Bonnie and Clyde and creative writing

I think probably the most successful creative writing session I’ve ever devised – I must have used it over thirty times, with everyone from sixteen-year-olds, to an evening class in which there were two over-80s, to a group of visitors to the University of Plymouth from Oklahoma – has been based on a clip of Bonnie and Clyde, or more specifically, two of them. The first one is Penn’s recreation of the capture in 1934 of Clyde’s brother-in-law, ‘Buck’, and his wife Blanche at Dexfield Park in Iowa (the other three of the gang escaped); the second is the closing sequence, in which the pair are betrayed, and their car left looking like a badly-designed colander, after both have been ambushed and killed.

My main aim is to suggest ways in which you can write a poem, but I don’t say that. If you use the word ‘poem’ to nine out of ten people, in the same sentence as ‘write a’, a degree of panic sets in. So the first thing I do is to ask them to compare a written narrative of the events in Dexfield Park with the 1967 film (controversial in its day for myth-making, for glamourising crime) with Penn’s re-creation of it. In an underhand way – subliminal is a nicer word, but most of my teaching is underhand, which is why I hated and hate the obsession with telling students what they are about to learn: surprise is a great weapon in education – I am getting them used to the idea of transforming words into pictures, although I focus on the accuracy. ‘Accuracy’ is relative, of course, because the account I use, although not sensationalist, is edited, like all writing, for effect.

The iconic image on which the end of the first scene ends is based on this contemporary photo:

Dexfield Park: Blanche Barrow on the left, being held

Dexfield Park: Blanche Barrow on the left, being held

What always strikes me about the film is actually how little Penn tampers in this scene with what happened. There are changes in pace and viewpoint, and some melodramatic twists, but it ends in drama-doc style with Blanche (Estelle Parsons – the only performer from the film, incidentally, to win an Oscar for it) repeating exactly what Blanche said.

The ending is a bit of a bloodbath, but no-one has ever (it always worries me!) complained, which says something either about how polite they are, or how film blood no longer worries us. The ending is highly stylised, too, with a porcelain doll on the dashboard (did you know the a dashboard is from horse-and-carriage days and referred to the board which prevented mud ‘dashing’ the clothes of the passengers?), a suspiciously green apple, and a symbolic flight of birds, and a slow-motion sequence. Nor had Clyde left the car (and nor were the deaths so clean, since over a hundred bullets hit the pair). This time, I ask the participants to think of words they could use to describe what they see. I write these words up on a whiteboard.

And then, using their words and their words only, I write a poem on the board, about twelve lines long, in three minutes. As I usually say, it’s the Rolf Harris school of teaching poetry. I consciously use techniques like repetition and line breaks and internal rhyme or assonance. And then (because it is a draft, and rarely particularly good, modesty obliges me to say), I allow them to come up and cross words out, and add words, and improve it in any way they want. So it’s about drafting. It demystifies the process: which is what teaching, for me, is all about.

I was reminded of this by a good documentary on the Barrow gang, which told me many things I didn’t know, including the existence of a memoir by Blanche, ‘recently’ found (she died in 1988). Since she seems to have recorded an account, which is/was available on CD, I don’t really know how much it actually added. But as an excuse for the programme, it served. I also didn’t know that the most famous pictures of Parker and Barrow posing with guns (the images copied by Beatty and Dunaway) were found on undeveloped film left behind after one of their many getaways.

The Oklahomans were particularly amused by the Dexfield Park sequence (Penn has a car explode into flames when it is shot at). ‘That ol’ car always goes up,’ commented one of them, and explained that it is apparently very hard to explode a car with a rifle. They all nodded sagely. I think I learned something about a popular pastime in Oklahoma, but I was too polite to ask further.

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