Collage Capital: An Interview With Giles Goodland


Giles Goodland's Spy In The House Of Years (Leviathan Press 2001) presented the 20th century as a series of collaged lines from each year. Capital (Salt Publishing 2006) continues this technique, this time each collage taking a form of Capitalisation, for example Dead Capital, Sleeping Capital, Symbolic Capital, researched poems from diverse periodical sources. More poems from the book: Surveillance Capital, Waste Capital, Cold Capital, Flight Capital, Dream Capital, Seed Capital, Burnt Capital. Goodland's most recent publication is an e-book, A Bar (Beard of Bees), an extendable man-walks-into-a-bar joke.

Edmund Hardy: How did you get started on different kinds of Capital?

Giles Goodland: I finished Spy in the House of Years about 7 years ago and I was still intrigued and entranced by the possibilities of systematic collage. Spy was a sequence of 100 synchronic poems: each poem concerned a year of the twentieth century and was static within itself. I wanted to write a sequence in which the movement through time was more a part of each poem. I had inherited a database of late twentieth century material from my work on Spy and reading through this, certain themes were apparent. I wanted the poems to be about texts in some sense, specifically electronic texts, and I began to play with the idea of money as a text; like the text it has made a transition from paper to electronic existence, and like the text it depends on what people agree to believe it means. From another angle I was interested in this word 'capital', which has a long complex history, full of ambivalence and contradiction, and centrally the word is very productive of compounds: flight capital, intellectual capital, social capital, etc. Many of these compounds are of very modern origin, and many of them are entertainingly ambiguous. 'Murder Capital' can either mean a place in which many murders happen, or the capital necessary to commit murder, or if the phrase is inverted, it becomes a crime that makes one liable to the death penalty. 'Flight capital' is money that is withdrawn by capitalists from any social enterprise perceived as risky (hence exacerbating its demise), but can also be a flight to a geographical capital. From there I just had to trawl through masses of databases and select the most potent or interesting capital compounds.

E: Each of your 14-piece collages often takes a theme – e.g. green things (in Spy), then explicitly in the title of each Capital poem. So, for Cold Capital, did you go looking for quotes on coldness, or did they accumulate, placed in a cold file?

G: I did start out with files. For Spy, I had paper-based files, several boxes full. I would accumulate slips of paper with quotes from a certain year of the last century. At a certain point they reached a kind of critical mass and a 14-quotation poem became possible. Sometimes I had to have 100s of quotations for a theme to become apparent. Sometimes the theme was as obvious as a colour, so for instance I might have say 10 good quotations from the year 1920 with the word green, then I had to chase up and research to find another four good quotations from that year. For Capital, each poem is theme based, and at the start I used a file of magazine and journal articles from the last 20 or 30 years which I amassed on my own PC. Then for each year (or line) in each poem I would search through the files and find something appropriate in some ways. Towards the end I got broadband and found it easier to simply paste my research from various databases straight into the poem.

E: What happens between two pieces of collaged material? (A connective, a gap, a cut, a defamiliarizing device?)

G: Hmmm, can I have all of these, depending on context. Parataxis is an irritating term because of what it conceals. If you think of a parataxis as a gap in syntax, it is richer to talk about 'and parataxis', 'but parataxis', 'then parataxis', etc. (supply your own conjunction..) My favourite conjunction is 'but', and I hope many of these poems have invisible 'buts' between them (if there's a pun there I'll lay claim to it). Contradictions are interesting, and in any work dealing with capital there are so many contradictions that can be exploited. I am not sure about defamiliarization. I think the media is already defamiliarized. A news programme habitually uses techniques of defamiliarisation in which the viewer is show part of a 'story' and then brought back to the studio. I would like to refamililiarize people with what is behind texts.

E: Can you give an example of a contradiction you have exploited. My impression is that you bring out meta-contradictions by bringing so many arguments/argumentative pieces or examples together.

G: Yes, these contradictions are a little hard to quote from in isolation from the poems as a whole. I tried to ensure that I was quoting from a wide enough range of periodical sources that the contradictions would create themselves, by using for instance a variety of business-type magazines, both the one that seem to have the function of apologising for capitalism such as The Economist, to the specialist insider magazines such as banking and finance journals, in which the people dealing with money were talking to each other; these are often contradicted by the articles from academic magazines which attempt to present an objective view of the workings of society. Also I got some pieces which were translations of Chinese, Soviet, or North Korean speeches, reproduced in English-language periodicals for the benefit of researchers and politicians. And also a lot of general periodicals, whatever I could get hold of really. Here are the first 5 'lines' of 'Fat Capital':

Cargo weighing as much as 2,200 lb can be air-dropped precisely through the rear door

production of grain, fats and oil and pork has all surpassed their past best records

the courts never quite made up their minds on the weight to be given to 'offensive,' to 'prurient'

among Protestants obesity becomes progressively less prevalent as you go from Baptists to Methodists to Lutherans to

a huge party for investors and friends. The bill for the food—including salmon pate, duck and roast suckling pig—came to
This is quoting from Aviation Week & Space Technology, from the BBC Summary of World Broadcasts which was running a translation of Ma Wenrui's speech on the Shaanxi economy, from the right-wing American Heritage Foundation Policy Review, then Business Week and then Time, for the years 1978-82. When I was assembling these pieces I was looking for quotes that embodied different sense of fatness or weightiness and sort of hooking them together in various ways, I wanted the syntax to usually click, I wasn't specifically looking for contradictions on a semantic level, but I was assuming that if the sources came from societies that are rubbing against each other, or from discourses on completely different levels, I would not have to look for them because they would already be there.

E: Reading one of your collages as a long sentence, often the connection between pieces causes a retrospective shift of tense back along half the line, and this seems to be a way in which you write "works in movement" (Eco).

G: Yes, tense was important, I did not want the reader to forget that each 'line' represents a year, and within that I was happy for tenses to flip around according to the sources quoted, I noticed reading through it that we have the habit of assuming that a tense continues from one line to the next until we come to a verb which contradicts that assumption, especially when the syntax seems (at first) to fit between the lines.

E: Could you say something about your own conception of these collages?

G: My collage is not aleatory, these are not 'found' poems but researched poems. The poetry is in the research. In these poems, collage is an attempt at social critique, using the tools of the dominant discourse: empirical, verifiable statements. I would like these poems to be taken as academic papers from which the literal layer of argument has been stripped, leaving the substrate of supporting quotation and apparatus.

E: How did you come across Caleb Whitefoord?

G: Luck. Some people were sure I had made him up when they read the essay that you hosted at "Intercapillary Space". A large part of my day-job involves searching through databases of historical texts looking for earlier uses of particular words or senses. I was looking through ECCO, a database of eighteenth century texts, and just came across some of this material. I tried to find out as much as I could about him, but no one seems to have written about his writing for about 100 years.

E: You wrote your thesis on British modernism in 1940s film and poetry. Which figures particularly interested you? Was there a formal or theoretical relation between the film work and the poetry? (i.e. Jennings) Might you even consider yourself a Surrealist?

G: No dominant individual figure interested me, but the period did. Documentary was central. In its original sense, a film or work of art assembled from documents. At its start in the 1920s the British documentary film movement was projecting itself as a kind of British response to Soviet cinema. Grierson got funding by showing Battleship Potemkin to members of the British establishment. Its early funding was from the Empire Marketing Board. By the 1940s the documentary school had reached some kind of maturity, still highly influenced by the Soviets but with an incredible cross-over among its practitioners between film and art, surrealism, and poetry. Basically at Cambridge in the 30s, all of the young intellectuals wanted a career in film, but were also receptive to the European avant-gardes. Many ended up having careers in both, as well as dabbling in the Mass Observation movement. The formal relationship between film and poetry was often, as you observe, in the editing, particularly the idea of montage as propounded by Eisenstein. The connections between film and poetry went beyond that, though. Eliot at Faber had read Eisenstein, and seems to have met the man. Dylan Thomas worked in documentary during the war years, not just as screen-writer. My thesis made some grand claims about this, arguing that in much of the interesting poetry of the period of 'total war' an idea of cinematic montage was a central formal device. In H.D.'s Trilogy, in the Quartets, even among the Apocalyptics. Not sure if I would go so far these days.

Surrealism is a different question. It had its moment of great significance by popularising the idea of the unconscious as an unacknowledged determiner of human action. Once this idea gained general acceptance, surrealism had done its job. There is a continuing role for this kind of exposure of human motivation in art, but not at the level of the individual. There is also an unconscious element in the actions of the State and in the productions of the media, I think more now than in the era of diplomacy. It has become a cliché, but war is a media event, even caused or at least encouraged by the media. And the media does not act on rational grounds. The media has an unconscious in that the people who work in the media are not aware of why they are acting. The image they produce of the world (say in the news) is extremely irrational, but is designed to appear as the truth. The media is made from various texts, which the viewer is encouraged to interpret as the world. Arranging these texts in an 'other' way exposes the irrationality of the view of the world that the media projects.

The surrealist attitude (as outlined in their manifestoes) is one that constantly impresses. 'Poetry is the enemy of literature'. Something every poet should start their books with.

E: Does your work at the Oxford dictionary influence your poetry, do you think? (As with Reznikoff at the law office.)

G: Yes. In the past all of my job was searching in databases for quotations. On a practical level, I found how easy it is to use databases to gather this kind of information, and to order it in different ways. Chronology obviously is also important. Perhaps also it changed my idea of the text in the act of reading. If all texts are potentially present electronically, the idea of the passive reader passing through a book in a linear manner becomes secondary. Reading with the aid of a search engine becomes a matter of how to arrange all of the potential information in a way that produces meaning. Reznikoff was seen as too slow and conscientious by his law office employers. Was he actually copying the reports into his notebook? No wonder he got the sack.

E: No, Reznikoff was too conscientious to make notes on the sly, what an idea! But there in his booth at the American Law Book Company is where his eyes were opened to the National Reporters System because he had to use it to write definitions for Corpus Juris, a legal encyclopaedia. When he was sacked, he noted, "I had done a bad job, so it seemed, instead of, as I had fancied, rather a good one." The element of social critique is perhaps a common feature of Reznikoff's researched poems and your own? In fact, "a supporting substrate" could also be describing Testimony.

G: Interesting. I think I wanted Reznikoff to have been a poetic slacker; it makes a better story, somehow. I started off at the OED as a lowly file-sorter on a part time contract. Now I am editing dictionary text, which is quite demanding work, and there is no room at all for slacking. The OED does not make money for Oxford University Press, so we constantly have to improve our efficiency, the amount of text we can edit, to prove to the delegates that the OED is still worth the funding (and it is). Which makes me more similar to Reznikoff than I thought. But a better (at least a quicker) writer of definitions, I hope. Getting a poet to write definitions is a bit like getting a gourmet chef to can food, so I have to retract the poetic antennae a bit while I am working. But when I get home (as with Reznikoff) I have the chance to play with some of the language I have been exposed to.

As regards social critique, what I learnt from Reznikoff was that you only have to go to the sources, and the critique makes itself. His poems are great because he presents narratives in the language of people describing the events that enveloped them, it is up to the reader to do any critical work. The poetry is in selecting, editing. I see him as chiselling down the mass of the huge corpora he was referring to, so you sense the archive behind him, like the banding of marble visible in sculpture.

E: Your serially published epic, The Brimston Worm, is rather a different form of collage or recycling or "bookcraftie", using obsolete words and syntax to tell of a dreaded worm. I find myself guessing, inventing, catching at echoes. How did this Worm begin?

G: This was recycling more than collage. I was interested in the nature of poetic language, why some words tend to be used in poetry, and other words avoided. It seems the least desirable class of words is the archaism, the obsolete or very rare word. In some ways this is an understandable reaction to the flowery and distinct poetic vocabulary of pre-modernism. But in other ways it feels like a false prohibition because there is always a distinct poetic language. The existence of a distinct vocabulary reserved for poetry goes back to the very start of poetry in English, and other languages. So I started to create a word-hoard of archaisms. Once I had a lot, it seemed possible to create a poem employing this vocabulary, using some of the constraints of alliterative poetry. It is not meant to be a recreation or imitation of alliterative verse but obviously many of those early English poems were an influence on the Brimston Worm.

The poem was also a kind of couvade. It was written in the time just after my son was born. The book culminates in a birth.

E: Your earlier book 'Overlay' was an attempt to write a modernist poem from the notebooks of Coleridge.

G: The Notebooks were already a great poem, although due to the changing nature of literary form, Coleridge was unable to see that. He constantly refers to his sense of failure and inability to complete, while to the modern reader the Notebooks seem dazzlingly realized, full of suggestion, ellipsis, thought in action. It was a desire to complete or at least encircle what Coleridge saw as his own incompleteness and failure that led me to make a poem that would give structure to the Notebooks. I invented a conceit of a notebook written over one year by a poet in his youth (Coleridge is not named but is implicit), who years later reads it again, and fills the margin with commentary. This reduplicates what Coleridge did in The Ancient Mariner, in which the glosses were added many years later. I liked the idea of marginal glosses contradicting the main text, and the whole, notebook and marginalia in tension, making the poem.

The modernism was there in Coleridge. Modernism in the sense of being a part of modernity, and with nervous energy to apprehend, as he travelled and thought and read, what this meant. His interiority, his capacity to write as a thinking subject, to catch his own thought.

E: Do you think there could be micro-modernisms; a structuring of mind?

G: I agree that elements of modernism were being shaped and coming into consciousness for many decades prior to the modernist revolution, the moment in which modernism became self-conscious. That was about 100 years ago.

Luckily, by its very construction, it is impossible to talk of a 'modernist tradition' without twisting logic. Unluckily, the term 'modernism' ties a writer into time. What was modern for the Dadaists and Bauhaus seems very old for the internet generation. Even words like innovative and experimental seem suspect to me because they valorise newness and originality, and are thus still entwined with a notion of time as progress and advance. At the inception, modernism had no historical sense, no past, and since it often believed it was heralding a revolution, it had no future. It was writing for the moment, in the manner of Hegel's declaration that history ended with him. Literature should have ended with Dada. To write as a modernist or experimentalist now is to imply an awareness of a heritage. At the same time we are now writing with a sense of an indeterminate future in which it is clear that the major ideologies and powers are in no danger of sudden or irreversible change. But it is also clear that no one power, nation, or group really understands what is happening, or where society is drifting. There is even no single specialism or academic discourse that can address our historical selves in their continuities. So I think that the imperative now is not to revolutionise but to understand.

Now that we have a whole lot of technologies to do with information, now that the activity of reading is often aided by technology, there must be new modernisms that attempt to understand or work with this.

E: So, in an ecology of information retrieval, collage levers and diverts different media streams in order to materialize the supports or scaffolding of discourse. This is a social critique, and one that the Situationists might have recognised. Perhaps your imperative to understand is also one to revolutionise?

G: I think that is elegantly put. A person who understands stands under, which is where the supports or scaffolding are. A work of collage can allow the objects to speak for themselves. I am thinking here of Benjamin's observation about a document of culture being built upon barbarism. To return to the surrealist's idea of poetry as the enemy of literature, this kind of writing can rub literature against the grain. When you rub something against the grain, what appeared smooth becomes rough, the grain becomes visible. Literature is just one of the many discourses that surround us in which the structures of power are habitually smoothed over and made invisible. You don't get understanding from reading most literature, you get reassurance. Of course, literature is far less pernicious than some of the other discourses: those of the media, advertising, public relations, politics. Thus to raise the stakes and reformulate Breton and Eluard: poetry is the enemy of the polished discourse. I feel that where modernism (with exceptions) fell short was by attacking smoothness of discourse per se, rather than the material and specific ways in which these discourses work as a support of power. Perhaps in the early twentieth century, discourse and power were not so badly and desperately embedded. I think of Leopold Bloom working in advertising, where his work seems harmless and enjoyable. He puts together jingles and slogans, while Daedalus composes poems. In Ulysses they seem closely matched. In any equivalent novel of the present day, the advertiser would be a representative of power and prestige. His language has become universal.

E: Elsewhere you write of collage as inherent in the practise of literature, from the cento on. Why do you think an emphasis fell on collage within the various Modernisms?

G: Collage predates literature! If you think of the production of poetry in pre-literate cultures, chunks of narrative were memorised in blocks and could be inserted in the story where appropriate. Homer was a collagist, assembling his story from the set-pieces he had memorised. The first examples of collage, in the form of the cento, are very early, found inscribed as graffiti on stele. They are pieces of Homer, or perhaps pieces from the same quarry that Homer worked. Centos also occur in the Greek Anthology. Virgil was the common source for centos in the Roman period, and the poet Ausonius constructed a sex scene from Virgil's lines. I wrote some notes on this.

The cento was a thin thread running through Western poetry from the Classical period, used as an exercise or an amusement. Eighteenth century poets often made centos from Shakespeare. Wordsworth frequently wrote centos, but seldom published them. The modernists for understandable reasons of their own ignored this history. The word collage comes from the visual arts (it means 'gluing'), and there is an obvious parallel between Picasso and the Cubists attaching shreds of newspaper to their canvasses, and modernist poetry. But it is only a parallel. Where a painting is actually transferring an object from one context to another, collage in poetry is doing something more complicated. A physical object is not being transferred: language is being incorporated. Any collage in literature is a truth-claim: it is saying, this piece of writing is from somewhere else, some other discourse. But the shred of physical material is not there. And the effect is not so shocking or alienating as it can be with visual art. The reader has to work at it more.

Modernist poetry was about displaying fragments, a mimesis of social fragmentation, so in a way a complete reverse of the Cento. But I don't think the two forms need to be contradictory. A cento can be built up from fragments, but need not only be mimetic of fragmentation. As with Reznikoff, a dialectic can be initiated between source and finished text.

E: Several people have commented to me that they find your work very funny; you've recently published an e-book, A Bar (Beard of Bees), which expands, by smooth prose collage, the form of joke which goes, A man walks into a bar. . . It strikes me that the comic in your work is from the anatomist's table. It reminds me of Henri Bergson's idea of moral comedy arising from the opposition of the mechanical and the supple in language:

humour delights in concrete terms, technical details, definite facts. If our analysis is correct, this is not an accidental trait of humour, it is its very essence.

[. . .]

Language only attains laughable results because it is a human product, modelled as exactly as possible on the forms of the human mind. We feel it contains some living element of our own life; and if this life of language were complete and perfect, if there were nothing stereotype in it, if, in short, language were an absolutely unified organism incapable of being split up into independent organisms, it would evade the comic as would a soul whose life was one harmonious whole, unruffled as the calm surface of a peaceful lake. There is no pool, however, which has not some dead leaves floating on its surface, no human soul upon which there do not settle habits that make it rigid against itself by making it rigid against others, no language, in short, so subtle and instinct with life, so fully alert in each of its parts as to eliminate the ready-made and oppose the mechanical operations of inversion, transposition, etc., which one would fain perform upon it as on some lifeless thing.

(Henri Bergson, Laughter trans. Cloudesley Brereton)
A poem as dead leaves on a choppy surface?

G: I had not know the Bergson work. I am interested in absurdities in language, but more so absurdities in discourse. Where people write something absurd because of the constraints of the discourse they are in. I read Bergson as making a psychological point: that a person's language can never be as clear as a mirror, and humour is a kind of corrective to that, making communication possible. I would suggest there are deadnesses in discourse that are more like oil-spills than leaves. My read-through of the language of periodicals in recent history is intended to break through those slicks. But oil is thicker than water, it won't go away. So my poems I'm afraid are more like dead ducks on an oily beach. Maybe if you listen carefully one might still quack.

E: What are you working on now?

G: Kenny Knight who edits Tremblestone magazine should be bringing out a book of aphorisms 'Thought Experiments' in a year or so. This is completed. Otherwise, I'm not sure. I would like to finish a collection of poems, as opposed to a sequence. I had an idea to write a nineteenth century novel entirely in collage, but the material I have assembled so far is not sufficient, and having looked at the beta version of GoogleBooks. I see it might be prudent to wait until this material is better assimilated. These long systematic collage works take a long time to complete, so I need to be sure of what I am doing before I start.

Really interesting interview; thanks to you both. Been enjoying the Capital book.

Elizabeth James
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