Community’s opposite

English departments are “hostile territory, dangerous turf.” That’s from an essay by George Garrett, but that notion permeates the 1970 collection Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. Bill Manhire told me that he picked up this book in the early 70s in London, and he seems to have the only copy in the country of New Zealand, so the paperback on my desk is borrowed from him. Baumbach’s book arises from and reflects sympathy between 1960s expressivist or “Authentic Voice” composition pedagogy and Creative Writing programs then springing up in North America and Britain. Students are “secret outlaws, shooting the deer of the king in private Sherwood Forest,” as Baumbach puts it. To write powerfully is to be empowered. This radical activity, necessarily nurtured under the radar, requires unlearning whatever rules the “cops and teachers” have handed down.

Dated, yes. The cover illustration is pretty trippy: a pipe-smoking bearded hippy guy is strolling across a giant pencil, while mirrored below him, a pipe-smoking bearded professorial guy totes his briefcase in the other direction. Are they arch-enemies or the same person? Might the one in the suit pop into a classroom-phone booth and transform into the one in the fringed sweater, hands free so that he may liberate the masses? It’s a wonderfully passionate book, though, idealistic and caustic and flippant and practical. You can see why it energized a young English professor from New Zealand as he worked up his course in “Original Composition.” (That sort of course title was a common way of avoiding the taint of Americanness attached to “creative writing” as an academic field—and thereby of playing Robin Hood with university resources.)

Any community, no matter how positive and empowering, requires an opposite: we-feeling is defined by exclusion as well as inclusion. Many of the people who founded creative writing programs did so by breaking away from English departments structurally, fiscally, and ideologically. Having earned my own Ph.D. after the hottest battles died down, at some level I personally don’t get it; the worlds of academic English studies and academic creative writing seem more alike than different. I know many who feel that universities—creative writers, English professors, whatever—dominate the resources available to U.S. poets; that it’s difficult to keep going outside of the contemporary system of academic patronage; and that M.F.A. programs in particular favor certain aesthetics and identities. It isn’t a neat binary opposition—people move in and out of university affiliation, there are enormous differences among institutions, and there are plenty of other intersecting battles to fight over region, race, politics, etc.—but in the U.S., to me, being inside or outside of academe seems like a more significant divide than what department you’re in.

It’s different here. First of all, at least theoretically, New Zealand universities are equal in prestige and resources, so many people go to school where they live. You don’t have to stop attending that reading series you love because you decided to study creative writing full-time. While tuition remains a big barrier for many potential students, costs aren’t as astronomical as in the States; access to education seems wider, more democratic. The “other” of a New Zealand writing community is often regional: there’s the Wellington/ Auckland thing, and more powerfully the South Island/ North Island thing, never mind New Zealand/ Australia or Australasian-Pacific-Southern Hemisphere/ All Those People Up North Who Forget About Us. A writing community’s opposite isn’t so much defined by university affiliation because academe and regional identity intersect more than in the U.S. At least, that’s what I think this week.

In any case, one’s elsewhere shifts according to where one’s standing at the moment. Plus, individuals bring their own elsewheres to any communal enterprise. For the year you’re in a workshop you think: I identify with this group because we’re obsessed with the same things and we’re helping each other, as opposed to those other people (employers, friends, family) who don’t care if we get the writing done. But at times you also think you don’t quite fit, that you’re different from everyone else, or you’re in irritated awe of the person who’s emerging as a star. It’s when it’s almost over or in retrospect that a warm glow softens those edges and the sense of belonging really takes hold. Sometimes. It’s slippery, this idea of community, says the pipeless beardless woman sitting high up in the English Department, thinking about the creative writers in the Glenn Schaeffer house, on the other side of the giant pencil.

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