Bill Direen, ed.: Open Access Essays
A few thoughts on sampling
Jack Ross: Monkey Miss Her Now (2004)
Still reaching behind her to frig Henry, the girl let down her riding jeans.
“This is how you like to see girls, isn’t it, Henry?”
Alice seated herself – the straw seat of the chair pricking her bottom – resolved, however, to brazen out her nakedness, and wrote with a trembling hand:
“I pea’d like a mare before my uncle; I pea’d like a mare before my uncle; I pea’d like a mare before my uncle.”
Miss Jolly took three small balls, the size of blackbirds’ eggs, moistened them, and took them one by one into her mouth. Then, bowing her head, she slid them on her tongue high up into Sue’s cunt.
The first and third of these extracts come from a (possibly fraudulent) piece of Edwardian erotica: The Amorous Memoirs of Capt. Charles De Vane, published by Grove Press in 1982. The second one comes from one of the numerous appendices to Suburban Souls: The Erotic Psychology of a Man and a Maid, a bona fide piece of fin-de-siècle porn.
I printed them, together with a bunch of other quotations (genuine and spurious) in a story/text called “The Yellow Room,” included in my collection Monkey Miss Her Now (Danger Publishing, 2004).
I guess there are two obvious reasons for pasting large chunks of other people’s work (acknowledged or unacknowledged) into one’s own:
- because it’s very good, and you don’t think you could do the same thing as well.
- because it’s very bad, but you want to draw attention to certain inherent implications.
The first motive comes uncomfortably close to plagiarism, so I tend never to include anything I consider really admirable writing unless it’s laid out unequivocally as a quote.
Disposable, throwaway writing – pornography, advertising copy, self-help manuals, official propaganda – is a different story. These are the types of writing I most enjoy sampling from. There’s a wonderful directness and lack of pretentiousness about really clumsy writing with definite designs on you. Poor Sue, for example, forced to put up with the demonic Miss Jolly forcing slippery beads high up her cunt.
It’s a masturbation text, of course, so I coupled it with some grim extracts on self-abuse from a book called Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know, compiled by a puritanical male doctor sometime in the 1970s. His book is composed in the form of a Platonic dialogue:
Let’s start with masturbation.
This simply means the act of achieving sensuous gratification from artificial stimulation of the sex organs.
Is this a strictly male affair, or does it involve females as well?
The part of major sensitivity in the female is a little organ called the clitoris….. It can be stimulated by hand to produce an orgasm …
Now for the King-sized question. Is this form of activity harmful in any way?
Older views claimed serious mental and physical disasters awaited anyone practising the habit. The current thought is to entirely debunk the older authors and critics, and entirely sweep away their depressing beliefs. Nevertheless, a great many thinking persons today still do not condone the practice. The fact remains, it is unnatural. This cannot be denied.
“The fact remains, it is unnatural. This cannot be denied …”
Yes, it bloody well can be denied … In what sense exactly is it “unnatural”?
It’s not so easy to come up with stuff like that. If you invented it yourself, readers would think you were exaggerating – that nobody ever talked that way in reality. Personally, I see the porn extracts and the health manual as showing different signs of the same coin. The anonymous authors of Suburban Souls and The Memoirs of Capt. Charles de Vane appear to me to share the good Doctor’s view of the inherent wickedness of extra-marital sex – the only difference is that they think that gives it added spice, whereas he wants to shut it down entirely.
I wanted my readers to be struck by the overwhelming strangeness of these views – I wanted this collection of ravings about sex from random directions to make them question more deeply their own views on the matter.
The story concludes with a passage from the ancient Sumerian poem “Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld”:
Since Ishtar went to hell
the bull won’t mount the cow
the ass won’t service the jenny
the man won’t love the virgin
the man lies in his own room
the virgin on her side
The beautiful desolation of these lines were (I believe) intended by the poet to show the spiritual wasteland we stumble into when we tamper with the divine forces of sex, desire, generation.
My story had a similar intention. I structured it deliberately like a bout of masturbation: going, going, going … gone – and on into the aftermath: weariness, disappointment …
He reminds me of the character in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series who talks to a table for two weeks just to see what it’s like.
– NZ Poetry Society Newsletter
So said one of the reviewers of my poetry collection Chantal’s Book (HeadworX, 2002). To be fair, most of the other reviewers were more positive, praising the “magpie eclecticism” with which it had been compiled. One went so far as to say, “I even like the strange bits.” The bad stuff is easier to believe, though, as Julia Roberts remarked in Pretty Woman.
Chantal’s Book was a book of love poems, addressed to a very real person, and charting the ups and downs of our relationship. My object was maximum honesty in order to achieve maximum applicability – to suggest the possibility of a chime with the reader’s own experience.
The book is both ordered and disordered. I like the clarity of binary oppositions, so each page-spread tended to have contrasting texts – prose / verse; quotation / original – displayed across them. The materials I was sampling from were certainly eclectic: travel-books, street-signs, email, letters, advertisements, graffiti … The “literary magpie” comparison seems a perfectly valid one. But then that’s how my mind works. Maybe other people have a more linear consciousness, but I don’t.
Monkey Miss Her Now (my English-language version of Baudelaire’s Mon coeur mis à nu) has been found rather baffling and difficult by some readers. Chantal’s Book, by contrast, has had a pretty good reception – I imagine because of the more accessible subject-matter. The “talking to a table for two weeks” imputation did, however, hover around from the more literal-minded. Some people see the use of multiple sources as somehow cheating – as an easy way out of the difficulties of composing literary works. The ghost of William Burroughs and his cut-ups (Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded) bedevils any suggestion of spontaneous text generation.
I should specify that spontaneous text generation doesn’t, in fact, interest me very much. There are plenty of people who like to take the third line of every second volume of the encyclopaedia, or a Fibonacci sequence of the letters on the last page of the telephone directory. OuLiPo games. All power to them. But I’m not one of them.
I look for materials to sample the same way I look for ideas to use in what I write. In both cases, I want what I present to be arresting to readers, to make them (ideally) see things in a slightly unaccustomed way, if only for a short time. The intention is always the same. The means constantly shift and evolve.
Originality per se doesn’t concern me – only the effects I’d like to achieve.
Sampling has been a very useful tool for me because it surprises – perhaps I should say irritates – people so much. What’s more, if readers expect you to do it, you can fool them by not doing it at all. Then there’s the added fun of concocting spurious sources and misquotations. Once they’ve learned not to trust a word you say, you can turn the tables on your audience by turning out to be scrupulously accurate in the smallest particulars.
The world is a very complex and unexpected place, and writers have to sprint pretty fast to keep up with it. It’s foolish to deny yourself the pleasure of stealing bits of throwaway shit and trying to transmute them into gold.
Titus Books Website: http://titus.books.online.fr/WebMagazines/SamplingSuite.html