Stewart Home: Can you tell me something about how your varied cultural activities began?
Bridget Penney: 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—Pound, 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 Potocki's 'Manuscript found at Saragossa' and 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 about with. It looks naive 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. The incredible amount of information his pictures are stacked with is always relevant and animated. If it wasn't I wouldn't have wanted to spend ages trying to puzzle out what everything meant.
Stewart Home: Your first book "Honeymoon" was published more than 15 years ago, could you outline your cultural activities and their reception since then?
Bridget Penney: When 'Honeymoon' 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. At last 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 Walsh'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 non standard size books—any size up to A4 cost the same money—so we did 'Idir Eatortha'A4. 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.
Stewart Home: 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?
Bridget Penney: The second anthology 'Loose Watch' was drawn from issues nos. 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 170 contributors was beautifully presented in a little over 200 pages.
Stewart Home: 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.
Bridget Penney: 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 '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 '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 most then 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.
Stewart Home: Why did you use the historical material you incorporated into the book?
Bridget Penney: 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 18th 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.
Stewart Home: It took nearly 15 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?
Bridget Penney: 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 stuff for John Franklin recently and came up with a lot of great stuff 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 to the book, and anyway, anyone who just wanted to read that material about John Franklin could type his name into a search engine and spend a couple of hours trawling through pretty much the same material I found so what would the point be?
And while you're at it don't forget to check - www.stewarthomesociety.org - you know it makes (no) sense!