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: You have collaborated in a group of more than two people in the past, I am wondering if you could shine some light on working through unsuccessful work for the greater good of the project and collaborative partnership.
Laura: I'm trying to remember how the collaboration with Jill Darling and Hannah Ensor started. I think we were at a gathering with poets and wine and everyone there wrote together, and the three of us kept going. We were mostly playing, you know, talking to one another, more than we were writing for an audience. We did a lot of writing, and only one of the manuscripts has been published. For one of the chapbook manuscripts, we composed in a Google Doc and were mostly writing response poems (like the section in our manuscript to Jared Stanley's EARS, taking turns writing a poem that talks to all that came before.) At another time we met in Detroit and wrote snippets of language on index cards (maybe some graphs or sketches, too?) and pulled cards from the middle of the table, writing simultaneous poems in sprints. At another time we met in Tucson and passed a yellow legal pad around, writing toward/after what came before.
So this question you have about unsuccessful work is interesting, because I guess I don't think of drafts in quite that way, as successful or unsuccessful. Everything's got potential, it's just a question of how much time and energy you want to put into shaping it. The question, for me, is how to go about shaping it into something for a wider audience than just the writers. That goes for collaborations and single-authored works; it's the same problem. For this particular group (and now that I think about it, for all my collaborations), I find that I'm happiest with the writing that we talk about a lot and revise together. So I think working through writing to make it ready for a bigger audience involves co-editing and a lot of conversation. Jill and Hannah and I have one other m.s. that's done, but we just stopped sending it out. Maybe I like that one better than the one we published? It's called you are Travolta tight pants tight, and it makes me laugh.
Your question's really important, though, because everyone has different writing habits, so when folks come together, it's hard to know initially how sensitive someone might be to another person's edits (or to the idea of editing at all.) How do you revise with the collaborative project in mind when each person might have different ideas about where it should go?
Curtis: I like this idea: "Everything's got potential, it's just a question of how much time and energy you want to put into shaping it." I will start off saying that I will always lean towards editing as part of the creative process. However, how editing takes shape in a collaborative project will change with every project--or when I think about our own MS, it may change within the project itself depending on what the text is trying to do. I guess what I am trying to get at is INTENT. In a collaborative partnership the intent of the project is most likely what brought the group together. Of course personality comes into play when offering edits, but I think that the greater good of the project will outweigh the individual's attachment to their specific part of the puzzle--or so I would hope. The success of the entire project will be the highest priority. This also means not throwing a project away because it doesn't find immediate success. I like the idea of multiple MSs ready to go, but not necessarily making the rounds. These MSs still stand as a conduit between the authors, which is so great, and I have to believe it really heightens the excitement of working in a group, especially a group of writers that are also friends.
Coming back to the idea of intent, editing will be a key part of the writing process--overriding other writing habits that detract from the success of the project. Of course, this makes a lot more sense if the project is towards a specific end like a writing contest, anthology, themed journal, etc. because the goal of the project is already laid out. Why join a group if the intent of the project does not mesh with your practice or goals for your own writing/time/labor?
This makes me wonder about collaborative projects that are written towards a specific prompt. Anthologies are great places to find work and are prime locations for more experimental or non-conventional work like collaborative projects. This calls to mind Devouring the Green: Fear of a Human Planet: An Anthology of New Writing from Jaded Ibis press. The goal of this anthology was to imagine a post human planet, following our current global trajectory to its inevitable conclusion. The anthology features collaborative pieces from Maureen Seaton and Samuel Ace; j/j hastain and t thilleman; and Stephanie Berger and Carina Finn. If you are looking for collaborative pieces your best bet may be to look for anthologies or journals over single books. When starting a collaborative project do you think it is important to set up a goal for the collaboration, for example, publication or prompt? OR, is it the collaborative group, not the project, that has a goal; for example, writing poetry or wanting to publish together? From the perspective of music, most bands join to create music together and an album may be the result of making music together. The majority of bands were not formed for a single album and then disbanded and I don't think that collaborative partnerships need to end after a single piece, book, or series is published. "Everything's got potential, it's just a question of how much time and energy you want to put into shaping it."
Laura: I love your answer here, Curtis, for the same reason I love writing with you: For you, the work comes first. Because (I assume) you think of the text as something apart from the writer, there's already a third mind in the writing process even if there's no collaboration; the page has a mind of its own. If that's the case, then of course it's the page that should direct the editing process and not the writers. And now that I'm so excited about this idea you've laid out, I want to hand it back to you in my answer to your question. I DO think it's important to have a goal in mind for a collaboration (even if the goal is just to experiment and then burn the pages afterward), but I think the goal has to be flexible so that it can adjust as the text develops. The third mind of the page should be the conductor. The group might have goals (or the individuals in the group might) that extend beyond the life of the project, but those get sublimated if they're in conflict with the project's goals or potential. With this in mind, and thinking about this conversation as a collaboration, should we shift gears and come back to 1508 with a new approach to researching/investigating collaboration and the work of other groups?
Curtis: Yes! I love this idea: investigating individual projects thinking about the goals of the collaborators at hand. I wonder how this approach will color our reading of the objects/books/texts? And of course, I am excited to share what we are reading with 1508!
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.
Curtis Emery and Laura Wetherington are poets who sometimes write poems together. Their first book, Nothing but Objects, is forthcoming in 2021. You can see their collaborative work at Pamenar Press, ELDERLY, Conjunctions, and Past Simple.
- Ears by Jared Stanley, Nightboat Books
- Devouring the Green: Fear of a Human Planet: An Anthology of New Writing, Edited by Sam Witt, Jaded Ibis Press