CONVERSATION///COLLABORATION with Issue Two contributors Chis Dennis, Phil Estes, MC Hyland & Becca Klaver
AG : Firstly, just to establish our parameters here, how do you define creative collaboration? Can you find it in your own process?
CD : I love puns. They're the language of my heart--the compulsively associative portions of it, at least. In a typical conversation with me one might say, "We need to wrap this up quickly," and I'll say, "I need to do a quick rap myself," at which point I will commence to rapping, usually something x-rated and quirky that itself contains many puns (think Ludacris meets almost any Kristen Wiig character). These associative leaps amuse me, and help me to incorporate various facets of my greater social identity into everyday conversations. I like interrupting seriousness. I like letting the air out. You know how it is. A person longs to breath! And infuse their environments with absurdity. Especially when said environments represent the antithesis of comedy, as many do. The point of all this being that, we creatively collaborate with the spaces we're in as much as we do with the people that show up there. It's no coincidence that my dearest friends also love language; we love fucking with it, we love stretching it out, we love making it mean new things--dumb things, uncanny things, things that refer to other things--and of course we love making new words. It's this type of collaboration that inspires my writing. It shows up in my work all the time--sometimes months or years after the fact. A good pun back and forth for several minutes (a rousing game of pun-pong, as my friend, Shea, likes to call it) has on more than one occasion led to a line, or character, or scene that's grown into a story. I don't mean to be a thief or anything. But authorship is tricky, and art is collage, always, every time--a vulgar amalgam of the people we love and the places we hate, or else the places we feel most at home and the people we most feel are homos, or the homos we hate that live in our homes and try to love us without being given permission first. I'm talking to you, Greg Louganis.
BK : Chris, I love that your answer spun, in the end, into an enactment of your pun-penchant; I love the idea of collaborating with yourself. I love making things as meta as possible, which tends to make certain people cringe. The others like to pal around with me, listening to Destroyer in a hall of mirrors.
I think Chris' phrase "a vulgar amalgam of the people we love and the places we hate" would be a pretty good way to describe a lot of the poems in my book. My poems are usually stealing tones of light from the landscape as much as they're stealing words out of my boyfriend's mouth.
When I would sit at the table with my four sisters and two parents in high school and college, scribbling in a diary while everyone was eating and drinking and talking, they would ask, "What are you writing? Can we see? Let us see," thinking that maybe it was about them. It wasn't; it was 365 ways of asking Who Am I. Now I don't keep a diary proper – there's no daily entry and no grand narrative. I'll sit at the card table and squeal at the good jokes, and then the directives come – "Write this down" – and I grab a scrap of paper and I do. So for me collaboration has been a way of being present, living in real time versus diaristic time.
PE : Chris and Becca got me thinking.
I lived in Kansas City the last three years and I wrote a lot and shared it with three women I knew. They read the work and would carve up problematic parts – question a flabby-sounding line or mark out whole stanzas. Those stanzas became bits and pieces placed into other poems; I never felt like I lost any language, but gained a perspective on my work I would never get if I wrote in my room all day burning Mother Mary candles and asking for help from God. I'm not religious, but I think God helps – usually during early drafts.
Living in Oklahoma has been trying, but I have friends who help. Robin, one of the three women from KC, sends me comments all the time through gmail in little Word documents. My friend Haesong, some nights, will read through my poems line by line, outloud, and demand meaning from every line--he usually points out what he likes and what he doesn't like and asks for clarification. I don't do it as much for them and I feel bad about it.
I tend to take from my friends all the time [too] – stuff Robin and the other women would say gets into my poems; I know stuff I say gets into Haesong's. They enter the poems either through direct quotes or in spirit. Kind of in response to Becca: I always write about somebody I know, but they never ask me about it. I never eat dinner with them anymore. God, that sounds too sad, sorry.
I like what Chris says. We all use lines or work bounced off each other and we learn language in a greater sense--we know language can be emotionally charged. I feel like what Becca brings up is also exceptional – the idea of diary writing. I tend to write confession-ally at times but I always write for and about people who may not be around to read it. The people who often ask what person my work is "about" don't know the subject. I think that's why the women I knew in KC who gave me solid feedback where so important – they knew who appear in my poems but they never mentioned it directly they assume it is someone completely imagined. I think. Those women were pretty important and very much informed my work.
MH : For me, as a writer who went to some book-arts school and now works with a lot of book artists, collaboration makes me think of the process that happens when you turn a piece of writing into a book. You want to find ways to make all the parts (the writing, the structure, the materials, the typography, the imagery) feel right together, but not feel like they're doing something too obvious--not, for example, illustrate WCW's "This is just to say" with a picture of plums in an icebox. Instead, I might think about printing a broadside of the poem on paper the color of a sweaty, glowing plum--something suggestive, but not illustrative. (Or maybe just on a tiny piece of paper, like the size of a pocket notepad!) When I collaborate, I think about that sort of coming-at-things-from-the-side approach: it's important for all the collaborators to have a chance to approach the project cleanly, and from their own perspectives. This also applies if it's just me collaborating with my memories/received texts/environment. The inherently collaborative process of making visual objects with other people's writing really opened up a lot in my own approach to language.
I used to teach a lot of community creative writing classes, with teenagers and adults, and I always had a collaboration day, where a lot of what we did was play exquisite corpse games. I think play is an important part of working with other people--having another person around allows you to get at the play that's (hopefully) already going on in the process of writing. My boyfriend, Jeff (who's my collaborator with DoubleCross Press and with whom I run a reading series) and I play some of those writing games too, from time to time, and I feel like it loosens us both up to new possibilities. I have a slip of paper from one of those games that I keep on my dresser: it reads, "The brain is a machine lumbering into light." Yes!
There's been a lot of talk about collaborating with other people/communities/families/etc. via their uncontrolled presence in a writer's mind as s/he creates. This feels a lot like some kind of equation (perspective + environment = process?), in which realized context becomes a conscious part of process. It's a collaboration with offered reality, as opposed to collaboration with another entity.
But I'm wondering how you unbraid that from any other way of thinking about creating. The expressionist - representationalist - impressionist approaches (to borrow from visual art lexicon) encompass both craft and content, often real things portrayed subjectively in a dramatic way. It's all a reaction to sensory, intellectual and emotional experiences. So what's the difference between collaborating via context and actually collaborating with another person?
CD : I've collaborated with other artists maybe a dozen times, to varying degrees of success. And the longest projects were of course the hardest. In college I wrote a play with a really close friend. It seemed like the perfect thing to do; we cared for and were excited by similar things. At first it was all laughter, motivation, and consensus--during the idea process, before we actually had to commit to anything.
We'd essentially made a giant list of options we both found exciting and weird. Things started taking shape, a narrative arc and a tone began to emerge. Then came the time when we had to write down the opening scene. One of us thought it should begin with video footage of the protagonist smashing his face against a window--or something like that--and the other thought it should start with the mother walking down a hallway. We went back and forth about it for awhile, deciding on neither option, which was for the best, but still, we realized, I think, that despite all the fluid and seemingly homogeneous brainstorming we'd done--all the idea gathering that seemed to glow with awesomeness--we were not, in fact, tapped into an identical vision.
It was disheartening, and we stopped, for a couple days. I was surprised that we hadn't been on the same page that whole time. And then I was worried that all my good ideas were going to be twisted into something that was no longer my own. I'm sure she felt the same. But we got over it. We slowed down, moved through options and scenes one line of dialog and stage direction at a time. We pretended to be the characters, and allowed some of the conflicts between our conceptions of the play to be a part of the story. Symbiosis--maybe--is a good word for that?
We cranked the whole thing out--from concept to production--in about two months. It was rough, and we argued a lot, and had trouble deciding on things, and fought over who would have an affair with the male lead. Our early illusion of creative accordance, though, became something more complicated and better in the end. We worked really hard to understand each other's intentions. We whittled away at the parts we didn't agree on, and divided up the potential outcomes until finally we had a piece of work we could both feel happy about. It was very confusing, and forced us to muffle our egos a little. Eventually, though, we did possess the work together. Our production "Shrek The Musical " went on to win several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Thank you!
BK : Amanda, I love what you say about collaborating with "offered reality." And maybe you're right – stealing words out of people's mouths isn't exactly collaboration in a strict sense. I grew up with three sisters, and we were four and a half years apart, and ever since, I seem to collaborate best in square formation (!). So, maybe the truth is that because sharing (clothing, attention, food) was a reality for me from the start, and because I collaborate for real in so many other areas of my life, my writing is something that I want to be "all mine" more than other things.
But I do actively think of real people in my life as inspiration and as audience as I'm writing, so I'm never really on my own. I've already written here about other people inspiring me, but the audience point could bear a tiny bit of elaboration: I want to write for real people, and I actively think of them as I write. Not always, but often. Not in order to meet expectations, but in order to "give pleasure. They're my friends; they're not necessarily writers, or publishing writers; they're people who might "get it." I actually just got back from doing a poetry reading which a couple of my BFFs-from-way-back-when attended, and we talked a lot about typical poetry readings, and how sometimes writers will read as if they're alone in the room (the death of the author?). I think it's scary but important to try to read in a way that acknowledges the presence of all the (smiling ... sleeping ...) reactions in the room. So the reading/publication venue has collaborative possibility, too, I think. I guess I mean this in an energy-transfer way, not in an audience-comes-up-and-makes-finger-paintings-while-I-read way, but actually, that's not a bad idea!
I want to say one more thing about my sisters: Once I asked them to collaborate on a blog with me, a four-person, collective-memory version of Joe Brainard's "I Remember." The idea was just to try to remember anything about our childhood before we forgot it, and start each entry with "I remember." They thought it was fun, but it tapered off very quickly. When I think about this, I think, "We should still do it!" But then I also think, "The writer [in the family] [in the room] is the one who records the collective memory. That's her role." And the memory is still collective that way, but recorded and transmitted by one person.
That feels more like ancient ritual than revelation, but there it is.
There's cross-currents, here, of a sort of creative territorialism and the need to connect: having a voice and/or having a co-creator (friend?).
Chris, you described something that sounded in some ways like a stalemate at a death match; Phil, it seems like by inviting other voices you're reaching out for people help you pull yourself back from losing perspective (and inviting the perspectives of those who you artistically respect). MC, you seem quieter about collaboration, more set on responsiveness and play in process. Lastly, Becca, you have this lovely mouthpiece vision, in which the non-writers find a written life in your work.
All of this sort of illuminates the delightful and painful loneliness, maybe, of artmaking. I'm wondering, then, because collaboration is about the intersection of other people and our art, does it then automatically spike our emotions in a way which is more raw, more bold and bald than, say, clambering over syntax, or something so similarly clean and small?
PE : I think that your suggestion I reach out to poets/poem writers I trust is an accurate assessment of my process. I think the individualistic nature of poetry or any literary art can be an obstacle – if you get good, and work at it, you can get lost in your above-averageness. I think bouncing ideas off of people or having "coaches" who you respect help get you out of your head. It helps me definitely. Look at the artists and writers outside of the academy, who get somewhere with their work, and who have the image of the recluse: "autodidacts" like Harvey Pekar (who was not a poet, but I think he works as an example), Alan Dugan, Charles Bukowski, and Emily Dickinson. They all have an element of non-academic, non-artistic work-environments, but in reality they all kept connections with artists and people they respected. Pekar knew Crumb early on and maintained numerous [other] relationships in the comics world, Alan Dugan and the Buk both worked in different types of drudgery – Dugan in the middle-class world of adversting, Bukowski in factories and Post Offices – but they both "worked" in the poetry world too. Dugan even taught [at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown], I think, and he worked with a young Carl Phillips, who wrote an introduction to Poems Seven, Dugan's collected work. Bukowski's letters are all to sympathetic editors and poets. Dickinson, for as much as she has been pegged as a recluse, had a friendship with Samuel Bowles, etc.
These people…didn't just come out of the ether. I feel on the outside of poetry sometimes because I live in Oklahoma, but I have maintained relationships with people who have helped my work. When I fail, it usually happens out of insecurity or arrogance. The former happens when I don't have any other people around who write or read poetry--I begin to read the same people over and over again, fall back on aesthetics I'm too comfortable/familiar with--and the latter happens when I've gotten a pub with the combination of the former--the aesthetics I rely on too much work "enough," I fall in love with the poem's hotspot and refuse to look at flaws that exist. When I tend to "succeed" occurs when I never think the work is good enough. Collaboration helps greatly in this way--I don't want to retread what I said earlier, but when I am around people whose work and opinions I respect, I operate much better. The poem that works "enough"--the result of arrogance on my part--is pushed farther when I have someone calling me out. Think of a bunch of Lee Krasners, or Marcia Gay Hardens playing Lee Krasners. Not that I am Jackson Pollack.
I feel like the result of this collaboration is most exciting to me, but I don't think it is anymore emotionally charged than when I work [alone] in revision; it is all very holistic for me. The emotional moment, the "hotspot," comes usually after I talk through the revisions and then look at notes from someone I trust – somehow, I take the poem and I write hot and fast, and I revise.
Without collaboration I don't have strong revision, without clambering over syntax I got a shit line/image/prose block: I'll have just a snippet,or a literal transcript of what has been talked about with a close friend. I think collaboration and then revision work in a symbiosis. Only when I hit the language do I get the clear emotional spike, the moment my body shakes or I have the potential to shake someone else. The only way you hit that language is through refinement of it, to cut away the fat of the idea.
I think about the scene in Pollack when Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner watches Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack paints. This is early in the film, before they get the house in Long Island. He has the painting up against the wall and looks at different pieces of it and works fast--he makes a few marks, he has a cigarette in his mouth. Krasner keeps asking him questions – What is this? This is not surrealism, cubism, Jackson. What are you doing? – etc.
She makes him think but she frustrates him. Jackson gives up and hands the tube of paint he's been working with and says: "You paint the fucking thing." I've felt that way especially with the women in my life who have read and given me feedback. I never said "You write the fucking [thing].”…Jackson does – a kind of scream of masculine cool.
But without Krasner there to ask those questions, and to frustrate him, does Pollack ever actually get to No. 5? I don't know, but I'd say probably not.
MH : Chris's discussion of the process of collaboratively writing a play and Phil's Pollock example led me to think really specifically about the way some of the creative collaborations I've been a part of have worked. I've worked collaboratively in a few different media: as a writer, a bookmaker, and (when I was in high school and college) in a couple of ensemble-created theater pieces. A lot of the work I've been focusing on lately is collaborative: I co-edit a poetry journal with my friend Stephanie, make books with Jeff. And running a reading series feels to me like a way of helping to facilitate a local community: I really responded to what Becca said about readings as a collaboration between audience and readers.
Though each kind of collaboration has different nuances, I think there are two main ideas about collaboration that I've drawn from the whole set:
1) It can be helpful for people to have roles. Those roles can be clearly or implicitly defined, and they can shift, but in general, having roles helps. Like, in ensemble-created theater pieces, it helps to have a director, who's watching the action rather than participating in it. My BFF is a playwright who's been collaboratively creating this play (shameless plug!), and she and the actor she's working with take turns running rehearsal, so there's always someone whose job it is to decide what they're working on that day and when to take lunch breaks. I think defining roles can help open things up--it can (and this runs a little counter to Amanda's question about emotion and creativity) create a safe zone that we don't always have when we're playing all the roles ourselves. I think this is a little like what Phil said about friends-as-reader/editors: relinquishing a certain amount of control can give us space and permission to take things further than we might on our own. Maybe this is the place where collaboration can get scary--but I think it's more that it gives us access to emotional content that we might otherwise shun than that collaboration itself is an inherently emotional process. (Though maybe this is being too starry-eyed; obviously we can have relationships with collaborators that push certain emotional buttons. And sometimes better art comes from having those buttons pushed--but sometimes, a dysfunctional dynamic is just that.) Of course, this idea of roles can be taken too far: I think most of us have probably been part of fake-collaborations, where a bunch of people are simply following the directives of one of two. Ideally, everyone in the collaboration should have a role, based on their strengths. In writing collaborations, I often end up being the-one-who-fucks-with-language, because I feel like I've been relieved, by the people I'm working with, of the burden of making sense. So collaboration becomes the place where I work entirely by ear.
2) It's important to have as clear a sense as possible about your expectations. When Jeff and I make books together, we have to actually make models to communicate what we see happening--otherwise, we try to describe things verbally that we're actually not seeing all that clearly. I think that, when it's geared toward creating a finished project, collaboration can really help sharpen each person's sense of what they want that thing to be. The tricky part, of course, is accommodating differing ideas--but (this is just like what Chris was talking about in writing a play) if you don't actually get a chance to see the options (the two possible first scenes of the play, in Chris's case), then you end up with something muddy and muddled. What I like about editing a magazine with someone else is that it makes me have to think clearly about, and then articulate, what I think about both a given piece of writing and the collection as a whole.
(BTW, I just picked up a copy of Jen Hofer and Patrick Durgin's The Road, which I think is an interesting model of a collaboration: the book includes both collaboratively written pieces and some of their letters to each other, a nice example of how the process of thinking can be collaborative. Their work is pretty heady, so the letters are really interesting places to see them trying out and playing with ideas.)
BK : Thinking about this question helped me clarify what I think is so productive about collaboration: you have a built-in audience. You're still making something semi-privately, but because there's a real person watching you as you go, ideally you can strive to produce a more generous, outward-looking art. Not all great art is outward-looking (I'm thinking of Phil's Dickinson example), but we could use more of it, I think. And even works that depend on plumbing the depths of the psyche can be outward-looking; I don't mean that there has to be a social element to the content. There are works of literature and art that feel like electricity-in-the-spine, feel like gifts, and I think collaborative works have a huge potential to be these kinds of gifts. Some artists can't do their work and think about audience at the same time; it kills their creativity. But the collaborator can be a kind of trick-audience: someone who feels close and safe but is still an Other, is still a human responder who will hopefully push the work of art toward deeper humanity. This is a vastly idealistic vision, I know, but I'm a Cancer and an INFP, so that's my job!
Chris Dennis is a writer and teacher in St. Louis, Missouri.
Phil Estes' poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Harpur Palate, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Lifted Brow, Willow Springs, and others.
MC Hyland's first collection of poems, Neveragainland, was published in 2010 by Lowbrow Press. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and runs DoubleCross Press and the Pocket Lab reading series.
Becca Klaver is a founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books. She is the author of the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost press, 2009) and the full-length collection of poems, LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010).