Sophie Collins’s debut poetry collection, Who Is Mary Sue?, explores the politics behind the Mary Sue archetype and what that means for women’s self-expression in writing. A ‘Mary Sue’ is an idealised and implausibly flawless female character, which in fan fiction is a pejorative term used to signal a supposed ‘self-insertion’ on the author’s part. This collection engages with the challenges and paradoxes facing women in the act of writing, through the inclusion of prose and poetic forms, quotation and multi-vocal collaging. In this interview, Collins dives into what drives her work and the processes by which she constructs it.
Reading the blurb, I expected your book to uncover and undermine the shallowness of the ‘Mary Sue’ character trope, but it is much more complex. It seems to (in your words) emphasise the ‘persistent absence’ of what it means to be a self in the act of self-expression. Can you expand on the impossible nature of self-expression and how that informs your writing?
My relationship with self-expression is complicated and fluctuating, and I believe this to be the case for most people, whether consciously acknowledged in those terms or not. I feel that it’s taken me a remarkably long time to learn to say things which feel ‘true’, to some degree. That kind of congruency – which begins with the recognition and examination of inherited views and ideologies – can feel very powerful. Naming oneself and one’s (traumatic) experiences can also feel very powerful, because language is reality, and so verbalising previously unsaid things allows us to fully believe and begin processing them. This can of course be very painful, too.
However I put just as much store in an idea articulated by Veronica Forrest-Thomson in the final passage of Poetic Artifice, in her discussion of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Purdah’, concerning the impersonality of expression. She identifies how the ‘The’ of its last line suggests ‘a symbol’ which sends us back to the ‘I’ of the poem for some kind of ‘explanation’, but that, given Plath’s commitment to poetic ‘artifice’, the ‘“I” remains enigmatical, presenting only the words on the page.’ So, while I have found self-expression emancipatory, I believe that the ‘I’ has no true referent – that we have no essential, constant self. As much as I derive power from asserting myself, I feel sure that the self is a construct and self-expression a fallacy.
Accordingly, in Who Is Mary Sue?, I am arguing, at points, both for the complete impersonality of writing and for writing as a kind of parallel reality in which we can live, temporarily. This is viewed as inconsistency, I think, rather than a productive friction caused by a genuine case of cognitive dissonance [the state of holding two or more contradictory thoughts, beliefs or attitudes], and inconsistency is a turn-off for most readers. I believe this is because we are still fixated on the idea of a poem or collection of poems as being something which ought to offer an extractable message, as designed to impart information or teach us a life lesson. Poetry’s power is nothing to do with instrumentalism. Poetry’s power is almost entirely reliant on its doing things that other forms of language cannot. My insistence on the impossibility of self-expression is an attempt at demonstrating this.
You explore the ‘Mary Sue’ stereotype, particularly in terms of its potentially silencing impact on would-be women writers and the ways in which women who write are disproportionately identified with their characters compared with men. Could you talk about how your research in this field has shaped your own writing?
Writers of course write about events that they have experienced, in one way or another, but the very fact of putting those experiences into literary prose immediately converts them into fiction. This is something I really believe but see everywhere challenged. Just the other day I was reading a piece about the brilliant Penelope Mortimer. The critic repeatedly referred to Mortimer’s literary output as transcripts from her ‘daily domestic life’, writing that The Pumpkin Eater was ‘as close to autobiography as a novel can be while still professing to be fiction’. Almost immediately afterwards, the same critic lamented ‘the public’s inability to separate the writer from her writing’, which was termed a ‘punishment particular to a woman’. Which one is it? This is not so much a display of cognitive dissonance as of a lack of self-awareness, with the mechanism that was the subject of the reviewer’s critique being deployed within the same piece of writing.
This was a (presumably) unintended contradiction, but the more blatant conflations of women’s lives with their literary achievements are so common that the Mary Sue archetype became, for me, an apt symbol for this double-standard (male fiction writers don’t find themselves accused of simply writing their biographies nearly as much). I am working on prose at the moment and these observations, rather than pushing me away from fictional narratives that might be viewed as proximate to my own, have in fact given me great confidence in writing just that. I once came across an info sheet for the pain following an abortion that advised women to ‘lean into the pain’. Maybe my instinct to move towards a kind of writing I have seen so denigrated is a similar kind of confrontation.
Above all, I am increasingly certain that, just as ‘artifice’ is the point and power of poetry, ‘story’ is never the sum of a prose writer’s achievements – everything comes down to the words used, the syntax, the images.
In the ‘Other Notes’ at the back of the book, you reference the sources for the citations you have included, some of which are italicised but unattributed in the body of the text. How does the collage form help you to explore the issues of women’s writing and self-expression in your poetry?
The world is made of language; my world is irreversibly changed by having read and internalised the words of Denise Riley, Clarice Lispector, Jamaica Kincaid… Why paraphrase when I can cite?
I was shocked when, relatively late in the editing process, I noticed I had reproduced some words from Virginia Woolf without having intended to, in the collection’s final poem, ‘Ed’. I was sure the first words of the poem I had written were my own, but it turns out they were someone else’s words determining the way I was processing my experience.
In terms of the question of self-expression, I am interested in the way the citations have, for many readers, disqualified the collection as a body of poetry. I find so much ‘original’ writing to be entirely derivative of existing work. But that kind of mimicry seems to fly under the radar.
Finally, what new and upcoming projects should we be looking out for – your own and others’?
Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland is very special. I’m excited also for Will Harris’s first collection, RENDANG, forthcoming with Granta.
I am currently working on writing about the act of translation with Jen Calleja, Kate Briggs, Katrina Dodson, Rebecca May Johnson and others.
I have just finished a translation of a collection by a young Dutch poet, titled, in English, The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes. Lieke Marsman’s poetry is very different to my own – these are poems that are very much founded on the possibility of direct self-expression. They are still changing the way I think, and I believe it is important to confront your own convictions, to never close your mind.
Who Is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins is published by Faber & Faber