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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Robert Sheppard : Writing The Given


an account of the writing of The Given (Knives Forks and Spoons: 2010), part one of the autrebiographies now collected by KFS as Words Out of Time in April 2015; buy here. (The Given is no longer available separately.)

This work began as a project – out of an existential dilemma – to deal with particular MATERIALS: the piles of journals, diaries, and less categorisable autobiographical writings that I have accumulated since 1965 when they began, and that I have periodically attempted to use for writing. In its opting for PROCEDURE it is thus a conceptual project, but is perhaps not quite an example of ‘uncreative writing’ as that term has come to be used, but is a creative ‘unwriting’, to adapt a term I have used to describe my earlier texts refunctioned or re-moulded from others. Perhaps the work might be thought of as an ‘unwriting through’ of the MATERIALS, but such proliferation of terms is only useful if it assists a gloss on PROCEDURE.

Part one began with a simple notion: that I would list – in an ironic reference to Joe Brainard’s influential anaphoric I Remember – all the events that I did not remember as I read through these records anew. I anticipated a ten page work covering 34 years. Instead I amassed 34 pages but I only reached 1979 (the end of ‘The Hungry Years’ and the beginning of ‘The Drowning Years’ in my personal periodisation)! Before beginning this project I had an unjustified belief in the accuracy of my memory; now I felt like Confused of Hippo, whose words I used as an epigraph to that first draft:

When then I remember memory, memory itself is, through itself, present with itself: but when I remember forgetfulness, there are present both memory and forgetfulness; memory whereby I remember, forgetfulness which I remember. But what is forgetfulness, but the privation of memory? 1 (St. Augustine)

The re-discovery of a series of autobiographical fragments written in 1989, ‘Voices in White Noise’ provided a series of sharply delineated memories (some of them lost over the intervening 20 years) to counter the record of forgetfulness. I combined and selected from the two texts, using a stochastic method, aiming at concision and counterpoint, although the ‘I don’t remember’ sentences dominate. The simple PROCEDURE had thus begun to grasp the complexity of the MATERIALS with scant regard for autobiographical shape. The text is allowed to make its own history, to become the biography of a practice of writing rather than my autobiography, or ‘My Life’ to refer to the title of Lyn Hejinian’s text that had both inspired and hindered me over the years. So much for memory. (Part one is also published in The Alchemist's Mind  edited by David Miller - and I have also selected it as part of my Selected Poems: History or Sleep.)  

Part two has a simple PROCEDURE – to ask one (difficult) question of the ‘hero’ of the text after reading each page of the MATERIALS, an intensely written lengthy, detailed journal. It thus distorts the passage of time, since only 1979-1982 are ‘covered’ in this exhausting paragraph. Not all the questions were finally selected and the order again resists, but does not obliterate, temporal sequence.

Part three deals with the most transformative years of my journal writing and the most rapid development of my poetics. The PROCEDURE adopted is largely that used in writing Letter from the Blackstock Road, which was written during this period (1983-1993) and is referred to in the writing: the accumulation of text and the working of that through a stochastic method of using guided chance, liberated choice, dice and eye, hand and mind, a kind of improvised textual performance at the desk. 2

The final section posed different problems. The diaries which stretch from 1994-2009 (supplemented by a few notebooks) are written in a deliberately non-literary style and often record banalities. I decided to settle on the months of May – season of elections in particular – and to account for each one (we had now moved into ‘The Age of Irony’ and ‘September 12’). I was thinking of the ‘mayday’ strand (1997-99) of Twentieth Century Blues which intertextualises these writings.3 An early draft – one paragraph accounting for each May – appears in Erbacce 18 (2009), but I wanted to disrupt chronology further to allow the MATERIALS to speak in their own new-found voice, and did so by re-adopting the PROCEDURE of one of the ‘Mayday’ texts themselves, ‘Report on Seaport’, which was written around the 1997 General Election and whose MATERIALS (sentences) were arranged in alphabetical order. (This is referred to in the text and thus it describes its constraint.)

These writings, even down to finding a title, have been the most troublesome that I have attempted. (At one point I intended to interleave between the sections other writings: the autobiographical piece ‘Malcolm Lowry’s Land’, 4 the critical article ‘The Colony at the Heart of the Empire: Bob Cobbing and the Mid 1980s London Creative Environment’, 5 and the meditation ‘Critical Tuning: Radio Interference and Interruption as a Poetics for Writing’ 6.) As the text attests at various points, this is not my first attempt, nor my second, at such a project. Despite the boldness of PROCEDURE the processes of editing have been as arduous – if not more so – than in other, less conceptual unwritings.

The Given is reprinted and now only available as part of my autrebiography Words Out of Time: see here and here. But  it's all still there!

1. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Airmont: Clinton, 1969.
2. ‘Letter from the Blackstock Road’, in Complete Twentieth Century Blues, Salt: Cambridge, 2007: 48-58.
3. In Complete Twentieth Century Blues: ‘Report on Seaport, mayday 97’: 243-9, ‘A Dirty Poem and a Clean Poem for Roy Fisher, mayday 98’: 315-6; ‘The End of the Twentieth Century, mayday 99’: 331-50.
4. ‘Malcolm Lowry’s Land’ in eds. Bryan Biggs and Helen Tookey, Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009.
5. In ed. Louis Armand, Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics, Litteraria Pragensia: Prague, 2010.
6. Unpublished.