Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The _________ of Collaboration

 Q: Conspiring with the enemy or making art?

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.

Because without a diagram we'd be no better than the animals.


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?)

In fact, you're soaking in it right now. 


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.”

Social life: Because who wouldn't want to collaborate with Angelina Jolie?


At 7/27/2011 7:34 AM, Blogger John Latta said...

The Current Fashion of Collaboration?

At 7/27/2011 7:44 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Current fashion! Indeed. But he doesn't at all say it's newly invented, just that it's newly fashionable (which, of course, can be debated).

He's pretty quick on the very long history of collaboration. TO be generous, I think what he means is that currently there's more interest in collaboration (in numbers) than there has been in the recent past. He's using fairly mainstream models, as well, as he doesn't mention Language Poetry, or Cage either, I think, at all, and to me those examples would be near the center of how and why collaboration has become interesting to so many younger poets currently.

At 7/27/2011 8:22 AM, Blogger John Latta said...

I probably ought to read all the way through something before I spout off. I was more or less simply filling in the blank of the title: putting the emphasis on collaboration's status of late as a fashionable practice. Meaning, most often, a merely fashionable practice.

If I think too hard about it, I think collaborating is just another goof (like homophonic translating, like erasures, like "instead of ant wort I saw brat guts" games), not noxious, certainly not evidence (at this late date) of lawlessness, but then not particularly exemplary (or efficacious) either.

Something, yeah, to do while drinking (unless you prefer drinking in the shuttered ante-chambers to the void, like I do).

At 7/27/2011 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you drink too long into the void, John, the void will drink back into you.


At 7/27/2011 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John,

There are other cultural elements in play, of course. Ironically, I think much of the po-village remains smitten with the Romantic idea of the poet as solitary creator: Shelley's forest walker and his nightingale, Woolf's room of her own, etc. So a writing practice that does not honor the Romantic trope (by way of Confessionalism) of the poet's autobiographically discrete poetic experience or vision is going to be suspect. How can such a practice result in "authentic" art?

It can't, as long as the process is defined as inhering within the individual experience, as opposed to other social forms. This is why I continue to go back to Dada and Surrealism, whose models for artistic creation were much more community-based or -driven. (And the New York School too, although the poems are not as much to my personal taste.)

As for the "current fashion," I think it's interesting that so many younger poets are exploring collaborative options right now. My guess is that this is yet another late-breaking reaction to the exhaustion of the ambient Romantic/confessional model. And also perhaps a byproduct of the close sense of community many younger poets do in fact feel, as evidenced by Table X etc. When one has "community" as a social reality, or even a gauzy approximation thereof, there are more (and more varied) possibilities for artistic creation.


At 7/27/2011 9:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'd forgotten the blank! I first called the post The Problem of Collaboration, but then, since I dont' really think it's a problem, in the "We have a problem here" way, I decided to put the blank in.

The Koch quote does push in that direction, but the social act of collaboration doesn't need to be social in that way. There's the inwardly focused social or the outwardly focused social: you can hold hands and stare into each other's eyes over the campfire, yes, but you can also "[drink] in the shuttered ante-chambers to the void" (yikes, by the way) with another person. THAT can also be a social act. Why must we always be so alone? I don't see that as a necessary stance.

I prefer the Berkson. We're all already there in some fashion . . . therefore?

At 7/27/2011 9:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi GC,

Indeed, the village. I was suprised to see Gorman mention that as well. I thought that Kool-Aid was all tapped out. Or, actually, I didn't think much about it at all until I came across it in his essay, and from talking with you. Again, it just makes my brain itch.

I like how you attach to the Dada and Surrealism pair and I attach to the New York School + Cage, etc, orrery. It makes for lively dust over the wedding reception.

At 7/27/2011 9:38 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

The "I-Ching" of Collaboration.

At 7/27/2011 9:49 AM, Blogger John Latta said...

RE: that void thing, I’m being sardonic of course. (What’s that line about "waiting for a larger pain to soak us up"?)

Regarding GC's "late-breaking reaction to the exhaustion of the ambient Romantic/confessional model," yeah, well, everything is exactly such, one would imagine, looking around at the arguments lofted (they, too, ’ve been lofted for years). They're fine arguments. It’s a stance only slightly belied by the note: "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 . . . too late to turn back."

I think collaborating's fine, too. I just think it’s one of our current obsessions, and exacerbated by the "social." What if the social only finally serves to reify the protocols of a bunch of clones? Maybe we ought to crawl back up into our attics, then? (Or at least abandon the comment boxes?)


At 7/27/2011 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just think it’s one of our current obsessions, and exacerbated by the "social." What if the social only finally serves to reify the protocols of a bunch of clones?

This is possible, of course. Just as it's possible for any formally "innovative" verse to replicate, merely, the obsessions of the ancestors. None of us is as brilliant or prescient as we might like to think.

But one can hope for more, and better, I think. Otherwise, we'd all be better off rereading Beowulf.

(Not that I have any problem with rereading Beowulf, on its own merits.)

I guess what I'm trying to get at, John, is that within the benighted social there are, perhaps, artistic possibilities the Romantic/Confessional insistence on the solitary singer precludes. It's worth poking around inside that space every 2-3 generations, it seems to me.

And, if not, then sure, our attics will be waiting to accommodate us. (Or rather, our garrets. Attics are for storage, garrets are for poets. Or so I am reliably informed.)


At 7/27/2011 10:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Which is, of course, part of the difficulty in talking about collaborations in general, as "process" or "project," two terms that make me nervous. Or "complicated dance moves" as The Rosebuds would have it, as they were recording their new album while getting a divorce . . .

For me, I'm ready to give a shot at what might bring the art object forward, into being, than I am interested in the birds in the canopy.

The only difference I see in our positions here is that I've room in my attic/garret for two. There's too much loneliness already. But, that said, I'm not currently collaborating except in the general cultural-abstract sense. Back to an attic/garret of one.

Either way, the poems just laugh, listening to us pretending to have written them.

At 7/27/2011 4:37 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

"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 is silly, but probably the prevailing attitude towards collaboration.

When people are in a band, they often, at least in their early stages, split the royalties evenly because they recognize it is a group effort.

Is it not the same in poetry (sans money)? Is language not an instrument, and the way each individual processes and manipulates their own custom version?

At 7/28/2011 7:58 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

What if you collaborated with someone you were in a past life? You write a little, and then a shrink puts you in a trance during which one of your past identities inhabits your body and continues the poem...

Or if you have dissociative identity disorder, you could do an exquisite corpse with all your alter egos. Ethan the ebullient extrovert writes a line and folds the page. Then he turns into shy, retiring Ira, writes another line without knowing what he wrote when he was Ethan, folds the page again, and turns into...

At 7/28/2011 8:00 AM, Anonymous Charles Manson said...

That's how I write my songs.

At 7/28/2011 10:08 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

It's a slow day on this blog considering whose birthday it is.

At 7/28/2011 10:18 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

For whom are you baking a cake, Ashbery or Gerard Manley Hopkins?

At 7/28/2011 10:51 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Absolutely! I'm bad with birthdays, but I've now corrected my error!

At 7/28/2011 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For whom are you baking a cake, Ashbery or Gerard Manley Hopkins?"

Wait. You mean we have to choose??


At 7/28/2011 2:43 PM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

No, I've got one cake here for both of the birthday boys. I hope they like German chocolate.

At 7/28/2011 2:45 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That is far and away my favorite cake.

At 7/29/2011 8:43 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I love a cake with sauerkraut.

At 7/29/2011 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you bake the sauerkraut into the cake, the cake acquires a very interesting texture.

Are we collaborating yet?


At 7/29/2011 1:04 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I only like cakes that rhyme.

At 7/29/2011 1:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Shake and Bake?

At 7/29/2011 1:13 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Hahaha, I didn't actually have anything in mind when I typed that.

But yes, Shake and Bake.


Post a Comment

<< Home