Concept and Form: An Interview With Sophie Collins

by Charles Whalley

Sophie Collins, along with Rachael Allen, is co-founder and editor of tender, ‘an online quarterly promoting work by female-identified writers and artists,’ which, since its appearance last year, has published work by Emily Berry, Carina Finn, Lavinia Greenlaw and Emily Toder, among others. She is currently carrying out research on poetry and translation at Queen’s University Belfast, and her poems, translations and other writings have been published in Poetry, Poetry Review, Poetry London, The White Review and elsewhere.

Although her work is varied, she seems to have a consistent interest in using a flatness of tone and uncertainty of voice or origin to unsettle, as in ‘Arduous’. She was recently included in the anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (2014), which takes its title from Collins’ poem ‘perfection’. She wrote the poem by searching a single word in the Poetry Archive website and using one line from each of the poems in the results. The anthology’s editor, Harry Burke, whilst discussing the book’s intention at exploring the influence of the internet on artistic expression, relates Collins’ centos to the work and theory of Kenneth Goldsmith.

Goldsmith is perhaps the most widely recognised public advocate of conceptualist poetics, known for works like Traffic (2007), for which he transcribed 24 hours of radio traffic reports, and from which he read at the White House for President Obama’s ‘Celebration of American Poetry’ in 2011. Recently, his focus has been on the implications of the digital age on creativity, most significantly in his book of essays Uncreative Writing (2011), in which he advocates conceptualist practices of the mass appropriation and processing of text as the only response to the unreadable volume of language on the internet. His latest notoriety is for an attempt at ‘Printing Out The Internet’.

I interviewed Collins to ask her about her poems in the anthology, how she sees the relation of her work to Goldsmith’s conceptualism, and about her forthcoming anthology of experimental translation.

In his Introduction to the recent anthology, I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best, Harry Burke contrasts the work collected therein to Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’ and the way in which Goldsmith’s poetics ‘forgoes the author’. His response to ‘uncreative writing’ (and he quotes you making a similar point elsewhere) is that its devaluation of authorship or originality is an expression of privilege, of “those whose subject position is not threatened”. Burke uses your centos of lines taken from searches of the Poetry Archive website, such as ‘perfection’, as his counterexample to Goldsmith’s ‘one line conceptual jokes’.

Considering the apparent similarity between conceptualist work and your centos, with the procedural nature of their composition, how would you describe the relation of your own practice and intentions to Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’? And considering the success (or infamy) that Goldsmith has achieved in expressing the contemporary experience of creativity within technology, how would you connect these relationships to broader movements in literature?

If we accept that in conceptual writing ‘the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work’, it’s clear that the centos don’t function in the same way as Goldsmith’s Day. I guess you could safely call them found texts (patchworks or bricolages), but making them actually felt much closer to the process of simply writing a poem. Lisa Jarnot is quoted as having said ‘I think poems are always collage on some level [...] Collage is a way to force awareness out of the random flow of information that’s constantly bombarding us’, and Harry touches on this in his introduction: ‘the process of re-framing pre-existing language becomes the textual content of the poem, and is thus a creative manipulation of language not overly different to any act we’re happy to consider as poetry.’ The centos actually feel strangely intimate (something that seems to have been picked up on in more than one review of the anthology) – more and more so with each rereading. Looking at them now feels not so different from hearing an anecdote or reading a passage in a novel that you’ve unconsciously manipulated and adopted, and are unable or unwilling to distinguish from your own memory. But if the centos are works of constraint, they’re softcore.

Goldsmith has spoken interestingly about the effects of typing out a conceptualist text like Day or Traffic – the physical toll in terms of sitting at a desk and typing for hours (I’ve often thought of conceptual writing in terms of physical comedy), and the way in which you begin to mentally embody the text you’re replicating. A ‘devaluation of authorship or originality’ doesn’t really express the exact issue that I have with the notion of ‘uncreative writing’, as fundamentally I’m for the conscious devaluation of both of those things. I’m allergic to the term ‘craft’ because of its couched ideologies and the homogenising effect it’s had/still has on poetry. But for me Goldsmith isn’t ‘expressing the contemporary experience of creativity within technology’ because he seems to be wrapped up in his own science fiction.

My experience of identity and the internet feels in many ways stranger, more complicated and conflicted than the one he’s pushing. My main issue is the (supposed) lack of ambivalence, coupled with the cursory treatment of ‘identity politics’, which I think feels more and more like a dismissive phrase – a neat term for something that’s sprawling. It seems to signal a reluctance to engage with the suppression of identities at a time when we’re interested in a more direct engagement with ideas surrounding rights to expression, and in making progress with regards to structural inequity.

So I work with found texts, and also with online translation machines, but I wouldn’t really say that these experiments are representative of my practice. I feel a little uncomfortable dealing in those terms (‘my practice’) – it feels self-aggrandising, and seems to imply some kind of long-term plan. I definitely don’t have a plan, or even a stable poetic.

In a recent article, Goldsmith discusses the subject of translation, favouring what he calls ‘displacement’ over translation. He argues displacement is the inevitable consequence of globalisation, as he draws bold, general parallels between the circulation of ‘digital culture’ and the ‘migrations of population’. (‘Displacement never explains itself,’ he writes.) How do you feel the act of translation relates to conceptualist practice, in that both translation and conceptual poetry involve working on another’s language as material?

Based on the tone of the article (aggressive), translation would, at this point in time, appear to represent a threat to Goldsmith’s position. This article is very interesting to me because it’s revealing in that sense, and also draws attention to some parallels between conceptual poetry and translation that aren’t often stated. They both approach language transparently, as (source) material, and both the process of translating and the making of conceptual texts can be perceived as a way of reading the source text. But while conceptualism is interested in replicating (with only minimal/implicit comment), translation can be said to constitute a form of literary criticism, given that it relies on the translator’s interpreting the source text and inscribing that interpretation into their translation. Translation is often viewed as a neutral act that simply facilitates access to texts in other languages, but this is of course impossible given the radical de/recontextualisations that take place throughout.

Goldsmith’s article demonstrates just such a misconception, given the way he simplifies the term ‘translation’ and the processes it can describe. He sets out to trivialise it as ‘a boutique pursuit’, but all this does is betray a severely limited knowledge of the field. There are many forms of translation, the categorisations of which may vary according to who you speak to, but can include intralingual translation (reworkings or paraphrasings of source texts within the same language) and intersemiotic translation (translation between different mediums, including image to text translation or ekphrasis). A lot of writers have been experimenting with these, without necessarily being aware of the terms or other activities surrounding them. I think there’s a lot to be gained from familiarising ourselves.

There are also, of course, experimental things going on in all interlingual translations, of differing degrees, given that each of these is engaged in the fundamental experiment of rendering a text in another language. This work is often underplayed or else made completely invisible, sometimes by editors, other times by the translators themselves, but to view translation as a kind of service, rather than a literary mode, seems wilfully oblivious.

Writers turned to forms that use found text (like Flarf) and conceptualism as a way to recycle material and experiment at a time when it felt necessary to move away from subjectivity (solipsism?). I think translation has more options in this respect, and so greater longevity. It doesn’t rely on a notion of ‘waste text’ but at the same time avoids privileging subjectivity or romanticising the idea of authorship by exaggerating the importance of plurality via differing readings and interpretations. I’m not saying that translation doesn’t have its own issues, but it does seem to be ‘coming into its own’ somewhat – an observation that most probably prompted Goldsmith’s article – as we’ve begun to realise its many creative possibilities.

When you say that translation seems to be coming into its own, is this because of the ‘digital age’, with its spambots and the translators you mention? I know that you’re currently editing an anthology of experimental translation; what are your ambitions for this?

To hear this said back to me (‘coming into its own’) sounds incredibly crass! Of course translation has been doing interesting things forever. Examples include projects that work through intertextual connections, as with Ezra Pound’s pre-Elizabethan English renderings of Guido Cavalcanti, to Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s homophonic approach to the works of Catullus, to the self-reflexivity of a project like Jack Spicer’s After Lorca.

But claims for a renewed and rapidly growing interest in translation and translation practices can be substantiated by the popularity of works such as Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> (both loosely based on the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus' poem ‘Geryoneis’), the appearance of translation projects with visible independent presses, and books like Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader, a self-styled English to English translation of the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.

‘Spambots’ and online translation generators are certainly fun to play with, and some people have managed to use them in interesting ways (although I suspect that the most interesting experiments are ones that have in fact stayed under the radar), but I think the current growth in interest in translation can more likely be put down to the intellectual mobility and exposure afforded by the internet. Interesting presses and projects that publish/centre on translations and exophonic writing are more conspicuous than they used to be, including 3:AM, Ugly Duckling Presse, Wave, Telephone Books, Jacket2, Asymptote, Anomalous Press, Action Yes, La Petite Zine, among others. For me, these are all literary platforms that don’t treat translations as extensions of generosity and/or ways to gain credibility or cultural capital.

The anthology is a really exciting project – it will be published next year by Test Centre, the independent press who also published I Love Roses. The anthology will showcase a range of translations that address implicitly the abovementioned preconceptions. So I suppose the ambition for the anthology is to demonstrate that, given its receptiveness to new forms, much of translation can be identified as experimental writing.

Which writers or translators do you feel are realising these creative possibilities best?

At the moment, Chantal Wright’s experimental translation of Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue, in which her translation of Tawada’s prose runs parallel to her own commentary on the text in a two-column arrangement. (I was unable to find an excerpt online, but this blurry image from the 3:AM review gives you an idea of its structure.) Mystérieuse by Éric Suchère, translated into English by Sandra Doller, a conceptual ekphrasis of a Tintin comic. Mike Scorch’s An Introduction to Venatius Fortunatus for Schoolchildren or Understanding the Medieval Concept World Through Metonymy. Each of these is doing really interesting things with translation, but you don’t need to be familiar with the theory behind the strategies— at surface level, these texts are massively enjoyable. Schorsch’s book is very, very funny.

Finally, who are you reading? Who influences you?

Linda Kunhardt, Michael Earl Craig, Chelsey Minnis, Freda Downie, Lisa Robertson, Kate Kilalea, Russell Edson, Sam Donsky – poets who, I suppose, apart from their work, are all conspicuous via their limited affiliations with other writers, groups and institutions, and seeming reluctance to engage with the public life of poetry. Most of them have or had non poetry-oriented jobs. Michael Earl Craig is a farrier. He looks after horses’ feet.