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Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Questions for Allen Fisher, Answers for Simon Collings

Tears in the Fence Festival 2020

The Friday evening session of this year’s Festival included a conversation between Allen Fisher and Simon Collings. Simon sent Allen written questions before the event and Allen prepared written answers. During the session the conversation took a somewhat different course from the one planned. As a bonus, therefore, we are sharing here the written texts of the questions and answers prepared prior to the event. The discussion was about Allen’s magnum opus Gravity as a consequence of shape, composed between 1982 and 2007. I’m delighted to be able to share this additional material. David Caddy

Q1: You had a structure for the project from the beginning, a framework which guided the subse-quent facturing of the work. You created this framework by marking a number sequence on a card-board tube and then crushing it. Could you say something about the overall structure of the book?
A1: My poetry writing uses processual and procedural methods. For the Gravity project I chose a complex of numerical structure and a small playful book of research into some scientific practices, particularly bio-engineering and quantum physics. The premise behind the initial numerical struc-ture was that the norms of structural pattern put in place in terms of line count and line lengths, but also in terms of overall narrative schemes that you could find in Dante, in Chaucer, in Spenser and in, for example Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, these are demonstrations of an earlier aesthetic with a basis in coherence, exactness and certainty. We are now in a culture and civilisation that is run by liars focussed on their own riches their ownership. I am not in favour of these criminals. They are de-stroying the planet, they encourage poverty. They support torture. They refuse joy. I explicitly seek to invent, develop and provide a new aesthetic attention. I take into account a decoherent position that comprehended uncertainties but as I wrote elsewhere gives a confidence in lack.

To cut a longer story short, I devised a system of allegedly exact proportions and exponential devel-opment and part of my procedure was to scale these proportions onto a cardboard cylinder. And as you noted, I put the cylinder in a vice and crushed it and folded it so that the exact numbering be-came self-interfering, became visually energetic. It became more exact to the situation it was in the process of producing. There’s no need for anyone reading the text to know the scheme used, the via-ble knowing has to do with understanding the disruption and excitement in unpredictable aspects of what at first seemed like a straight forward narrative or description. This procedural device was then subjected to a variety of improvised and homophonic attentions both intimately in some of the indi-vidual poems, but also across the larger work to provide the potential for a pattern of connectedness.

As you have it, the poems in Gravity each have the title of a jazz dance and the design of the book derives from my earlier small research book called Ideas on the culture dreamed of, which is alphabetical. In the initial scheme I start with African Boog and end with Zip. The reader may enjoy knowing some of this, or may not, but the reading through is affected by the schemes, the reader need only be alert to the variety of patterns and broken patterns, the narrative expectations and then their subversion.

Q2: You use collage extensively, lifting material from a diverse range of sources. We’ll hear references to Blake and Dryden, material from various works on neuroscience and physics, and later on references to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. These discourses are woven together into a poly-vocal text, reflective of the way each of us today is surrounded by multiple disourses, many too technical for us to understand. Could you say something about the poem’s appropriation of these varied discourses? You could characterise the writings in Gravity in terms of their function.

A2: The undercurrent writing takes concepts on contemporary scientific thought and practice be-cause I am paying attention to them. Trying to comprehend them. Much of the material comes from studying bio-technology as it might affect our conditions and futures as physical substance. Quantum physics in how it discusses our conditions in terms of where we are and what we are. These attentions lead into the use of language used by these groups of theory and practice. It’s a matter of taking back the language as part of the poetic material part of its substance. Both of these usages lead into and out of narrative themes in the work and also play with the vocabularies in the text. As substances to transform within the larger text.
Q3: Of course you’re making poetry, not trying to explain quantum theory or the nature of con-sciousness, so these different vocabularies are mixed in ways which produce new and surprising for-mulations. These often serve as a kind of commentary on the poem’s own process. In Cakewalk for example we have the lines: ‘The variety of their phase behaviour/encourages a focus deception/His long range special ordering/fantasises a language progression/from colloidal fluids to crystals.’ You’re interested in creating an aesthetic effect here, in provoking an experience for the reader. Is that right?

A3: Maybe aesthetic effect characterises what this is about, but we need to understand aesthetic, its basis in providing information or thoughts, in delighting the reader, in persuading the reader that it goes on and is saying something albeit elusive that there are a number of small conclusions and openings. The aesthetic effect would be a sense of wonder.

Q4: There are a series of ‘characters’ who appear throughout the text, one of the central figures be-ing the Burglar (capital B.) We’ll hear many references to the Burglar in the material you are going to read. Does the Burglar connect with your practice of appropriating text from other authors?

A4: The Burglar the Painter the Technician the Photographer the Bellman are persona in the work, I have mutual feelings about who they are and what they represent. They are metonyms for different aspects of human conditions. The Burglar steals DNA as a commodity on the stock exchange, he turns human substance into a commodity, he can put it on a USB stick, he steals consciousness, he attends to your sleep. It’s incidental that I gather my texts from texts that already exist. That would be a paradigm for Shakespeare and Chaucer, I only need to be an artist to make use of what is available. The character of the Burglar is multiple, his image is fleeting and unrecordable except as a passing wisp in the air. In a sudden lost breath. In a lost balance, stolen in that moment, in a trip on the step. Persuaded by gravity to drop instead of lift. The Burglar is a device to give the reader you or me, a landline, something to provide a recurrence and catch of bird song as it passes.

Q5: The concept of ‘entanglement’ in quantum physics interests you – the phenomenon where parti-cles remote from each other mirror each other’s behaviour. By analogy texts within Gravity are ‘en-tangled’ with each other. For example, poems at the end of the sequence, mirror texts from the be-ginning. The lines ‘The Burglar’s struggle against gravity/begins in irreversible vertigo/practiced in a periodic and reversible fashion/otherwise the lure of his search of self’ which you’ll read from ‘Bun-ny Hop’ are mirrored by: ‘The Burglar’s confrontation with exactness/held sway in this intuition, his immediate/seeing, in that false concept of a present/ trodden by fiction’ which appears in ‘Stroll’ (which you had planned to read but which we won’t have time for.) These poems were written many years apart and in very different settings. How do these textual entanglements relate to the concept of space-time?

A5: Entanglements characterises a summary of our condition as humans on a planet that is in the process of being destroyed. Our spacetime is a muliplex of where we are. The plurality of worlds that David Lewis and that for example the poet Jacques Roubaud returns to is one dimension of this, this is similar to Robert Duncan’s multiverse. It’s also more connected and interactive and self interfering than their concepts. It is disruptive in a positive way, it is energetic and the basis of our existence. It characterises that we are part of a pattern of connectedness, it’s how our human physiology works, how consciousness works or memory and our immune responses our weather. The mirrors are more extraordinary than a hall of mirrors or singular camera lens they are mobile. They are the basis of my aesthetic and my practice and my cooking. Entanglements are exemplary of the decoherence that we experience on a minute by minute condition. They articulate our loss and gains our uncer-tainty and confidence. Our accidents and corrective attentions. Our collective presences.

Your suggestion attends to composition over a broad time. You say over many years. It is also at that moment of energy that momenergy in a multiple of situations and conditions some consciously experienced others lost in the fleet of being. The benefit of project working is that it articulates the production of a poem as a job to do. It is conceptualised and planned and carried out. The idea over many years is lost to the spacetime of multiplicity and that is where the entanglement takes, is effi-caciousness, is how it is experienced as lost and found at once. Stolen and recovered at once.

Q6: A final question. On first encounter the work may seem rebarbative to a reader. But there’s a great deal of playful humour in the work isn’t there, both at the level of the language and in some of the narrative?

A6: The work is necessarily rebarbative, what a word, it feels like a blurb on the back of the book. The work is as you say playful and has an intension in humour. I can think of no better description of the human condition. In states of adversity we move through in good humour and get on with it. We interface adversity, the whole damaged condition of our planet and motivate a recovery. Maybe it is rebarbative in the sense of the barber, like the Burglar takes from you, when you are face to face with the Burglar you don’t see who it is. It is the activity that you encounter. Rebarbative because it uses vocabulary that you don’t recognise or because it feels like a demonstration of confusion, an underlying need to cohere and quickly understand, Gravity can’t be understood in that way, it offers fleets of comprehension which are continually stolen from you. I resist coherence because coherence is a death. It is lie we have been told all our lives. This civilisation does not cohere except as a death culture. We need to transform that, we need to counter it. We are tired of dying, and seeing the death of others, we are sick of the torturers and the victims of torture, tired of arms dealers and the buyers of armoury. We are rebarbative with the psychiatrist and the loss of memory. We are clowns in a circus that demands we fall over and get up. We have funny faces and cry. We demand fun and playfulness and humour, it is restorative.

Simon Collings, Allen Fisher 14th September 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

The Tears in the Fence Festival this year is on 10-13th September via Zoom video conferencing.

The Festival has a long history back to the 1990s and has always attempted to showcase a range of alternative voices associated with the magazine and workshop group. Each themed event stems from the issues of the day and attempts to continue conversations from the previous Festival. The Festival consists of readings, discussions, conversations, and is a gathering of friends and an opportunity to make new friends. Previous themes have included ‘Difference and the Other’, ‘Visionaries and Outsiders’, ‘Hidden Connections’ and ‘The Politics of Engagement’. This year’s theme in the shadow of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter is ‘Lost Connections: Light and Darkness’.
There will be sessions around migration, environmental, multilingual, power and gender dynamics, colonial issues as well as the solitudes and vicissitudes of lockdown. There will be talks, videos, conversations with celebrated poets and the opportunity to question readers and panellists. Above all, there will be stimulating readings and conversations. We shall also be using breakout rooms for further late night social discussions.

Amongst our guests will be Sascha Akhtar, Sarah Cave, Simon Collings, Rachael Clyne, Jennifer K. Dick, Andrew Duncan, Allen Fisher, John Freeman, Mandy Haggith, L. Kiew, Hari Marini, Rethabile Masilo, Geraldine Monk, Jessica Mookherjee, Joanna Nissel, Rhea Seren Phillips, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, Gavin Selerie, Aidan Semmens, Maria Stadnicka, Cherry Smyth, Harriet Tarlo, Olivia Tuck, Molly Vogel plus some surprise guests.

Tears in the Fence encourages social inclusion and welcomes under-represented poets and writers to attend this year’s festival. 15 free bursaries are on offer to anyone who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Bursary applicants may identify as (but are not limited to) any of the following: BAME writers, writers on no/low income, working class writers, writers from areas of rural or coastal deprivation, writers who have experienced homelessness, refugee writers, writers in the LGBTQ+ communities, writers who have survived abuse, disabled writers, neurodivergent writers, and writers with chronic health conditions. To apply for a free pass to all festival events please email with the subject line ‘2020 Festival Bursary’. These will be issued on a first come, first serve basis.

David Caddy 18th August 2020

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