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Sandals: On Originality, Bibliographies and Footnotes

I had been writing about sandals and sent it to a friend of mine who had been writing about suicidal supermarket clerks. He told me that the way I had lifted a narrative from Kurt Vonnegut didn’t sit right with him. I deleted the poem and wrote a new one, felt a little embarrassed and thanked him for his feedback.

I’ve never read a Vonnegut, mainly because the men who recommend his work to me explain the plots in ways that feel like a ‘you had to be there’ story. I get enough information to know what happens, but not in a way that makes me want more. Regardless, I had the idea of a middle aged couple coming back in their people carrier from a dinner at a restaurant, stale in their lust. The supermarket suicide writer had told me about a narrative line in Vonnegut, where a man loves the way some woman takes off her sandals and I liked the idea. I could cut and paste it into my own experiences with love, and the way that small acts that are pretty off-putting in many ways had become endearing to my tainted eyes. Double dipping into mustard jars. Licking knives. Etcetera. That’s probably why the sandal image is so good, anyway - because people can insert their own experience into the sandals like some clammy, middle aged foot.

At the sink today, (an imagined sink in my head built as I sat on the toilet) I was peeling potato skins in one fine line. I thought about the handful of times I had peeled an orange, an apple, a potato, a pear in one sliver using a sharp knife. I thought about the way I’d rest it together like taxidermy of a once alive form and show it to a lover. How I’d done it a handful of times, with peel in my palm and how I’d picked up the notion of romance through shedding by watching Sleepless in Seattle with Mum on a rainy weekend in my early childhood. I still have little understanding of the plot, having not re-watched the film since, but it’s this shedding and peeling, the way I looked at Meg Ryan with such romantic awe as she slithered skin from the flesh in her palm - that stuck with me, and I recreated it in varying iterations, at early or late times in the daytime with a knife in my hand at a marble or metal sink. I’d do it silently, lift the skin and grin inside at the cinematic moment I had fabricated.

Picking vegetables, tomatoes, green beans, uprooting potatoes - it got me thinking about copying. The shame around tracing. I’ve spent a little bit of time working as an online tutor over the last year or so and have collected uncomfortable student faces responding to my suggestion of tracing an image - of holding a piece of paper up to their computer screens and outlining their favourite car or collage. They have been taught that to copy is to cheat.

I write using words I collect from films. I distill myself inside of moments I see from bus windows or train carriages. I see bodies covering skin with thin fabric or denim and I emulate, replicate, buy or borrow to begin a change or shift. I reinvent myself by stealing from others.

When I was nine I was invited to a fancy dress party - dress as your hero. Dad dressed me as Annie Hall. My friends dressed as princesses, supervillains, popstars. I hadn’t seen Annie Hall yet, but I remember smiling for a photo as I sat on the kitchen table and watching my parents laugh through the lens. They sent the photo to their friends. 15 years later, I still wear mens trousers and shirts that are too big. 

The act of writing is to collage words into meaning. I think that’s what being a breathing body is: collaging images, actions, meaning, words, behaviours and movements into motion and performing them in the most minute and maximum ways. Creative cheating - once a cheat always a cheat. Can you put a sentence that isn’t your own inside, nestled like a fostered child in a family photograph if it fits well? That image is uncomfortable but it feels like it clicks.

We are collages. To write is to collage. Collages are accepted art forms that cut and paste the images of others into new contexts, new houses, new environments. Does art behave differently? Does the footnote act as a flag, waving to reveal our uprooting and rehoming of specific images? Specific language? Why is it that collages are allowed the leniency of omitting a bibliography of used images or references. Richard Hamilton’s work comes with no bibliography so where does the acceptance towards his collaging of ideas come from, and why is it discarded when the written word is concerned?

This separation between copying words and collaging images may be rooted in the hierarchy of writing itself, in comparison to other forms of expression. How the written word, literature, books (probably from the history of religious texts and law) are protected to such an extent while visual representation is behind in its reputation as a form of representation.

To proclaim a point in writing, a form that is comprehensive and quite literally spelled out, is rooted in the expectation of originality - of something coming from nothing. Words on blank space. These words come from you, and if they doesn’t, then you must let us know. You have stolen. It is shameful.

What differs a collage where an artist has cut and pasted photographs and images by other artists to a text where the writer has copied and pasted without bibliography - is the visual signifiers. Without quotation marks, footnote or bibliogrpahy, a word is free real estate. It is the property of anyone who choses to type it out. With a collage, however, you can physically see the harsh line where the scissors cut paper. You see the textural planes where glue or tape was used. The very nature of a collage waves a flag to the person standing before it and says ‘I am a sample of many things’. 

We become collages of all of the films, books, songs, people and places we have been.

When I still had all of my milk teeth, I carried my lego figurine into the hair salon and asked for ‘hair like hers’, lifting up the plastic girl. We solidify and secure our sense of self by reflecting what we see around us, what brings us joy - what makes sense. There is less of an academic force pinned onto these minor decisions relating to vanity yet it seems relevant somehow- this line that differenciates acceptable inspiration, influence with plagiarism, copying and forgery is so liquid, so invisible and so subjective. With writing, maybe it is the concrete, secure temperament of the medium- the fact that it is read and internally understood, not just seen and observed - that makes reference so key to the make-up of not only essays and academic text but creative and free-form literature. Words, as soon as they’re printed, or published - as soon as they lose the text cursor or “insertion point”, are finalised. There are no clues. There’s no real way of knowing who we are looking at - and maybe it’s that mystery that unsettled us. That lack of authorisation. 

When I was ten years old I was sitting in the reading room while my classmates slept in the sleeping room. I couldn’t sleep, and instead sat by the small bookcase near the door and leafed over some books. I picked up a book about aliens coming to Earth and read it three times over. I loved the way that the rhymes carried me towards each new page and how the words repeated. It made me excited. 

I don’t remember how much time had passed between reading the book and writing my own version in my bedroom but I remember forming my own rhymes, my own aliens, my own rhythm. I wrote it and showed it to my parents. They were thrilled, laughing and surprised by the imagination behind the words and world I’d built. I sat on Dads knee and watched as he looked from page to screen and typed up every word. He chose Andrew K. Smith’s 1995 font Jokerman, and seperated the poem into stanzas. He printed it out. It has hung on his wall ever since. 

I recently looked up the book online and found a video of a kind, grey haired scottish woman reading it. Here Come The Aliens by Colin McNoughton. Listening to the book with its original words, original order sounded like hearing a mispronunced name, or a song read by a computer. It was like seeing a chappedleaf used after a craft rubbing in primary school, or seeing a bare apple with its skin removed. It was not the same piece as my own, and even further from the one Dad has typed out and hanging in his office, peeling at the corners in the sun.