I’ve been thinking again and again about this line: ‘I am smaller, uglier, more powerful than before.’ Could you tell me more about this? Is a particular form of power being articulated?
The line comes from Penelope Mortimer’s incredible novel The Pumpkin Eater. In Mortimer’s book, the line occurs when the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and she asks her husband about his relationship with a woman they had to stay at their home, years ago:
Possibly fifteen seconds had gone by, but during that time, under cover, as it were, of these inconclusive thoughts about poor Philpot, some of my innocence, trust, stupidity, idealism, had been stripped away from me like skins. I was smaller, uglier, more powerful than I had been before, and I felt bewitched by fear.
So the phrase describes the complicated sense of power of someone who has been stripped down, who feels reduced – but vital for it. It’s the power of someone who suddenly sees it all, who feels no loyalty of any kind, who can spit at those with power and move away without worry, who is newly detached, watching the trenches of reality as though from above.
I do not wish to mythologise and therefore endorse trauma or the sources of trauma, but it’s true that for me my particular diminishment has come to feel like a shield. I can no longer be disappointed by the way things turn out, which makes me invulnerable, though not without hope.
Within this book, there seems to be an emphasis on telling one’s story – or, at least, trying to. Is it the attempt that’s significant?
In small white monkeys I talk about the difficulty of putting shame into language, citing Denise Riley and W. S. Graham. Without reiterating what I’ve written there, I’ll try a simile: trying to put shame into language is like trying to bathe a cat. The cat’s reaction to larger bodies of water (larger than a sink, say) is one of absolute resistance, as though the species possesses a collective memory, one that tells them how certain of their relatives and ancestors were drowned in such bodies of water. But at the same time as shame itself writhes and twists away from the verbal, the practice – yes, the attempt at expression – is very cathartic. I rebel against the position that understands this idea as a literary cliché, that attributes this view primarily to the workshop amateur. That writing is not cathartic is a very popular view, one that’s in fact shared by several of my favourite writers, women I respect very much, but it’s not my view. Writing gives me huge relief.
Writing is my way of legitimising my thoughts, of making something real. It’s my way of confirming, if only to myself, that I exist and that my thoughts and experiences are valid. At my lowest ebbs – after being assaulted, after a horrible argument with someone I love or someone I detest, after a bad experience in the street – I have often written down my understanding of what happened in a Word document. This is why, to be frank, when I read writing that is entirely insincere, that feels devoid of emotional truth, that in fact derides the very existence of the latter, I find it deeply mundane and at the same time offensive, because it’s an attack on the only form in which I am able to recognise my self.
What was it about the image/ presence/ resonance of the small white monkeys that you kept returning to?
‘The Engine’, the poem that provided me with the idea for small white monkeys, is in fact full of images. But this, the white monkeys, is the one readers and audience members most often grasped onto, the one I was most often asked to account for. The monkeys are menacing, disquieting, very sinister. They are watchful, silent and judgemental. I have been scared of monkeys for years, and so I had to wonder why I would do something so abject as to put a hoard of them at the centre of one of my poems. Once I began thinking about the image, it became obvious to me that the monkeys were a shame symbol, and that this is how writers get around the affect’s resistance to language – i.e., via symbolism. It seems glaringly obvious, but to say ‘I felt ashamed’ communicates next to nothing, whereas to say that you were watched by a gang of white monkeys from a pylon, or were exposed on a daily basis to a dirty mattress with a brown stain on it, is, I think, getting somewhere towards the truth of feeling.
You’ve said that the book is partly an examination of the ‘common conception of shame as dependent on public or external judgment’. Is this a limited conception? What bearing does it have on the way we think about women and public vilification?
It’s limited, yes. The self is not a totalised or consistent entity; I have so many perspectives within me. I think those who disagree with this must have a very reduced (and therefore, I think, quite pleasant) inner life.
Some of my selves give me a harder time than others. We are awful to ourselves, and I’m no different. I judge myself just as I judge others: very harshly. I’m never surprised by an insult because I’m always the first to have levelled it against myself. I often agree with the insults I receive.
You also write about “shame’s relationship to writing, poetry and self-expression.” Is that a relationship you conceive of as fraught, or troubling, or necessary? (Or something else entirely?)
All relationships are fraught and barbaric. As above, the need for me to try and communicate shame and trauma, even via indirect means (symbols, metaphors), is necessary to my maintaining a good standard of mental health. It comes from the need to be seen and the desire to be congruent.
Could you tell me more about the other women’s voices woven throughout the text?
Sophie Collins: There are so many other women in the book, including literary and artistic figures who influenced my writing/thinking but are not necessarily cited. I also worked with the Glasgow Women’s Library’s Archive Collections, and typing out voices I encountered there, in hard copy, became a kind of rehearsal for relating my own (broken, halting) narrative.
Here’s a passage I recently wrote that expands on that idea: The essay(s) and poems in small white monkeys were made through research into Glasgow Women’s Library’s materials and resources, and with the help of the library’s staff and the library’s atmosphere of support. I started in the Violence Against Women archives, which include records from the Edinburgh and Glasgow Rape Crisis Centres, and the Zero Tolerance archives. I began my research by compiling a document of first-person accounts and testimonies pertaining to experiences of sexual violence and associated trauma. The result was something akin to Svetlana Alexievich’s polyphonic historical writings (as in The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II). Although it remains unpublished, the voices gathered in this document helped me to find my own.’
Sophie Collins, in conversation with Rosalind Jana.