Putting talent into action | Kei Miller

Jamaican-born poet and fiction writer Kei Miller – who teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow – speaks to TEODOR RELJIC ahead of his participation in M-Island Narratives, a creative writing initiative taking place in Malta between August 1 to 5

In this age of instant self-publishing opportunities, and reality shows which turn the creative process into an accelerated spectator sport, do you think that a rigorous and sensitive creative writing course is becoming more and more of an urgent necessity?

This is a very leading question – I’m not sure I see things exactly as you do. I think there is an urgency to write about our world as it is right now and as it’s changing rapidly, and there is an urgency to make that writing thoughtful and rigorous. So courses definitely do help. But within this changing world it’s important that we understand the new spaces in which we will write the story of our world, and that’s not always on a piece of paper.

So sometimes those places are on live TV, or on Twitter, or on blogs – these instant self-publishing opportunities you mention. Those are important spaces to write in and write on and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss how a good writer can transform these into very intelligent and literary spaces.

However, creative writing courses are often viewed with suspicion, as some people might say that creative writing – and, by extension, the creative impulse – can’t really be ‘taught’. How do you respond to this? And how do you make it a point to impart practical writing approaches and tools to your students?

Like dancing, or like drawing, there are very practical skills that one can learn in whatever art form one is committed to. To dance, we learning how to stretch, or how to breathe properly; to draw, we learn how to hold a pen; to paint we learn how to mix colours to get a certain effect, and so on.

Almost everyone can improve their art dramatically by taking a course, and such courses almost always give you very practical advice. So all of this is true for writing. Maybe genius can’t be taught, but in my life I’ve met at least two writers who had so much natural talent, yet they didn’t have the discipline to sit down and learn the practical skills that would feed that genius. So they haven’t reached far in their writing career.

What have been some of the key problems students have been having as far as writing is concerned, particularly over the last few years? Do you notice any particular issues that have been popping up recently? What would you say is behind them?

The key problem is actually the same as it’s been for a long time. To be a good writer you need to read widely. But there are so many places to read today. There are great novels and poems and short stories being written – but there are also good blogs, and good online journalism. A good writer needs to be very connected to the world of writing and to participate in that world. Some people believe that writing is a lonely thing that we do by ourselves. It’s not really. You have to interact with a world of ideas and styles.

Are there cultural differences you sometimes have to be attuned to, when teaching to students from different countries? On that note, what kind of ‘scene’ are you expecting to find in Malta?

There are always cultural differences but that would be too many to list here, and some of them quite subtle. There are slightly different ideas of what might be beautiful or worthwhile in one culture as opposed to another. As to what I’m expecting – I’ve stopped having expectations. I wait to see what a place is like. But I expect it to be warm and beautiful like the island that I am from.

How would you describe your own ‘journey’ as a writer? What have been some of the most important things you’ve learnt along the way, and how do you hope to impart this knowledge to your students?

That’s such a large question, I couldn’t possibly begin to answer it. My journey has gone across different genres – I’ve written books of poetry, books of short stories, books of essays and also novels. But my journey has also been literal – I moved from Jamaica to the USA to the UK, and every year I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit to read from my work – to Iraq, New Zealand, Romania, Trinidad, Egypt.

There has been a lot of journeying, and the more you meet people and you teach and you read is the more you understand about things and why we write and how we write. These things are imparted by reading the works of your students, thinking about it, listening to them and sharing from an honest place.

Kei Miller will be speaking during a talk entitled ‘editors’ at The Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta on August 1 at 19:00, and will be giving a reading on August 5 at the Green Room, Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta at 19:30. Both events form part of M-Island Narratives. For more information, log on to: https://www.facebook.com/MIslandNarratives