Monday, 18 January 2016

Palimpsests, Practice and PhD Research

Before I started my PhD, I attended a talk by Professor Elizabeth Mason-Whitehead, as part of a staff development session for the department of the University of Chester which I was at the time employed by. She talked candidly about why somebody might want to study at this level, and the various routes into and through doctoral research which might be available and how they could benefit staff already working, broadly, within Higher Education.

What I remember most clearly about her talk was her very personal journey: how she had gotten to the stage in her life where she was undertaking a PhD, and how that process played out within the rest of her professional life and in tandem with her personal life and other commitments. She talked a lot about the importance of a “space” – an office, a desk in a shared office, even utilising the kitchen table (not recommended) – for a researcher; a place you could call your own, make a mess of, leave books half read, post-it-notes lying scattered at will. Organised chaos, effectively.

What most stuck with me, though, was that she said a lot of people’s doctoral research – try as they might – cannot be separated from the rest of their life, their lives. It becomes a gigantic mish-mash of reading, work, family conversations, (mis)explanations, late night cups of tea and toast, scribbles, half memories, futile attempts at trying to relocate a source consulted two years ago.

So, in the spirit of not even attempting to disconnect the entangled spheres of my life, and because this blog has already alluded to my research, I have decided to write about my project here, most likely linking to it on my various social media feeds, as we all have half-lives online, don’t we, and I want mine to at least partially intersect with the stuff I do on a miserable Monday morning in January.

I calculate that I am now into the seventeenth week of my PhD. (Crucially, it is weeks, not months, because working around the academic calendar we always count in weeks). On Friday night last week (week 16, people), I triple saved my work to-date, backing up various drafts and scraps that constitute my ‘output’ so far. I have started 18 poems. Wow, you might be thinking, 18 poems in not as many weeks! Who are you, you crazy writing superhero?! That’s started 18 poems, not finished, printed, sent to journals, had acceptances, congratulated myself with a beer finished. Started. I have also started what can probably fairly be called a pre-draft of the first draft of what will become the introduction to the critical component of my project. For those not au fait with the composition of a Creative Writing PhD, 70% of my work will be an original creative project (in this case, a collection of poetry) with the remaining 30% being made up of a critical exegesis which is germane to the creative work. The view from here, I think it’s safe to say, is akin to perhaps seeing base camp through the mist, but not quite being close enough to contemplate any shut eye yet. To stretch the metaphor further, I’m barely off the runway at Lukla airport in Nepal.

One of the things that Prof. Mason-Whitehead didn’t touch upon in her talk last spring was the nature of what HEIs (Higher Education Institutions—oh yes, I still deploy all of those acronyms and abbreviations) expect of their PhD students beyond the niche of their projects: that they are, or quickly become, self-reflexive learners. For humanities students, particularly those whose work is practice-based (poets, musicians, artists), we pretty much do this stuff anyway. We reflect, we think about how we fucked up, and we resolve to continually evaluate our use of Oxford commas. For the Social Sciences students in our midst, though, this kind of practice might not be second nature. I stress the ‘might’ because I believe the binary opposition that can exist between the sciences and the arts is an unhelpful one, especially when cross-disciplinary (there’s a buzz word) working can be so fruitful. Alas, this is not a post about the science-art dichotomy, so I’ll leave that there, other than to say that blogs such as this – where a practice-based researcher critically examines his/her work to-date, with a view to improving in the future – is the type of thing my APR panel will no doubt like to see in another 16 or 17 weeks.

Here’s a photo of my desk. As you can see, it’s messy, but it’s been worse. I have a lot of stuff stuck to my wall: postcards; beer mats; maps; a good luck montage from my previous job; the mandatory splurge of post-it-notes; more beer mats... The desk is littered with the classic paraphernalia of the disorganised mind: a hole punch (?); an assortment of pens and stationery, acquired from a multitude of sources; a CAMRA Good Beer Guide from 2009, the year before my friend Alec moved to Canada and it therefore became superfluous to him; the packaging for my current phone, which, balanced atop the aforementioned GBG and a copy of A Little, ALOUD makes for a perfect impromptu base on which to raise my desk lamp (Argos’s second cheapest); a mug of tea (Rington’s, naturally); a diary; reams and reams of A4 print outs and unopened letters from My Waitrose and BT, most of which could and probably should have been recycled months ago... It goes on.

Portrait of the Artist's Desk as a Place of Order and Harmony

My friend Mike Corcoran is a big exponent of the extended mind hypothesis, which basically argues that we don’t just see objects and landscape features, we think through and with them; they form a fundamental part of how we engage and interact with the world around us. This theory is loosely tied into my PhD research, though at best tangentially (as I haven’t the time, necessity or jurisdiction to fully explore how, save creatively through my poems). I started the day doodling (another classic extended mind/cognition tool) and soon came up with a few Venn diagrams to remind myself of what I was doing, or supposed to be doing.

Then I came up with these two drawings, which I think illustrate my project quite well. They don’t contain any words (though their initial drafts did), because in a PhD project such as this, which is fundamentally all about words, it can sometimes be handy to think pictorially. After all, we see the world as a sequence of images: it is only after our brains have processed these images (into memories, opinions, strategies, etcetera) and we begin to reflect on them critically, that we as writers can begin to order, re-order, sequence, play with, distort and shape them to creative and/or critical ends.

Portrait of the Artist as a Tree Bisecting a Rainbow

The top image is supposed to represent, in quite a basic format, a palimpsest. One of the problems of PhD research (and, going back to the Prof, I remember her telling the room that it would continually be a source of some consternation to have to explain succinctly what your work was about) is putting things into digestible form, but doing so in a way that doesn’t undermine the importance of your own work and its complexities and significance. Put simply: you don’t want to patronise or confuse the person you’re trying to explain your PhD to, but you don’t want to sell yourself short, either. Hence, diagrams.

Palimpsest, at its most basic, means layers. A palimpsest is an (usually ancient) text, composed of vellum, on which prior inscriptions have been erased, or half-erased, and show up through and alongside newer ones. So, text from the initial markings on the vellum, erased so that subsequent texts could be imprinted, therefore extending the physical expiry date of the rare, expensive and precious material artefact, can in certain cases still be seen, or half or quarter seen. Texts of various chronology, history and sanctity can intermingle within one document. Sometimes, the meta-text can only be revealed by the use of infra-red or similarly technical light distortions and manipulations (as in the 10th Century Archimedes Palimpsest, in which X-Rays and ultraviolet were utilised in order for the ‘whole’ document to be read).

My project, whose long and intricate title bears repeating here – ‘The Swift Flight of a Sparrow: Poems Belonging to the Palimpsest of North-East England’ – argues that a palimpsest is both a metaphor and model which is useful for a creative practitioner to interrogate notions of identity and belonging. The physical topography of the land (the North-East) coupled with the shifting nexuses of personal memories, social histories and pre-existing literatures, constitutes a sort of three-dimensional palimpsest, with my poems being the ultraviolet light which distorts, magnifies or else reveals the various strands that exist and have existed on the same document.

Note the reverse: initial sketches half showing through. Choose to ignore or acknowledge the road and buildings in the background.

My final ‘output’ will be a collection of around 45 (depending on length) original poems which I hope will demonstrate that a sense of belonging to England’s North-East is based on its palimpsest makeup. This case will be defended via an accompanying critical paper of around 30-40,000 words, in which I will analyse a suite of North-East poets whose work I believe has employed similar strategies. All well and good. But for me, the later output, most likely a year or two after my PhD has been bound, submitted and hopefully awarded, will be the collection: those 40-odd poems, combined with perhaps 10 pre-existing ones, printed out and spread on to the floor, organised, moved around and toyed with, before being submitted to a publisher. Jumping ahead, the physical collection – a slim volume of perhaps 50-70 pages – will be the ultimate aim: a first full collection of poetry in which all of these theories and those years of research will be made manifest, to be enjoyed, deliberated and critiqued by readers and the wider poetry community.

From where I’m stood right now, I’m both glad and terrified that there is such a long, long slog ahead.