BEING THERE, BEING ELSEWHERE: NOTES ON BEING A WRITER IN RESIDENCE by Michael O'Loughlin
(Poetry Ireland News, July/ August 2008)
A few years ago, I published a poem in Poetry Ireland Review called ‘The Hammerman’, which rashly included the following lines:
‘...his job, like a poet in residence,
was simply to be there.’
Just because you say it in a poem, doesn’t mean it’s true. Many years ago I was offered a residency in an Irish University. I was living in Amsterdam at the time, and the money involved didn’t justify my taking up full-time residence in Ireland, so I wasn’t sure if I could accept it. The academic organising it said: ‘Michael, you don’t have to actually be there all the time, as long as you give the impression that you are.’ At the time, I was still naively spurning all Irish solutions to Irish problems, so I demurred. But those were simpler times, when Lar Cassidy, the legendary and much-loved Literature Officer, would call to invite you to lunch in the National Gallery, to personally hand over your Arts Council cheque. Nowadays, the poet’s cheque comes dragging behind it a whole shadowy vampire army of mission statements, local government directives, consultants’ reports and tax protocols. And the Residency which involves the writer actually being there, has now become a permanent fixture in most CVs.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that residencies swing between two extremes. At one extreme, there is the residency where the writer receives a cheque and writes, and makes the token appearance. This has obvious advantages, but it’s rare, and not only that, it deprives the writer of the surplus value produced by interaction with the wider community. The other extreme is one that all too often occurs in institutes of higher learning, where the writer is treated as a kind of junior lecturer, except with less status and much less pay, and no designated parking spot. The Royal Literary Fund for example supports a programme for creative writers in universities, which states in its rules that ‘The Fellow is not required to undertake tasks beyond the remit of the Fellowship, for example, dyslexia support, and basic skills or EFL/ESL tuition – nor, at any time, to perform duties normally carried out by staff, such as, course design or delivery, marking, invigilating…’ The fact that they need to make this explicit tells its own melancholy story.
Most residencies are somewhere in the middle. The writer gets paid and works on his own work, which he would do anyway. In addition, he or she may give some lectures, teach a weekly workshop, and in some cases visit the odd school and give talks in the local libraries. All the boxes get ticked, and everybody is happy. In this paradigm, the writer is a valuable resource to be exploited by the community. But what’s in it for the writer? Apart from the money and sometimes an office, I think there is a huge benefit to the writer. To begin with, simply by being there, you are not at home in your room talking to yourself. You are being exposed to other people, new ideas, new challenges, new environments. In most cases that contact comes through creative writing classes and workshops.
Like most writers I have occasionally taught creative writing classes. I have been happy to do it, and like to believe I am fairly proficient at it, judging by the results. But there is always a niggling doubt in my mind as to the ultimately validity of the exercise. Deep down, I’m a romantic, who likes to believe that literature is more destructive than constructive, that it helps to break down society rather than contribute to it. And from working with students I was aware that sometimes the writing of poetry can be just an escape from having to read the stuff.
So, it was with certain trepidation that I got off the train in Galway to start a residency with Galway City Council. But I needn’t have worried. My creative writing classes here have been a joy and a revelation. Most of the participants were women who had already raised large families, and are now retired or living in empty nests, and have time to follow their own interests. In the beginning they were often reticent and hesitant. But with some encouragement and a little guidance and prodding, they are now producing and publishing work which would make Jean Genet blush. My knowledge of the sexual and other mores of 1950s rural Ireland is now such that I am beginning to think that John McGahern was really an innocent old codger. The poignant aspect of it is I can see how many women, who came to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s, were deprived, as a matter of course, of the freedom to develop their own talents, and I am glad to be able to somehow redress that balance.
If you are lucky, in some residencies you can embark on public projects which serve to nourish the sources of your own creativity. In my case, I wanted to explore my personal obsessions with immigration/ emigration, exile/heimat, in a wider context. The project which involved more than 25 nationalities living in Galway, brought me to places I never thought I’d see. In this case, being there was also being elsewhere. And that physical presence in Galway has been the biggest boon of all. I consider myself well-travelled, but being in this physically thrilling, paranoid, liberating, solipsistic, fundamentally medieval city is like being on another planet, and has been a tremendous stimulus and inspiration to my own work. Yes, Galway is elsewhere – but that’s another story for another day.