Bridget Penney blends fact and fiction, poetry and reportage, creating a portmanteau of art that plays with distortion and forgery

Bridget Penney, Index (Book Works, 2008)

"With locations ranging from a murder scene outside a Covent Garden theatre to the Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin’s ship Terror frozen into the Arctic ice — and taking in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, a rural idyll in Somerset and an extraordinary Masonic ritual on the way - Index is a spellbinding novella that provokes curiosity and ultimately satisfies it with a poetics of mystery that transcends conventional narrative closure.
In the book fictionalised versions of the famous magician and forger Cagliostro; the revolutionary bigot Lord George Gordon; Marie Antoinette and the transvestite spy Chevalier D’Eon, are woven into a thematic exploration of revolution, repression, seduction and death. The use of uncredited ‘found’ texts and deliberate forgeries blur the line between what might have happened and what is merely imagined. Mapped onto this web of memory and imagination are Roland and Julie, the survivors of a king’s unsuccessful experiment to uncover the truth about human nature and the original spoken language."

"Semina – where the novel has a nervous breakdown"

"The first of Semina's titles, Bridget Penny's Index, continues where Ann Quin left off - with a smattering of George Bataille's The Impossible thrown in for good measure. It blends fact and fiction, poetry and reportage, creating a portmanteau of art that demands constant participation from the reader. In, more or less, the same way the viewer has to solve the riddle of a piece of conceptual art in a gallery." - Lee Rourke

"Index is the first in a series of nine books, collectively titled Semina after Californian beat artist Wallace Berman’s nine loose-leaf magazines of that title of the 1950s and 1960s. A self-compiled assemblage of hewn-together material, Semina was distributed by Berman through the mail to collaborators and friends. While little remains of Berman’s work beyond his verifax collages of the 1960s, mechanical collages made using early copy machines, his influence on a generation of West Coast artists that include Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari is well documented.
Here, through Bridget Penney’s book, Index the experimental ethos posited by Berman reaches a further site of contemporary operation. Essentially a work of fiction, Penny’s book is structural as much as it is narrative, divided by variations of prose, and intercut with passages of compositional typography, it circumvents clear-cut categorisation. At the centre of the book are the fictional characters Roland and Julie. Their construct shifts from chapter to chapter, not through the generative psychosis redolent of Ballard’s protagonist Travers in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), but through an imploded chronology of historical timeframe.
In the chapter 'Experiment' the characters emerge as infants consigned, under the servitude of their king, to live out an experiment conceived to determine human development based on the deprivation of language. While in The International Symposium of Shadows, the character of Julie plays the role of queen while under the service of Marie Antoinette in a secret game of role-reversal. In addition to Marie Antoinette, Penney draws on a succession of historical figures, as referents and jarring opposites to her characters, that include Cagliostro, a con artist, and Madmesoiselle D’Eon, a gender-swapping envoy and acclaimed soldier, both of whose paths intersected with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The characterisation of these historical figures sits slightly askew from that passed-down by history informing an alternate strand of fiction, that of historical account.
Throughout Index there is an undercurrent of distortion and obstructed gaze, a number of passages recalling details of glacial shifts, aligning the temperance of the landscape to that of social anxiety. In all there is no composite narrative, the construct of the book follows its title, that of an index. It is one of parts, of passages that collide and occasionally resonate.
The account of an elderly character called Flora towards the end of book and her disclosure of her transvestite past echoes the untold story of Madmesoieslle D’Eon. Index neatly obscures the terrain of poetry and prose, and while occasional passages draw on contrivances that are overly conscious of linguistic structure it is intriguing in its refusal to be a work of readily locatable fiction." - Charles Danby

"Penney was born and grew up in Edinburgh, then lived in London for a number of years, before settling in Brighton. She is the author of one previously published book Honeymoon with Death (Polygon, Edinburgh 1991), which was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award.
Can you tell me something about how your varied cultural activities began?
- When I first tried to start writing I was producing short prose texts and poems in which I was attempting to open out what I perceived as traditional forms without much success or even idea about how lots of other people had already tried to do the same thing. It was humbling and exhilarating to encounter some of the work issued in translation by Atlas Press in the mid 1980s — I'd cite particularly texts by Konrad Bayer and Unica Zurn. I wasn't going to try and write like them but it really opened my eyes to quite how interesting prose could be. I had stopped calling anything I wrote poetry by then as I didn't really feel I had a rigorous enough approach to form for it to be more than prose with lacunae and broken lines. That made it more difficult to site my work but I quite liked that. I was still reading a lot of poetry but I was mostly interested in the way poets evolved forms to handle their material. Sometimes the material and forms were difficult and challenging — Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and other writers who've situated themselves in that way of working — sometimes just lovely, like Mary Ellen Solt's "Flowers in concrete". I also read a lot of nineteenth-century horror and fantasy fiction: both Jan Potocki's "Manuscript found at Saragossa" and Charles Maturin's "Melmoth the Wanderer" have involved structures to which "Index" owes something.
When I wrote my first book "Honeymoon With Death" it was genre novels — mostly of the 'noir' variety — and films that provided the structures and themes I played with. It looks naïve now but I thought I was being quite clever at the time. Watching films has always fed a lot into my work — hopefully at a more subtle and integrated level than just the references to film titles in "Index". Comic strips and ‘bande dessinées’ particularly the work of Enki Bilal and Hugo Pratt have also influenced me — possibly because I feel that in their work text and image are pretty much equally important. I have always been interested in pictures that are intended to be 'read'. At the time I was writing "Index" I found Hogarth's work very useful. His work is layered with information, and the narratives animated with fragments of history and shifts in time.
Your first book 'Honeymoon With Death' was published more than fifteen years ago, could you outline your cultural activities and their reception since then?
- When "Honeymoon With Death" came out in 1991 it was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. I had finished another collection of stories — one of these 'Silver Dragons' was published in Panurge but I was finding it difficult to write in what I thought was an interesting way and the others are best forgotten. Then I wrote 'Diary of Blindfold' by gathering and cutting together text in a pretty random manner because I felt I'd run out of other options. I began work on "Index" shortly afterwards. A two-word poem I wrote was included in "Impending Navigation Bright: A Catch of Poems About the Shipping Forecast" (Morning Star, 1994). To my surprise and delight it was then adapted as "Billows/Pillows" with Ian Hamilton Finlay & Gary Hincks (Echoes series, Wild Hawthorn Press, 1995). In 1993 I started Invisible Books with Paul Holman and over the next six years we published ten books: six collections of poetry, two anthologies and two which are harder to place but could be very loosely described as cultural studies. The first of the anthologies "The Invisible Reader" (1995) was intended as a taster for the kind of books we wanted to produce and we did go on to publish books by several people whose work it included. It was a real mixture — including poetry, prose, a graphic strip and texts with graphics — and was largely funded by the Poplar Arts Trust. We were interested in cross-disciplinary collaboration and thanks to some funding from the London Arts Board were able to commission artists to produce work for two collections of poetry. David Dellafiora produced the cover art and an internal graphic for Bill Griffiths' "Rousseau and the Wicked" and Didi Baldwin did a series of drawings for Catherine Wals'’s "Idir Eatortha". These weren't intended as illustrations; more to provide an opportunity for the artists to respond to the poets' texts. At the time we were using a printer in Holloway who didn't charge extra for nonstandard size books — any size up to A4 cost the same money — so we printed "Idir Eatortha" in A4 format. It suited the very open look of Catherine's text and Didi's drawings and as we'd worked out by then that WH Smith wouldn't be beating a path to our door it didn't seem we'd be doing them out of too many potential sales.
I very much associate you with circles that cross over between visual art and literature, and I think these connections are particularly apparent in the two anthologies Invisible Books published. Could you tell me a little about the second of those books?
- The second anthology"‘Loose Watch" was drawn from issues 1–39 of the peerless magazine "Lost and Found Times" which was edited and published by John M. Bennett in Ohio. The work published in this magazine really did distort the boundaries between prose and poetry and the experience of looking at words and images in many fruitful ways. I am proud of all the books we published but "Loose Watch" remains my favourite. John was gracious about working with us as co-editors through the long process of selecting, and Woodrow Phoenix did a fantastic job of designing the book so the diverse work of one hundred and seventy contributors was beautifully presented in a little over two hundred pages.
I was aware of you working on "Index" for year after year, it took a very long time to complete. Could you tell me something about the composition of the book.
- It did take ages to complete but that was partly because for long periods I wasn't working on it at all. The title of "Index" came from an expanding A-Z file I bought in Dalston Oxfam. This was before I had a computer so I needed something to store the typewritten sheets of my work. The A-Z file appealed to me because although made to be purely useful — a function it had already served to the point of becoming a bit tatty and being replaced — it encompassed all I could really do with the language I write in as it currently works without getting into spelling reform or campaigning to bring back the 'thorn'. It served as a salutary reminder that the alphabet is capable of almost infinite combination and if the writing failed to be interesting that was purely my fault. After cutting together texts for 'Diary of Blindfold' I was keen to develop the technique over a longer stretch and in a more organic way. Rather than writing texts pretty much at random and then shuffling them as I had done for 'Diary of Blindfold' I wanted to finish the texts as discrete blocks and juxtapose them. I hoped this would create interstices (spaces set between the texts) to allow the reader their own point of entry if they so chose. I decided to write a text for each letter and see what happened. I got as far as G then decided B was no good, and then, most of D was incorporated into E and thus it went on until my original plan was completely wrecked. I didn't feel much compunction about abandoning it because I had regarded it from the outset as a McGuffin. It had served its purpose as a useful generative device and the correspondences I had wanted to establish themselves in the work were beginning to creep in. More letters were finished but I didn't use them because they didn’t seem to pull their weight in the finished text. The file was still useful even if a lot of the pockets were empty.
Why did you use the historical material you incorporated into the book?
- It's probably fairer to say I abused it, for which there were three main reasons. The period through which Index moves was one when the position of humankind in relation to nature and God and each other appeared very much up for discussion. Rousseau's idea of'‘the noble savage' was posited as some kind of ideal against a corrupt society. The language deprivation experiment described in 'Experiment' seems to have been carried out at intervals by rulers throughout history wanting to find out what a 'natural' human would be like and what language they might speak but the unfortunate victims of such an experiment (the two fictional characters, Roland and Julie) seemed to fit quite well in the second half of the eighteenth-century. I was fascinated by odd connections that seemed to have existed between real, very famous people at the time. They were on the whole not that relevant to what these people were famous for which made them even more interesting to me. It offered me a way in to writing about these real people. I liked the idea of these disregarded spaces creating a hinterland in which they could abandon the roles they usually played and interact with my fictional characters. Using historical material also gave me the chance to play about with the tensions generated between genuine and forged texts. By using largely uncredited found texts I hijacked other authorial voices — an irresponsible act further compounded by including my own forged texts on the same terms.
It has taken nearly fifteen years to get "Index" finished and out into the public domain, so how do you feel about it now it is about to be published?
- Looking at "Index" it strikes me as something of a period piece. If I set out to do it now it would be so tempting to just look information up on the internet instead of letting it slowly accrue through a drip feed of chance and sporadic research. I searched the internet for John Franklin recently and came up with a lot of great information I was tempted to put in. But in the end I decided I couldn't. It would just be there because it was great material, not really contributing anything more to the book, and anyway, anyone who just wanted to read about John Franklin could type his name into a search engine and spend a couple of hours trawling through pretty much what I found so what would the point be?" - Interview with Stewart Home

"How aware were you of Wallace Berman’s Semina series before Stewart Home approached you?
- Vaguely aware of it as the name of a small press magazine among others of the 1950s and 60s. I did then do some homework. It’s very interesting, looking at even the brief list I’ve seen of some of the contributors, just how much ground Semina covered in nine issues; publishing work by artists, poets from Black Mountain College and New York, Hollywood actors. I’m impressed by descriptions of the individual issues e.g. No 3 which was printed as a chapbook of Michael McClure’s Peyote Poem because it sounds like Berman was really trying to fit the format to the work rather than the other way round. Reading about how Issue 2 was ‘handset with miscellaneous available type and papers’ and later issues took the form of unbound sheets in folders or portfolios with envelopes inside, I wish I’d been able to see the exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre last year but personal circumstances made it difficult for me to attend.
As a setting for your work Index, what was attractive about being involved in this project?
- Everything! Though I feel daunted by the use of the name Semina which seems like a hard act to follow. But it’s great to be part of a series showcasing experimental fiction and the three books published so far — Maxi Kim’s One Break, A Thousand Blows and Mark Waugh’s Bubble Entendre being the others — are all very different, which I like. Also I was very pleased at the thought of being published by Book Works because I’d been aware of and admired their books for many years and felt confident that the book would — whatever people thought of its contents — be a beautiful object.
You began working on Index 15 years before it was published by Book Works. Did the involvement with Semina take the book off in a different direction from the one you had originally conceived?
- The book had deviated from what had been my original conception of it quite a few years previously. I had started work on it in 1992 and several sections were published in magazines, but by 1998 I felt the project had run out of steam and so brought it to a close, completing a version which was really a salvage job, which, after half-hearted efforts to find a publisher for, I decided to bring out under the imprint Invisible Books my partner Paul Holman and I ran at the time. For various reasons that didn’t happen then, but the intention remained. I worked on the text at intervals over the succeeding years but was pretty disheartened with it. As far as I was concerned it was a prime candidate for inclusion in a series where the novel has a nervous breakdown.
The involvement with Semina enabled me to finish Index in a much more satisfactory way than it would have been had I published it myself. Editorial input from Book Works made me re-engage with the text in a way I would never have expected to happen. I re-incorporated material that had been dropped from earlier versions and did a substantial amount of fine tuning — ending up, when I finally thought I’d finished, completely rewriting one section at my partner’s prompting.
What was the involvement of Stewart Home in editing the work? Were there ideas you were wanting to use that Stewart didn’t and vice versa, and what kind of a working relationship developed? Presumably he was roughly sympathetic to your approach but you seem very different kinds of writers. I wonder if there were conflicts and whether this led to creative energies?
- Stewart has been extremely supportive of my work, for which I am deeply grateful. Index wouldn’t be in print now without his intervention. When I first discussed the presentation of the book with Stewart and Gavin various suggestions were made. I agreed with those I thought were an improvement; those I didn’t like were quietly dropped. When it came to editing the text, Stewart didn’t actually work with me. He did Maxi’s book and Gavin did Index.
The production of the book was, as far as I was concerned, an entirely positive experience. Book Works were fantastic to work with and I say this knowing that the book was something of a pain. It would have helped a lot if I’d bothered to spell-check it first: silly errors were still getting picked up far into the proofing process which wasted everyone’s time. The text I’d sent in was much more of a mess than I’d realised — assembled over a long period of time on typewriters and different word-processing programs, the styling was wildly inconsistent, and sorting out the presentation of the various kinds of quoted and found texts took inordinately long.
Once I had agreed that the presentation needed to be made consistent, Gavin went through the manuscript in painstaking detail and made a lot of very good suggestions, many of which I used. The suggestions I didn’t agree with were also valuable as they set me to thinking of my own ways to resolve the text’s problems. I never felt under any pressure to stop making changes or hurry up. Once the text was finally done, Fraser (who designed the book) spent over four hours with Gavin and me getting the layout of the book exactly how I wanted. I still think it’s incredible they were prepared to do that and I really am most grateful to everyone who was involved in the production of Index.
In your interview with Home you say that you are very interested in the relationship between text and pictures. You say that Hogarth was an artist who was very useful to you whilst working on Index. Can you say something about your ideas about Hogarth and how in particular you drew from his work? You link him with your interest in cinematic noir texts and comic strips…
- Hogarth didn’t admit that anything in the visual arts was beyond his scope and turned his attention to one genre after another; the narrative series which were issued as prints, portraits, ‘conversation pieces’ and history paintings, also writing The Analysis of Beauty in which he set forward his ideas. His work portrayed — and would have been experienced by — many different social groups.
Having been thoroughly put off by encountering Beer Street and Gin Lane in a school history book where they were used in a very obvious way, I didn’t look at him again until I was reading a lot of eighteenth-century texts (which later fed into Index) because many of them were referenced directly e.g. The Beggar’s Opera or indirectly — lowlife criminal biographies such as those contained in the Newgate Calendar — in his work. Once I began paying attention, I found it difficult to stop.
There are two points in particular about his work which engaged me while I was working on Index — though trying to explain them displays the rather large gap between my intentions and the finished book. The first was understanding that his pictures were intended to be read — not just because there’s often quite a bit of text in the prints, though I found that the text acted as a lure because in trying to read it I would be giving the picture the close attention with which I then started to notice other things. In the introduction to The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth advises people to look at objects (either natural or works of art) “by considering them in a systematical, but at the same time familiar way”. Unlike many pictures that were intended to be read with a system of symbolism or iconography that the viewer would have to bring with him or her (thus excluding those who didn’t have that kind of knowledge) all the necessary information is in the picture. When I first look at one of the prints, my overall impression is of restlessness. There are multiple focal points which aren’t easily prioritised. In The Analysis of Beauty he writes “I mean here, and every where indeed, a composed variety, for variety uncomposed, and without design, is confusion and deformity”. The viewer’s eye has to keep moving from one point to the next, making connections and establishing correspondences.
Coming back to things I noticed at the start, my understanding of them has often altered because of a relationship established with something else. What appears to be the obvious message is counterpoised and even undercut within the picture; nothing is anything like as straightforward as it first appears. I like the idea of non-lineal, heuristic reading and I also find it very useful to look at work where text is not the main carrier. I’m quite jealous of visual media because — it seems to me — they can embody what writing is stuck with trying to describe.
The idea of a gaze that has to keep moving to increase its understanding leads almost too neatly on to how Hogarth depicts action and movement in time, which is the second point I wanted to make. His pictures don’t seem like tableaux but interrupted moments with plenty of clues as to how things have arrived at their present state and some idea of how they might continue. It’s obvious in the famous narrative sequences where the idea of the “progress” is embodied, but I find it in all his work; as in the conversation piece A Performance of ‘The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards’ (1732-5) where the woman in the centre of the painting points to the fan she has just dropped and appears to be asking the child to pick it up. Hogarth writes, “It is known that bodies in motion always describe some line or other in the air,” and I really value this in his work. I never have the impression a figure has been arranged in a pose just for visual effect; there is always the understanding that what is recorded is one point in a sequence of movement. He manages to capture movement and the sense of the passage of time by acknowledging that it can’t be fixed. At the time when I was writing Index this was influential on the ideas I had about disrupted narratives; I guess I hoped that if I was thinking of the fragmented scenes as being part of an organic trajectory then that was how they would appear, but I don’t think I was successful.
Again in that interview you suggest that your great interest in writing stemmed from trying to find new options for writing, to “open out what I perceived to be traditional forms”. Was this something that stemmed from your perception that traditional forms were not capable of expressing what you wanted to express? Or was it to do with not wanting to repeat? How early on did you feel the urge to contest the traditional modes of writing?
- I should have put quote marks round “traditional forms” to indicate more clearly that what I perceived as traditional wasn’t really at all. I was referring to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels — both what might be regarded as classic and genre — which I read when I was growing up They’re part of a relatively modern phenomenon which admittedly is sited within an almost infinitely receding flux of prose narratives. What I would describe more accurately as traditional forms are texts like those included in the Child Ballads and the Shi jing (Book of Songs), many of which, through a long procession of repetition under many different hands have been refined into a notably elegant and powerful conciseness. Those are qualities I rate very highly and I feel I have a long way to go to achieve anything like them in my own writing. That said, there’s no way I’d try to imitate their forms because it just wouldn’t work for me. On the other hand, if I thought I could repeat something well enough for it to be interesting I’d have no problem with doing so. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is something I would love to repeat if I could just work out how…
I guess all cultural workers start with the materials most readily available at the time and what happens after that is a matter of individual practice and some amount of luck. When I started, I had no idea of quite how much better writers such as Unica Zurn and Konrad Bayer had already done some of the things I was attempting. However, once I came across their work I didn’t let that put me off. Maybe I should have done. I find it hardest to deal with my own expectations of how I should write — writing’s quite difficult for me and no sooner have I got comfortable with one approach than I feel I should give it up and find another. Though I’m not worried about repeating other people’s work, since I don’t claim to be original, I am wary that if I don’t change the way I write readers might notice how much I repeat myself.
When I wrote Honeymoon With Death, I was relying on what I thought at the time was ‘genre détournment’ — though it now looks more like a tribute band — to get an edge. The stories are pretty conventional in form, though the self-consciously stilted writing and heavy use of quasi-cinematic jump-cutting helps to disguise this. I was fed up by the time I’d finished it, but my efforts to move on were unsatisfactory.
That’s why I became interested in the idea of a device, a built-in difficulty, to put some kind of external restriction on the project. Except what I settled on — the expanding alphabetical index file — was something of a joke. Its main function was to render the process of composition as mundane as possible by making it a kind of filing.
How far do you see your work as positioned by gender? Cultural work does seem to be dominated still by men and their obsessions and interests: is raising this a trap or a helpful thing? Reading the new poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, she seems to find ways in which her gender and sexuality are important: is this true of yourself and your work? How far (if at all) was this something that informed the work on Index and Semina?
- I feel there are at least two questions here. I’ll answer the easy one first. Writing Index, the Chevalier D’Eon presented an opportunity to play around with issues of gender. The image of the hermaphrodite is compelling, both threatening and desirable, because it seems to render whole areas of social structures completely pointless while offering the prospect of some sort of ultimate reconciliation.
My knee-jerk reaction to the more difficult question of how far is my work positioned by my gender would be not at all. In fact, if I’m being honest, I guess it is, but no more than by many other elements in my background, and certainly no more than it would be if I had happened to be born a man. Except if I was a man you might not have asked this question, because to answer straightforwardly that my gender was important would have condemned me to some iron john-like limbo at best. I think my prejudices are showing. As a middle-class woman who was given excellent educational opportunities, I am aware that I write from a privileged position. As you’ve given me the opportunity to talk about gender and writing, I’d like to briefly try and address the thorny issue of ‘women’s writing,’ but this is a complex issue and my attempts will necessarily seem crude.
Virginia Woolf, who was preoccupied with the idea of “a woman’s sentence” (which I admit really sets my teeth on edge) because “The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything from him successfully…” in A Room of One’s Own also wrote “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”. She was actually referring to Kipling here who she evidently thought was trying a bit too hard to write in a manly fashion — which shows, I think, how irreducibly slippery the problem is. When Dorothy Richardson, whom Woolf thought pretty good at “a woman’s sentence” (as indeed she was in her thirteen volume novel sequence Pilgrimage) described Marcel Proust as a “fellow traveller,” I assume she had more in mind than their both being engaged on massive semi-autobiographical fictional projects. I’d be surprised if she’d have used the same phrase of Henry Williamson and his Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Proust’s elegant, reflexive and accumulative style in which silence and absences are significant fits the bill for “a woman’s sentence” perfectly. Late Henry James does as well. So I find the idea that a way in which both men and women were writing should be identified as characteristically feminine odd and unhelpful.
It’s easy for writers to hide or swap their genders by using initials or a pseudonym and there are numerous famous examples who’ve done it for all sorts of social, commercial or personal reasons. Which raises the question about what it is audiences are perceived to expect from male or female writers and why a man’s or woman’s name on the cover when the casual browser picks it up should be regarded as some kind of instant branding. Even when it’s deliberately misleading. I think as soon as you label women’s (or men’s) writing as having certain characteristics, start being prescriptive about how yourself and others write and read, you’re closing the door of your own trap.
Monique Wittig’s novel Les Guérillères [translated by David Le Vay, The Women’s Press, 1972] doesn’t seem to appear on obvious lists of nouveaux romans, which is a pity because it’s brilliantly successful at what many of them set out to do. It’s boldly experimental and manages to embody its own theory in a way that makes it intoxicating to read. Wittig (who identified herself as a radical lesbian — not a woman because she perceived “woman” as a socially-constructed identity that she rejected along with “the heterosexual contract”) provides a possible model of how to move forward. Taking the opposite line from Hélène Cixous and ideas of “l’écriture féminine,” she declared in a 1999 interview with Libération (quoted in her obituary by James Kirkup in The Independent, 9 January 2003):
'For me, there is no “feminine literature” — it simply does not exist for me. In literature, I do not separate the women from the men. One is a writer, or one is not a writer. One occupies a mental space in which sex is not the determining factor. It’s absolutely necessary to have the freedom of that mental space to work in. Language allows it — it’s a matter of constructing an ideal neutrality that is liberated from sexual definitions.'
How far is theory important to your work, if at all?
- Please consider it a theory-free zone.
Index is a text that seems as if it might have expanded forever. You could have repeated the alphabet over and over. Now it is published and finished, how do you view it? Are there things in it that at the time of producing it you hadn’t realised were there? Are there things about it you might change were you to do it again? In particular, you talk to Home about the influence of the internet and I wondered what the new technologies have changed for writing and research generally, especially given someone like yourself who plays with the idea of genuine/forged texts/ideas/voices?
- Quite. It could have been my lifetime project (ha!) but I fucked up…
I’m relieved that it’s finished and published — what there is of it is done as well as I was capable of writing but I’m always aware of the fault lines inherent from the start because the original conception was so vague. Sometimes I wish I’d thought of a better title, but, writing at a time when books with fabulous and eccentric titles live in the bestseller lists leading me to fantasise that if Mina Loy’s Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables were republished with the right sort of marketing they could be there too, I quite like the fact that Index is so boring and unnoticeable.
I don’t think there’s anything I hadn’t realised was there — but the one section which speculates about climate change appears to have mutated since I wrote it and looks really clunky. It wasn’t such a mainstream preoccupation fifteen years ago! I did consider removing it, but in the end decided to leave it in to remind myself that texts are capable of warping as the thinking around them changes.
The internet was very useful when I was going over the text before publication — it made it so easy and quick to check endless dates, names and facts — but this was rather against the nature of the original project which had been to some extent aleatory: relying on finding books, reading random slews of printed material, conversations, eavesdropping, the odd thing on TV or radio, just walking around waiting for stuff to accrue. While checking, I found some great material I had no idea existed when I was writing Index. It would have fitted in quite well, if collecting material had been all that it was about, but the idea that anyone who typed in the same phrases would have got pretty much the same result, determined by the PageRank algorithm, took all the fun out of it. There would have been no chance of coming up with the kind of juxtapositions happenstance provided in the physical world.
So far the new technologies have had more influence on how I read than how I write — though the relative ease of researching online has fed into my writing practice. I haven’t engaged with publishing online though there are a lot of things about it which interest me beyond the massive advantages of it appearing practically free and theoretically capable of widespread distribution. The idea that a text doesn’t have to be finished to be published is not new — plenty of novels have been issued in serial form — but the notion of it being almost infinitely extensible is, precisely because it never has to take on a physical identity and the idea of hypertext, not in the form of footnotes at the bottom of the book’s page, but in some other place on the web, extends its virtual presence much further, maybe developing the idea of reading within a text rather than reading through it.
The whole area of voices and identity in computer mediated communication has such massive ramifications I’d just rather concentrate on forged versus genuine. Though forgery’s an important theme in Index I probably wouldn’t have bothered faking texts had I been able to find what I thought I needed elsewhere; that said, it was a lot of fun and allowed me to perpetuate the illusion that I was stepping back from the text and relinquishing authorial control when I was in fact being more manipulative. I don’t know whether the added difficulty of establishing provenance for things which have only a virtual presence will blur the line which is perceived to exist between a genuine item and something which has been identified as a forgery, and whether anyone will even care.
I loved the idea that you were using hijacked authorial voices, it seemed to link with the plagiarism movements of Home and the found object aesthetics of say Duchamp. It took me further back to Hazlitt and the way he used to hijack other writers into his reviews. For you, what do you gain as an author by doing this?
- A much more interesting book! When I read the texts in their original setting, they were exactly what I wanted. If I had tried to paraphrase, they would have lost that quality. It was much more satisfactory from my point of view just to lift them.
Using quoted text in Index had a double benefit. The hijacked authorial voices introduced far more variety than there would have been if I’d written everything myself, which was crucial. They are also important structurally. I think the presence of the quoted material running through the book — though initially intended to be disruptive — bestows a weird cohesion on the text which is quite helpful. As the question refers back to other authors I should point out that I learned a lot about incorporating authorial voices from Ezra Pound’s much more accomplished use of them in The Cantos where through long stretches he is assembling his argument by placing other people’s words into the poem’s frame. In contrast, the way Hazlitt drops comments by other writers into his essays as if they’ve just wandered into the room seems an elegant method of delegating responsibility from the author. Both strategies are effective.
The plagiarised texts in Index are relatively few but crediting them would have unbalanced the sections of the book in which they operate. This was a basely pragmatic decision — I’m not claiming my use of plagiarism in this instance as “a strategic weapon for undermining the hegemony of…[capitalist social and property relations]” — Home, Festival of Plagiarism. It was suggested in passing during the production of Index that a key to the found and quoted texts be included, which I would have been happy to do, if it had been pursued. It would possibly have been a mine of misinformation — which probably wouldn’t have put Book Works off as they seem admirably prepared to indulge authors’ jeux d’esprit.
It’s interesting you mention Duchamp in this context. I was going to say that ‘found texts’ tended to be selected for pretty much opposite reasons to his ready-mades — found texts being chosen for some individual quality which the author feels really adds something to his or her own work, whereas Duchamp picked the mass-produced objects for his ready-mades for their complete lack of it. Except then I was reading an interview with Duchamp from 1965 in which he recounts signing a big decorative painting in a New York restaurant, “this readymade wasn’t manufactured, it was made by hand even if by another painter!” Which raises more questions than I’ve answered.
You’re part of an avant-garde scene that interrogates and activates new ways of writing, reading, representing things generally. Voicing an alternative to a corrupt society is what drives this undercurrent — is this part of your imperative? Can you say a little about the scene you are involved with and the people you find particularly hooked in to some of the things you are doing?
- I think ‘avant garde’ has become a rather problematic term, often used to label work which is perceived as being transgressive and has become commodified for being so, but I accept it’s still useful as a flag of convenience. That said, I’m not sure if I would have considered myself part of any scene even when I was much more involved in the varied aspects of cultural production than I am now, but undercurrent is ok, that’s sufficiently murky!
What has struck me is that it becomes more difficult for an undercurrent “to voice an alternative to a corrupt society” which is already self-flagellating in a very noisy way — finding The Daily Telegraph on side could lead to something of an identity crisis — and maybe the fundamental issues become obscured. Yet the fact that it’s harder to voice alternatives in a situation which is more complex and fragmented than it was perceived as even a few months ago makes it more crucial that it happens effectively. Personally, I’d start with the language that seems to be developing to narrate what’s happening in the economic climate. Over the last nine months the ‘credit crunch’ has evolved its own vernacular; ‘jaw-dropping’ and ‘eye-watering’ have become overused adjectives and statements stuffed with rhetorical devices seem to have replaced rather boring reportage. It’s emotive and involving, and I very much distrust it. It concerns me that at a time when the apparent need for retrenchment could be used to excuse all kinds of intolerant behaviour this language is sitting there, perfectly suited for stirring up and reinforcing prejudices.
I would think 3:AM probably has a better grasp of the particularly interesting things happening at the moment than I do, but I did go to some of the events in the series Existential Territories organised by Book Works at Toynbee Hall recently, which gave artists and writers an interesting context in which to consider the definition of their practice. Most of the people I know involved in cultural work I’ve known for a long time — like my partner, who is a poet, and Stewart and some of the other people whose work Invisible Books published. Since it connects with what’s just been under discussion can I put in a poem by Bill Griffiths, who was most trenchant and exemplary in “voicing an alternative to a corrupt society” through the channels of little press (and latterly the internet) from 1972 until his death two years ago.
Loyal Dilemma
The common world (so Jane sez)
is all maintained by ‘voluntary spies’.
These monitor unevenness in equalities
and propinquity in inequality
for unless there is positional definition,
calibration of action and distinction of entitlements
(upon some moral register)
the war could not proceed.
It would become inexplicable.
- from Rousseau and the Wicked (Invisible Books, London, 1996)
It’s a great shame he’s no longer here.
Ian Jack in the Guardian the other day wrote that it’s increasingly difficult to get a big book deal and live off book sales. This seems to suggest that the connection between the arts and commerce is entering a new — perhaps more positive — relationship. What do you feel about the current state of books and the arts generally? Is it a good time at the moment for the kind of experimental and transgressive work you do?
- Ian Jack’s article holds to the line of a curious narrative about the publishing industry which appears to have been developing in the press over the last 6-8 months and echoes what has happened in the financial sector. There’s a feeling that people who have been paid too much money for what they do will no longer be paid it, and that is a Good Thing… (I find this new puritanism emotionally satisfying which makes me distrust it.) The next bit of this narrative strikes me as wildly romantic; suggesting that if writers know they can’t make any money by writing crap they’ll be driven to write interesting books instead while doing their day jobs and a new golden age will emerge. I simply don’t believe in this equation. Not that I have the background to comment with any authority on what’s going on, but it seems to me that the connection between the arts and commerce is just becoming more chaotic.
In this context I was fascinated by the Arts Council’s press release of 24 April announcing £44.5 million of initiatives to sustain the arts through the recession. Dame Liz Forgan concluded: “The real challenge for the arts sector is not to ask ‘what is the government going to do to help us?’ but ‘what can we do to help the country weather and recover from this downturn?’” I was particularly intrigued by the announcement of the Town Centres Initiative, creating a fund “to which artists can apply for grants to help them carry out artistic activities in empty shops”. I’m not really cynical about this at all. I think it’s very imaginative of the Arts Council to be sustaining commercially unviable work with the avowed intention of contributing to the economic recovery and it’s great that these shops which aren’t needed for selling things at the moment are being put to good use. When the economy was doing well and retail space was at a premium, it was very hard to get spaces to foregather. Lots of people will get an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise had and hopefully some interesting work should emerge — though I think artists taking on the empty shops should be careful that they do not find themselves being used as window dressing, to provide a simulacrum of meaningful activity in commercial centres which might otherwise look embarrassingly dead.
It’s always a good time to experiment. And it’s certainly interesting being a writer who attempts to be transgressive at a time when some perceptions of what’s socially acceptable appear to be in flux. Though I feel that ‘transgressive’ just as much as ‘avant-garde’ is a word where the context of use needs to be absolutely clear. It’s not a synonym for being shocking or outrageous without actually risking much. In my view transgression starts with trying to work out where the boundaries that matter are, then finding an intelligent place to push.
I loved the way you play with interactions between real characters and fictional ones, that hinterland, as you call it, in which real historical and famous people could abandon their usual roles and become someone else. It’s like a brilliant kid’s game — like, what would happen if Obama met with Superman and so on. Was it fun producing Index?
- I’m relieved they didn’t seem too hackneyed since such interactions are a standard trope of historical fiction. It was great fun thinking about it beforehand; much more problematic when I started to write.
Finally, Stewart Home loves a good Scotch. What’s your favourite drink and who would you recommend we should be reading and getting involved with at the moment?
- Coffee is my fuel. But not instant. And it has to be pretty strong, but not taste burnt or of pencil-sharpenings and never ever have any kind of weird syrup added. Apart from that, I’m not fussy.
I feel I’ve already gone on at length about creative writing I like so I’d recommend a book about the history of science Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman (Instruments of the Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1995) which I first read a couple of years ago. Specifically it deals with the effect scientific innovations (starting with Athanasius Kircher’s Sunflower Clock in the 17th century) have had on the consciousness of people encountering them either as users or spectators and the ways in which they have responded. The meticulous clarity of this book is a great antidote to the woolly way in which I’ve been trying to discuss the effect of new technologies on my writing.
Also, I have been watching Gazwrx, the films of Jeff Keen which the BFI brought out as a 4-disc set earlier this year. So far I’ve seen the first couple of discs containing his films from the 1960s and 70s. Most of them are brilliant and I am abashed not to have known his work before. Cardboard masks and guns that look like they’ve been liberated from cartoons with written sound effects, collage, incredible animations with toys (often being set on fire), people frolicking in chalk pits, eating, acting like they’ve just wandered in from some fevered silent melodrama and taking their clothes off (again). All of this cut together, often split screen, at a speed which feels like it’s scarring your eyeballs but is exhilarating!" - Interiew with Richard Marshall