On Starting the Conversation

By Zayneb Allak

In her essay ‘Anew Again’ Sarah Wood looks at a photograph of Picasso’s 1913 work ‘Construction au joueur de guitar’.

She begins: ‘In front of me is a photograph of what I cannot see. I’m in the act of sensing, picking something up, seeing that I don’t see something. It’s right in front of me but I have to guess. I don’t know’ (Wood 2007, p.19). We began the first session of our Critical Poetics Reading Group by not knowing: would anyone turn up? Who would they be? What disciplines would they be working in? What would they say about the materials? Would they say anything at all? I bullet-pointed questions and prepared a writing exercise and five clips from The Art of Looking, Cordelia Dvorák’s 2016 film about John Berger, to get people talking or writing or simply doing something, I don’t know what, just in case the conversation came to a standstill.

I needn’t have worried. Colleagues from English Literature, Creative Writing, Fine Art and Photography came to the session and started a conversation about Sarah Wood’s ‘Anew Again’, a creative-critical response to Picasso’s work and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Old Man with the Blue Guitar’, to guitars themselves and music and poems and writing and looking and sensing. And it seemed that something in Wood’s work (although perhaps ‘play’ is a better word here) struck a chord with many of us: we talked about knowing and not knowing in writing, and the distinctions between knowing and understanding, and where our words came from and where the text takes us. We ran out of time before we ran out of things to say and decided that Berger would have to wait for another day.

He’s here now though: in Confabulations, Berger writes about his childhood and adolescence in boarding schools, how he became an ‘orphan’, or ‘a free-lance’, as he puts it:

As a free-lance, from the age of four or five onwards, I treated all those I encountered as if they too were orphans like me. And I believe I still do this.

I propose a conspiracy of orphans. We exchange winks. We reject hierarchies [..] We are impertinent. (Berger 2016, p.28)

It seemed, from our discussion, that our creative-critical approaches to writing have something of the free-lance about them, something that rejects hierarchies, something that is impertinent. Time and again we find that the texts we make don’t fit – not with the terms used to describe them (creative-critical? Creative/critical? Creative and critical? Critically creative?) or with expectations of them, not even in academia itself. The texts we make are ‘impertinent’.

Berger concludes: ‘Yes we are impertinent. And I guess that I approach and chat up readers in the same way. As if you too were orphans’ (2016, p28). How about it then? How about Critical Poetics as a conspiracy of free-lancers, creative-critical orphans, being impertinent, sharing a wink?


John Berger, Confabulations (London: Penguin, 2016)
Sarah Wood and Jonathan Tiplady, The Blue Guitar (London: Artwords, 2007)