When a stolen bike is of more significance than the recent discovery of warts on your penis, the world of worry is terribly askew – or you have entered the world of Ian Seed whose collection of prose poems Makers of Empty Dreams present his distinctive narratives of mystery and uncertainty, as with opening piece City as part of a sequence about living in Milan, once with a bicycle and now a penile ailment. And if the world of A Level English Text Transformation was to continue its creative orbit, this contemporary text would be an excellent stimulus to imagining further scenarios – and I don’t mean ‘answers’ – for students to create, probably steered to mysteries other than those connected to genitalia.
Never one to refuse a ruse, the penile warts above are my way of rueing the other demise, this, as far as I can make out, the last year for the setting and assessment of AQA’s A Level English Language and Literature ELL4 Text Transformation coursework element. I became involved in teaching this unit reasonably early in the syllabus’s existence, and in my latter years in the job, when I was less and less able to celebrate creativity in the classroom, this was a last vestige of vibrant and exciting possibilities for student writing.
Before celebrating this further here, I would also like to mention the work of my GCSE students where for their Original Writing English Language coursework [it wasn’t even called ‘Creative Writing’, allowing for more transactional options, sadly in many respects] they wrote poetry based on my presentation of ‘Copycat’ poems, poetic models to offer structures for emulating whilst encouraging the most imaginative of content: my mantra of the time being ‘it must make grammatical sense, but it doesn’t need to make literal sense’. Over the years, these were consistently brilliant.
Looking on the AQA website yesterday it seems that the specification in which TT was a significant feature no longer exists for new teaching. The replacement specs are heavily constrained by the reduction [absence?] of coursework options, and terminal examinations cannot allow for a genuine writing process to be undertaken. This also prevents the kind of exploration that went into the selecting of texts for transforming, and then the writing of a chosen transformation. I admit I haven’t scrutinised the options that closely, nor across other Awarding Bodies, and I do know there is a Creative Writing A-Level in existence, but I think that is under imminent threat. I would be delighted to be corrected about any of this.
In the early days of the Eng Lang/Lit syllabus, there was a freedom to select a ‘literary’ work to then transform into another genre, trusting students and teachers to make informed and sensible choices. A number of the transformations I will be mentioning come from these freer days. This eventually changed – for whatever reasons: some silly school choices I’m sure, but also external forces to increasingly dictate a supposed cannon – and students then had to select from the defined list of authors as well as produce two transformations. It is important to mention that there was always an accompanying critical commentary where students analysed their choices and writing experience.
Looking at the list of authors yesterday [and I did teach to most of these in my final years] I was pleased to see the actual addition of two authors I had requested, but which hadn’t appeared on the list when I taught: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler. I suppose others may have requested these, but I’m not sure this is the case. I’m proud to see them there, even in the final year of offering.
Bukowski and Chandler always provided colourful/engaging/disturbing characters and tales in their poetic narratives, as does Matthew Sweeney who I also used as a stimulus for students to possibly select as a prime source. Their stories, so often with open-ended trajectories for a reader’s imagination, are like those of Ian Seed, and many other writers, thus my mention of him at the beginning of this piece. Whilst not to be used in the same way as ‘copycat’ poems, where structures and patterns are rightly recycled, the narratives were rich sources of inspirations for transforming, and poetry worked especially well as most students were and are more comfortable writing narratives or dialogue [and monologue], thus the genre transformation element of the task was fulfilled. That said, over the years, many of my students wrote superb poetry transformations from prose, and many of these using experimental writing like found, concrete, cut-ups and humuments. It was such a brilliantly radical and adventurous time.
Over the latter years of my English teaching, the testing and measuring and judgemental culture in schools meant there was less time to be creative. Metaphor seemed to even disappear from the curriculum. Pragmatism and philistinism began to replace freedoms, and I don’t really need to stress this any further. In that context, Text Transformation, even in its more prescriptive format, was an oasis of creative joy. I am sorry to see it go as I have and will forever keep the fondest memories of it, exemplified by the very small selection of transformations I am going to close with here. I have read hundreds so cannot possible account for them all, nor should I try. I don’t believe I ever read a ‘bad’ transformation [maybe a very occasional lazy one!], but I certainly read mainly amazing and outstanding pieces from those students who didn’t normally write creatively, to those who did, and to those I know continue doing so now. How bloody privileged is this to have been involved in!
In no particular order:
- Chaucer’s Tale of the Wife of Bath: into a contemporary political satire
- Thoreau’s Walden: into Walt Whitman-esque poetry
- Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden: into poetry
- Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler: characters from Romeo and Juliet writing blank verse ‘problems’ to agony Aunt Philip Marlowe [The Big Sleep] for advisory responses
- Ben Elton’s High Society: into investigative journalism
- Kingsley Amis’ A Clockwork Orange: into anthropological study report
- Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales [selection of 4]: into Shakespearean sonnets
- Heller’s Catch 22 and Pullman’s Dark Materials: into monologues
- Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: into poetry
- Robert Frost’s The Star Splitter: into a short story
- Bukowski poems: into narrative [later made into an actual film]
- New Testament [Matthew] The Last Supper: into film noir script
- Pauline Réage’s The Story of O: into monologue [!]
- Martin Stannard’s Coral: into monologues
Having written these [because I have physical copies here at home] I am reminded of what an absolute snapshot they are, and the fact that there are so many others I simply cannot recall in the full detail needed to use as examples.
Without mentioning specifics, some of these students received responses from the authors of the transformed sources [living, yes…] which were stunning additions to critical commentaries, and in all cases were effusive in their praise. Again, how brilliant!