A divine symmetry emerges quietly in Nicolette Polek’s debut collection. Imaginary Museums exhibits twenty-six compact short stories, categorized into four distinct sections: ‘Miniature Catastrophes’, ‘American Interiors’, ‘Slovak Sceneries’, and ‘Library of Lost Things’. And while these sections read as discrete experiences, a common thread unites these stories: Polek’s narrators manifest their sadness so powerfully—whether we’re following a woman who spends much of her life assembling a rope barrier to shield herself from the world, or a divorcée who has taken to painting herself in empty Arctic landscapes, each story reads like a microcosm of miniaturist detail, narrated with a delicate shadow play of intimacy.
Below, I speak with the author about the shape of the collection, the impact of multimedia and performance art on her writing, and the forms of storytelling she’s been drawn to during isolation.
Hi, Nicolette! Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Hi Gauraa, thanks for asking me. I’m writing from my living room in Maryland. On either side of me are dogs chewing bones. It’s the last weekend of summer.
When discussing the shape of this collection, you’ve remarked in the past that you’ve tried to think of categorizing these stories as wings of a museum. Could you tell us a little about what shape means to you in the context of a short story collection?
There are 26 stories in Imaginary Museums, putting them in a non-sectioned collection felt like throwing them into a bag. Section breaks felt like benches. Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, which helped me start thinking about divisions in this collection, has four parts, as do symphonies. The shape of something is the thing which contains all the parts; the shape contains everything.
What are some of your favorite collections by shape?
I enjoyed how Deb Olin Unferth’s Wait Till You See Me Dance is organized, and the variations of story lengths within each section. Patterns are satisfying to me, but so is patternlessness… honestly I don’t read short story collections straight through, I’ll read a handful every few months, so shape doesn’t hold. It would be nice to see the fibonacci sequence shape a collection: the first story would be 1 page long, second 1 page long, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1. Longer stories being led up to by shorter ones, then working backwards, etc.
How long did it take you to write Imaginary Museums? When were the first and last stories written?
Five years in total, the first story was written when I was a student at Bennington College, the last one was written last year in D.C..
You’ve mentioned before that you originally wanted the readings and events for this book to feel like discrete experiences—reading a story in a glass room on the 26th floor of corporate business, for example. Your stories, “How to Eat Well” and “The Squinter’s Watch”, have also been displayed in art galleries like SI in Portland, Oregon, and Springsteen in Baltimore, Maryland. What impact does multimedia and performance art have on your writing?
I wanted the readings to be subtle and rare experiences, similar to a good story. I’m drawn to a certain dance rehearsal aesthetic from youth… geometry homework and a lacrosse ball in your bag… while you’re on stage trying to pretend to be a flower……. but the readings ended up in bookstores and that was better than I had anticipated.
You’re also a musician and a filmmaker. How do you decide which form works best—music, text, visuals— for the story you’re telling?
I’m a trained pianist, but I don’t compose music or make films. Maybe I will. Recently I joined a mycological society and the effect has been that I suddenly see mushrooms everywhere. I must see at least 20 every day now, before I hadn’t noticed any. I’ll draw, or learn how to be a better bellringer, and it’ll unlock something in the world for me, but it all goes into my writing—even the impressions of all those new mushrooms, they funnel down to text.
Which form do you find you’ve been drawn to most during isolation/ quarantine?
I’ve been playing the piano more. And recording things differently: I have a five-year journal, and take photographs that are meant to be saved instead of shared on platforms. Recently I’ve been spending time with children, so I’ve gotten into a habit of drawing the things they say, and making short books with them.
Quite a few of your stories feel like they’re born out of an intimate oral tradition — “Flowers for Angelika” and “Sabbatical” immediately come to mind. Could you speak a little bit about the influence of familial and traditional folklore on your writing?
My parents spent most of their lives in Slovakia, under Socialism, between villages and small towns, and I grew up in Ohio. So a lot of their memories felt like folklore to me, incredible and unknown, but became a part of me too. They were real, and they were mine, but far away.
I recently read that you’re working on a novel. How is that project coming along? Do you find that writing under quarantine has altered your process in any way?
I’ve been working on two novels, and it’s been helpful to have the other project to bounce into when one is feeling stale. I generally work slowly, and time in quarantine goes slowly, so I will find myself lost more often, which can be frustrating. Less things mark time now. It feels like one of those paper calendars with the days blowing in the wind, but each page is the same day. My best writing happens when I wake up early and go on a long walk beforehand. And lifting my heart up: so, singing, or reading the Bible, or walking through a memory step-by-step with my mother. These have all played a role.
What have you been reading lately?
Here’s my stack next to the reading chair: Angels & Saints by Eliot Weinberger, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry by Kenneth Koch, Counternarratives by John Keene, Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard, Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith, Laurus by Eugene Vodalzkin.
Lastly, is there an indie bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Mac’s Backs, and Loganberry Books in Cleveland, Ohio. Politics and Prose, and East City Bookshop in D.C..
Imaginary Museums is out now via Soft Skull Press, and available wherever books are sold.