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RLF Fellowship - Oxford Brookes University

'Through Coffee-Tinted Spectacles' or 'From Espressos to Self-Expression'

[November 2000]

Thankyou. I'm acutely aware that by merely standing here, I'm in double violation of Daphne Du Maurier's dictum:

'Writers should be read - but neither seen nor heard.'

Still, I claim exemption from Du Maurier's scorn on the grounds that the reading of poetry ceased long ago to be a national pastime (if it ever was). Meanwhile, I might actually benefit from poetry's relative obscurity; because, if I can paraphrase Ernest Newman - that the good writer is slowly discovered, and the bad writer slowly found out - then poetry's bought me some valuable time either way.

So: I hardly know YOU; you hardly know ME. That's at least egalitarian of us! And I hope this get-together will act as a suitable, initial remedy.

Before I go any further, it has to be acknowledged that the Royal Literary Fund and Oxford Brookes have taken on that amazingly tough nut: how to support writers AND make them socially useful (as well as visible and audible!). I'm genuinely excited about being your Fellow for the coming year: my post at Middlesex University (at Trent Park, which I used to call 'the Pretty Polly') was a while ago now, and I've missed the academic environment. I feel strangely supported, too, by the fact that the Trust Fund behind this project is linked to A.A. Milne - maybe that sense of somehow being bolstered stems from sharing with Milne his condition as a Cambridge alumnus, or perhaps it's something to do with my tendency for far-fetched introductions, my slightly whinnying voice and a temperament several friends have described as 'bare-faced'. Having said that, I can't decide whether to be crushed or flattered in having as my first major patron Winnie-the-Pooh.

Anyway - I'll home in, right away, on what most of you REALLY want to know. What is that ONE indispensable thing you need when preparing to write or speak? What IS it? Of course, in the end, I can only speak for myself. I have my answer here - printed upside-down at the bottom of the page - but, just like the planet-sized computer in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy about to tell its creators the answer to everything, I have a feeling some of you are 'not going to like it'. My personal answer is not a brilliant aphorism, or a sure-fire reference book. That ONE thing, for me, is - I'm afraid - Coffee.

There ARE legitimate precedents. In 'Ode on Solitude' Alexander Pope writes:

'Coffee, which makes the politician wise
And see through ALL things with his half-shut eyes.'

In my childhood Italian village, coffee was very much about 'half-shut' eyes. For three sleepless brothers in one single bed, it was our first taste of morning - when we got a big bowl of it, milky, mined with great bobbing chunks of corn-bread. Coffee was what our uncles and aunts drifted in for, laden like tankers with pocket-money. Espressos were how we got to meet girls. By which time, of course, our eyes were wide open.

Hearts racing, we Italians were a community of coffee-drinkers. Coffee is the apotheosis of the latin spirit - hot, strong and frothy. Apart from a lifted Gideon Bible, there wasn't a single book in my boyhood home; but there WERE at least six shining espresso-makers, all lined up immaculately in order of size on the kitchen dresser like Matryushka Dolls, and all with their quaint camp funnels pointing in the same direction.

And coffee comes to my aid again now - because almost everything I want to say about writing can be said through coffee. Or, to be more precise, everything I want to say about the creative process (for me, at least) can be said through the experience of standing in a typical coffee queue, not unlike that at JB's Café at the downtown end of the campus. Please bear with me, while I list the parallels:


You're just getting on with life, plotting the public humiliation of one or other of your colleagues, when suddenly it hits you deep in your gut - that inexorable yearning. Your legs move of their own accord; your hand reaches automatically into your pocket. Whether for a pen or to check you have the one pound seventy-five for your very own cafetière - it's really the same thing.


You get that first whiff. Ah! - THIS will be the best cup of coffee ever... you can already taste it. Your entire being is focussed on that silver-handled frother, you notice every detail with a vividness that's almost unbearable. Let it come, O let that sweet black gold come.


The person closest to you is shouting at you, trying to get your attention. Deep in reverie, you see their lips moving, but you don't hear the words. Suddenly it dawns on you. You're standing on their foot.


God - this is taking forever. And who ARE those twits ordering CAMOMILE TEA for crying out loud! How come THEY get served so quick?


Macchiato - or latte crème? With a dusting of nutmeg - or vanilla-flavoured? Can you afford to think 'grande'? and why are there so many draughts in here.?


Damn! You're sure of it. They slipped you a decaffeinated. AND it was lukewarm. You want to tell everyone, but they're all too busy drinking their own coffee. So what can you DO, faced with a lukewarm muse and an indifferent public? (shrug) ... Well... You nick the cafetière.


Okay, I know - I've stretched that analogy way beyond its elastic limit. Time to get to the point. Which is, what can a poet and scientist like me bring to a place like this?

Empathy, for a start. Most of us know what Oscar Wilde meant, when he said he'd spent an entire morning removing one comma; then all afternoon putting it back. And we've all felt that inertia Les Dawson describes as:

'Riding a bike over cobblestones to knock the ash off a cigarette'.

And most of us will actually TASTE the irony when Gene Fowler says:

'Writing is EASY: all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper
until the drops of blood form on your forehead...'

The second thing I bring, is a long-standing preoccupation with the potential of language to do immense good, or intense damage. Samuel Johnson demonstrated exactly how MUCH damage when he responded to a submission by saying:

'Your manuscript is both good and original: but the parts that are good are not original,
and the parts that are original are not good.'

And Max Reger, given a savage review by Rudolph Lewis, gave an object lesson in verbal retaliation:

'I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me.
In a moment it will be behind me.'

A third characteristic I can offer is my dialectic upbringing. I straddle two disciplines (science and art), two cultures, and two languages. When I overheard a tourist complaining that the Radcliffe Camera didn't look anything LIKE a camera, I realised my Italian roots might be of some help to Oxford after all! I can also appreciate the kind of frustration which Gillian Beer evokes when she tells us how Darwin tried 'to explain new ideas with language which was quite inappropriate'. The struggle of a constantly evolving language with its available 'registers' has many such precedents, and probably knows no end.

What's more, I can offer encouragement - by the very fact that someone like ME has actually been accepted as 'a writer': Ponder this - when our English teacher told us that

'Book lovers never go to bed alone'

a couple of us third-formers were actually CAUGHT jaywalking outside the posh girls' school down the road with a big library book prominently under one arm. If someone like that can make it...

But what I WON'T promise in this residency is a quick fix. To do that would misunderstand the Fellowship's aim to promote 'Effective Self-Expression' in just the same way as I misunderstood that saying about book-lovers. 'It is notoriously difficult to "help" poetry…' said Roy Fuller, and I suppose the same applies to 'Effective Self-Expression'. I'm also forced to take note of Vincent McHugh's warning, that...

'Self-expression is for babies and seals, where it can be charming.
A writer's business is to affect the reader.'

Well - that's a bit harsh on us self-expressive types. Thankfully, Orwell restores the balance:

'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity' he says. '... like a cuttlefish squirting out ink'.

So, perhaps we can agree on 'Effective Self-Expression' as a combination of technique AND sincerity - in an organic mix. Sincerity, that more interior quality, I wouldn't presume to 'teach'; but technique, and style - those supporting structures of sincerity - can to some extent be constructed. They take work.

Work is, I'm afraid, the necessary corollary (if not coronary) to coffee. I'm reminded of Blaise Pascal's confession to one of his correspondents: 'I have only made this letter rather long' he wrote, 'because I have not had time to make it shorter.' And when Yeats said 'Words obey my call', I believe he was staking a hard-earned claim rather than yielding to bombast.

Of course, your balance of concern over technique and sincerity might well depend on whether you're writing a CV or a love letter - but whatever the purpose, control over what you utter is a kind of power: not of the tyrannical sort, though it can be turned to those ends; it's democratic power, in the deepest sense.


And now, like Pascale, I have a small confession to make. All this harping on about technique is partly a smoke-screen - because in this post-modern age, you students are in a very strong position, very strong indeed. Why? Because when your work is constructively criticised, you can claim - along with Jean Cocteau - that

'The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order'

and deliver it with that kind of smirk which shows you know you have a bevy of hefty theoretical bouncers on your side.

But have pity on your lecturers. These are tough times for them, especially when they have to make 'objective' assessments of literacy or style - a problem compounded by new phenomena such as the technological fascism of Microsoft - its 'Grammar-SS'. On my PC, the rule: 'Capital letter after a full-stop' has bloody well transmuted to: 'Capital letter after a Return'. Try writing poems like that!

But difficulty is also an opportunity: to respond inventively to a challenge. And I look forward to working with you on harmonising technique with sincerity, rigour with freedom of expression.

That challenge, though, IS a big one. A recent article claimed that we're moving towards a sort of 'Zen English' in which the 'f' word will express every thought and feeling. I'd go even further. Does the shrinking of articulateness actually make it more difficult to think or feel? I'm not saying for an instant that inarticulate people don't have valid thoughts and feelings; not at all. I'm saying that language isn't just, in my experience, the stuff that's spurred by experience: it's an integral and vital part of experience.

I recognise, too, that we often remain alone in that struggle for experience. Ethel Wilson said:

'The business of writing is one of the four or five most private things in the world.'

This Fellowship has nothing to do with the invasion of that privacy, or the 'injection' of words and styles into anyone's head. What I hope, is to share with you in a process whereby we make our own gear to fish for our own words. And I'll be learning too, I'm sure - especially when my suggestions are shown to be more cod than salmon.


So - some final comments. This may skirt dangerously close to a platitude, but I must state something unambiguously here: that 'Effective Self-Expression' - be it in front of an audience, in an article or essay, through a song, or just when it's your turn to tell a joke - Effective Communication of any kind - belongs to us all. Not just to academics or poets. We're all standing there, with different degrees of confidence, in that one coffee queue.

My task here is to help in any way with making our communication - whether written or spoken - effective. CV's, interview technique, structuring a seminar, laying out an essay. The Fellowship is not about teaching English or 'remedial' literacy. I'm not here to help you with 'creative writing'. But I CAN help in that middle ground between the two - with clarity, succinctness, style; presentation, structure, articulateness. I may not be here as a poet; but I AM here as a long-term apprentice of words.

So, let me thank everyone at Brookes for making me feel, already, so very welcome. More than that. I've now stood, like most of you, at the Bodleian altar and pledged my oath not to play with matches - so I even feel the beginnings of kinship. And let me take this opportunity to make a public declaration: (raise hand as if being sworn in) - I guarantee, wholly and without reservation, to make a real impact in Brookes - a significant AND measurable impact - on the University's coffee consumption.

If I have one hope for this residency, it's this: that people will feel about my time here rather as I did about going to my aunt's cottage in the foothills of the Abruzzi, where there was no television and it was a worryingly brisk walk for sanitation. But it was always worth trotting up that dusty path because I was certain my aunt would have an espresso on the go, and I knew beyond all doubt that I'd always get her very best shot.


copyright mario petrucci 2001