In this column, Notes Toward Collaboration, we’re heading into the stacks and taking you with us. We’ll be writing about poetry and collaboration: questions of authorship, values, and processes. Like you might expect with a series of articles on collaboration, we’re thinking of this space as more discursive than authoritative, more reaching than arriving.
Curtis: I want to focus on the idea of “play”: you have published collaborative objects; what do you think helps establish a firm foundation for a collaborative project? There is quite a bit of legwork to organize a collaborative practice, especially if distance is a factor. Do you think that managing the progression of a collaborative project is also an extension of that collaborative project—that working with another artist has its own nuances which influence the work and the pace at which it is created?
Laura: Back in 2011 (or 2012?) I interviewed a handful of folks who collaborated on pieces published in the audio journal textsound (Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye, Mendi + Keith Obadike, and Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch) and after talking with them, it seemed like friendship—knowing one another for a long time—was the foundation. But using your earlier example of music, I think it's possible for poets/artists who don't know one another to get together and jam, and the foundation in this case is "yes, and..." thinking. One has to approach poetry as improvisational comedy, hahaha. Collaborative projects can also be jam sessions that keep going and develop into a friendship, into another kind of foundation.
When I think about writing collaborations, I often think about this essay by Marilyn Taylor wherein she argues, basically, that while collaboration's fun and all, it's usually for the writers' entertainment and not the reader's. I'm wondering what you think of this argument, or to put the question another way, what makes a collaboration "successful" (when you’re the writer and when you’re the reader, and are they the same criteria?)
Curtis: I like the idea of collaboration as comedy and maybe the most successful collaborative writing is when the inside joke is hidden from the reader and the collaborators alike. A sort of poetic sleight of hand where multi-authorship doesn't throw off the reader or disrupt the creation of the poem. I think that collaboration is about play, but it is also about trust—specifically trusting that the work itself will not succumb to "play," becoming an echo chamber between two poets, closed off to the rest of the world. On one hand I love that idea (two poets in suspended play sectioned off in their own imagination), but in order for a collaboration to be successful for a readership, it also needs to be accessible to a readership. In extreme playfulness there needs to be a razor-specific intention. In extreme procedure, an insatiable curiosity. I don't think that multi-authorship bars this sort of technical control, but I do think it is a bit harder to accomplish with two people than it is to accomplish as a single author—and it feels near impossible to do it on your own!
By saying all that I mean to say this: What makes a collaboration work seamlessly for the writers will only be for the benefit of the reader, as the work will be stronger. So I guess as a reader of collaborative text you are also rooting for the collaborators because you enjoy quality work. What bolsters the collaborators will bolster the work. Now I think that the criteria is probably impossible to nail down—I think that collaborative projects come together on their own as much as they are planned out by writers. The ultimate improvisation of the "right place at the right time." And while that might make it sound like successful collaboration is one in a million, we also have to consider how many people actually sit down and take on a collaborative endeavor in the first place—may be the odds are better, or maybe finding that group of collaborators is a lot harder than it seems—either way if you have a collaborative project in the works it seems like the best course of action is to keep working at it. Maybe the true criterion for a successful collaborative project is just time-spent.
Laura: I agree with you when you say continuing to work together (either revising, or continuing to write) can weave a collaboration more tightly together. Simone Muench and Dean Rader co-edited They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing, and the year before that book came out, they published a book of sonnets called Suture. Each poem in that collection begins with a line from someone else’s sonnet (like Gwendolyn Brooks, like Michael Palmer.) So they’re collaborating with one another, but also with previously-published works (like we’ve done!) Many of those poems feel seamless; I can’t tell a change in tone from one line to the next. Contrast that with something like Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s Home/Birth: A Poemic. That book, largely organized in prose chunks, carries a lot of voices, like in this passage:
You know how they say you go to labor-land? La-la, like Los Angeles? I
stayed right here, in the room that’s my home office, and put my contact
Me too: just before I pushed the baby out I told them how to fix the
Something about eyes, I guess. Something about vision.
Bumper sticker: Home Birth. Natural. Empowering. Safe.
There are all kinds of jump cuts in the book, sometimes dizzying, because each paragraph moves from “I” to “I” and I’m not always sure who’s speaking. At the end here, the bumper sticker speaks. Whose voice is that? I love this technique for a conversation that seeks to break down barriers between people with uteruses, to speak frankly and publicly about birthing: an experience at once deeply personal and collectively shared.
So I'm interested in this idea of a tightly woven or sutured collaboration because I wonder when a "good" collaboration is one where the seams don't (or don't immediately) show. And when is polyvocality a part of the point? When you're reading collaborative works, do you have a preference for how joined or disjunctive the voicing sounds?
Curtis: I think that is a good question because I don’t think I have a “good” answer. On the surface I can say I do and don’t have a preference. In fact, I should say it depends on the collaborators. If I am reading work by two or more poets whose work I am aware of, I tend to trust the voice of the work because I enjoy the individual voices of the poets AT work. Obviously this doesn’t apply to reading collaborative work from artists I am unaware of; in that situation—I am along for the ride.
As a collaborator, I am interested in how playing with those seams or manipulating polyvocality (the degrees of it) can make a collaborative piece feel more exciting for the collaborators, but maybe not necessarily for the reader. To further that thought, I wonder how much collaborative work stays on the cutting room floor? How does toiling on work that may not even be sent out to publish become a functioning, generative part of a collaborative practice? When you’re in the weeds with your collaborators how do you move past work that needs to be let go and move on to work that needs to be shared? My first thought is that this is dependent on the foundation of the collaborators.
We aim to delve into the stacks of our local libraries and hope you will, too. We want to hear from you. What are you reading? What have you written? How do you include collaboration in the classroom? Please get in touch with us: collaborativepoetics [at] gmail [dot] com.
- “Dare You and Another Poet Collaborate? Collaborative poems often fail, but I admit they’re pretty darn fun” by Marilyn L. Taylor Poemeleon
- They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing, edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, Black Lawrence Press
- Suture: Poems, by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, Black Lawrence Press
- Home/Birth: A Poemic, by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker