Weekly Prose Feature: “A Collaborative Interview on Collaborations, Part 2”

June 28, 2013

On April 19, we featured the first installment of this ongoing interview series; for part two, we’ve asked a variety of types of collaborators to chime in on our questions:

  1. Poets Maureen Alsop and Joshua Gottlieb-Miller have an ongoing call-and-response poem collaboration.
  2. Visual artist Kathy Barry and poet Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman met while both in residency at the Vermont Studio Center and collaborated both in person and long distance from their respective homes in Auckland, New Zealand and New York City; a selection of their work can be found in Threaded.
  3. Poets (not to mention mother and son) Marie Harris and Sebastian Matthews began their project, Bruised Heart, after Sebastian and his family were in a car accident in August 2011.
  4. Poets Ryan Teitman and Marcus Wicker have co-written a number of poems; read a selection in Pinwheel.

QUESTION 1: How does one start a collaborative project?

Maureen Alsop: At the beginning.

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller: That’s a trick question, right? But of course, one must start a collaborative project, even if it takes two to etc. etc. I’ve always found there’s nothing better than persistence, guidelines, and trust in your partner’s differences. Unless you’re willing to not get in the way of the other person’s interests and style, the collaboration will never really start.

Kathy Barry: I had been invited to contribute a practitioner’s profile to an Auckland-based publication with the option for collaboration. I asked Jocelyn to collaborate with me as I had admired her poetry on residency and thought that our work shared certain qualities. Fortunately we were able to meet in New York to start the collaboration before I returned to New Zealand so the whole project didn’t happen via computer.

Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman: I think it starts with some spark of curiosity about the other artist’s work. Kathy and I met at the Vermont Studio Center in the summer of 2012. I was interested in her drawings and creative process, which includes meditation, so when she approached me about a collaborative project, I agreed.

Marie Harris: In the months that followed the accident, Sebastian crafted a series of poems and collages chronicling the experience from his vantage; and I made my poems. For a while it seemed these were two separate endeavors. But as time passed and as I read his work, I began to realize that the accident had caused long-suppressed issues to boil up; I needed to initiate a ‘conversation,’ both with him and with myself. Sebastian had chosen a format for his explicitly “accident” poems (which included accompanying photo-montages) and a slightly different format for his “Dear Virgo” poems which served as a sort of commentary on the other series. I found this an intriguing approach and began to realize that I could write my ICU poems in one voice, and make the “Dear Scorpio” poems in another (in my case, a younger self speaking to the older self), thereby giving me the framework in which to describe the immediate trauma and also address the aforementioned “issues.” And, because I haven’t a visual art bone in my body, I gladly relinquished the collage work to Sebastian, doing nothing more than supplying him with images (culled from the photos his stepfather took at the hospital and from photos and documents from his baby book) that he was free to use or not as he chose.

The resulting poems are not meant to be read one-to-one, but encountered as one might eavesdrop on a conversation overheard between two people in whom the reader might recognize kindred spirits, shared experiences. And I see them as two halves of a whole book.

Sebastian Matthews: I wrote these two sets of poems each as part of the on-line collaborative project The Grind. My mom also wrote many of her poems during these one-month “grinds.” This kind of daily writing allowed for the work to come out relatively free of self-consciousness. I just wrote the poems, and made the photomontages, as part of a morning practice. I let them pile up in a file.

The hard part, and the creatively engaging part, has been placing my poems alongside—in conversation with—my mother’s work. And then working on photomontages for her poems. My mom and I have always offered feedback on each other’s work; we’ve been doing it since I was a teen and she let me join her at Jean Pedrick’s Skimmilk Farm workshops. But this has deepened our creative connection, I think. We’ve both been forced to push ourselves outside our comfort zones.

Ryan Teitman: Distance was one of the things that spurred us. I was in Berkeley, Marcus was in Provincetown. Writing poems together through email was a way to keep in touch, both as friends and as poets.

Marcus Wicker: Really the project began as a way to keep in touch and continue learning from one another beyond graduate school. After three close and productive years together at Indiana University Ryan took a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and I found myself on the other side of the country at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I won’t speak for Ryan, but I was between projects—revising my first collection and trying to write new things, which mostly felt like B-sides of the work in Maybe the Saddest Thing. I needed to get out of my own way, delve in new modes, and our collaborative efforts allowed me to do so in a pressure-free way. We started a few lines at a time via email and liberally. Sometimes I’d write a couplet and Ryan would send back three or I’d pen four lines and he’d shoot back one. I get a sense that our drafting process changed with our day-to-day workload.

QUESTION 2: How does one know it’s done? Do you set parameters at the beginning or does it fizzle out?

MA: We know it’s done because we like it. Yes, we set a framework initially and follow the Minotaur through the maze.

JGM: I rarely set parameters for ending collaborations. I see collaboration as inherently generative: you trust that your partner will make better what you make, so you are free to create. Parameters for the beginnings of poems help create common ground, since style/voice/whatever really does distinguish down to each word who’s contributing what. Bad poems fizzle out. Good poems end. (Though one is not always the good poet who saw it was done first.)

KB: Meeting our initial deadline left us with a sense of untapped possibilities, of not having finished what we might do together.

JCW: Kathy and I are still in the midst of collaboration, and, so far, we haven’t set parameters other than meeting a deadline.

MH: There’s a difference between a poem or poems that are actually written collab-oratively (as in a renga or on the Exquisite Corpse model) and a collaborative project. Bruised Hearts is an example of the latter. We knew when this project was done because we established numbers for the poems in each of our sections. Sebastian and I have commented on and critiqued each other’s work for years.

RT: We had the good fortune of our collaborative work being slowed by good news. My first book was picked up by BOA Editions and Marcus won the National Poetry Series. We had first book concerns to tend to, so the collaboration got pushed to the back burner.

MW: A good deal of our poems were born from one-upmanship. I’m thinking of one poem in particular, “A Game of Chicken,” where Ryan changed the tone of a perfectly chiseled, solemn opening (in my head, at least) with three questions. To “get him back” I sent back four questions and he replied with another before shifting gears as if to say “uncle.” I suppose we let the process dictate how and where to end a poem.

QUESTION 3: Talk a little bit about the etiquette of authorship. If you’re both writing poems, do you seek publication together or separately?

MA: Together, with our collaborative poems. We share the submission process.

JGM: I’m worried more about the etiquette of collaboration. In this project we work on the same poems together. It’s important that we respect each other enough to push the work as hard as it will go, and to pull back when the other person has a clear priority in the poem (almost like running track or swimming laps, or being on a basketball team with someone who can’t miss. Feed them the ball!)

The poems sort themselves out the same way, in terms of publishing: I tend to send out the ones I like more, and Maureen tends to send out the ones she likes more, we each stay in the loop about what’s been submitted where.

I think it’s trickier with poems written in response. How could you not send those out as your own individual poems, but wouldn’t you want to reference somehow their creation as part of a larger project?

RT: We’re both listed as authors on our journal publications. Marcus has been the mastermind of the submission process.

MW: Always together. We shoot for one singular voice in each piece. From draft to final product, who wrote what is sometimes unrecognizable.

QUESTION 4: How does collaboration help you in your own work?

MA: It pushes me between down times (& up times).

JGM: I’d kind of scared myself away from the lyric in graduate school. Seeing other approaches to poetry work so beautifully is easy enough as a reader, but actually participating in other approaches allows me to experiment far more freely. Paradoxically, it also makes me much more conscious of my more conservative impulses (towards some story structure), and when those impulses are appropriate/constructive (constructive in the generative sense).

KB: Jocelyn’s ekphrastic poems unlock interesting new ways to think about and experience my drawings. They bring about a merging of our individual sensibilities, which I imagine will be generative for future work.

JCW: The invitation to live in the world of Kathy’s drawings allows my mind to travel to unfamiliar landscapes that stir my sensibility and thoughts in a manner that is new and welcome to me. Kathy introduced the collaboration during a time when I struggled with health issues and was exhausted. As I sit with her work, the process of writing is both creative and healing. Her sensitivity to line, light, shadow, and pattern creates a spacious feeling which allows me to reach past the limits of my conscious experience.

RT: It really shows where your strengths and weaknesses are. I recently got stuck on a poem and thought: “How would Marcus handle this poem?” And I was able to take the poem in a new direction. That was much easier to do because we had worked together collaboratively. It’s like having another poet’s set of tools to borrow.

MW: When I’m at my desk alone and venturing into unfamiliar territory—I’m talking tone and form—there’s always a chance I’ll stuff a draft in a drawer too soon, because initially, the process can feel painfully uncomfortable. When working with a poet as good as Ryan you learn new and interesting ways to see a poem through to that final punctuation mark. After the third or fourth piece we co-wrote, I was willing to try anything in my own work.

QUESTION 5: Why do a collaboration?

MA: It’s surprising, a process of growth and trust.

 

JGM: I like to help make art that surprises me.

JCW: I think there are many reasons to collaborate. When you feel caught in a particular pattern of thought or feeling, introducing a new artistic energy may steer your imagination towards an unexpected place that brightens your art and yourself. Collaboration holds the potential to expand your perspective and your work.

KB: There’s a social aspect of collaboration that’s appealing also. Both artists and writers generally work alone, unlike the other creative industries: music, theatre, dance… So, to share one’s process, or to engage discrete practices in a conversation, is a welcome opportunity. Likewise, the various industries can be insular, so to work with someone from another field seems expansive, and a way to build communities. Also, because VSC hosts both artists and poets, our collaboration seems like an appropriate outcome to that particular residency experience.

MH: As a poet I have collaborated with a number of artists, most of them painters, sculptors and musicians. That sort of cross-pollination has had its own interesting rewards and surprising results. I’ve never been part of a translation project, itself a very particular form of collaboration, nor have I suggested any sort of collaboration to another poet until now.

So the current project—BRUISED HEARTS—which I’ve embarked upon with my son, the poet Sebastian Matthews, is an entirely new adventure for me. It had its genesis in a shared crisis: Sebastian and his family were nearly killed in a head-on collision. His wife and son were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, while he was helicoptered to a trauma center two hours away. And it was there that I spent the next 10 days (while his wife’s family tended to her) coping with the fear, distress, pain, bureaucracy, incompetence and grace that make up the experience of an emergency and its aftermath.

SM: That this collaboration comes out of such a calamity, such trauma . . . well, it’s hard to believe I was able to write about the event at all, or that Marie could find a way to write from her vantage. I’m glad we did, though—glad that we pushed through and worked on this project together. The whole process has been cathartic, healing. It’s been almost two years since the accident, and it feels as though making this work together has helped me move out of that stuck place. I have grown into a new post-accident life in part because of this collaboration.

RT: It lets you write with a new voice, one that isn’t entirely your own. And writing with a talented friend is a reward too.

MW: To prove that poets don’t have trust issues. I’m kidding. Because it’s fun and challenging, both.

QUESTION 6: What is your definition of collaboration?

MA: Co = collective, company; Lab= eLABorative, as in a lab to experiment; Tion= action

JGM: Anything where an artist’s contribution surprises the other artist who’s working on the same thing.

KB: Collaboration holds the potential to work beyond one’s existing boundaries, to work across disciplines and to cross-pollinate ideas, it necessitates letting go and being open.

JCW: A collaboration is a mutual agreement to share work, energy, experience, and ideas to create something new.

 

SM: For me, collaboration keeps the creative process—the writing life—dynamic and fluid. It gets me out of my own little world (headspace, attitude, bias) and challenges me to fuse my ideas and images with others. It also deepens friendships (if all goes well!) and radicalizes the writing act by creating a co-authorship. All good things in my book.

RT: Driving a car with two steering wheels.

MW: I don’t have a concrete definition but for me its equal parts trust and troubleshooting.

QUESTION 7: As a poet or artist, how and when do you collaborate with other poets?

MA: When ever the opportunity arises, it’s a 3-D conversation, a meeting of time and space. Josh and I met at the Reno airport.

JGM: Whenever they want to and I respect their work. It helps if they’re interested in something completely different, some other music or style, so that it’s collaboration and not just mimicry of the same noise.

RT: When you have something to say that can’t be said by your voice alone.

MW: Joint readings are a good opportunity to soak-in and compliment other poets’ work. Sometimes that means harnessing levity following a smart but guarded set. Or tapping into a fellow readers’ triumphs and offering up a poem or presence that shares a kindred experience. As far as writing goes, I’d like to think I’m a pretty monogamous collaborator.

 

QUESTION 8: What was your best collab? What made it successful?

MA: Our body of work to date, the fact we keep going. It makes one feel like the journey of writing is worthwhile.

JGM: There’s a poem we worked on that has some references to Israel. For me this is a Jewish poem. Maureen put a Mary right in the title, though. I’m still not sure either of us knows fully what that poem is for the other. The poem bends and is stronger for it.

JCW: This is the first collaboration I’ve done with an artist.

KB: And this is the first time I’ve collaborated with a poet.

RT: I don’t know if it’s necessarily our “best” collaboration, but my favorite is the poem “Ode to Miss Donnatella Moss.” It combines our love of history with our love of television (specifically The West Wing). Plus, it’s a lot of fun to read together.

MW: A poem called “New City Ghazal,” for a number of reasons; but mostly because we challenged each other to work our names into the poem and did.

QUESTION 9: Worst? In hindsight, what about it made it so bad?

MA: Things don’t work in collaboratives if personalities are too dominating or large. Josh & I have not experienced much failure as we don’t focus on failure, allow ourselves to get too stuck, or hold lofty expectations over one another’s heads.

JGM: Sometimes the last one in the series. These poems only work if you don’t force them too. It’s like you and your collaborator are in a venn diagram, and you’re constantly edging the poem towards the middle of the diagram. Then you find something that’s kind of already there and you think that’s great. Then it’s just there and it isn’t going anywhere. After that you move on quick.

RT: I don’t know what our worst was. We’ve definitely had collaborative poems that haven’t worked out, but I think they failed for the same reasons that any poem fails, not necessarily because the poem had two poets.

MW: We wrote a poem about NCIS. You read that right. Just because we love the show doesn’t mean other people should care. And that’s all I have to say about that.

QUESTION 10: Was there any pressure to perform?

MA: No performance pressure, and sometimes more risks than in my own writing. True exposure without vulnerability is how I’d define our collaborative relationship.

JGM: Yes. Why else would you want to collaborate with someone?

JCW: The only pressure I recall is a deadline we had to meet several months ago. Otherwise, we’ve been going at our own pace.

RT: I actually found there to be less pressure. If I got stuck, I passed the poem off to Marcus, and he usually came back with something amazing. Having a great poet to work with means you’ve got support.

MW: Yes and no for the same reason. Because Ryan is a hell of a poet whom I admire and trust with my work.

QUESTION 11: Did you offer feedback or critique of other collaborator’s work? Did they to you?

MA: Not really. We also branched out with a photographer, Sparky Campanella, at one juncture. In that process our collaboratives were responsive parallels.

JGM: The most real kind of feedback or critique: continuing to collaborate with someone.

I think we all want to be influenced, and we go looking for influences. The right ones. I’m more intrigued by how my poetry can appear to mutate under the light of someone else’s work—that recessive quality was there all along.

KB: I would say that the entire process of collaboration involves an ongoing feeding-back and discussion about our work.

JCW: Kathy lives in Auckland, and I live in New York. Every couple of months, we have a Skype conversation to discuss ideas about our collaboration and update each other on our current work. Sometimes I offer my response to her new work and sometimes she responds to one of my poems.

RT: We went through a pretty significant editing process of each of our poems, so both of us got our commentary in, which made the poems much stronger in the end.

MW: Of course. Through track changes via Microsoft Word.

Maureen Alsop Maureen Alsop, Ph.D. is the author of two books of poetry, Apparition Wren, and most recently, Mantic. Visit her online at www.maureenalsop.com.
Joshua Gottlieb-Miller Joshua Gottlieb-Miller’s work has appeared in Blackbird, A Poetry Congeries, The Journal, Birmingham Poetry Review, Linebreak,  Indiana Review, where he was awarded the 2012 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, and elsewhere. Most recently he was a MacDowell Fellow.
Kathy Barry Kathy Barry is a visual artist who lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand. In 2012 she was the McCahon House artist-in-residence, followed by a 3-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been exhibited in dealer and public galleries, and artists’ project-spaces across New Zealand. She teaches contextual studies and drawing at MIT in South Auckland. Visit her website at www.kathybarry.co.nz.
Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman is author of Lure (Poetry Society of America 2009). Her poems have appeared in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Jet Fuel Review, Jubilat, Threaded, among other journals, and she’s received grants from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and the Vermont Studio Center. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University and now writes and teaches yoga in New York City.
Marie Harris Marie Harris, NH Poet Laureate 1999–2004, co-produced the first-ever gathering of state poets laureate. 
She has served as writer-in-residence at elementary and secondary schools throughout New England, 
written freelance articles for publications including the NY Times, the Boston Globe, NH Sunday News, 
and Corvette Fever. Harris is the author of four books of poetry—the most recent of which is
 Your Sun, Manny: A Prose Poem Memoir—and is the editor of several poetry anthologies.
Sebastian Matthews Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir and two books of poems. He teaches undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College and serves on the faculty of the Low-Residency MFA at Queens University, Charlotte. He is working on a novel.
Ryan Teitman Ryan Teitman is the author of Litany for the City, chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize and published by BOA Editions. His poems have appeared in The Journal, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, and other magazines. He was formerly a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
Marcus Wicker Marcus Wicker is the author of Maybe the Saddest Thing (Harper Perennial), selected by D.A. Powell for the National Poetry Series. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize and 2011 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, his poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Third Coast, and Ninth Letter, among other journals. Marcus is assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana and poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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