The Ruins of the Future: An Interview with Stephen Collis

[Vancouver writer Andrew Zuliani interviewed Stephen Collis in early March 2013, ahead of the publication of Collis’s novel, The Red Album, by Toronto publisher BookThug]

AZ: Writing prose fiction—or, at least, publishing prose fiction—is something of a watershed change for you. Your output until this point has been decidedly centralized on poetry and non-fiction (maybe even non-fictional poetry, that could be a nifty genre listing). Your writing has been tied to concrete, contemporary, local issues—particularly the ecological, the political, the eco-political. Most importantly, your work is about the now, and the future, and the ways in which these two tenses interact. Ecopoetics and any study of ecology forces its student to shift temporal frames of reference from the century-ish lifespan of the lucky human being to the time codes of nature—hundreds, thousands, millions of years. But often, particularly in the politics of environmental activism, this projection is performed forwards: “Think of our children’s children,” etc.

What does it mean that now, after establishing yourself as a writer of “finger-pointing” poems that deal, however indirectly, with the urgent and contemporary, you have shifted the direction of this projection, and the target of its view? Why switch tracks to discuss the Spanish Civil War, the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, the poetry of Lorca, things that are culturally, geographically, and temporally divorced from the problems of the here-and-now? And, as a Gaudi-like buttress to this question, how does this relate to the shift from poetry to prose?

SC: Well this is interesting—because I often worry that my work might seem too ensnared in the past! But of course I am indeed driven by “present concerns,” and I do think that the future is what it’s all really about, as it were—every moment, we are getting there—the future arrives, and we are fashioning its conditions. And what we do to and within ecological contexts, largely through economic activities, is a big part of present concerns about future possibilities. Another way of putting this: capitalism is killing the planet, and we are seeing this with increasingly clarity—even scientists are starting to say it in these terms. But the future remains what we’re struggling over: what will it look like? Who will have access to it? Will it even be viable? What can we do to ensure it is viable?

I’ve always gone back into the past in order to find my way, hopefully, to a better future. There’s something of Orwell’s “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” to this, though I’m not so much interested in “control.” Ross Wolfe, writing about utopian architecture, refers to the “ruins of the future” which lie strewn about in the past—the idea that “the gateway to the future lies in the past,” and that the ruins of past ideas about the future are there for reconsideration. This is especially important when you are living, as we currently have been, through an era built upon the exhausted notion that “there is no alternative” to capitalism—an era marked by a significant lack of ideas about alternatives (“it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”). But there’s a substantial history of thinking, imagining and building alternatives that we can and I think need to revisit as we try to find our way out of the mess we’ve wandered, or, better, been goaded and coerced into. This is the creative project I’ve taken on in various books—to make some small foray into that past, in order to beat paths towards other possible tomorrows.

In specifically returning to the Spanish Civil War, I’m going back to a moment and an “event” (the anarchist revolution that unfolded in Catalonia in 1936/37) that is, to me, one of the key resources of what the future looked like, in the past. I’ve already written about this in one book, Anarchive (2005), which was an attempt to “document” something of the structure of feeling of Spanish anarchism (from anonymous worker poets to song lyrics by The Clash and The Pogues). I guess I wasn’t done with this moment, as I found myself writing about it again, almost by accident, this time in prose fiction. In fact, in writing Anarchive I had begun to write via a number of heteronyms that I thought might help me get to those voices that I wanted to resurrect—fictional people who had some better grasp of, or were located in closer proximity than me, to the events I wanted to write about. In part, I wanted there to be a poet who more seamlessly combined radical form and content (this would have been very anomalous in modernity)—so I invented him, and his translator. As Anarchive evolved, these fictional figures largely dropped out of the text, but I did publish a number of chapbooks under their names. The Red Album is a return to that unfinished fictional project—a sort of continuation of Anarchive, a return of its repressed double.

And the idea of unfinished projects is at the heart of this new book—the unfinished revolution, and Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral as something of a figure of the pact we make with the future: this is too big for any single individual; we hope you will continue the project we leave unfinished at our passing into history.

AZ: And of course, the closing of the main narrative text in the novel is the protagonist’s awakening from this historic dream world of dead poets and exotic architecture—or, more so, awakening to realize that this world is not a dream. He learns that there is a revolution in his South American hometown; what had previously seemed to him struggles and drama safely and hermetically sealed in the past is actually something of a volcanic island constantly springing open and spewing forth fire anew. So the past—represented by the discourses on architecture, Lorca, etc.—is shown not to be clearly delineated from the present, that the future as seen as those in the Spanish Civil War is still struggling to arrive.

Your invention of voices to fit narrative needs—the experimental poet, Ramon Fernandez, who couldn’t quite have existed in his time—is this something like the wishful thinking of an alternate history buff? As in, “if only there were a poet like Fernandez; there isn’t, so I will create him”? What does this fantasy mean alongside an engagement with history?

SC: I think history is driven by a lot of “wishful thinking”—like capitalism’s desire for an ever-expanding market, for one thing—so I have no problems with entangling “the real” with “the fictional”: that’s the only way we are going to be able to imagine alternatives, and that’s the work I’m really interested in seeing fiction (or at least the fictive impulse) do. So, to engage history is to engage the imaginary, especially since if we don’t, then history will run all over us. History isn’t told by the victors: it’s constructed by the victors and their imaginary of a particular (and exclusively advantageous) world. If we are to have any hope, we have to imagine otherwise.

AZ: This question of the real vs. the fictional is especially noticeable in the paratexts and invented artifacts the book deals with. Not only is the whole work framed by layers of manipulation by characters we’re not entirely sure are real—Alfred Noyes and Gloria Personne being the key players here—but the book makes constant reference to other books, texts, buildings, artwork, and the like that are equally hard to pin down.

Nevertheless, most people will read the novel as historical fiction. By framing it with the editorializing of invented characters, and filling it with the fantastical and invented alongside the tangible and real, how is the “chronicle” nature of the novel affected? Are you at all concerned that the work is defanged, so to speak, by the intrusion of fantasy? I doubt you have any seriously didactic plans in the writing of this book, or any, but is there a risk that the message(s) of The Red Album are sealed in a realm of fiction, protected somehow from intruding into everyday reality? Is this why Dio’s segment ends in its contemporalizing way?

SC: Well, I’m not too worried about that. At least, I’m counting on the reader being both puzzled by, and willing to look closely at and think through the implications of the tangle of the real and imagined the novel projects. Some of my “fictional” characters are appropriated from the “real” world (historical figures, or fictional figures created by other authors). Especially once you get to the whole “critical” apparatus around Ramon Fernandez (who I appropriated from Stevens’ poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West”—but who also was a French critic, amongst other Googleable things). Suddenly the tangle of real/unreal becomes quite dense. The “critical” essay I write for the book is a “serious” piece of criticism about a writer and a text that doesn’t really exist. But I’m not only trying to have good intellectual fun—I’m trying to engage the agency of the creative imagination.

I think the more “postmodern” aspects of the novel (and I didn’t set out to write something consciously pomo)—that is, where the text is most self-reflexive—coalesce around just these sorts of issues: what is real and what is made up and how do we know? Does it matter? What’s the relationship between history and fiction? These questions become all the more complex, and significant, when your characters are writers (as many of mine are), or when the issues being examined, and which drive the plot (to the extent that there is a plot!), involve questions of how we determine “meaning” at the social level, how we imagine the “common good,” and the polis itself. I think, in the context of these sorts of questions, the tangle of historical and utopian fictions here is only appropriate.

AZ: You make a great deal of implicit reference to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin in this novel. In particular, an image from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History recurs. This fragment of Benjamin’s essay discusses a carnival trick of sorts in which a man-made automaton is able to play chess against a human being, and win. It is no feat of artificial intelligence, of course, but a trick in which mirrors conceal a hunchbacked chess expert who controls the marionette. The puppet only appears to think, reason, and negotiate its way into checkmates—it’s the hidden dwarf who really pulls the strings.

This functions well in terms of the historical slant of your novel, which covers an oft-covered war and period of history, though it isn’t talking about battlefronts and skirmishes but church doors and poets. But, also, one can appropriate Benjamin’s image of the puppet and puppeteer as a nice model of your novel’s narrative framing. Is Gloria Personne or Alfred Noyes or Ramon Fernandez the puppet, and Stephen Collis the puppeteer? The use of pseudonyms will always draw this comparison. But what about the other possibility—that these discourses have always been extant and it is only until now that Stephen Collis has allowed himself to be puppet to the puppeteer of Gloria, Alfred and Ramon. This sense particularly since you present yourself as an editor of the text, subservient to the aims and desires (often occulted) of your characters.

So: what does this mean for a book about history, about the historical process of forgetting and remembering? Is this something like the Hegelian “spirit of the times” that animates individuals at its own will?

SC: I suppose I’ve started to answer this already, in talking about the past and future. Benjamin’s Theses have haunted me for years, and I’m always returning to them. There’s the “tiger’s leap” into the past, and the Angel of History regarding the heap of wreckage history piles up. I’m also interested in Benjamin’s idea of our “weak messianic power,” which I tend to read as an aspect of how we do sense the shifts and movements of history, the significant turns and returns, the potentiality of radical change—but only just, only partially, and only if we are willing to “brush history against the grain.”

As for the puppet and the hunchback, yeah, The Red Album plays pretty fast and loose—and prolifically, perversely—with this question of who-is-pulling-whose-strings. Am I the author or the editor? Is Noyes the author or the editor? Wait a minute, pretty much every character is an author and potentially the creator of pretty much every other character. Round and round we go. But as Benjamin suggests, the puppet, “historical materialism,” always wins—critique reveals the material workings of capital, the class structure of the world we inhabit, the dialectical history of struggle, etc.—so long as it is driven by that weak messianic power of the hunchback (revealed by Benjamin to be “theology”—I guess I’d want to say, “the imaginary,” including ideology, desire, even what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible”).

The references to Benjamin’s Theses, mostly hidden and veiled, but occasionally explicit, are there as something of a structuring constraint in the novel (I guess the poet in me wanted to import that idea of constraint), and as something of its “unconscious.” I wanted a book that was as complex and dispersed as it is to think through any large problem in the world—to be intersected with all sorts of elements which overdetermine it, or multiple lines of flight which escape its orbit. So if a reader picks up on the Benjamin material, and is able to do something with that, great—but if they don’t, that’s great too, there’s still the “story,” and I like the idea that a story will have potentialities within it that remain untapped, not accessed—at least in a given reading, for a given reader.

AZ: In the appended essay, “The Plebeian Cantos,” you—under the name of Stephen Collis—attack the form of the novel as an overtly commercialized product of bourgeois capitalist society. Is your complication of the novel through paratexts and narrative frames an attempt to escape, at least in part, a form held in common with harlequin romances, cheap thrillers, courtroom dramas, and other “airport fiction”? In other words, how does one reconcile writing what is, after all, a novel, with containing in it a statement like “the novel is a thoroughly bourgeois art form” and a heroic poet who attempts to “wrest fiction from the dead hands of prose”? Doesn’t this make your shift from poetry to novel a step backwards in the project of Ramon Fernandez, a compliance with the desires of a consumer market that shuns poetry?

SC: I’ve got no problem with harlequins or airport fiction, per se. And I don’t think I’ve written something that’s going to do much on the consumer market, for whatever that’s worth. But no attempt to “escape” was intended. The problematizing, or questioning, of the novel form that I include in this novel is probably about two somewhat separate things: the novel as such, and the “poet’s novel” specifically. Let’s take them in that order.

The novel is the “thoroughly bourgeois art form”—at least it was. I’m not making this up. There are plenty of books out there examining the coevolution of capitalism, the bourgeois subject, and the novel. It accommodated, and provided a platform, for liberalism, for the consumer expressing him or herself via consumption. Now the novels that make money today, and the presses that publish them, are reasonably few and far between—so the stakes as far as material and even cultural capital, as far as the novel is concerned, have been lessened considerably from its heyday. Most publishers and most novelists, I can only assume, publish novels not because they think they have a hot commodity, but because they love something about the practice and the form—or even just the fact of having published a novel. Let’s hope that’s the case, anyway.

But I think that frees us up to really take the novel for a spin around the block, you know? To see what it can do. This goes back to what I said earlier about the connection between fiction and imagining alternatives to capitalism—as well as its connection to the whole imaginary of “social life” and “the common good.” So part of my critique here—always a bit tongue in cheek, a bit of the poet-thumbing-his-nose-at-the-privileged-novel to it—is that we’re missing what’s really crucial in the novel: not just that it’s prose, or that it tells a story—but that it is built on the ground of the fictive, engaging our capacity to imagine, and imagine otherwise. Stevens comes into this too, by the way: the idea of a “supreme fiction.” Now, we still see “novels in verse” as a little gimmicky or precious. But crucially, Stevens didn’t have that in mind. He was focusing on the fictive as such (regardless of genre, as it were). So I do at some level think it important to “wrest fiction from the dead hands of prose” (a sentiment, by the way, that comes via fictional people, Noyes and Fernandez)—if only to recall the potentiality of the fictive, which gets lost in the noise and the stakes of “The Novel.”

Ok—we’re already well on our way to the second point, about the poet’s novel. I didn’t want to write one, and I don’t think I have. At least, not in the sense we usually seem to think of “the poet’s novel”—as something characterized by the lyrical qualities of its prose and a refusal of mundane things like character and narrative. I thought, if I’m going to write prose fiction, I want to experience and explore its differences from poetry, the “otherness” of writing sentences and hearing conversations and studying character—everything I eschew in my poetry, more or less. So I think what I’ve written is fairly “realist,” fairly straight-up narrative, on any given page at least. But it’s still a novel about poetry and poets (at one level). And where I have been most clearly a poet-writing-a-novel, I think, is in The Red Album’s structure—in its non-linearity, its spatiality and multiplicity, its refusal of closure or the tying together of its threads. So I think it reads, structurally, like a collection of poems: you know these various things go together, and things rise to the surface, descend and rise again elsewhere—but you as a reader are left with the task of imagining the book’s connections and continuities, its various “themes” and how they might refract or juxtapose each other.

It also might be significant, in this regard, that I’ve always thought of this novel as part of the on-going “Barricades Project” series of books of poetry. It’s part of a long poem. A fictional interlude. Maybe.

AZ: That’s one thing that really stands out about The Red Album ¬when placed in continuity—and, as you suggested, perhaps more than just bibliographical or loose thematic continuity—with your other work; it doesn’t read like the novel of a poet. At least not like the common iteration of the “poet’s novel,” which you outline above—lyrical, non-figurative, essentially book-length prose poems. The language in your novel is boiled down, idiomatic, and (strangest of all) quite readable.

This, at least in my view, facilitates the real poetic nature of the work: not so much in the content, the sentences, and so forth, but in the larger structure. The separate chunks of text—filmographies, biographies, a play, a screenplay—function like the separate poems in a sonnet sequence. The meaning is made inside the text, but also outside of it, in the relation between the main narration and its many paratexts. Once one reads the book in its entirety, the ordering of these components becomes unimportant, their linearity just a physical restriction of packaging and printing the work. Still, the simplicity of the language itself bears inspection, particularly given the lineage—wanted or not—of the “poet-novelist” that your work is at least in part issuing from.

While the ability of the reader to mentally juggle the novel’s fragments is almost entirely dependent on the precise language in which they are presented, is this all there is to the book’s choice of diction? Does the simplicity of language come from more than a functional imperative, and a reaction to previous works of poet-novelists? You are the author of many English translations of non-existent Spanish works of poetry and criticism. With this in mind, large sections of The Red Album almost read like translations – as if you’re not writing this novel, but simply transcribing it from its original tongue.

SC: I wanted the book to read like a translation. I’m not sure why, and this is pretty idiosyncratic, but that’s how I wanted it to sound. There’s the fact that I have read a lot of Spanish literature in translation, I guess, and loved it. So maybe it’s kind of an homage to Borges and other writers I’ve been reading for years. And there’s also the fact that the Noyes-translating-Fernandez project did begin, years ago, with translation. In writing the Fernandez poems, and others, for Anarchive, I typically began with some translated fragments. Sometimes from poets like Lorca or Huidobro, but often from more obscure sources, like the anonymous anarchist poetry published in Solidaridad Obrera, the Spanish anarchist worker’s paper printed in Barcelona between 1931-39. My Spanish is pretty half-assed, but I’d struggle through with a dictionary, and then just riff off however far I’d got. So there’s that context to this whole heteronym game.

But I also think the faux-translation was part of my being a poet easing my way towards fiction. I wanted that extra layer of distantiation, of defamiliarization. The whole time I was writing this book I was thinking, “this is so weird.” But its strangeness, for me, had to do with its simplicity, its “realism,” its unapologetic “novelness.” This is part of what I love so much in Bolaño: he manages to write something that’s at once so “normal” and so inexplicably strange and discomfiting. So I wanted to listen to the text that was coming to me, and hear a certain foreignness to it, to read it as I wrote it, keeping in mind that what I was listening to and transcribing was “translated.” I know this probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s neurotic. But writing a novel felt like an entirely neurotic thing to do. The more I could dissemble, the better.

I also wanted the fictive to extend outside the novel itself, as it were—outside it’s “contents.” I wanted its form to be fictive too. So, it’s a “translation.” Here’s the translator, and here’s the editor. And why should the fiction end there? Authorship is itself an entirely fictive project. So the author(s) are fictional too, though they have the odd, marginal existence “out there” in the world too, as published authors of other titles. I find it pretty damn amusing that the first book “I” wrote to appear on Google Books, a few years ago, was Noyes’s Compression Sonnets. He beat me to it!

AZ: Hoisted by your own heteronymic petard! Perhaps in later years we’ll read of Stephen Collis, the one-time creation of the inventive author and translator Alfred Noyes. So; your efforts towards The Red Album were, again, that of form and content: how do I, a poet, write a novel that is truly “novelistic” and not just another extended work of poetry. Which distances you not just from the product, but also from the creator of the product – you are a poet writing like a novelist who is translating a book that doesn’t exist.

As it stands, the final section of the work is the most grounded in our contemporary reality; it takes its setting, in part, from your home town. Still, this section has one foot on the escalator of fantasy—its group of protagonists are young women who suddenly gain the ability to change the physical properties of things. The way in which the characters use their powers—particularly the young girls who lend their supernatural powers to political movements—are manifestations of a wish, of the “wishful thinking” you referred to earlier.

One movement on display in this section is one that met great resistance and, despite a promising beginning, suffered from its opposition—the Vancouver iteration of the Occupy movement. And again, as with your invention of Ramon Fernandez, an imaginary figure is inserted into a reality that desperately needs it. Concluding the novel with a nod to the Occupy movement ties it to your activity on and off the page, particularly considering that this novel’s publication is close on the heels of your non-fictional work, Dispatches from the Occupation. But is this fantastical intrusion on an immediately recognizable public event a melancholy fantasy, a wish for a miracle that didn’t take place?

SC: Yes and no. Because Occupy was the fulfillment of a “melancholy fantasy,” one which is still only half-fulfilled, still dangling there full of possibility. And at the same time, another in a long series of events which have apparently raised and then to some extent dashed expectations and hopes. Let me elaborate.

For many people on the left, the legacy of “the 60s” has been one of waning possibilities, a rollback of gains that were once won (particularly by organized labour), and capitalist triumphalism (the “there is no alternative” mantra). People have characterized this trailing off of progressive hopes as a form of “left melancholia.” For many, the Occupy movement was a surprising return of agency and possibility—of, cheesily enough, “hope.” Suddenly, even in North America, we could get thousands of people into the streets and squares. Suddenly, it seemed thinkable to seriously, and publically, discuss “alternatives” and “structural inequality” and the crisis-prone nature of capitalism. Even “the media” were willing to quote you using words like “capitalism” and “inequality”! I wrote the first draft of “The Transformation” (the story about the girls with the power to change whatever they touched) in the midst of the Occupy encampments, in the first-flush of that excitement, that sense that, not only was another world possible—it looked to be here right now. I wanted to capture that sense of young people—who are anything but apathetic—finding their social power and agency, realizing they could participate in, and instigate, change. There didn’t seem to be anything of the utopian or “wish fulfilment” about it. It seemed “real.”

When I wrote the story, I didn’t immediately see it as the conclusion to The Red Album. But then I realized what a wonderful contrast and counterpoint it would make to Dio’s story (the main narrative in The Red Album), which is a story about a middle-aged man who is entirely stuck, trapped by history and circumstances beyond his control. It also spoke to the transformation that I, as an activist and writer, felt I was going through: from left melancholic to, well, a much more hopeful activist.

The fact that the Occupy movement has since been swept from city squares—and the fact that it encountered all sorts of both external and internal difficulties—hasn’t left me with too strong a taste defeat or dashed hope. There are still people organizing—who weren’t organizing before Occupy—out there in unnumbered cities. And the energy that went into the Occupy movement has morphed and moved through the Quebec student strike and on into the support for Idle No More. We aren’t done yet. Capitalism is still in crisis, the ecosystems we inhabit, globally, are still in grave danger, and people are still looking for ways to organize themselves against the apparent death wish of our culture. As one of the characters says near the end of “The Transformation,” “We have many voices now, in many languages. And all seem to be saying and doing the same things.”

Another way of putting it: before Occupy I was writing a book in which the revolution seemed trapped in the past; this side of Occupy, the revolution seems more of a lure waiting in the future.

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