In 1993 I began the Creative Writing Programme at Whitireia Polytechnic. Twenty six years later it’s been axed. I wrote about the closure of the programme for The New Zealand Author (the publication of the New Zealand Society of Authors) and I’m going to copy that article below.
But a couple of comments first. Some people have asked me, ‘Do you feel as though it’s your baby?’ Not at all. I might have begun it, and I’ve had various roles in it since then, but the programme is a collaboration of hundreds of people. All kinds of people. That’s been its great strength – that it’s involved so many diverse people. And all of them have contributed in various ways.
I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I’ve always had a passion to open up education to people who don’t find it easy to take part, or feel excluded in some way. The Writing Programme has done that. The regret of all of us involved in the programme is that now many of those people have nowhere else to go. If a person wants to write seriously, and doesn’t feel comfortable in a university, where do they go? But we want those people as part of our literary landscape (I’m in danger of having a rant here, so I’ll stop).
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been part of this programme for 26 years. What has kept me Involved? Partly I’ve done other things as well. I’ve worked part time in other places, done free lance work, taken a year off here and there – and I think that’s really mattered. It’s a powerful antidote to becoming stale in the job. Also, the people. Of course the people. All the great people I’ve worked with. And also the fact that the Writing Programme has always been doing something new. I love ideas, and there’s always been room for new ideas, trying out new approaches etc.
Everything else is in the article. So here it is.
Does It Matter?
Whitireia Polytechnic has announced the closure of its creative writing programme. From 2020 only a small number of online courses will remain. This is part of widespread and severe cuts across the polytechnic.
Does this axing of the programme matter?
For centuries writers have written fine works, having never set foot in a writing course. In our time, writers as varied as J K Rowling, Arundhati Roy, and Jo Nesbo have never taken a writing course (as far as I can tell). The teaching of creative writing has become an industry, driven by motives ranging from a deep desire to improve the quality of writing, to personal or institutional ambition. World-wide, it is producing large numbers of PhD graduates with no hope of getting related employment (Australia is a good example of this). It has created a generation of new writers who believe a writing course is a necessity, and are carrying huge student loans as a result.
A critic, or policy advisor, might say all this. And there is some truth in all of it.
So why do we in the Whitireia Writing Programme feel strongly that this axing matters?
First, some history. The programme began in 1993. At the time serious writing courses were in universities; the discussion was that a polytechnic could have a broader reach and include people not comfortable in a university environment. The new writing programme found a natural home at Whitireia Polytechnic, which was a young vital community-based institution, committed to inclusiveness and with a strong focus on the arts. Whitireia launched the first full-time creative writing programme in the country, and the first substantial programme in a polytechnic, although Northland’s polytechnic was going down a similar road.
The programme was founded on certain principles. It strongly encouraged diversity, both cultural and socio-economic. Writers studied a range of genres with a range of tutors: this encouraged writers to be versatile, and ensured that the programme wouldn’t reflect one style of teaching or writing. It had a vocational edge. It had strong links with local iwi Ngāti Toa. The programme acknowledged the two linguistic and literary traditions of this country, English and Māori, and students could submit work in either language.
The programme has always been innovative and has evolved over time. For a start those changes were in response to what people wanted; for example, they wanted a dedicated novel course, so we began one. Increasingly changes were dictated by institutional requirements.
But it has held to most of those original principles, particularly encouraging socio-economic diversity. It has always been prepared to take a chance on some people. Sometimes this has paid off, sometimes it hasn’t, but that’s the nature of risk. It has always maintained a vocational component – sessions with working writers, a module on the publishing process in all its current forms, and a ‘writer’s cv’ exercise which encourages students to phrase the skills they have learnt in vocationally relevant terms.
We’ve also provided support to a lot of mid-career writers who have worked for us as assessors, mentors, etc.
We play the ‘success’ game like everyone else. We list numbers of works published, awards, lists of successful graduates. But we know that the success of a writing programme is greater than that. It can be life changing. For some people, studying something they are passionate about can give them a grounding that leads to success in other areas. If one were to quantify this in economic terms, the benefits to the country might be surprisingly large.
Mark Amery recently described the course as ‘the oldest and one of the most admired of New Zealand’s creative writing courses’. We’re proud of our achievements. We’ve contributed to making New Zealand’s literary landscape more diverse. We’ve made a big difference in many people’s lives. We’ve made writing a real grassroots activity in many ways – the Eat Your Words poetry competition in partnership with 40 Wellington cafes, for example. We never ‘claim’ a writer, but we’ve contributed to the success of a raft of very good writers. The flood of responses to the programme’s closure reiterates this over and over again.
A note about Escalator Press. We founded the press in 2013 – its brief was to publish new and established writers, new voices and perspectives, and to publish books that were both excellent and good-reads. We’ve done that. In addition, once or twice a year we meet with the authors over brunch, we’ve given media training, run a website workshop, provided mentoring – and we’ve paid them! We’ve been a good publisher. But the future of Escalator Press is also under discussion.
None of this is relevant to the programme’s closure. Quality, contribution, success, none of this counts. This is purely a cost-cutting exercise. Every course must now have a ratio of 1 tutor to 20 students. By this formula, every writing course at the IIML at Victoria University would be cut. The international benchmark for staffing of creative writing courses is 1:12.
No one denies that the polytechnic sector needs a major shakeup. But all these cuts were announced before the overall review was made public. The creative writing programme is part of Te Auaha, a visionary initiative which brought together all the polytechnic arts programme under one roof. Te Auaha was opened in March 2018. Eighteen months later, it’s dead. What business would invest in a new multi-million dollar venture, then can it before it’s even had a chance to get established? A business would recognise that a new large venture takes two-three years at least to establish and would plan and budget accordingly.
Many people have asked what they can do about this closure. Write to Chris: Kris Faafoi, Whitireia’s electorate MP, Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, and Chris Gosling, CEO.
Back to the original question: does the axing of this and other writing programmes matter? If it does, and we think so, it could be the catalyst for a vigorous debate about what we want substantial creative writing courses to look like, how inclusive we want them to be, and how would that happen?
For myself, today I’m going to take a poetry workshop with a group of ESOL students at Mana College in Porirua. They come from Syria, the Philippines, Vietnam, Samoa, they’re learning English, and they’re writing poetry. In the last year, seven students from this class have had work published, they’ve read at four big events in Wellington, and at a poetry conference. By writing poetry they are giving us new insights, and they and their families are becoming part of our community.
New Zealand Author 318, Spring 2019