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Steve Willey on Reading as a Writer and Critic

Steve Willey on Reading as a Writer and Critic on the BA Creative Writing and English


“The Chamber is a Drowning Thing”

‘House of Commons Suspended after Water Pours through Ceiling’, read the headline on The Guardian (Thursday 4th April, 2019). ‘In the Commons chamber and can hear rain dripping in through the roof. Parliament really is broken’, Labour MP Justin Madders Tweeted.

Reading this, with the Spring Term at Birkbeck recently ended, I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Creative Critical Seam’, a module I teach on the BA Creative Writing and English. One of the things we think about on this module is destruction. We think about how destruction can be creative and also how it is often full of critical intent, and here was this wonderful rain pouring through the roof of Parliament, where the inclement weather and the decaying architectural fabric were working in concert to offer their analysis on the damage wrought by Brexit.

The symbolic resonance of this destruction was clearly not lost on our MPS. Where their words had failed, where their voices had become broken and hoarse, where expressive limits and persuasive capabilities had been reached or exposed, here was this articulate and fluid torrent opening up the chamber to the London sky. “Let the air in”, it said. “Let them drown”, it said.

“All the fountains of the great deep burst forth,

and the windows of the heavens were opened”,


“the sea calmed and the whirlwind and flood stopped.

All day long there was quiet. All humans had turned to clay”.

Ok, the rain didn’t say any of those things, and those last two quotations were from Chapter 7 of ‘Genesis’ and from the Epic of Gilgamesh, but as a reader of literature it is hard not to hear these echoes of destruction inside contemporary events. All new language, even if it comes in the form of a leaking roof, is haunted by the literature of its past.

As a Lecturer of Critical and Creative Writing, and as someone who has just set up a new Part Time pathway for the BA in Creative Writing and English Literature at Birkbeck, I believe that these ghosts can be a wonderful resource for any aspiring creative writer who is willing to welcome them into their writing, to learn their names and to channel their voices.

Thinking about floods, rivers and haunting as it relates to creative writing, I also can’t help but think about A Humument (one of the books we study on ‘The Creative Critical Seam’). In making A Humument Phillips took a copy of W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document and painted over it.

Phillips’ method of painting onto the text creates rivers of white out of the blank spaces that separate the novel’s words. With the page flooded with colour these rivers turn negative space, normally disregarded in the process of reading, into a disruptive force that destroys the original order of the text through the creation of new patterns of sense. These new patterns sometimes subvert the original sense or intentions of Mallock’s novel. Destruction, as practiced by Phillips, is a creative and wonderfully critical act and this got me thinking: What small creative intervention could I make as a writer taking that Guardian headline as a starting point?

I thought about the other possible meanings of the word ‘suspended’. I thought of solid particles dispersed through the bulk of a fluid; a stubborn substance unwilling to fully dissolve into a solution; dust, caught in a stream of sunlight. Then, with clarity, I saw The House of Commons, its green leather benches, its silver gilt ornamental mace, the repetitive shouts of “order”, its lurching bodies and its laws, all suspended in a flood of rain and I wrote a short poem of salvaged words to save me from the flood.

The House of Commons


all the fountains

of the great deep –


water pours

through ceiling windows

of the heavens opened –


the sea calmed

can hear rain dripping,

the whirlwind


through the roof –

burst, the water

pours through all


day long there was

quiet, water pours

through all humans


can hear rain dripping

all humans had turned

to clay –


the water pours

through the ceiling

and the chamber is

a drowning thing.

Words fail and voices break. Sometimes all we can do is open up our writing and our minds to the articulate torrent that flows out from the literature of the present and the past, in the hope that in finding some new order in salvaged words we will also find the time and space to lift our heads to breathe. Studying Creative Writing alongside English at Birkbeck might just give you the time you need.

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