On Sophie Collins

Stephanie Burt

A ‘Mary Sue’ is an implausibly skilful, attractive or successful protagonist who seems to be a stand-in for the author, especially in fanfiction. The term comes from Paula Smith’s parodic story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’ (1973), originally published in a mimeographed journal for Star Trek fans. In mocking ‘Mary Sue’, Smith was not attacking fanfiction but trying to bolster its literary quality against fans who used it naively for wish fulfilment. Most of these fans were (like Smith) female. As the term, and the critique, became more common, some fans, and some feminist critics, pushed back. They saw fan communities, and the defiantly unprofessional cultural production that emerged from them, as a kind of safe space, where the rules imposed by a patriarchal outside world about what one can say, and who one can be, could be ignored.

These communities have expanded vastly since the 1970s, and especially since the advent of the internet and social media. Members make art for one another: fiction, non-fiction, podcasts, songs, costumes, you name it. Some of it sets out to address – you might say that its existence demonstrates – stubborn dilemmas identified by 1970s feminists: shame and guilt around women’s desire, and queer desire; the double bind that faces survivors of sexual trauma, who are told at once to get over it and not to talk about it; and the sense (communicated by the Aeneid, by the original Star Wars movie, by Hamlet and by every household where Dad goes to work and Mom picks up the kids) that agency belongs to men.

I have been paraphrasing arguments made or mentioned in Sophie Collins’s poems and prose, not just because I believe them, but because you need to recognise them in order to come to terms with her work. Her book-length essay small white monkeys (Book Works, £9.95) is a kind of origin story: after a ‘significant injury’, a few years ago, she writes, ‘I found myself in hell.’ (None of her books names or describes that injury.) She began ‘writing a long poem in order to manage’ her disabling feelings of guilt and shame. She saw shame as ‘peculiarly unsuited to self-expression’ and so sought herself in allegories and fantastic stories, in sin-eating monkeys and feisty cats. She also saw herself, or found herself, in essays by Nuar Alsadir, Carolee Schneemann and Denise Riley, in a novel by Jean Rhys and a poem by Selima Hill. ‘I began to … believe,’ she wrote, ‘that [Hill’s poem] was speaking to me personally.’

Collins’s ‘earnest desire to consider’ these works ‘on their own terms’ sat uneasily beside her ‘fascination with these authors’ self-insertion in their works’, as well as with her own readerly insertion into them. Was Collins reading them inappropriately, or rewriting them in her head? Is seeking, or finding, yourself in fictional characters a good way to read? (Is it OK, in other words, if the way you read is the way some people write fanfiction, as a form of identification or gratification?) Unable to bring her life into focus directly, Collins was looking for models, for mirrors (she notes that the term ‘mirrors’ also applies to medieval and Renaissance conduct manuals for male aristocrats).

You can find models by listening to other people, by finding the right therapist, or by finding ways to adapt – and involve yourself in – existing literary works. One kind of adaptation is translation. Another is writing about and interpreting someone’s work. And another is the creation of transformative works, such as the Aeneid, or Star Trek fanfiction, or parts of Collins’s frustrating, fascinating recent collection, Who Is Mary Sue? (Faber, £10.99), the best moments of which address the way we see ourselves – can’t help but see ourselves – in other people’s stories and words. These kinds of identification can at once empower us and make us wonder whether we are really unique, or autonomous, as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. If I am ashamed to admit that I see myself as Mr Spock, or Anna Karenina, maybe I’m not capable of describing my desires. But if I’m really like Spock, or (worse) like Anna Karenina, am I a type? Will their fate be my fate? Collins calls one poem ‘Dear No. 24601’ as if she were writing science fiction:

The future is an eye that I don’t dare look into
Last night I dreamed I was a ball of fire
and woke up on the wrong side of the room
I share an apartment with my twin sister
Enclosed is a photo of us on a tandem bike
I forget which one I am
Sometimes I wake up believing I am her

What do you do with the feeling that you are your own twin, that you are more like another person, or a literary character, than like yourself? Sometimes Collins feels diminished: ‘I am a multiplication/And a made-up belief/I am nothing for days afterwards.’ At other times, as in her poem ‘Healers’, she is happy enough to merge with a figure from a novel whose plot has shaped her:

I encountered a scaffold
outside the Holy Trinity Church in Vladimir …
I said comforting things to the scaffold
but she only seemed to lean more heavily
against the side of the church.
We are rarely independent structures she said

You don’t need to recognise Collins’s sources – among them Riley and the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed – to see yourself, or to see the anger, inside her best poems. Take ‘Untitled’, for instance:

The village is always on fire.
Men stay away from the kitchens,
take up in outhouses with concrete floors,
while the women – soot in their hair –
initiate the flames into their small routines.

Men can ignore the kitchens, and the fires, feigning self-sufficiency, just as they can ignore the dust Collins describes in ‘Bunny’ (a response to Selima Hill’s volume of that name), then blame the women when they do see it: ‘Where did the dust come from … Why don’t you show me a sample. Why don’t you have a sample?’

Some parts of Who Is Mary Sue? feel like complete poems; others testify to the incompleteness that is Collins’s subject. Her prose recalls recent lyric essays, by Claudia Rankine, Anne Boyer and others: paragraphs with a great deal of white space, unanswered questions, embedded quotations, and moments when the author seems to stop short. For every reader who finds this self-indulgent, another might feel seen.

Collins recently produced the first translation into English of the work of the Dutch poet Lieke Marsman. The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Liverpool, £9.99) is a brief collection of poems and prose ‘about cancer and politics’ that appeared in the Netherlands last year; the English edition includes a 12-page translator’s note consisting of Collins’s letters to Marsman. The book is dominated by Marsman’s diagnosis with chrondrosarcoma, a rare cartilage cancer whose only treatments are surgical, and which eventually led to the loss of her right arm. (The title refers to the length of Marsman’s MRI scans.) More broadly, the book deals with the social construction of disability, as well as the rise of right-wing populism in Dutch politics. Collins has rendered Marsman’s poems into an idiomatic, almost flip English. This seems appropriate for work that considers millennials’ concern with the ‘systematic failures of neoliberal society’ and with whether any ‘of the nineties’ promises/has actually come to pass/save the unmitigated rise of reality TV?’

Marsman, like Collins, writes about the way independence – configured as a male value – is neither fully possible nor desirable. Just as translators should not compare their work to ‘an imagined or notional translation that is flawless’, Collins writes, people shouldn’t ‘measure themselves against imagined, idealised and non-existent selves’. Translation involves collaboration: a finished translation doesn’t belong to a single author. The men who correct Collins’s translations online feel, she writes, ‘that they somehow own language’. But nobody owns language, just as nobody owns your imagination.

It’s one thing to use your own life to power your autofictional memoir. It’s another to see yourself in a Russian novel, or as a saint (as in Collins’s ‘The Saints’), or on the bridge of the Enterprise. And it is another thing again to see yourself as ‘O’, which Collins – inspired in her own work by Story of O – proposes as a personal pronoun, ‘a tacit acknowledgment of the paradoxes of self-expression’, in place of the illusory independence, the agency, conveyed by ‘I’. Literary theorists and philosophers (above all Riley, in The Words of Selves) have described these paradoxes at length: if the terms you use are wholly your own, then, by definition, nobody will understand you. You cannot describe yourself unless you adopt some pre-existing terms – which may make you feel as if you are writing, or talking, about somebody else. That’s true in one sense for everyone, true in another if who you think you are, and who you say you are, seems bound up with the self-erasure and submissiveness that have been enduring tropes in depictions of fictional women, from Homer’s Penelope to Bridget Jones. You might find a solution in a Mary Sue.