Charlie Thorpe

Cambridge is an interesting place in terms of creativity and its arts scene. On the one hand, we live and work among some of the most driven and imaginative people in the country – there are plays on every night, for example, in the theatres which, as any arts student will tell you, were once graced by the likes of Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie. John Milton may or may not have sat under a mulberry tree at Christ’s and Lord Byron used to go swimming in the Cam, when he wasn’t busy walking his pet bear through the halls of Trinity College.

Yet on the other hand it is exam term and it seems that the hoards of stressed students shut away in their rooms revising couldn’t be further away from the creativity and liberty that might traditionally be associated with studying an arts subject at Cambridge. Creativity, for this term at least, seems limited to using different highlighters on a single flash-card, or having the library offer colouring in as a de-stress activity.

Varsity spoke to Notes, a fortnightly creative writing and visual arts magazine founded in 2012, about their experiences of running the magazine and the arts scene in Cambridge as a whole. The charming and witty editors Savannah Tiger Adeniyan, Jun Pang and Sarah Howden talked thoughtfully about the magazine’s conception and aims, the variety of submissions they receive and their opinions on printed and multi-media platforms. Yet it became particularly interesting when conversation turned to discussion of their individual experiences of the Cambridge arts scene.

As the only person in the room not to be studying English, Jun – an HSPS first year and the team’s newest member – reminds us that our academic subjects should not influence or inhibit our creativity:

“I feel like there’s some strange idea here, where a lot of people are unwilling, or don’t feel like their work is good enough, to submit to Notes – because they don’t do English, [as if that means] they don’t know how to write or can’t write. It’s been good to see different people submitting to Notes. I’m trying to get my friends who do Law and Science to write things. For me, writing is something that shouldn’t be limited by boundaries of subject but here we have a tendency to forget that you have to do other things other than work.”

One of the benefits of Notes, they agree, is that they create a network across colleges, meeting at their launch events, which have previously taken place in Pembroke Old Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Savannah explains that it’s nice to establish new relationships in this way while graphic designer Sarah admits that the creative scene can, from the outside, appear somewhat exclusive or elusive.

“I’ve spoken to people at launch events,” she says, “who’ve said ‘I thought I was the only person doing any sort of design or drawing’, particularly with visual arts.”

That the visual arts – which form a strong component of Notes’ publications – are somewhat neglected in Cambridge, or fail to receive the publicity they deserve, does seem true when we consider that, since Michaelmas, the Tab has included a grand total of one article about art produced by students (in this case textiles: when two students started the brand AYDUA Jeans) but has had, at the time of writing, 11 theatre-based articles in this month alone.

“I was very overwhelmed by all of the theatre,” says Jun. “I didn’t expect there to be that much creative stuff going on to be honest, when I got here, just because I was expecting Cambridge to be super super academic.”

She says that she’s amazed by how much time people appear to have and we talk about balancing creative work with academic stress. Conversations about mental health are particularly relevant around this time of year. Sarah mentions This Space, an online platform for creative writing based around mental health issues and Savannah explains how the pressures of Cambridge can appear to affect the way students write.

Savannah says: “We frequently get submissions where we think ‘this is not a piece of creative writing; this is really personal. This is probably someone writing in a cathartic diary form to try to express themselves.’ […] They are a reflection of mental health issues people are going through.”

At times, she adds, some submissions have been so severe that she has directed submitters towards sources of help, “because, although creative writing is a really good way of expressing yourself, it’s not going to help any more than that.

“I do think a lot of the creative writing we receive sometimes does reflect the fragile mental health of some of the students here.”

Yet this is not to say that students of Cambridge necessarily find their creativity suppressed by the workload and associated pressures of the University. Sarah tells us about an experiment of Ted Hughes’, in which children are given 10 minutes to write a poem and the intensity of the time-limit helps them write with greater drive and focus.

As Jun puts it, “as you get used to the environment you put things in perspective and you see that there’s a life in Cambridge outside of your degree and that life, in many respects, is more important and more significant because it contributes more to the community than sitting in the library and reading 20 books.”

It is with this in mind that we discuss the team’s plans for this term. Initially having been concerned that they would be unable to get submissions during the exam period, Savannah explains how the team went against the trend of societies slowing down in exam term and made the decision to relaunch Footnotes, the annual journal of microfiction – asking for poems under six lines and prose under one hundred words, a condensed and concentrated mode well-suited to Cambridge as a whole.

The team are excitable as they explain how they reached out to poets such as Sarah Howe, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon and Ali Smith to contribute to Footnotes. Jun was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response they received from these respected poets – “the community is amazing.”

As the interview draws to a close, it is clear that strong sense of community and common interest in pursuing creativity is something which Notes will continue to perpetuate throughout Cambridge. Regardless of whether or not we have exams.

Footnotes is accepting submissions until the deadline on 15th May – send your prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction to foot@notespublication.com. The launch event, in collaboration with Pembroke Poetry Society, will be in May Week.

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