Thank you, Vienna! ¡Viva la poesía!

In regard of our XIII EACWP symposium, recently celebrated in Vienna (May, 25- May, 28) and hosted by our partners from the Vienna Poetry School / schule für dichtun (sfd), our new individual member, Cal Smyth (UK),  has written this spirited and  genuine testimony, which is worth more than anything that could be really said. Thank you, Cal! Thank you, Vienna! Viva la poesía!

Balcony poetry (from schule für dichtung’s balcony)

As soon as I came across the European Association of Creative Writing Programmes (EACWP), I wanted to join. I loved the ethos of connecting creative writing teachers throughout Europe and beyond. Having lived in Serbia, Japan, Italy and Mexico, I think forging international writing ties are vital, especially post-Brexit. Right from the initial email exchange, I was welcomed by coordinator Lorena Briedis and invited to take part in the Vienna symposium. My college gave me a HE teachers bursary to cover the costs of attending and plane tickets were booked. With notebook and pen, I headed to Wien.

Stepping into the beautiful Vienna poetry school, I was immediately greeted with warmth. A handshake here, a kiss there as I was introduced to one person after another in a Viennese swirl –poets and essayists, short story writers and novelists, almost everyone also a teacher of their craft. Apart from me, everyone was an institutional member– coming from Spain, France, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Austria and the UK. There was no British stiffness, but a joie de vivre as I met the rest of the team over lunch. Feeling instantly at home, it was easy to present myself back at the school before listening to what had been achieved in the last year.

Seraphima Kennedy (UK), Frank Tazeelar (The Netherlands), Ana Guerberof (Spain), Javier Sagarna (Spain), Mariana Torres (Spain), Andrea Holland (UK), Markus Köhle (Austria)

Here were writers and teachers setting up exchanges and collaborative projects. Successful teacher exchanges had already taken place between Spanish and Dutch creative writing schools. One new project, presented by Frank Tazelaar from ArteEZ in Holland is called CELA – Connecting Emerging Literary Artists. The project had gained funding, mostly from the EU, of 1.2 million euros to connect emerging writers and translators throughout Europe. I realised that EACWP’s motto was true – these guys really did know how to dream seriously.

As programme director of NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education), Seraphima Kennedy presented an upcoming conference in the UK on English Shared Futures. Like me, Seraphima wanted to be part of Europe not cut off on an island. Post-Brexit, how could the English language still be utilised? With several different languages spoken between the EACWP members, English was the lingua-franca. One interesting idea that came up was a course to teach English to Creative Writing teachers.

EACWP is running its first training course for Creative Writing teachers in Normandy in November. So details were ironed out about the structure of the course. A flash fiction competition that was long-standing in Spain was expanded internationally. And a seminar was given on using similes with students.

Open mic evening

We had talks and workshops linking research, literature and future developments to creative writing teaching. In The Myth of Tristan, we heard how literature has always been fascinated by the tragedy of love. Essentially, stories need conflict as without conflict there isn’t a story. This is something I constantly make my students aware of. If your characters fall in love and live happily ever after from the start it’s a pretty boring story. As the discussion developed, someone quoted French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: ‘Love is giving something you haven’t got to someone who doesn’t want it’. It’s a terrible thought, yet vital for writing.

Another wide-ranging lecture looked at post-truth fiction, creating a writer-reader community and different types of writers. Are you a classicist, a formalist, an animist or an iconoclast? A bit of fun on the surface, but underneath a very useful tool to get students thinking why, how and what they write, plus who they are writing for. With the progress of digital technologies, how can writers relate to readers in modern, social media?

In my own Balkan Noir talk, I presented the first-hand research I carried out for my novel. With crime fiction turning into reality, I ended up getting my researcher (‘the woman with a bullet in her leg’) out of prison in a story that involved tapped phone calls and a prostitute in witness protection. In a roomful of knowledgeable, well-travelled writers, this brought out other interesting stories. EACWP president and director of Escuela de Escritores, Javier Sagarna for example had taught children of sicarios in Mexico – the children and their teachers overjoyed at his classes as he provided the idea of escape though writing.

Linking to community writing, I’ve been thinking about collating Asylum seekers stories. With my ESOL background, I hear the stories of people who have fled war, escaped the Calais Jungle, come to the UK in fridges. It seems to me these human real-life stories need to be heard. It turned out in Holland, such a project already existed with a book published. So it was very interesting to find out how that was done and funded.

EACWP friends hugging

If all this sounds like a lot of ground was covered, the symposium was as much play as work. Some of us went on an experimental walk through Vienna’s artistic 7th district, with a route mapped out by the letters SFD (schule fur dichtung). Others performed multi-lingual balcony poetry to passing walkers on Vienna’s main shopping street. All of us ate, drank and laughed together. In a raucous finale, we sang and danced the night away in a hilarious mixture of languages. While Austrian punk crooner Fritz Ostermayer deep-voiced into the mic, I was honoured to be part of a backing chorus including Venezuelan Cucurrucucu queen Lorena Briedis, French enchantress extraordinaire Louise Muller and Argentinian’s Wild ‘Evita’ Ana Guerberof.

The meals and nights out formed an important part of meeting each other, creating friendship and kindred spirits. Teacher exchanges were proposed, ideas developed and stories swapped. The EACWP team has a momentum of energy and I can honestly say I’ve never been made to feel so at home by such a great group of people. Something exciting is being created here. Now part of the team, I can’t wait to be a more active member. Viva EACWP! Viva la poesía!

About Cal Smyth (UK)

Cal has lived in Serbia, Japan, Mexico, Italy and the UK. He has met wanted criminals, dealt with visa scams and escaped NATO bombing. He’s had two crime novels published and self-published the satire Bad Teacher, based on his experience of teaching English to foreign students, asylum seekers and refugees. Described by the poet Carole Satyamurti as ‘hilarious and serious’, the novel dissects immigration and life in the UK.

In 2015, he was awarded a Literature Wales Writers’ Research Bursary for his forthcoming Balkan Noir thriller See You in the Obituary. With the aid of Serbian publisher Aleksandar Šurbatović, Cal interviewed a police inspector in Belgrade. This meeting revealed first-hand information about the Balkan drug route and corruption. Cal was assisted by a linguist with a bullet in her leg who provided insights into the Serbian underworld.