Seventeen Ways of Looking: Notes on Collage

by Sebastian Matthews

Late last year, as part of my Creative Nonfiction class at Warren Wilson College, I talked with student Gabriel Sistare about the revision process in both creative nonfiction writing and collage making. Throughout the interview, I talked of Ray Johnson, a collage artist who went to school at Black Mountain College in the 1940s and who has influenced both my poetry and collage work. The year before, I curated a show on Johnson at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center and wrote a catalogue essay titled “Message(s) in a Bottle: Notes of an Unlikely Curator.” In that essay I asserted, among other things, that Johnson’s improvisational approach to collage related to other art forms—in particular, to poetry and jazz.

What follows are seventeen “ways of looking” at collage technique, written for my students both at Warren Wilson and in the Great Smokies Writing Program. They were conceived as an example of the mosaic technique in personal essay, using Wallace Steven’s famous approach as a jumping-off point and attempting, as John Hollander did with poetry, to mimic the form while talking about it. (Some of these “ways of looking” were composed on Twitter, with its 140-character limit serving an editing function.)

By discussing my approach and ideas about the art of collage, I hope to inspire writers to learn from the visual arts and use these techniques and ideas in their own writing process. Some of the lines below were taken directly from the abovementioned interview and essay.
Collage is a way of looking. In making collage, you see things anew. Old cigarette boxes, ticket stubs, images in old magazines—all points of view.

In collage I revise as I create—composing on the fly, pushing out the first draft “zone” as far as possible. I complete collages fast, often in minutes.

The viewer must “look” hard to see something of what the collagist is getting at in his looking. No seeing without looking.

Motherwell didn’t smoke Gauloises but admired its brand of blue. Ray Johnson heard a pun in Lucky Strike & used its circle logo over & over.

Use a glue stick for ease of motion & for the brief window of slipperiness it affords—nudging the paper piece onto its base before the glue hardens.

Draft: an actor on opening night, full house. Revision: the same actor, house half empty, at the end of play’s run. Can the spirits be summoned?

You can always add a new layer to the work by collaging over the initial draft. There will be an invisible film separating the two acts.

Critic Ted Gioia posits that all breakthroughs in art spring from boredom—the artist, half-baked, reckless, gets bored enough to throw out old models.

Look at one image, you can’t help but see it in relation to another; a third force enters the field to alter and confuse the dialectic pair.

If you don’t risk ruining a piece for fear of over-revising it, you’re not really making collage.

Gioia on improvisation: “Only a particular type of temperament would be attracted to an art form which values spur-of-the-moment decisions over carefully considered choices…the haphazard to the premeditated.”

Johnson didn’t like his work to become fixed or labeled; he went to great lengths to make sure the image—idea, perception, object—changed shape.

Recycling everyday material becomes a dominant urge. You not only refuse to give up this approach but turn it into your own philosophy of re-use.

The way out is through. Keep making moves until the opening presents itself. Surprise yourself. Remember what you never knew you knew.

Don’t get too caught up in finding meaning in every little detail. You catch a drift of the mood then follow it in. Let the work show you how to see.

With each geographic move you encounter a range of newness—new materials, new friends in a fresh scene. Each a new landscape to explore.

I try to avoid using current media in my work. I look first for materials from other eras & zones of life—things out of context, out of mode.
*Parts of this essay first appeared, in different form, in 1) in a talk on collage and the revision process (with Gabriel Sistare) and 2) in the piece “Message(s) in a Bottle: Notes of an Unlikely Curator.”

Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir and two books of poems. Now at work on a novel, he makes collages and writes poems as they come to him. He teaches undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College and serves on the faculties of UNC Asheville's Great Smokies Writing Program and the Low-Residency MFA at Queens University, Charlotte.