. He compared the process to building Frankenstein’s creature and was interested to see if this was a monster others would want to see too.

All the writers visited each country – for instance leading workshops with elderly citizens in Bydgoszcz, Poland, who thought we were EU officials and demonstrated their skills in the fitness craze Zumba whilst demanding that Lutz arrange a bonnet demonstration by the Polish in Dresden. Wives of Nato officials from multiple countries described their feelings of isolation in Bydgoszcz in a country that doesn’t use English as the European cultural glue. In Birmingham Asian womens’ groups debated laws in different European countries and whether they would want to go to France after they’ve banned burqas. Dresden lies in the former East of Germany and different generations had vastly conflicting experiences of what Europe is. The writers’ visit fell on 14th February, the anniversary of the bombing in Dresden and a day when far right groups descend on the city. Solidarity is shown amongst its citizens as they take to the streets and turn their backs on the unwanted visitors – and were successful in peacefully stopping them entering the city. Zagreb offered a unique insight into the wider continent of Europe when remembering the former Yugoslavia as a multi-national country and whether it was a good idea for Croatia to enter a much bigger continental union after its very recent war.

Steve Waters felt that the play would have been impossible without this experience of visiting each country. He felt that at the heart of this project was something that couldn’t be achieved – and that this is what Europe is about. The process reflected the subject matter with people asking themselves how on earth we are connected to each other, especially when you are outside your own territory. Other languages make you question this too, even when you are in your own territory. They make you see your own world in a new way, through the lens of another.

Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk said she saw her own country through the other playwrights’ eyes. It wasn’t just a deepening understanding of borders that emerged,  but a glimpse into the world of new cultural practices. Playwrights are secretive by nature, not often willing to share or reflect on how the words are committed to the page – but this collaboration shone a light on how the theoretical becomes drama. Tena Štivičić felt the very human encounters with people she wouldn’t normally have met was crucial in facilitating discussion, especially in an era were public discussions are quickly disappearing in a digital age.

The ancient Greeks have a habit of knocking on the theatrical door though, however far you feel you’ve left them behind. Europa became the character that circled the multiple characters that populated the final play. Polish women searching for bigger breasts through the European gene pool colliding with an Estonian pyro artist intent on getting money from the Commission to fund her burning euros. Croatian film makers urging the funders to explore European history through the Croatian lens and a German man realising he was on the wrong side of every wall as his country was divided. Europa itself is baffling, as she’s the myth that reminds us to look closely or we might not like the look of our offspring – what we make of Europe. She envelopes the diversity and speed of the present with the past, urging us to connect yet not forcing us to follow her.

‘This is not a play’ was only one of many reactions to this work in the UK. Audiences booked twice and were made up of many different nationalities. In Croatia the Minister for Culture felt it was important that the President of Croatia saw this work and in Poland it was part of an international festival of work. In Germany the different nations collaborated after the performances too in the bar watching football, resonating with recent debates in the UK around whether Polish-born British citizens should support England or Poland in international games.

Europa lives on in the form of Methuen’s publication, their first multilingual play. Anna Brewer, Commissioning Editor at Methuen Drama stated that this was significant for Methuen as they were moving into new territory: they had never published a play in four languages before.

I hope this work continues to create a reaction as it challenges our preconceptions of the status quo and moves us into new cultural territories – questioning through collaboration what is real and what we’ve made up along the way to help us feel secure.

Caroline Jester, Dramaturg and Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing – Tutor in Scripting and Staging, MA in Writing, Birmingham City University


Institute of Creative and Critical Writing: Autumn Programme 2013

It’s a great pleasure to announce the ICCW’s Autumn Programme for this year.

All of these events are FREE and open to the public. You are invited!

All we request that you do is to let us know you’re coming, by following the links to the relevant booking pages.

17 October, 2-5pm, G01 School of Art, Margaret St, Birmingham – A public seminar with the writers and producers of ‘Europa’, a new pan-European theatre project. Tea and coffee provided:

23 October, 6.30-8.30pm, G01 School of Art, Margaret St, Birmingham – A poetry reading with David Morley and Gregory Leadbetter, for the launch of David’s new collection, The Gypsy and the Poet (Carcanet). Wine and refreshments provided:

28 November, 7-9pm, Waterstones New Street, Birmingham – A poetry reading with Maurice Riordan and Angela France, for the launch of Maurice’s new collection, The Water Stealer (Faber and Faber). In partnership with Writing West Midlands. Wine and refreshments provided:

We look forward to seeing you there.

Dr Gregory Leadbetter – Director, Institute of Creative and Critical Writing

‘Water, water, everywhere’: National Poetry Day, 3 October 2013

‘“What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?” is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people’. So wrote Robert Graves, as far back as the 1940s. The question is, in fact, an ancient one, and of course it still has currency – just as it did for Graves. I like to think that Graves was pointing out that the defence of poetry is only ‘silly’ if done ‘apologetically’.
National Poetry Day, which this year falls on 3 October 2013, is a very public opportunity for poetry to stake its claim, as well as for readers and audiences to come to poetry.
We are living in curious times for the craft, when the popularity of poetry so evident at readings, festivals and performances does not appear to be translating into book sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, 2012 saw a 15.9% drop in sales of single-authored poetry collections, leaving the total UK market for poetry books worth only £6.7m that year. No poet is in it for the money, but publishers – to some extent at least – have to be, and they are of course a vital link in the literary culture. Moreover, a good poetry book deserves to be valued as much as a good novel, or good non-fiction. As Heminge and Condell put it, when presenting the Shakespeare First Folio to readers in 1623: ‘the fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses’. Even a ‘gift’ culture – sometimes held up as an alternative to the market economy of contemporary publishing – depends upon the acknowledgement of value. However we achieve that, National Poetry Day is one way of recognising the value of poetry collectively, socially, in celebratory fashion – and across the country, the keen pleasures that poetry brings will be self-evident.
The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, water, everywhere’: a line taken from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where it is followed by that withering realisation, ‘Nor any drop to drink’ – capturing the terrible paradox of drought on board a ship at sea. Water is so essential to us, so ubiquitous in our habitat, that we might not notice it except through its absence – dehydration, thirst – and our visceral pleasure when that thirst is slaked. An absence of poetry may not kill you, quite – though this is debatable, given its fundamental relationship to articulate thought. An encounter with poetry, however, can certainly be as refreshing as and as vital as drinking the water that the body craves – the sense of being suddenly awash with life, as Coleridge’s Mariner felt, when the rain fell again: ‘Sure I had drunken in my dreams, / And still my body drank’. What’s more – with poetry – you might not realise how thirsty you were, until you have taken the drink.
So – seek out poetry this National Poetry Day – and let poetry seek you out. Perhaps join the Poetry Book Society, too – free to students – and/or the Poetry Society.
I will be attending a reading by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Imtiaz Dharker, at Birmingham Literature Festival – an event sponsored by the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing. I am told that it sold out well in advance.
Poetry abides.

Sally Read on Sylvia Plath – a podcast: ‘The Dark Night of Sylvia Plath’

Welcome to the first podcast brought to you by the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University.

I’m delighted to begin with this wonderful recording by the internationally-acclaimed poet and Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, Sally Read, in which she discusses the poetry of Sylvia Plath – and argues that, contrary to the common perception of Plath as a ‘confessional’ poet, her work is best understood through its movement beyond the self.

Gregory Leadbetter – Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing


Sylvia Plath

Helen Cross: Afternoon Drama on Radio 4 – ‘Rowena the Wonderful’

Helen Cross, Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, has written a superb new drama-documentary for Radio 4, ‘Rowena the Wonderful’. It was broadcast on Friday 26 July, but there is still time to catch it on Listen Again, until 2 August 2013.

Here is some more information on the piece, from the Radio 4 website:

“A real-life magician’s assistant, Rowena is eleven years old.

She can’t speak but she wants a voice, so that she can tell her extraordinary story of growing up, celebrity and love.

A unique drama-documentary to reflect the life of unique girl by award-winning writer Helen Cross (‘My Summer of Love’). Dominique Moore stars in this uplifting, unusual and moving story.

Rowena was born with a rare chromosome disorder which means she can’t speak. But she can understand the language of looks and the power of stories, of music and the love of her family.

She can do magic, and she will make herself heard.”

ICCW Review of the Year 2012-13

Last week saw the final event in the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing programme for the 2012-13. The summer will bring notice of the programme for 2013-14 – which I can already promise will be filled with good things.

This is a good moment, however, to look back on the ICCW’s first season.

For those readers who may not know, the ICCW exists to cultivate the literary arts and the life of ideas, through its calendar of public events. Six events a year are run on-campus at Birmingham City University, and feed directly into our creative writing programmes there at both postgraduate and undergraduate level. Other events are based off-campus, usually (but not exclusively) at city centre venues in Birmingham.

The ICCW has a core group of contributors, known as Fellows of the ICCW, who contribute to its aims and its programme, through readings, masterclasses, and in some cases, tutorial roles. Our Fellows are: Helen Cross, Caroline Jester, Ian Marchant, Patrick McGuinness, David Morley, and Sally Read. You can learn more about them, and the ICCW, by following the links on this blog.

So – the 2012-13 programme looked like this:

17 October 2012: Poet, novelist and Fellow of the ICCW, Patrick McGuinness, on writing the prize-winning novel The Last Hundred Days – and its relationship to his poetry

14 November 2012: Literary agent Ben Mason, of Fox Mason, on working with agents, and the challenges of the twenty-first century literary marketplace

21 November 2012: Poet and critic David Morley, reading his work – including his forthcoming book, The Gypsy and the Poet – and discussing his practice as a poet

28 November 2012: Digital publishing company Autharium, on the opportunities of the digital marketplace

6 February 2013: Alan Mahar, novelist and former Chief Executive of Tindal Street Press, lecture on the past, present, and future of literary fiction

13 February 2013: Jonathan Davidson, poet and Director of Writing West Midlands, on sustaining a career as a writer

22 February 2013: The ICCW sponsors the Writers in Schools event, by Writing West Midlands and the National Association of Writers in Education

13 March 2013: Poets and publishers Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, on running Fuselit, Sidekick Books, and reading from their own and others’ poetry

2 April 2013: The ICCW sponsors the inaugural John Donne Day at Polesworth Abbey

17 April 2013: The ICCW launch event, attended by over 120 people, at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, with readings from Fellows David Morley, Patrick McGuinness, Caroline Jester, me (on behalf of Sally Read), Helen Cross, and Ian Marchant. (Photos to appear here soon…)

24 April 2013: Novelist Jenn Ashworth, reading from her work – including her latest book, The Friday Gospels – and discussing her writing practice.

I think anyone would be delighted to have curated this programme, and I know I certainly am.

Watch this space for new of the 2013-14 programme soon.

Dr Gregory Leadbetter, Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing

Launch of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing – 6pm, Wednesday 17 April 2013, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

You are warmly invited to join us for an evening of readings by internationally-acclaimed authors, over a complimentary glass of wine, for the launch of Birmingham City’s University’s new Institute of Creative and Critical Writing. This is a free, public event, held at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, on Wednesday, 17th April 2013, 6-9pm.

To celebrate the launch of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, the evening will feature readings by its distinguished Fellows: novelist and scriptwriter Helen Cross, dramaturg and theatre practitioner Caroline Jester, author and broadcaster Ian Marchant, poet and novelist Patrick McGuinness, and poet and critic David Morley.

The event will be introduced by the poet, critic, and Director of the Institute, Gregory Leadbetter.

The evening will begin at 6pm with a complimentary wine reception.

This free event features a superb range of writers. Don’t miss it!

The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing exists to cultivate the literary arts and the life of ideas through an exciting calendar of public events.

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