From the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 1998 to recent Lyric Lounge events, James Urquhart - Relationship Manager Literature, ACE East Midlands - gives an account of the Creative Case at work.
13 December 2011
Cheltenham Literary Festival, 1998: I found myself interviewing Jane Smiley, whose novel A Thousand Acres had won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize back in the early 1990s. A Midwestern domestic saga based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, this understated but potent novel catapulted her to international recognition. But the idea that a writer could pilfer from Shakespeare only came to her after seeing Ran, a samurai retake of the Lear story by Japanese art-house auteur Akira Kurosawa.
King Lear, Ran and A Thousand Acres each offer wildly differing characters and contexts playing out the same basic story; but their diverse palettes draw on similar emotional ranges. The unique voices resonating from Smiley’s novel, Shakespeare’s play and Kurosawa’s film all address those common themes of humanity: love, duty, responsibility, relationships, violence – which I’d say are the stock in trade of storytelling in pretty much any culture on the planet.
This illuminated three things:
None of this should be news. Rifling and sampling has been injecting creative adventure into the lifeblood of literature for centuries. Ulysses, James Joyce’s 1920s re-tread of 2500 year old Greek performance poetry, is a luminous example from the last century. More recently Salman Rushdie (whose breath-taking novel Midnight’s Children about India’s partition struggles, won the 1981 Booker Prize) was in the vanguard of a celebrated upsurge in post-colonial storytelling that collectively has had a profound and penetrating influence. His eloquent and mischievous fictions fed a healthy appetite for native voices amongst England’s increasingly cosmopolitan readership.
Contemporary literature embraces potent writers from diverse personal backgrounds who are enquiring into identity and belonging, humanity and meaning across the breadth of human experience, from Monica Ali’s brimming saga of cultural differences to Jeanette Winterson’s candid exposure of lesbian affairs, religion and class – or Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel hinging on a mental disability – or Melvin Burgess’s provocative probing of teenage sexuality – or the comic ethnic posturing of young men in Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani – or Jean Binta Breeze, whose funny, dramatic and sometimes shocking poetry performances draw heavily on the wisdom of Caribbean and Windrush heritage – or – or – or....
Talking of Jean, she’s been the Patron of Lyric Lounge, an innovative series of transient mini-festivals in the East Midlands that originally started in celebration of the 2009 Special Olympics in Leicester. With a strong emphasis on disability and ethnic inclusivity, the Lyric Lounges have drawn together writers, poets, performers and artists into a sequence of workshops and platforms that create, develop and celebrate performance poetry. It is, in many ways, an example of the Arts Council’s creative case for diversity in action. Rather than attaching this diverse focus to an existing mainstream activity, the Lyric Lounge evolved through a commitment to showcasing high quality work generated by and for diverse artists that attracted inwards mainstream interest into the energy of the Lounges.
Since its strong debut, the Lyric Lounge has toured in different contexts around the region, showcasing some unique and diverse voices, building new partnerships, supporting emerging artists to achieve career progression, attracting curiosity, drawing in new audiences from non-mainstream backgrounds and incrementally changing mindsets about exclusion. It has offered a net increase to the diversity of literature activity in the region, and has been partly supported through the Arts Council’s open access funding stream Grants for the arts.
There’s no lack of diverse voices competing for space in a crowded literature market, so a challenge for the Arts Council’s creative case is to support the best of those to achieve an equality of access to progression, visibility and success. Clear and relevant advice to potential grant applicants (coupled with strong support for a portfolio of literature activities that offers craft development and new showcasing platforms) is a good starting point for stimulating wider discussion on the creative case – and on how that richer mix of artists can contribute their inspiring work to the widest possible audience.