The _________ of Collaboration
I. Choose one:
___ Collaboration is a valid form of artistic endeavor.
___ Collaboration is not a valid form of artistic endeavor.
___ None of the above.
___ All of the above.
When I did a google image search on COLLABORATION, I got mostly business images.
When I did a google image search on COLLABORATIONS, I got mostly school and music images.
When I did a google image search on COLLABORATORS, I got mostly WWII images, and then a picture of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg . . . (Pictured above, so now you have your answer [if you were wondering]).
That about sums it up?
COLLABORATING, by the way, gave me a mix of things. (But doesn't it always?)
I didn’t have much of a theory or notion of what was going on when G.C. Waldrep and I began collaborating on what was to become Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. In fact, I wasn’t aware we were even collaborating until we’d been doing it for a month or two, and by that time it was, in our minds at least, too late to turn back. And now we have this book with both of our names on it. "The Accidental Book," G.C. was calling it for a long time.
I mention this, because, though I’ve now been part of a collaboration, I still don’t really know all that much about collaborations. This is turning out to be a little bit of a problem as people are starting to ask me questions about collaborations, and I’m starting to hear from more and more people who are involved in various collaborative works who have interesting things to say about what they are/were doing.
One of the things that’s surprised me is that a great number of people dismiss collaborations as knock offs, less than, or finger exercises. The idea being, that if any of the poems were actually any good, then one of the authors would claim it as his or her own. This idea of the singular, this Author, is still alive and well. This has surprised me. (So much for the end of the author = authority . . .)
These thoughts have brought me back to a short essay by Dean Gorman published last year in Gulf Coast, titled “The Third Mind: American Collaborative Poetry & Its Roots.” So here are a few bits from it, with some interjections from me.
Gorman starts off with a list of writers/artists who have recently collaborated, James Tate & Bill Knott, Olga Broumas & Jane Miller, and Joshua Beckman & Matthew Rohrer, among others. He then nods to the fact that collaboration is institutionally met with “resistance by mainstream journals and other institutions that support the literary arts.” In thinking about this, he goes into a very brief history, mostly a 20th Century history, of collaboration, focusing mainly on the surrealists and The New York School. He writes:
“Collaboration has managed to maintain a certain distance—a lawlessness—in relation to the mainstream; it is the international waters of poetry, so to speak. The practice at once ancient and fiercely modern, at once a nod to history and a disintegration of it.”
That’s a bit lofty for my taste, but it does speak to the difficulty people have in talking about collaborative works themselves. It’s one thing to say, “These people collaborated,” and quite another to attempt to talk about the final product. A friend of mine recently told me that collaborations are especially difficult to write reviews of, because reviews have a general form, one that positions the book under review in the arc of that writer’s career. So a collaborative book is neither a first book, nor a book that can comfortably fit in A writer’s arc.
The poets I most often turn to, it seems (taking a quick survey of my desk), are The New York School poets and the Language Poets (generally speaking), many of whom collaborated. I suppose this is why I didn’t reflect much on collaborating. Sure, sounded good to me. As Gorman quotes Lehman quoting Kenneth Koch:
“One of the most wonderful ways in the world to be with someone’s sweetness and brilliance is to collaborate with that person . . . I like collaborating the way people like drinking—[it] is making a game out of real life.”
It is perhaps this “game” notion that makes some people skeptical of collaborative work. Why this should be the case, I don’t know. If a single author “plays a game” to create art, say, the poet makes up a set of arbitrary rules, or randomly draws lines from TV, the poem isn’t necessarily suspect. But if two poets do it together, something changes. Gorman quotes Rohrer speaking to this:
“When we did it privately, people would think it was an odd or interesting way to use our private time. But when we filled our public time with it, people were skeptical.”
It’s as if collaborations are a version of trying to get other people to watch your wedding video, or to hear a night full of stories about the antics of your children and/or pets. It’s a fascinating issue, and, other than the fact that I’ve been part of a collaboration, I don’t have much to say, theoretically, one way or the other. I’ll just scratch my head and leave you with this bit, where Gorman quotes Bill Berkson:
“All art is collaboration. You collaborate with your culture, your language, your reading. You collaborate with your peers, either directly (that is, you write together) or not (that is, by parallel creations you form the work that comes to be recognized as that of a period style, the art of your time). Competitiveness is a form of collaboration. Addressing an audience—conceiving an addressee, a reader or viewer . . . Artistic collaboration is often a spontaneous extension of social life.”