MA Creative Writing student Abby Knowles reviews Beyond the Walls, an internationally published new book of writing from York St John University students.
Showcasing urgent work that defies the media’s description of young people as ‘snowflakes’, Beyond the Walls is a brave account of what it is to be alive today. Produced by second year students and published by Valley Press, Abby Knowles discovers that collaboration and generosity is at the heart of this beautiful new collection.
I’m attempting to be professional, to deliver an un-biased article about the pros and cons of the recently published anthology Beyond the Walls. Wearing black framed glasses with a pencil stuck in my top-bun, I am serious and committed to impartial journalism.
“Producing and launching the anthology is a highlight of the year at York Centre for Writing due to all the student input that goes into it, from the actual content, to the editorial work, promotion and event planning. This year is particularly exciting now that Valley Press are publishing and distributing it. Likewise, launching the anthology as part of York Literature Festival offers students an exciting platform for their writing.”
Dr Kimberly Campanello
Except . . . except I’m just not. I’m as giddy as a toddler on a sugar high about the book of writing from York St John University students. It’s not only because it features poetry by Yours truly, but because the book is a lovely product, carefully designed and beautifully presented by second year Creative Writing students as part of the Publishing, Production and Performance Module.
I spoke with Module Director, Dr Kimberly Campanello, who said, “Producing and launching the anthology is a highlight of the year at York Centre for Writing due to all the student input that goes into it, from the actual content, to the editorial work, promotion and event planning. This year is particularly exciting now that Valley Press are publishing and distributing it. Likewise, launching the anthology as part of York Literature Festival offers students an exciting platform for their writing.”
Beyond the Walls is like speed dating; the bonus is you don’t have to shave your legs or make small talk about Brexit. Instead, you get to meet 54 writers who offer a couple of pages of poetry or prose and leave you with a lasting impression and happy memories. The book looks sophisticated and professional, exhibiting artwork by BA (Hons) Graphic Design student Hannah Ford and sitting at a proud 130 pages.
For the first time, Beyond the Walls is being published and distributed internationally by Valley Press. Jamie McGarry (Director of Valley Press) divulged that he enjoys working with York St John students because we are enthusiastic about the publishing process and we’re ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’.
“They’re our gate-openers of the future; they’re already helping to shape a big, bright illuminated world of writing that is beyond walls.”
Dr Naomi Booth
Jamie echoes the thoughts of Dr Naomi Booth (Subject Director of Creative Writing at YSJ), who describes YSJU students in the Foreword of Beyond the Walls: ‘They’re our gate-openers of the future; they’re already helping to shape a big, bright illuminated world of writing that is beyond walls.’ Dr Booth also discusses the mistaken description of young people as ‘snowflakes’ in her introduction, insightfully pointing out that ‘snowflakes turn into compacted ice’.
The subjects in the anthology are varied and often surprising. A stroll through the Museum Gardens this is not, it is more a dash around the City Walls being chased by a wolf dressed up as Paranoia.
MA student Emma McKenzie spoke to me about the process of submitting her work to the book. Emma explained that her usual form of writing is poetry, but she chose to enter the beginning of a childhood memoir, keeping in mind she may want to publish the full memoir in the future. Greece 1991 is gorgeously sun dappled and intimate, it makes me want to throw off my jeggings and eat a full jar of olives in the back yard.
Not all the pieces in the anthology are so Summery. How’s Uni Going? (Jacob Brown), Who You Are Today (Hannah Herraghty) and The Stillness of Time (Rachel Colley) examine the conflict between social expectations and inner pain. Brown writes at the beginning of his poem:
How’s Uni going?
Never been better actually
All clinical, by the book, factual
The old cliché of ‘I’m fine’, trotted out in this poem with brilliant effect: at once familiar and heart-breaking.
Other works cleverly tackle dystopian futures and one stand-out piece is Charlotte Brindley’s Paris in the Rain. This short story begins innocently with two friends in a coffee shop gossiping about work and eating cake. The year is 2154 and the disarming beginning is tilted when Brindley shows the reader that technology is not always a force for good in this future imagining.
Likewise, the freaky Yours, Lucy by Gabriella Gadaleta makes me want to disguise my voice and cover up the camera on my laptop. I’ll certainly think twice before making Siri play 80’s karaoke on repeat for eight hours again, perhaps she doesn’t like Journey as much as me.
Not only were the Production, Publication and Performance students in charge of organising the book, they also had to tackle the launch event. This year the event was part of York Literature Festival and the Promotions Team used social media to create a buzz about the launch, meaning that ticket sales increased and a new venue had to be sourced. The De Grey Lecture Theatre on campus has a capacity of 140 and the atmosphere there was bustling on the night.
The launch began with a drinks reception and a flawless performance by YSJU Singing Society. The mood was one of joviality, students getting their books autographed, hugs and congratulations floating about like confetti. The warmth of generosity between writers and readers was lovely to see.
Kate Hewett compered the evening with excellent precision (I sometimes forget how to spell my own name after a long day but Kate managed the entire event without notes). Speakers at the launch included YSJ alumna and author of My Sister’s Bones, Nuala Ellwood, as well as Valley Press authors Nora Chassler and Nigel Ford (Nigel offered light relief, describing our tentative clapping like ‘forty nudists sitting on marble slabs one at a time’ – I can assure you the audience was fully clothed).
The most rewarding part of the event was listening to six students perform their writing. Excellently selected by members of the Editorial Team, Dr Campanello explained, ‘students choosing readers for the event focused on work that would showcase a range of strong writing from YSJ, as well as pieces that would work well when read aloud’.
This was certainly true, readers Hannah Herraghty, Tom Young, Emma Collier, Joe Shaw, Megan Shield and Kathryn Sharman all performed brilliantly without a shaking hand in sight.
Tom performed with intensity and the energy of a Man on a Mission, channelling the words of Nuala’s introduction by ‘capturing the essence of what it is to be alive today’. Joe’s poetry left me wanting to punch the air – his reading of ignorance equals fear equals silence equals death a call to arms for gay men living with Aids:
you are not dirty, not decaying
You are effervescent, honey
You are fabulous
And you will live
A long and happy life
We were served sadness from Hannah, chills from Megan and heart-break from Emma. I’ve re-visited their work numerous times and each reading brings something different; I am in awe of their subtle yet arresting way with words. Having shared Creative Writing classes with Kathryn for two terms now, I’m always surprised by her talent for quiet character observation and sensitive handling of words. Her work in Beyond the Walls is beautifully imagined.
I left the drinks reception early after the launch to dawdle home. The Minster Bells were ringing and I carried Beyond the Walls with a precious pride I’ve not felt since I limped out of hospital with my new-born baby.
Creating a book from hundreds of submissions with over fifty authors is a startling achievement and one rightly celebrated during the launch of Beyond the Walls. I can’t be impartial or stop grinning inanely when I see the energy from York St John University students and the kindness of their collaborations, giving creative space and encouragement to so many writers. Second year students have produced a book that’s been internationally published – when I was their age my proudest moments had been writing an article about The Chuckle Brothers and being brave enough to get my ears pierced.
If this is what an average year at York St John University looks like for creative writers, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Beyond the Walls is available to purchase from www.valleypressuk.com for £10.99.