Aberystywth, mon amour…title shamelessly stolen from the Malcolm Pryce book, the first of his series of detective novels set in Aberystwyth. I was a student in Aber, and can honestly say I adore the place. I’ve been feeling particularly homesick for Aber (or FFaber, as we took to calling it) this week. Summer always makes me nostalgic for Aber. The town is at it’s best in extremes of weather. I loved the drama of crashing waves and roaring winds in the winter, but Aberystwyth in the sun is beautiful. The sea glitters, the castle and Old College stand out against blue skies, and the sunsets can’t be matched by anywhere else. Perhaps too, I’m feeling reminiscent, while my not-sister is visiting universities herself, choosing where to study.
I discovered a friend of mine at Brum Radio is also an Aberystwyth University alumni. We talked about the strange bubble that the Aber experience is, almost totally cut off from the outside world. In a town excited by the arrival of an escalator, you have to make your own fun. We laughed at the intensity of the place, and the student habit of writing what we believed was deep, introspective poetry, and was probably just terrible. I did write a lot while I was studying there. It’s the most prolific I’ve ever been.
I learnt all sorts of things in Aberystwyth. How to spell Aberystwyth, for one thing, and how to correctly pronounce Machynlleth (never did learn to spell it without googling first though). I learnt how best to escape seagulls the size of Jack Russells, that the best way to ensure good luck is kicking the bar, and that there is no such thing as six degrees of separation in Aber (it’s probably two, at most!).
Considering I was studying Creative Writing, you’d expect my creative side to be flourishing, and of course it was. What I hadn’t expected was how it would change and grow, in ways that are still a part of my creative process now.
It was during my time at Aber that I developed a burgeoning interest in fashion, and when this blog started. I’ve been writing here for so long now, and often forget those first posts were written in my small bedroom in my first year, listening to the waves.
The lecturers and professors I had have had a lasting impact on me too. At the open day, I met Tiffany Atkinson (now a professor of Creative Writing at East Anglia, possibly the most respected courses in the country, making me extra glad I had the chance to be taught by her). Creative Writing seemed like an unusual choice of course at that point – I was used to slightly baffled encouragement from teachers who acknowledged that I wrote ‘nice stories’, but had little advice to offer. Tiffany listened to me talk, and told me, with incredible excitement, about her great joy in watching the young writers she was teaching blossom. She didn’t try to tell me why I should come to Aberystwyth. Instead, she made me feel like she wanted to teach me. It was a new sensation, feeling like my work was exciting and ought to be developed, and that there was guidance out there. When I was taught by Tiffany in my second year, I was enthralled. She was wonderful.
There were others too. Richard Marggraf Turley, who taught some of my Literature modules, remains a stand out. His passion for Keats was completely contagious, and I’m a big fan of Keats’ work still. My obsession with romantic poets, and ability to produce facts about Keats, Byron and Shelley at the drop of a hat is largely the fault of Richard…I will be forever grateful for the gift of such wonderful, haunting poems, and for teaching me to understand and appreciate them. Matthew Francis, too, changed the way I think about what I read. Before Matthew, a teacher had never invited us to critique their own work, but Matthew did, frequently joining a group of us who met up to write and workshop Science-Fiction and Fantasy work we were creating for our dissertations. That group was so in love with the same genre I was, and showed me that even the quirky should be appreciated and shouted about.
I realise I’ve already reached 700 words, and still have so much to say about this town, the university and it’s lecturers. When anybody questions how such a small, often bleak, place can have such a hold on me, this is why.
I’m yet to write about the lecturer who had the biggest impact of all. In my second year, I signed up for a module called Transpositions, which was writing taking inspiration from existing work. It was taught by an american poet, named Kelly Grovier. Out of curiosity, I bought his first poetry collection, A Lens in The Palm. It was beautiful. Perfect. Later, Kelly told me he found it incredibly embarrassing knowing that someone he knew in real life had read his poems. Kelly, I owe you an apology, because I bought the two collections you published after I graduated as well and adored those too.
Kelly taught me a new way of using imagery. Small things would work their way into my poems as crystal clear images, which was a way I’d never written before. He encouraged us to create interesting combinations of words, and put line breaks in weird places to create more interesting images or sounds. As someone who enjoys playing with language, this was a revelation, and remains the way I write poetry. Second drafts are always looking for the most interesting word to break a line one.
There was one class, where we were supposed to write a piece using lines from another poem, where I was the only one who turned up. I’d written a piece about modern romance, using lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee. Kelly spent the hour helping me workshop the piece, creating those strange images I loved so much in his own work. He named my poem Dry Ice, after his favourite image in it. In 2013, Dry Ice was published in a Forward Poetry collection. I often wonder if I should have got in touch to thank him.
I’m sure everybody thinks that their own university experience is the best one, that their university and department were special. I feel like the English department in Aberystwyth University, and Aberystwyth itself, really were special though. The impact both had on me is immeasurable. It would be easy to regret the missed grades that prevented me from going to the University of East Anglia, but in all honesty, I think I was always meant to go to Aberystwyth. So many of the defining parts of my personality and my writing voice were created there. Aberystwyth…mon amour…
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats – Ode on a Grecian Urn.