Collaboration has a long history in the arts, especially in music. In poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced the 'Lyrical Ballads' and Ezra Pound's editorial influence is widely regarded as an indelible (though uncredited) influence on TS Eliot's 'The Wasteland'. While most collaborations in verse involve a dialogue between two poets, this three-way 'Conversation' is intended to introduce and share a number of concerns and ideas that pertain to both composition and editorial practice. Consequently, our combined statements and reflections are intended as a foundation from which to step off into the actual writing process, and to offer potential readers a number of valuable insights into possible methodologies for a collaboration, in three voices.
Interlocutors: Luke Fischer, Anthony Lawrence, Simeon Kronenberg
Most of this conversation took place via email between 17-30 November 2015.
LF: So we were dining together at the Greek restaurant in Potts Point (Sydney) auspiciously named The Apollo, when, out of the blue it seemed, you (AL) proposed the idea that the three of us collaborate in writing a (long) poem. I'm curious to know how (or why) this idea came to mind? Was it an idea that you'd been thinking about for some time?
AL: The company and the wine! I was already lit up inside having only recently completed a new book. I was in Sydney for meetings to discuss literature. I was having dinner at the Apollo with poets, a philosopher and a painter. Our conversation around the table had been ranging widely from Romanticism, painting and various aspects of our own and others’ poetry. The idea seemed a natural extension of the moment, and collaborating with two other poets whose work is challenging, lyrical and arresting came as an ideal opportunity to showcase many aspects of our work. Many painters and poets have entered into rich collaborative territory, and a number of poets have combined and tested the variousness of their visions and techniques, but three poets! The idea was irresistible and inspiring.
SK: Yes, it was all part of what happens when people get together to talk about poems, poets, artists they love—all of that. A visceral excitement happens that (naturally) seems to lead to the notion of a shared effort. The very excitement of being together over food and wine creates the space in which something generous (to ourselves and each other) is generated. Imagine how hard it would be to write to someone 'cold' asking if they wished to collaborate on a poem? I think that would be much harder to do and much less 'safe'.
LF: A couple of things struck me about the way in which this idea for a collaborative poem emerged. Firstly, some lines from Friedrich Hölderlin (the great poet of the German Romantic era, who in the 20th century was important to the philosopher, Martin Heidegger) came to mind: ‘Much has humankind learned. / Named many of the heavenly ones. / Since we have been a conversation / And able to hear from one another [Viel hat erfahren der Mensch. / Der Himmlischen viele genannt, Seit ein Gespräch wir sind / Und hören können voneinander]’ (qtd in Heidegger 1981: 38). These lines are clearly about the nature of language and poetry, and strikingly present humanity and the world as participants in a great conversation. These lines seem pertinent because, in a sense, our conversation in the restaurant was a moment in a larger conversation (with other poets, artists, our life experience, etc.) that stretches back into the past and will extend into the future. Moreover, these lines seem to suggest that the writing of any individual poem is a contribution to the larger conversation. However, in the writing of a collaborative poem, this conversational dimension of poetry will be significantly intensified, in that we will have to respond sensitively and creatively to the unanticipated contributions made by each other. Secondly, the surprise of Anthony’s proposition to write a collaborative poem struck me as poetic. In the exploratory process of writing poetry, there are those significant lines, images, phrases, ideas, that arrive in a flash. This proposition for me had a similarly surprising immediacy and it seemed like in that very moment we all said yes to it.
AL: All our writing and reading is a kind of conversation. Heidegger was right. We are collaborating all the time, even across vast distances and through ages. Emily Dickinson understood this and referred to poets as friends and kinsmen (1961). She understood that poet and reader share a unique, intimate space, and even a poem read hundreds of years after its making contains a fierce immediacy. I'm hoping to be inspired and provoked, amazed and frustrated, but also tyrannised by this collaboration. We will bring wide reading and very different approaches to composition to the table. The act of contribution itself is sure to work as lightning rod and detour sign.
SK: Yes, I love the idea of 'lightning rod' and 'detour sign'. That's what I expect and hope for during the process of reading and writing this collaboration. Indeed, reading the ongoing work will be a catalyst, delivered through the energy of the ongoing, dynamic conversation. Because for me, reading is a kind of ongoing conversation anyway, and the spur for my own writing. Reading poetry in particular, is the most important impetus (along with other reading), because it's a dynamic process in the sense that it engenders positive action—that is writing. Thus, reading the collaborative poem as it unfolds will be an even more intense stimulus because it will be so immediate and demanding. The collaborative poem will then certainly prompt action in this way. It seems I most often need words on a page as stimulus or prompt for my own creative work. It's as if my poems are very often a kind of riposte to or agreement with the poets I'm reading and so form part of a 'conversation'. The excitement of reading and discovering different 'ways of seeing' (as John Berger put it (2009) through the work of others, living or dead, is what drives the process. It's as if I can't contain the feelings and ideas that are evoked by the work of others, so I must write them out, in the sense of exorcising them. I'm looking forward to having that same, visceral tug towards writing my own contributions when responding to yours and that is what I understand collaboration to be, the expression of a creative conversation, energised by the connections and conflicts made in the process of writing (and reading). And it may be that at times one or other of us is drowned out, becomes over-excited, is inspired, or is even overwhelmed, but that's all part of what happens in conversations too—especially when practitioners get together and talk about serious issues.
LF: What you have both said about writing and reading and about the joys and challenges we will face in this project resonates with me. It seems that we share the view that writing and reading can be viewed as a kind of conversation in which writing is analogous to speaking and reading is analogous to listening. This could also be extended to related polarities such as self and other, giving and receiving, perhaps even to breathing, tides, expansion and contraction, centrifugal and centripetal forces, etc. Importantly, however, these polarities are not opposed binaries but are in relation to one another. In a genuine conversation what one says ‘speaks to’ what one has divined in the other’s words; speaking is thus grounded in listening. Furthermore, a significant contribution to a conversation neither merely repeats what has already been said nor is it unrelated to what has been said (even to oppose something is to take a stance in relation to it). While I have found over the years that the spark of a new poem can ignite in diverse ways (out of a chance encounter, out of contemplation, out of observation, out of sleep, out of the practice of writing, etc.) I do often have a similar experience to Simeon, in which the impulse to write is an active response to what I’m reading—the potency of a new poem glimpsed in relation to what I’m reading while departing from it. The challenge in our collaborative poem will be to find a way for our divergent impulses to cohere as a single poem. As I envisage it, the relations between our distinctive contributions will have to harmonise to an even greater extent than the typical conversation between reading and writing. Rather than the more widespread practice of responding to other poets in an individually authored poem, which is sometimes clearly indicated through dedications, epigraphs, allusions, or citations, a plurality of voices will have to work together as a single poem. If I may add one more point, before passing on the baton, I’m hoping that the frustrations and challenges in the process of collaboration will be generative. Here I again see analogies to individual creative work. In attempts to chart new territory in one’s writing one often confronts obstacles, inadequacies, frustrations. While these difficulties are rarely enjoyable, the process of addressing these challenges often ultimately leads to better work. I hope that, in moments when my intentions for the evolving collaborative poem are thwarted by your contributions, I am able to embrace the challenges as a stimulus to contribute lines that surpass my previous intentions. That the unexpected ‘detour sign’ turns into the ‘lightning rod’ and in the bright flash an unforeseen path is illumined.
AL: We are all tuned in to the inevitability of flying blind during this collaboration. There's little difference between my own hard-won composition strategies and spell-weavings and working off what others will throw at me. It all begins with the first line. And then the next. Paul Muldoon writes his poems line by line with no (or very little) idea of what will happen next. He rarely moves on until that line has been crafted and shaped and reworked and beaten and resurrected. Then another line appears. Then later, if he's lucky, a poem. I've always worked that way, so it was a true delight to read that one of my favourite poets has a similar methodology. Ours will be a single poem, as Luke says, but it will be a bristling, multi-layered tenement estate with things falling out of the windows and fires in yards as well as neat, ordered plots where all things cohere. Simeon's words on impulse are with me as I write this down. I'm excited about what those impulses might be, and how they manifest themselves, each time lines of poetry come in from my co-conspirator's bodies and heads. There's not much we can say about the actual writing process until it begins, and develops organically, but I do know this: we can't afford, at any stage, to predetermine subject matter. That would throw a bucket of disinfectant over the whole thing. To be associative is one thing. To be open to whatever turns up, and to run with scissors through tricky terrain is another. I'm sharpening the blades on my pair now.
SK: More often than not I begin a poem thinking I know what I'm doing and where the poem is heading. This is most often a delusion and I'm very often surprised by what stares back at me from the page. Indeed I think now that allowing the writing process to inhabit its own shape and direction (to 'fly blind' as Anthony writes) is a sign that the poem might be working. This is what I love most about the creative process. It's as if by relaxing and 'letting it flow', genuine creativity is indeed more likely. And here, we will be responding to many, many 'first lines' as it were, to new lines written by someone else. We will need to be flexible about the direction the poem takes, because it will not be like a poem by any one of us but only like itself—the product of three imaginations.
LF: Yes, I agree that we ‘can’t afford … to predetermine subject matter’. One of the things that interests me about the ‘content’ of a poem is that it cannot be something imposed on the form. One does not begin a poem with an idea and then find a form for it. However, this is not to say that there is no content to a poem. I think from the perspective of the poet, the content of the poem is generative. It is not enough simply to have an idea and then write a poem about it. A poem brought about in this way is likely to be a still-birth. The ‘content’ to begin with is much more like a seed that unfolds, flowers, realises itself in the process of composition (what appeals to me about what could be called ‘organic free verse’, in contrast to formal verse, is the gradual emergence of the individuated form). I think the reason we (as poets) speak of the creative spark or impulse, or even inspiration, has to do with this ‘generative’ dimension of the nascent ‘content’. There is an impulse to write because the ‘content’ is a living and developing thought and not merely a detached reflection on a subject matter. My process of composition is generally very similar to that described by Denise Levertov in her essay ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’, in which she states that ‘content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction’ (1992: 69). I think that as the poem develops one’s personal intentions also become less and less relevant and it’s a matter of listening to the poem and what it needs to be brought to completion (and with regard to any ‘intentions’ it’s also important to make a distinction between the biographical individual and the poetic or writing self). Just as a painter at the beginning of painting a canvas might have all sorts of intentions, feelings and ideas, once there is a certain amount of paint on the canvas, the painter is in dialogue with what is in front of her, in bringing the painting to its fulfillment (it is only the amateur artist or poet who clings to the idea of the work as a personal expression of feeling). Similarly, once a poem is brought to a certain point, it is about whether the poem is working and not whether it expresses the poet’s intention. The poem becomes more and more impersonal. (In our collaborative project this impersonality will be intensified through the multipersonal and poly-vocal involvement—‘the three imaginations’, as Simeon put it.) When the poem is complete, then it stands on its own feet (it is its own ‘entelechy’, to use Aristotelian terminology) and has little (or no) need of its author(s) any more. It belongs to the world. With regard to our collaborative poem, I anticipate that as the poem progresses we will more and more listen to the poem (in its multiple, complex and divergent facets). I’m excited by the surprise in this; our writing will be like the very slow unwrapping of a gift.
AL: We work towards making our poems someone else's. We want to be able to read poems as though they were composed by the 'other'. Concealing identity is always a major challenge when trying to make a unified work, despite its obvious shifts in syntax and stylistic flourishes. For the poets involved, a degree of distance/objectivity is essential when reading the finished work. 'Otherness' implies a giving-over of the work into the hands of invisible strangers, but it also calls into play a sense that magic is indeed alive and well within the lines. Collaboration is tough enough between two poets. Three voices will be a challenge. Not only will we be trying to put our own work to the objectifying sword, but also that of our co-conspirators. Sometimes working alone can be like a collaboration—the musician, artist, sculptor, editor and iconoclast all in the same room. It can be hell being heard.
SK: Yes, I want the work to be somehow outside myself—belonging to 'the world', and to read my/our poem(s) as if it/they are composed by someone else, the 'other' perhaps. And that's because poems do eventually take on separate lives, especially once they appear on the printed page. (But it's not always the life we might wish for them. Often, we wish to take them back to be re-ingested, then re-launched. Auden was infamous for wanting to re-write interminably. I think perhaps he could not bear to 'finish' anything because that meant it no longer belonged to him and he simply could not face the separation. And of course he changed his political views, or at least the intensity of them, and that too drove him to want to re-write.)
I'm interested in Luke's notion of 'organic free verse' and think this is a useful definition for what I attempt to write. I heard a poet once say that she approaches the writing desk with a clear picture in her head of the form the poem is about to take—to the extent that she knows, say, that she intends to write a poem in tercets or couplets or whatever. I found (and still find) this unfathomable. When I begin a poem I have no idea what its shape will be—that is the furthest thing from my thoughts. It is instead as if the impulse to write simply takes over and I have to just write—on anything, with anything. So, most often my poems begin as a very hard-to-read scribble-down on a scrap of paper, or in the end pages of a book of poems I'm reading (shocking I know, but I see this as a compliment to the poet whose book I'm defacing); indeed I write the thing down on anything that comes to hand. I'm not claiming here any kind of corny 'inspiration', it's rather more like exorcism as I've said, in that I have to get something out. No choice. But it is also outside time in a way. I often find myself having been totally absorbed in the process and very surprised by how long I've been working.
So, getting it down in this way is the first part then I end up with a block of words that I write out again in lines, shaping as I go and as the words determine. Then this is transferred to the computer and re-worked, as many times as I think necessary. And at various stages in this process it might be in four line stanzas, or three or in one continuous slab—or whatever. But at no time in this process have I thought about form as something I'm aiming for—it's all about content and the eventual form is determined by what makes most sense of the content of the poem and is subject to it. The idea of beginning a poem with say, the notion of writing a villanelle is anathema. I see no purpose in a pursuit like this (for me), except perhaps as an exercise for a workshop or whatever, because content drives the work (emotion, politics, narrative, heart, history, landscape) and is fundamentally what matters. And somehow or other that content determines its own singular form on each occasion (which is not to say that the eventual form is always absolutely the right one, but it is the one I have come to). So, what I write is 'organic free verse' I guess and that's good enough for me but what I read of course is everything else.
LF: It’s promising, I think, that our approaches to composition seem to be similar in a number of significant respects. This should make the collaborative poem a less difficult task than it could be (though it will still be very challenging) if the three poets had very different approaches to the creative process. In various ways we have suggested, I think, that there should not be many constraints in the way we approach the concrete task of writing the poem, as minimal restraints would probably best serve the kind of organic approach to the creative process that we have adumbrated. However, it could be worth discussing a bit more the methodology we have in mind. In this ‘conversation’ we have had a couple of constraints and a ‘rule of thumb’. We had a time constraint (only a couple of weeks to write the conversation) and then a rule of thumb that we take turns to respond in order to keep the conversation moving. We have also been constrained by the distance between us (while Simeon and I live in Sydney, Anthony lives on the north coast of NSW) and thus communicated via email. Am I right to assume that we will prescribe no time constraints on the collaborative poem, apply the same rule of thumb of taking turns to add to the poem, and keep open the length of each additional contribution (from one word—or none—to a number of stanzas)? Are there further conditions that would be interesting to consider with regard to the organic (epigenetic?) emergence of the collaborative poem? (In mentioning the epigenetic, I am thinking specifically of the parallels and even continuities between the emergence of biological form and the emergence of artistic form, which was a key idea for Romantic poets and thinkers as well as some twentieth-century poets and philosophers, among them the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.)
AL: Finding time for writing poetry can be interesting. Generally I have one or two fertile writing times a year in which I'll do little else, and I give myself over to those narrow windows. Many poets feel equally blessed and cursed by these rhythms: we hate it when we're writing because the emotional demands are often serious, and we hate it when we're barren of words because we miss the intensity of vision that an extended creative time affords. When I can't write I don't try to force it—I couldn't cobble together a lyrical shopping list. I don't want to put the frighteners on you and make you think that my contributions might be lame because our marriage of souls might begin at a time when I'm back in the world, being level-headed. It's just the way it is. It's timing. Caveat emptor. But I have a Plan B, in case the Muse decides to muzzle me with inactivity. My contingency involves your poems. I will turn my editor's X-Ray vision on and tap into otherness, shaping and refining, suggesting alternative images and phrasing, line-breaks and stanza-shapes. If we go deep enough into the poetry of others, if we are speleologists and wing-suit base-jumpers, we can—if we're lucky—achieve a kind of self-hypnotism that unlocks a poem’s hidden treasures and gives us access to amazement. I will work with your poems to find what I'm not able to break into. It's what Simeon was referring to: reading poetry shifts our inner attention to a crucial energy where, as Anne Sexton wrote, 'need is not quite belief' (1981: 63). Not quite, but it's enough. And so while I'm editing and suggesting, blackening the margins, my field surgery will open me to my own work. I may be lit up from the outset and go headfirst into the barricades, swinging and throwing ink. Whatever happens, the energy of each other's poetry will be there, teasing, arguing, demanding to be heard. Regarding a methodology, in the early stages at least, we don't need one. Let's write, follow leads, abandon them, take new routes, get out a map, kill the flashlight, ask directions, get lost, use the stars. The actual writing is the most important thing, not how it should be dovetailed into the fabric of a communal work. That will happen. Let's trust our fear. Later, as editors and engineers, we can build bridges between what needs connecting, or plant explosives under a dead foundation. Light the blue touch paper and stand clear.
SK: Yes, engineers and bridge builders later, poets first.
And I think we might all have lapses, inattentions, other jobs, whatever, where we need to be, rather than where we might wish to be. We will each be scavengers at times; at other times, top predators. It is essential to allow for these shifts, in ourselves and others. The adventure in this is the lack of control—that's the point of it. So, let's begin by beginning and see what happens.
But, first, I think Luke's summary of how we might put some constraints on ourselves is a good way to start:
no time constraints on the collaborative poem
we will take turns to add to the poem
we will keep open the length of each additional contribution (from one word—or none—to a number of stanzas).
This can all be revised of course as we go. It might for instance not be a good idea to always 'take turns' in writing. We may need considerably more flexibility here. But I'm happy to start that way for now at least, so that we can begin …
Since the time period of this conversation, we have made a good start to our collaborative poem (not always alternating between the three of us). While it would be premature to publish any of the poem at this stage, we plan to publish the poem upon its completion.
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Dickinson, E 1961 Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems (ed. TH Johnson), Boston MA: Little, Brown & Co
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Levertov, D 1992 ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’ in New & Selected Essays, New York: New Directions Books, 67-73
Merleau-Ponty, M 2003 Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France (trans. Robert Vallier), Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press
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