Transmission: On Collaboration, Response, and the ‘Amica-critical’
In my short text ‘Emma bolland | Hestia Peppe’, published in Salon for a Speculative Future, (eds Monika Oeschler with Sharon Kivland, MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2020), I coined the term ‘amica-critical’ to describe the kinds of friendships essential for the creation and sustainability of supportive, reciprocally generous, creative-critical communities. I believe these kinds of friendships to be essential for writers and artists, to be the cornerstone of both collaborative and individual practice. When invited to speak about my practice, to give one of the Transmission public lectures at Sheffield Hallam University (under the conditions of pandemic), I chose to focus on the ‘amica-critical’, in all its forms, in relation to what I do; to speak about what we all miss—the presence of others. You can watch the lecture here:
Words, Take Wing: Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Odyssey Calling’
The Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener was among the first 5,000 West Indians to be encouraged to migrate to the UK to alleviate the severe labour shortages following the Second World War. Born Aldwyn Roberts, he had acquired his stage name a few years before that, and become known as an innovative performer and subversive lyricist. On the deck of the Empire Windrush in 1948, Kitchener was interviewed by a Pathé News reporter. “Now I’m told you really are the king of calypso singers, is that right?” “Yes.” “Will you sing for us?”
London is the place for me
London, this lovely city
You can go to France or America
India, Asia or Australia,
But you must come back to London city
Well, believe me, I am speaking broadmindedly
I am glad to know my mother country
I’ve been travelling the countries years ago but this is the place I wanted to know, darling
London, this the place for me.
Lord Kitchener sang acapella as he stood waiting to disembark at Tilbury docks. But my transcription hides his use of voice to fill the gaps where the ensemble music would have carried the rhythm through to his next line—subtle runs and breaths that offered a ghostly shorthand version of clarinet, steelpan, bass guitar, claves, jawbones. These instruments and their notes were the moving, collective body of a musical genre that is still, as it was then, overtly political.
Vahni Capildeo’s Odyssey Calling, more than a pamphlet, a palimpsest of eclectic tones and narratives—summons that moment from history. It feels at times like a score to be performed, operating as essay, song, concrete page—just ‘writing’. It is framed by a meta-narrative: of writing and reading, and speaking and listening, in which notable consideration is given to the latter activity in both of those dichotomies.
The pamphlet begins with “Holy Island”, a deceptively small and simple poem (a description that could stand for the whole book). “Holy Island” summons the reader to consider questions of migration, contestations of “home”, language, absence and loss:
The seals have gone to the other islands.
Come back this afternoon.
Listen for the seals.
What do they sound like?
They sound like ghosts.
“In a series of experiments with breaking away from poems on the page to creative immersive installations, I have been seeking to re-create what the process of enjoying reading or writing poetry feels like. . . . It is easy to blank at the sight of a poem . . . agonize over its meaning . . . So I desired to create active silence in a room filled with happy concentration.” This passage comes from “beginnings of bluegreen”, in which Capildeo writes of developing, with their collaborators Jeremy Hardingham, Paige Smeaton, Olivia Scott-Berry and Hope Doherty, an approach of “kinetic syntax” which uses gesture – not gestures of narrative interpretation, but gestures that respond to the “linguistic skeleton” of a text. An audience was invited to drop in and out of durational performance, unconstrained by any sense of a beginning, middle and end. In contrast to its essayistic precursor, the second section of “beginnings of bluegreen” is a stripped-down drift:
. . . Deeper water. Emptier silence. Susurrus. Only you cry a thousand treasurable cries, wetnosed as a swimmer. The crevasse, dark subtle wound, extended beyond dark silver, all blue drift, all blue drink, gateway joy. Lauluaa.
The pamphlet is carried along, of course, by the sea, and an Odysseus who is not a hero (“Is it a hero you want? Why not say so? / I am suspicious of heroes”). This is an idea of odyssey: an idea of a journey undertaken across countries, across languages, across concepts, in speculative search of a home. The sequence “Odyssey Response” unpacks the implications of the politics of power: “Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people / who have power of health and employment over us”; “What if the hero shining like a falcon arrives / having traded their body for life, trailing killings / and transactional sex?” It is here that the kinetic syntax becomes more urgent:
Nothing runs so swiftly. Did you think I was singing
about death? Should we give death preferential treatment
Should we be women singing to death? You saw. You know.
The sea is a cover for bones, how busyness covers news.
New bodies are laid every day in the innocence
of the sea. New burdens explode every day
in the innocence of the air.
The sequence “Windrush Reflections” shifts from trans-historical concerns to the urgency of contemporary events, and the deportation of citizens whose citizenship their state, this state, this disunited kingdom, has decided to erase. “They came in earlier ships, / Mahadai’s ancestors and mine, / with hope, and by imperialist design / . . . post-war Britain already was home / by birthright: documentation / was not a prize or a promise / for this generation born under / the far-fetched Union Jack”. Citizenship as Lord Kitchener would have understood it is being erased, via a definition of blackness that is in turn shaped by a structural whiteness. Beyond the chronology of imperialism lies a literal, ideological and conceptual empire.
Hear now: Lord Beginner. Lord
Kitchener. Sam Selvon. V.S. Naipaul.
Mikey Smith, stoned to death in Jamaica.
Una Marson, ruling the airwaves.
Wilson Harris. The nationality
act in one of its ever-revisable
To return to the imperative of “Holy Island” is to feel that the whole of Odyssey Calling is an exhortation to act, to perform; as a reader, I long to recount, to perform my passage through every poem. The pamphlet ends with “A SHORT PRAYER TO OCEANS, BY ERASURES”, whose concrete layout allows readings as if by navigation – East to West, North to South. To plot my own course, I choose: open formula—light—light—blue freedom of—blue responsibility for—all law—territorially—exceeds—shrinks—sovereign—exclusive white white—white white—dark resources—black—black—indigo blue—baseline.
Odyssey Calling by Vahni Capildeo (2020) is published by Sad Press. Find them on Twitter at @sadpresspoetry
This article first appeared in the Brixton Review of Books, Issue 10, 2020. (Find them on Twitter at @BrixtonBooks
An Archive: Work Once Was
A selection from 17 years of visual work, in no particular order… (so much work lost, destroyed, undocumented—no paintings from the 80s and 9Os save a couple in public collections—real grief about that).
Gilding Grass on Prince Phillip Playing Fields at night. Emma Bolland, performance for camera for MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall research project (with Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers). Photograph: Tom Rodgers. 2012
Over, In, and Under—a new publication.
I am very pleased to announce that my new book, Over, In, and Under, has just been published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe.
Emma Bolland can be charged and found guilty of walking through a number of the psychological classics while female. These hybrid-texts have carried me into some of the chasms of hilarity and terror over which the cultural artefacts they address are precariously suspended.
—Joanna Walsh, author of Hotel and Break.up
Considering the processes of speaking, writing, reading, and remembering, through the lens of post-traumatic language, Over, In, and Under moves between fiction, prose-poem, script, and essay. Freud is psychotically mistranslated; Lacan is refigured as an auto-fictional and hallucinatory framing of ‘city’; screenwriting and Twitter pornography are brought to bear on silence; and the forgetting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein prompts the consideration of the monstrous self.
I am pleased to announce that I am the 2019 #interrupteur artist-writer in residence for the University of Sheffield’s School of Arts and Humanities. During March and early April 2019, I will be spending a number of days installed in the foyer of Jessops West, making a collaborative and participatory space for experimental writing, speaking, and reading, for expanded translations, for text-based performances, and for other interventionist surprises
The aims of the residency are to forge future links between artist writers and academics, exploring the possibilities of continuing creative/academic partnerships to impact of the life of the University and on the city of Sheffield’s creative community. During the residency I will be inviting a series of creative guests— artists, writers, and performers—whose interests, research and practice intersect with the aims of the residency.
The residency is out-facing, and both myself and my guests will welcome presence, participation, and conversation from and with students, staff—academic and non-academic, and visitors to the university. Come and interrupt us!
Full details and further information will be announced shortly.
Commissioned by Gill Crawshaw for her curatorial project exploring experimental approaches to audio descriptions for blind and visually impaired audiences. You can listen to the audio recording at the bottom of this post.
(Movie, by Hilary Lloyd, 2015. Digital film with sound, fan, and fabric).
As I write you this letter, I remember that your vision is different to mine, that neither of us will ever know how the other experiences this ‘thing’. It might seem odd of me to choose an art work that in its title, Movie, and its use of film, is both a thing to be seen, and a thing that makes me think about the idea of seeing. It is also hard to see, in ways I will describe, and so in part I have to imagine seeing. I often say ‘I see’ to mean ‘I understand’, so there is something about Movie being hard to see that makes it feel as though it wants me not to ‘see’ it, but to think myself inside it. I wonder if you can help me see it better.
Movieis a constellation: a film is projected on a gallery wall, while close to the opposite wall a fan blows from the floor, and between them hang two large curtains, that ripple like sails in the fan’s wind. Movieis maybe about movement, my movement as I pass through and around, turning from one element to another, and the interacting movement of physical substance: the air from the fan animating the fabrics, the air on my body as I pass through the space…
Let us begin…
I’m walking towards the piece, there are two large curtains hanging from the great glass ceiling on long pieces of rope that remind me of ships: rope, natural fibres, thick and looped and knotted at the end. Not quite touching the floor, the curtains hang at a right angle to each other but with a gap as wide as a yardstick at their corner.
I go through and see on the floor a large silver fan, set near to the wall. Tied to the fan is a lattice of silver fabric, like liquid metal, a horizontal flutter, a shoal of small quick fish darting in the air. The curtains hang vertically, and they too are moving, but ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, further from the wind. I attend to the curtains. The fabric is soft, but grainy, pewter, like unpolished metal, shot through with a glittery silver thread, and I think of the phrase ‘silver screen’. Here and there circles the size of large dinner plates are cut from the fabric, and the cut-out pieces are sewn around the curtains’ hems, some of them just brushing against the floor.
I turn my attention to the opposite wall…
This is an artwork that would seem very different in another space. I am writing to you from this particular space, at a particular time of year. The great glass roof floods the space with sun, so that the film on the wall that I am trying to see is no more than a fugitive flicker. I can barely make it out, and I wonder if you can make it out all. It becomes, for both of us, an imaginary film.
The silvery curtains and the sound of the fan, so like an old fashioned projector, conjure the atmosphere of a cinema. Rosemary Tonks, in her poem ‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’, writes of cinemas where
(t)he light is as brown as laudanum.
… the fogs! The fogs! The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces …
She conjures the cinema of our imagination, dark and cocooned. This space is very different. I strain to see in the vast brightness of the room. The light is against me.
Are those violets or pansies? Is there a wild meadow? The sound of the film is low, mixed with the noise that floats in from elsewhere in the gallery. There are clicks, silences, the low whir of traffic as the film cuts from flowers to car lights, city lights, out of focus blurs and blobs. And now there is what seems to be a white sun on a faint blue sky, but perhaps it is a flower, drifting out of view. I turn back again to the fan, and think that the darting silver lattice blown out by its whirr, is the light of the film made material, swimming towards the wall.
Movie is a space of screens and circles: the film screened on the wall, the sail-curtains screening out the film. But the circles in the fabric are portholes, lenses, and I put my hands through them, my head to them, and I become an imaginary eye, an imaginary camera, and the wind-circle of the fan-projector carries me in a curved line from wall to wall.
Movieis not just a spectacle, it is a space to be inhabited. It is not to be watched, but to be imagined and enacted. We are actors. We make it happen. Silvery, silvery…
Rosemary Tonks, excerpt from ‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’ (c. 1967), in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2014.
An Invitation, a Reply, and a Reflection: The Essay
Earlier this year, I was honoured to be asked to talk, read, deliver a writing workshop, and screen two short ‘essay films’ at TAKING IDEAS FOR A WALK: THE 2018 ESSAY CONFERENCE, convened by Dundee University Review of the Arts on 19 and 20 June of this year, and held at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. On being asked to talk informally about my practice, specifically cross media essay form, I decided to prepare this as a series of short letters, as a reply to the invitation, and as a ‘speaking to’. This reply is posted below, together with a few new notes and qualifications, and the links to the two short films. This is followed by a two-part reflection on the conference. I must thank Dr Gail Low, Professor Kirsty Gunn, and Professor Tracy Mackenna for their generous and unexpected invitation.
Sheffield, March 15th
I got an email today. ‘Hi – we’re running a conference up at Dundee. I want to have a panel on the diversity of essayistic forms. I wonder if we could tempt you to come up and speak to what you do, and the lovely, hybrid work—cross-media especially—that you do with the essay form?’
I thought, kind words, and then, am I an essayist, now?  The email re-framed my ideas of self and practice. Not a re-framing as re-fixing, but re-framing as offering a different doorway, a different point of departure. Hybrid, cross-media essay forms. I’ll have that, I thought. When people ask me, what do you do?, I’ll say, me? I work with hybrid, cross media essay forms. And I thought about the movement of the ‘creative critical’,  not so much as a walk along a path, but more as an immersion in a mobile topography, where ideas and forms intersect, inflect.
I thought about the wording of that email, which asked me not to ‘talk about’, but to‘speak to’. An elusive, but important difference. These letters then, are not just to you, but also to myself, and to the ‘what it is I do’.
Sheffield, March 30th
Did I tell you about my time at art college? I was on a course that had been at the cutting edge of performative, conceptual work, but that unbeknownst to me, in the months between applying and arriving, had undergone a coup of sorts, and was being transformed into one of those muscular material places, staffed by men who liked a pint, who had studied together at the RCA, headed back up North to continue their alliance.
The first week, I made my way up to the film and video unit, and nervously asked to come in. Prior to starting art college, I had been writing longish prose poems that were punkish collages of showgirls, traumas, dreams, and horses. A surreal auto-fiction, years before I knew the term, or considered its potential as a critical ‘I’. I would perform these words at gigs, sometimes just turning up at clubs on the night and asking if I could have ten minutes before the bands, perform them with soundtracks I had spliced together, played on a crappy cassette player I carried with me. I wonder now how I had the nerve, and feel quite proud of fearless, naïve me. It seemed obvious that once at art college I would work across media, draw and paint perhaps, but also write, perform, make moving image—which I think even then, I saw as a kind of writing.
So anyway, that first week I made my way up to the film and video unit. The lecturers, the techies—all male, this was the nineteen eighties, after all—looked down at me and said, do you know how to use a camera, do you know what kinds of films you want to make? No. They looked at each other, eyes metaphorically rolling—you can’t just come in here if you don’t know what you are doing. I left, shamed, and spent the next three years painting, because that meant I never had to ask for help. It would be nearly twenty five years before I had the nerve to pick up a camera. At the time it never occurred to me that I could have said, mate, it’s your job to teach me.
London, April 15th
Those last letters I wrote you, I have to confess that they are a kind of self mythologising, a selection of incidents, a selection of me that serves another purpose, of telling a story that is also an analysis, a proposition, an exploration of a wider world than that of myself. If I have a signature, a marker for my work, it is that of the autofictive, the strategically subjective, what Anna Stetsenko referred to, when I heard her speak last month,—did I tell you how great she was?—as ‘s/objective’, s-slash-objective, subjectivity as objectivity.  Autofiction in simple terms does what it says on the tin: it combines factual autobiography with fiction. It is an approach that has been criticised as solipsistic, a form whose most ‘crushing weakness [is] historical amnesia’.  But maybe certain uses of autofiction might refigure the ‘I’ as ‘eye’, encompass a wider discourse, employ a networked ‘self’ as a ficto-critical tool. 
London, April 20th
I’m in the British Library, reading H.D, and thinking about the conditions of writing. How she wrote The Gift, a memoir of her childhood, under the conditions of war. I imagine her writing through the ruptures of the air raids, typewriter keys clattering away above the sound of shelling, writing in fragments; firing off volatile pronouns and tenses; shuffling the sense of who is speaking, of what, and when.
Sheffield, May 1st
A day spent thinking about the potency of the rupture, the break. There are writers, speakers, practitioners who I position as essayists, even though they might not do so themselves. Maggie Nelson, Lara Pawson, Nathalie Léger, Daniela Cascella, and the translator Kate Briggs. In Kate’s most recent book This Little Art (2017) she writes in patchworks and page breaks of translating Roland Barthes, of what it is to translate, of what it is to move between languages, the shifts that occur.
Kate spoke, a few weeks ago, of this book as being the first in which she has written as the ‘I’, and of the possibility that it might be the last.  But who knows, she shrugged. Earlier that day there had been a discussion of the absence of the ‘I’ in academic writing. But we all know it’s there, right?—I said. It might not be written on the page but we all know it’s there. I’ve marked my copy of This Little Art with indigo page markers. I didn’t start reading it until they had arrived. I like to make my favourite texts into objects, and order the coloured markers from Germany. Kate has indigo, Lara scarlet, Maggie grey, and Nathalie a sepia brown. For Daniela’s latest, I think it will be orange, as the cover is dark and the title is Singed (2017).
Berlin, May 5th
I’m listening to a friend perform. They are so good I’m actually in pain with envy. I’m finding it hard to focus on the day, worrying that I’ve been asked to speak to you of what I do, to what I do. I’m happier using myself to speak about something or someone else; which is in fact what I do, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but the fact that it shouldn’t be a problem makes it so.
Anyway, I’ve made some notes about an effort, an essay, of moving between dreams, fictions and facts, of employing critical and political histories, of using more than one language, of making bad translations, of elegance, of barking like a dog, of mangling syntax, of prose, poems, scripts, images, typographies, collages, objects, ruptures and breaks, of romances, of nonsense, of failure, of inconclusiveness, of lack. Most of all, of making things up.
Sheffield, May 10th
I’m re-reading Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2015). It is an account, more than an account, of her search for a the life of the actor, writer, and director Barbara Loden. It is cinematic, shifting between scenes and tenses, paragraphs switching from descriptions of Loden’s films, to descriptions of Léger herself as she moves through the same landscapes. A recurring motif is her repeated attempts to get access to the kinds of materials that are commonly agreed to contain ‘the truth’: archives, press cuttings, letters, photographs, files, interviews with Loden’s surviving family. None of her efforts are successful, and in the end she turns to fiction as investigative method, asking a question of who is writing who, piecing a speculation. Léger writes that she finds herself wavering between wanting to know nothing and wanting to know everything; writing only on condition that she knows nothing, or writing only on condition that she omits nothing.
Manchester, May 19th
I’ve just performed a text on the top floor of a car park at midnight, a piece I made last year that is violent and messy, that uses as its starting point Lacan’s essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which Lacan proposes that truth reveals its fictional ordering. My text, (which reads in its body as fiction, embeds its footnotes like fact-daggers, and veers off, in its postscript, into lighthouse engineering, Robert Louis Stevenson, and my father), is a bugger to read from the page. I have used different typefaces for different affects, a tactic that I regretted in that moment. Also, I hadn’t realised that the audience would be so young, and was editing out the filth as I went along.
Tomorrow I’m in London, reading a different piece of filth, which is both a consideration of Twitter porn, and a screenplay account of the time I punched a man, for real, on a rowdy train.
Sheffield, June 12th
More emails today. Hi, I wrote, I’m thinking it might be too complicated to show the short films at the essay conference. When you asked about showing work I just assumed (my bad) that the set up was in place, but it seems as though it is getting rather complicated. I imagine you have enough to sort out without all this. I am more than happy to just read. See you on Monday! A reply comes quickly. I’m still looking into this because I love those videos!
I’m pleased, and surprised because it’s hard for me to like my work, and these films were made a while ago. I’ve been told that, if you want to be professional, then to have doubt, ambivalence about one’s work, is not a good thing. Perhaps not, career wise, but doubt is often what I often want from work. Ambivalence and doubt are points of departure, they leave spaces for different kinds of thinking. I don’t ever want to be certain, I don’t ever want to write a surety, I don’t ever want to tell it straight, tell it ‘like it is’—who am I to say what it is like? An essay is—and now I contradict myself, by sounding sure—an essay is a conversation, a push and pull. An essay should not end when it ends.
See you soon, Emma
 For the purposes of my text, I am disingenuous—of course I know that the essay, among other things, is what I do.
 See Stephen Benson and Claire Connors (eds.), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press , 2014, for an introduction to and a range selections of creative critical approaches and essays.
 Anna Stetsenko, public lecture at Sheffield Hallam, University 26 May 2018 , talking about her book The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
 Elizabeth H. Jones, ‘Autofiction: A Brief History of a Neoligism’, in Life Writing, ed. Richard Bradford, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, 174–84, p. 174.
 I am in the process of thinking through these ideas, of politicising, weaponising, critically and theoretically positioning auto-fiction as a strategy that moves beyond the subjective. Chris Kraus, in asserting her rejection of the term, says ‘I would never use that term. It’s such a strange term. It’s applied to my work, and to a lot of other people’s work, but I would never use it. There are so many examples in the history of literature of a male first-person that’s used pretty closely to the identity of the writer, and we don’t call it that. The corny beat example, Jack Kerouac, we don’t call that autofiction. Herman Melville, do we call that autofiction? All of American realism that’s written in the first person – we don’t call that autofiction.’ (Quoted in Alex James, ‘Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up?‘, The Guardian, 23 June 2018). James’s article, while largely positive about the genre, suggests that autofiction may be a term that has been used to undermine women’s writing because it emphasises the subjective. More than fifty percent of the writers she name checks are women. A Guardian article from 2010 by Sarah Crown asks ‘Is auto fiction strictly a boys game?‘, saying that ‘hardly any women’ have used the form. Even a cursory glance at say, French women writers of the twentieth century would expose the fallacy of this claim. Additionally, Cis and trans women (and trans men) employ autofictive strategies. Juliet Jacques explicitly positions autofiction as political, as the writing strategy which allowed her to write Trans: A Memoir (2015) and offers antecedents in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993): ‘The best books on Autofiction: Beatrice Wilford interviews Juliet Jacques‘, https://fivebooks.com/best-books/juliet-jacques-autofiction/.
 Plenary speech at Critical Reinventions, University of East Anglia 12 May 2018
Two Short Essay Films
Lectolalia (2015) was made for the Leeds College of Art & Design ‘Library Interventions’ residencies, wherein artists are invited to respond to the library and its collections. A companion text of the same name is available from Gordian Projects. In a performance of the draft of this text I invited the audience to annotate the manuscript, and these annotations are included in the publication as endnotes.
The IS of the Thing (2014) was made for the London stage (curated by David Berridge, writer and publisher at Very Small Kitchen, and writer and aartist Claire Potter) of Shady Dealings With Language, a series of four events curated around the intersection of art, writing and performance in Leeds, London, Manchester and Edinburgh, The London event was generously hosted by X Marks The Bøkship at Matt’s Gallery.
A Reflection in Two Parts
I. On Great Men
…the first use of education was to enable us to consult with the wisest and the greatest of all men on all points of earnest difficulty… Let us do this now. Let us see wether the greatest, the wisest, the purest-hearted of all ages are agreed in anywise on this point: let us hear the testimony they have left respecting what they held to be the true dignity of women, and her mode of help to man.
John Ruskin, ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, Sesame and Lilies (1865)
During the excellent ‘Teaching Essays’ panel (Peter MacDonald, Elizabeth Reader, Mary Bovill, and Gail Low), Peter offered us the above quote as an example of the ‘victorian sage’, the essayistic device whereby the author calls upon an existing authority to underline his (I use this pronoun deliberately) own.  This device, whether on the page or from the mouth is—I feel this in my subjective, unmastered, unscholarly, unaccredited, johnny-come-lately, uppity gut—part of a wider and continuing politics of citation wherein great men cite great men cite great men cite great men cite great men. Thus the canon is defended and defined.
The Essay conference was ambitious, and international, and in this ambition had rightly platformed a number of great men, respected voices, major scholars. It was odd though, in these times, to note that these great men were actually all men, older white men to boot. (An aside: being old and white and male is not an excuse. Some of my favourite writers and thinkers are ancient, pasty-faced, and be-penised). It was odd to listen to their assertions and generalisations: that young people are ignorant—they dare to write without reading Proust or Montaigne (there are no other essayists, one would think)—; that academics have it easy (this from a journalist-publisher-essayist, seemingly uncaring that he maligned his hosts); that auto-fictive approaches are not rigorous; that if one was a GOOD writer then one wouldn’t need or want to write experimentally; that there are no good critical essayists under sixty to be found; that the internet is rubbish and no one reads anymore; that the fact that only 26% of the LRB’s contributing essayists are women was ‘a matter for a different conference’; to see the spectacle of one great man unabashedly comparing himself to Gore Vidal; to hear the dismissal of Susan Sontag as someone who ‘lacked the empathy or humour to be a novelist’; to witness a male respondent take up twenty minutes of a shared half hour slot (largely talking about himself, rather than doing the job of responding), leaving the other two respondents (both young women) with ten minutes between them; the indifference to writers of colour, to queer writing, to class, to contemporary political writing; the indifference to contemporary or non-mainstream platforms (both online and in print) for essay practice… it was odd… even more odd was the sense of affront when this generalisation, indifference, grandstanding, and gatekeeping were challenged, as if there was a fear that difference is annihilatory. Do not fear, great men. We are not like you. We seek only to broaden the discourse, not to silence yours. (Also, this is academia, mates. If you want to dish it out, be prepared to eat it up).
The good thing about being faced with the thin rhetoric of great men, is that one is heartened by the richness of one’s own abilities. Arriving at the conference nervous of my status as an outsider, of my background in an art-and-writing rather than a literary-writing world, I was surprised by how much I knew that they didn’t, how my critical ambition outstripped theirs. (is this arrogant? I don’t care. Nor do I care that I bang off these words with dodgy punctuation, with ‘thoughs’ and ‘thos’ and too many of them, and do not have the time to edit, rethink, restructure, refine).
II. On the Good Stuff, on the Actual Great (including the best picture I will ever have of myself, ever)
And breathe. The thing is though, it was great. To meet new and interesting people, to catch up with old friends, to become aware of new work, to hear about constructive and creative pedagogies, to be so generously hosted… To Gail Low, Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth Reader, Peter MacDonald, Chris Arthur, Graham Domke, Tracy Mackenna, Kenny Taylor (and others, forgive me, whose names I forget), it was my pleasure. To the participants in my workshop, likewise.
I left with the sense that the future of the creative, critical, lyrical, experimental (or whatever) essay form is healthy, situated across disciplines, affirming my knowledge of and belief in the already extant links between creative writing, academic writing, art-writing, artistic, journalistic, and experimental literature communities. Just one example of these relations is Critical Reinventions, a symposium held earlier this year at the UEA. Though hosted by the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, two of the three keynote speakers, Kate Briggs and Daniela Cascella, have trans-disciplinary writing practices, and teach in art schools. The Critical Reinventions website states that
‘Recent years have been witness to a diversification in the forms and registers of literary-critical writing. Conventional practice continues to flourish, but alongside and in dialogue with an increasingly inventive field of non-standard criticism. The reasons for the emergence of this field are several. They include the so-called post-critical turn, contentious as it is, and the desire for ‘reparative’ as well as ‘paranoid’ orientations in critical practice; the long legacy of critical theory conceived as an ongoing provocation to the content of the form of critical writing; the continued health of small-press and open access publishing, where hybridized and innovative modes of critical writing can flourish; and a renaissance in the essay, along with renewed attention to its histories and formal possibilities. Critical Reinventions aims to mark the diversity of formal invention in contemporary creative-critical practice by focusing on the life, histories and potential futures of a range of types of writing’.
Taking an Idea for Walk: The Essay conference, though very different in feel to Critical Reinventions, was as important, as it opened up the space for conversation and debate, ‘expanding’ the panels through interstices of readings and performance, and through the physical interventions of artworks, curations, and workshops.
Finally, (for I have a deadline to meet, and a bad cold, and it so hot that I am writing in my undies), to the young woman who informed the great men that they would probably all be dead in twenty years, and that younger writers didn’t care about the cultural gatekeeping because they were making their own spaces, their own platforms, inclusive, radical, brave (at which point the room burst into applause), to that young woman I say ‘brava/bravo/bravx’.
 Peter emphasised that he made students aware of these kinds of traditions in the broader context of a diverse and critical history of and approach to the essay, mentioning, among other contemporary and near contemporary practitioners, Denise Riley and Amit Chaudhuri.
An ERRANT, or Improper Form
Thin Skins, Good Hidings, and the Flaying of Marsyas
I was reminded, yesterday, of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (c.1570–76) painted when in his eighties, and approaching the end of his life. I saw it just once, almost exactly thirty years ago, but its fluid surface, floating with dark, loose brushstrokes, and reeking with the coppery tones of blood, are preserved fresh and visceral in my mind’s eye. Marsyas is a central figure in several stories of Ancient Greek mythology. A Satyr (half man, half goat), Titian’s painting depicts him in the aftermath of having challenged the god Apollo to a contest of musical virtuosity. The punishment for his pride—in himself, in his abilities—is to be flayed alive.
I think of the parallels drawn between skin and ego, skin and self, skin and the sense of a stable whole, a state of resilience in which one is ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’. (Can those who are comfortable remember being not; can those who are not imagine such comfort?) I think of the skin of an animal, the skin we call hide, that we ‘toughen up’, make leathery through the process of tanning, and of the manufacture of belts and shoes and the buckskin coats and trousers that allow for endurance and ‘riding out’. I think of the metaphors for the formalisation of the chastisement of children; the threats and enactment of punishment: to give them ‘a good hiding’, to ‘tan their hides’. I think of the assumptions made by those with thick skins that those of us with‘thin skins could have a thick skin if only we tried, and the disregarding of the possibility that we have tried, that the work of a lifetime has made it thicker than it once was, even if others still deem it too thin. I wonder if those who tell us to toughen up know that each time they say it they scrape a little more of our skin away. (I think ‘fuck you’, in fact.)
As a Satyr, Marsyas is positioned as half human and half animal, half skin and half hide, and Titian’s painting shows him strung up by his pelted hind quarters, a shadowy blade working the hairless skin of his torso until it hangs in ribbons from his body. I remember all this and wonder about the delusion, the fantasy that beyond the temporal frame of the painting, he might somehow gather up those slippery strips and literally ‘buck-up’; the fantasy that after the knife he might have the choice to ‘pull himself together’, to re-wrap his body, and grow a different skin.