With Simon Collings
by MARKKU NIVALAINEN.
SIMON COLLINGS IS a UK-based writer (and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review) known particularly for his very short stories and his essays on film. His fiction engages with existential and ethical questions arising from and inherent to Western aesthetic and philosophical traditions. Stories that challenge us to rethink our assumptions about right and wrong and question our notions about reality are often unsettling, but they are also laced with wry humour that brings into them a glimmer of hope. What follows is a conversation I had with Simon over e-mail. We focused on his books and some of the ideas that motivate his work. —MN
MN: You have written about prose poetry in The Fortnightly Review and noted the difficulty of defining the term. It seems to me that there has been an increasing level of interest in all types of short forms of prose, and in discussions about such writing, terms like ‘flash fiction’, ‘prose poem’, and ‘(very) short story’ are often used more or less interchangeably. You chose to call the texts in your collection Why are you here? ‘very brief fictions’ instead of, say, ‘prose poems’. Why is that?
SC: There is, as you say, an increasing body of work emerging from a range of writers which disrupts traditional notions of genre. I’m interested in the imaginative possibilities generated by this refusal to conform to pre-existing categorisations and norms. The texts in Why are you here? comprise a spectrum of short prose forms, many of them deliberately pushing against accepted rules about genre. The stories in the book are unresolved, indeterminate, manifestly works of artifice as opposed to mimetic or realist. Standard narrative devices such as plot, character and authorial ‘point of view’ are undermined. None of the existing labels for different types of short prose seemed to describe the content of the volume. The descriptor ‘very brief fictions’ was suggested by the editor of The Fortnightly Review, Denis Boyles, as a way around this problem.
MN: As a former librarian, I can understand why categories are sometimes needed, but as a reader I am left to wonder how much good writing I have missed over the years simply because I have habitually overlooked certain categories and repeatedly returned to the ones I have enjoyed in the past, as if guided by the now omnipresent algorithm. This made me think about your chapbooks, especially Out West (complete text pdf) and Sanchez Ventura, which contain poetic fictions that are not just thematically linked but can also be read as fragmentary narratives. They are both about ‘something’ in a sense that we might be more inclined to expect from prose, but they approach that something through means I tend to associate with poetry. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I feel that there is a prismatic element to the books that reminds me of cubist art. Do you see them as narratives and how much did you think about the structure before you started writing the individual texts?
SC: Both chapbooks deliberately challenge the idea of a story needing a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s nothing especially new in this way of writing. You mention Cubism. Cubist pictures attempted to replicate something like the mental process of cognition, the way we actually look at an object and construct an image of it in three-dimensional space. There are contemporary literary parallels, the works of Gertrude Stein and Max Jacob being obvious examples. I am interested in this kind of innovation. My two chapbooks employ narrative techniques but in the way Buñuel, say, uses them in a film like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Out West was a response to the cowboy myths in the fictions of my childhood world, and my later understanding of the massive injustices such stories masked. One way of engaging with these myths is to use humour. The work disrupts typical Western narrative tropes but in ways which, I hope, encourage the reader to think and question cultural constructs and who they serve. Sanchez Ventura does something similar but with cultural narratives about identity. The characters in Sanchez Ventura are in various ways trying to escape the tyranny of a world which constantly offers them reductive and unsatisfying narratives. The subverting of any coherent plot is expressive of that struggle for authenticity, as are the various assaults on language. The dislocations created by the form contribute to the affective experience of the work in a way which is closer to poetry than to conventional prose fiction. I did not have an overall plan for either book when I started writing. I edited and rewrote as the text grew. I rarely know where a piece of writing is going when I start out.
MN: The way the blurring of boundaries between reality and representation links to the moral aspect of the story in Out West is ingenious. It is a powerful way to force the reader to confront their assumptions. For example, Elk Head is an actor, but it is never entirely clear to me which of the stories reflect his experiences outside the set and which are scenes from the film they have been shooting. No doubt this confusion is exacerbated by my limited knowledge of the Native American experience, which is largely based on Western tropes and Éric Vuillard’s Sorrow of the Earth. In his well-received récits, Vuillard rewrites the stories we tell about the past to give voice to the silenced and the overlooked. Sorrow of the Earth deals with the role of show business in the formation of cowboy mythology, especially by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. The problems Vuillard highlights are not unlike those you deal with in Out West, but where he wants us to reassess the way we think about particular historical phenomena, your work is more powerful as it invites the reader to reflect on their assumptions and to create their own counter-narratives instead of leading us to adopt a new readymade one. In this sense, Out West operates on a more general level than Vuillard’s book while at the same time it demands a more personal, and active, response. Did you have any specific historical references in mind when writing the book? Or was cowboy mythology more of a way into this field of problems?
SC: I haven’t read Vuillard’s book but I do know about Bill Cody, the Wild West shows, and the recruitment of Native Americans to re-enact their own destruction as popular spectacle. Awareness of this history does inform my writing, but I wasn’t focusing on any specific events in Out West. I was interested in broader representations of the ‘Wild West’, particularly as I experienced them as a child, in comic books, TV serials, at the cinema, and in country and western music. The Western as a genre is huge and diverse, and Native Americans are portrayed with varying levels of sympathy as the genre evolves. In the 1960s, when I was growing up, the ‘baddies’ in Westerns were usually white. Native Americans, on the other hand, were often portrayed in ways which appealed to me. In The Lone Ranger series, Tonto can detect the sound of approaching riders by pressing his ear to the ground, a skill I thought immensely impressive. But Tonto, who’s played by Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk Canadian, is a stereotype, and, of course, always subordinate to the Lone Ranger. It’s these kinds of contradictions that interest me.
The history of the colonisation of North America by Europeans is long and complex. The cultural narratives about that history, as represented in the Western genre, inevitably reflect this complexity and are thus never able to fully suppress the many possible counter-narratives. In Out West, I tried to open up some of these contradictions through the use of parody. The cowboy mythology is a way into wider issues around narrative and what we take for ‘reality’, but Out West is more than an illustration of a set of ideas, it has autobiographical origins. As a child, I played cowboys and Indians with other kids in the street, and I resented the idea that the Indians necessarily had to be the losers. I just didn’t see the logic of this. It’s these subjective confusions and frustrations I’m drawing on.
MN: You have written essays on cinema, and you compared the narrative structures of Out West and Sanchez Ventura to Buñuel. Sanchez Ventura is evocative of cinematic images, and I feel as if my memories of the dreamlike storylines are of a film instead of something I read. How has cinema influenced your fiction writing?
SC: There are a number of ways to answer this. At different points in my life I have felt a strong affinity with the work of various film directors — Buñuel being one of those. All the filmmakers I admire are from the avant-garde art-film world, their work questioning political and cultural norms. These films are part of the cultural nexus which informs my response to the world. So there’s a general sense in which the preoccupations of these filmmakers with issues of representation, perception and memory, with time and space, with power relations in society, are similar to my own. At another level particular technical aspects of film interest me. Cinema is a predominantly visual and sonic art form using conventions and techniques different from language-based art. But some of the characteristics of cinema can be adapted to literary practice, and there’s a long history of film influencing literary style. In the case of these two chapbooks the episodic structure and absence of any final resolution is similar to the plotless films of various directors I like. The eliding of boundaries between fantasy and ‘reality’ is another technique derived, at least in part, from cinema. Also, the way the text of the chapbooks draws attention to their status as text has a parallel in the devices certain filmmakers use to disrupt the spectator’s viewing experience, the film crew intruding into the frame of a Godard movie, for example. These ways of organising a text of course have many literary precedents. Laurence Sterne would be one example. At a third level I sometimes lift images from films. Cripple Creek, the location where the narrative of Out West takes place, is named after the earliest known Western, a brief bar-room scene filmed in 1899. Images from that Edison vignette prompted some of the details in the chapbook. Aki, the café owner in Sanchez Ventura, is a sort of distant cousin to the Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki. The fictional Aki’s rock and roll aspirations echo those of The Leningrad Cowboys.
MN: I did not know that about Kaurismäki! His early films are heavily influenced by the French new wave and some of them combine surrealism and social criticism in a manner that resonates with Sanchez Ventura. I am thinking especially of Calamari Union, which is a homage of sorts to French crime films. In the film, a group of men called Frank, and one called Pekka, set out to escape a working-class neighbourhood and travel to an affluent seaside district. Kaurismäki has also adapted several works of literature, including Crime and Punishment and Hamlet. Your chapbook Stella Unframed was written as a response to Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. What drew you to Sidney?
SC: The allusion to Kaurismäki in Sanchez Ventura is almost a private gesture, which the reader doesn’t need to recognise. Those early films of his are wonderfully anarchic. I particularly like Hamlet Goes Business, in which Kaurismäki’s use of Shakespeare’s text is very inventive. The stimulus for Stella Unframed lies elsewhere. I had been reading Alastair Fowler’s book Triumphal Forms and was intrigued by the complex numerological system which structures Sidney’s sonnet sequence. I was also attracted by the way Sidney addresses a series of verses to a young woman he is wooing, but does so using the formal conceits of the Petrarchan sonnet. The other important influence was Lyn Hejinian’s sequence of 14-line poems The Unfollowing. The individual lines of the poems in this volume have no obvious connection with what precedes or follows them. This reflects Hejinian’s sense, as she says in the introduction, of the ‘larger pattern of the familiar world’ being overturned by a death in the family. I borrowed the formal constraint from Hejinian, but used this to try to reflect the disjointed daily experience of a present-day Stella being wooed by a man she’s not especially interested in. Sidney’s poem is from the male perspective, Stella Unframed is from the woman’s viewpoint. The poems include references to imagery in Sidney’s poems. The first line of poem 1 for example, ‘Even to herself she seemed embattled most of the time’, alludes to Sidney describing Stella’s heart as ‘a citadel/so fortified with wit, stor’d with disdain/that to win it, is all the skill and pain’ (sonnet 12). Sidney was fond of military metaphors. My poems also quote various texts, news headlines, advertising slogans, and overheard conversations, which have a loose association with Sidney’s imagery. The aim was to deconstruct the way Sidney ‘frames’ Stella. I think you can trace a faint arc of narrative through the twenty poems, but it’s fragmentary and unstable.
MN: That is fascinating. I was not familiar with Sidney’s sonnets before I read Stella Unframed and the only book of Hejinian’s I have read is My Life, which meant that I missed the intertextual level entirely. I kept thinking about the curious interplay of the particular and the universal that made it feel like I was looking at a world I could recognise, but from the point of view of someone who felt both familiar and rather elusive. I like the way references to everyday things in Stella Unframed make it seem genuinely (auto)biographical. The book mentions a Japanese-American couple who run a café. They also appear in Why Are You Here?. The couple seems fascinating although not much is revealed about them beyond the husband’s antique shogi set and fondness for minimalism. What is the story behind the café and its proprietors?
SC: I didn’t provide many indications about how to read Stella when it was published. One pointer I did include was the epigraph from The Unfollowing, but I can see why a reader wouldn’t make the connection in terms of the form unless they knew Hejinian’s book. I was trying to create something which offered the reader enough to engage their immediate attention, but which also contained the possibility of a more complex, richer reading for anyone willing to put in the work. Your question about the café is an interesting one. It’s actually a fictional place, not modelled on anywhere specific. The proprietors are equally imaginary. In the micro-fiction ‘The café’, which I wrote first, what interested me was the contrast between the torment of the lovelorn narrator and the café’s contemplative ambience. The Japanese element seemed to contribute to this. When creating Stella I used the same details about the café as part of the strategy of grounding the work in details of the everyday. I liked the idea of redeploying the fictional café in a new context. In Stella the description becomes more fragmented and a reader won’t necessarily connect the individual lines. Both the story and the poem include a quotation from Morton Feldman: ‘Art teaches nothing about life. Just as life teaches us nothing about art.’ In ‘The café’ one way to read this is as self-reflexive, the text hinting at its own problematic relationship to ‘life’. In the context of Stella the Feldman quote might be read as a riposte to Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy.
MN: Why Are You Here? appears to have no obvious overarching theme or underlying structure unlike the chapbooks — unless I again missed it! The dream-like elements familiar from Sanchez Ventura and the question of the nature of reality and how we perceive it are present throughout the book. Many of the stories are deeply unsettling while some are very funny, such as the ones about the hapless extras Bill and Frank. The way these stories relate to the less obviously humorous ones, as forced as the distinction feels, reminded me of Inland Empire where the disjointed but somehow naturalistic narrative is disrupted by these unexpected and quite comical interludes. How did the collection come about?
SC: Why Are You Here? is a collection of individual short fictions written between 2013 and 2020. Some of these are serial in nature, like the Bill and Frank dialogues, or the various ‘object’ poems. Others are standalone pieces. In a couple of cases there are poems which mirror each other. There is, as you rightly say, no overarching theme or structure to the collection but I did give a fair amount of thought to the sequencing of the pieces. When writing I try not to repeat myself, and I didn’t want the collection to seem formulaic or repetitive, so I tried to arrange the individual texts in a way which offered the reader variety, each page a contrast to what had gone before, but with the recurring formats and characters giving the collection some sort of cohesion. The changes in tone from dream-like to funny and back again are part of that design, and I guess this is similar to the way Lynch’s movie holds our interest through its mystifying twists and turns. While there are certain identifiable themes in Why Are You Here? — the nature of perception, what ‘art’ is, issues of social and environmental justice, etc. — the work does not provide a resolution. I try to come at these topics in different ways, putting the issues into play as it were rather than offering an answer to the question posed by the collection’s title.
MN: We touched upon the influence of cinema and artistic modernism on your writing, and you mentioned that one of the inspirations behind Stella Unframed was a book of literary criticism. Many of the themes in Why Are You Here? could be described as ‘philosophical’ and there are plenty of references to music and art. I like the way the book engages with ideas and philosophical questions instead of other texts in which these have been discussed. Is there a philosophy that your approach to culture and ideas stems from?
SC: I have read quite a bit of philosophy and literary theory, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a follower of any particular school. Metaphysical questions interest me, but fairly early on I decided they were not capable of being answered. Once I realised this, and stopped reading philosophy for solutions, the history of ideas became a source of fascination and even amusement. There’s much to laugh at. Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, gives us a brilliant parody of human intellectual endeavour in Lucky’s response to Pozzo’s command to ‘think’. I’ve taken ideas from many sources in building my own mental models of the world, but I think of these models as tentative, evolving, open to challenge. Interpretive frameworks and theories become reductive when too rigidly applied, like the Freudian reading of Wordsworth I parody in ‘Theory’, one of the pieces in Why are you here? My stories and prose poems raise questions rather than offering a ‘philosophy’. ‘Writing is a query,’ Clarice Lispector wrote. ‘It’s this:?’
MN: That is really interesting. My background is in philosophy, and I was always on the lookout for a theory that would take art seriously and allow for the sort of openness you describe. But theory abhors ambiguity. A long time ago, I published a paper with a reading of Waiting for Godot as an allegory of the failure of Hegelian dialectic in explaining modernity. I was dead serious when I wrote it but now it reads like something Pozzo could have dictated. And yet it was probably as close as I ever got to the sort of ambiguity I much later wanted to, and miserably failed to, embrace. Has Beckett been an influence on your work? Who else would you consider an influence on your writing? Are there any poets, especially prose poets, who have inspired you?
SC: It’s nice that we both find Waiting for Godot an antidote to certain kinds of philosophical speculation. I first saw the play when I was still at school, and at university I had a friend who was obsessed with Watt. I re-read that novel recently. I guess the hapless extras Bill and Frank owe something to the vaudeville tradition Beckett exploits to such effect. I have absorbed many influences in five decades of reading and it would be impossible to list them all. I learned a lot about being economical with words, and about ‘showing not telling’ from Hemingway, Ray Carver, Alice Munro, and more recently Lydia Davis. The absurdism of Jarry, Beckett, and Ionesco has certainly left its mark. Borges’ elliptical tales and Garcia Marquez’ magical realism are sources I return to. Kafka is of course a major influence, and Václav Havel, Thomas Bernhard, and Peter Handke are other central European writers I admire. One of my all-time favourite books is Moby Dick. In poetry, John Ashbery has been a significant influence, and I’m very fond of Barbara Guest’s prose poem collection The Confetti Trees. I also love Rosemary Waldrop’s work, including her translations of Jabès. The list could go on and on.
MN: I am glad you like Waiting for Godot. It often seems to be overshadowed by Endgame and his prose. I love Handke’s work, and I think it is a real shame that Havel is only remembered as a dissident and a politician, if he is remembered at all. I was in Prague as an Erasmus student in the early years of the millennium and wasted a lot of time in cafés reading books and writing letters. One night, Havel turned up in Café Slavia and sat at the table next to mine. I enthusiastically texted all my Finnish and French friends but none of them had ever heard of him. What are you working on at the moment? Is there another full-length collection in the works?
SC: I have a couple of Czech friends for whom Havel was an important figure. His Letters to Olga is a book I love. I’m envious of your encounter with him. I recently completed another long piece, a sequence of linked paragraphs similar in style to Sanchez Ventura. This one is a sort of Body Horror meets Jules Verne meets Oulipo mash up. I hope to bring that out as a pamphlet later this year. Meanwhile I continue to publish short prose pieces online and in print magazines. I’m working towards issuing a second collection at some point.
MARKKU NIVALAINEN is a Finnish critic currently living in Wales. He specialises in translated literature and is one of the judges for the Mikael Agricola prize, which is awarded annually to an outstanding Finnish translation of a significant work of fiction.
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford, UK. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. Why are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.