John Hitzel is currently finishing a Master’s Degree with an emphasis in Creative Writing, Poetry, at Northern Arizona University. He has served as a reader for Thin Air magazine and will be the Poetry editor for next year’s issue of Thin Air. His poems have been published previously in Windfall magazine and now in FTLR. John writes about the merits and pitfalls of collaborative poetry for Four Ties Lit Review.
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The Pleasures of Collaborative Poetry part 1 of 2
Two friends and I sit in my dingy living room. It’s a sunny afternoon on the mountain. The front door is propped open so the breeze can come through, carrying birdsong and allergens. I have made tea; others have brought beer, hefeweizen for summer. Everyone has brought courage, desire, and pens.
We have been passing paper back and forth. Bright yellow legal pads are filled with colorfully inked on-the-spot inventions whose effects we have yet to investigate. Some of the paper has been folded and refolded so many times it doesn’t resemble your typical draft of a poem anymore. It looks like something that has been wadded up and tossed into the garbage. then rescued, a series of errors, unfit for eyes, unfit for ears, bad for the palate. Nonetheless, we are laughing, and not because of the hefeweizen. The laughter comes from a shared appreciation for serendipitous alignments and spooky surprises, two of the more common type of sparks that appear on the pages we’ve filled with scribbles and scratch-outs.
An hour ago we had nothing but blank paper and the will to root around in the creative darkness with no expectations, just to see what we could find. Now we have something. A good portion of it is very strange, and utterly fails to do anything memorable, but a bit has made the entire afternoon worthwhile. The goal has been achieved: show up and, under the influence of other writers, write. The point of today was not to make something perfect or finished or even remotely polished. Revision is for later. For now, we practice shared vision.
Collaborative poetry seeks to accomplish, like much poetry, typically very little. At its most basic, it asks poets to gather together and create. Diverse forms originate from around the globe, but what the ancient Japanese renga and the early 20th century French exquisite corpse share in common is that their formal constraints are simple and few; their process privileges informality, uncertainty, and on-the-spot invention; and they’re party games.
Briefly on three forms: A renga can be anywhere from 4 to 36 to 100 short, haiku-like stanzas long and was often played at dinner parties with the intent of slowly reflecting or capturing the transient atmosphere of that party. The exquisite corpse and other surrealist forms like the game of questions and answers or the game of conditionals were parlor games played whenever people had time to kill. The games welcome variations on how to play them, so it would be impractical to try to catalogue them here, but one constant is that no one author gets to see the entire poem until it is complete—that is, once the paper is folded, that folded segment is tucked away until the end has been declared. The potential for nonsense and the absurd here is significant, but the potential for surprises that blast you out of your seat is just as high. The title of this essay is taken from the results of one such game of questions and answers. A third form is the echo poem, wherein one author tries to write the opposite of what the prior author just wrote. The definition of “opposite” changes as the poem progresses, allowing these little investigations to go practically anywhere, pivoting often and providing cushy spots for surprises to land.
Though these established forms still provide good starting blocks from which creativity can leap, collaboration welcomes the invention of new forms. Freedom necessitates a constraint, and so collaboration, to augment possible outcomes, often begins with an intentionally vague prompt. Sometimes as vague as “Consider distance as theme,” or “Dominant images: eagles, the postmodern approach to knowledge, pound cake.” These poems end up very informal, casual, inclusive, shocking, clairvoyant, freewheeling, and intentionally unintentional, as would be expected from a genre that uses play and experiment to pick up language like a dowsing rod of the moment.
I keep returning to that word, “play,” because for me, play is one of the joys of collaborative poetry. Writing does not have to be work! A playful approach produces playful products! Experiments expand the world! By giving ourselves license to play around, we invent the new at the same time we encounter it. By embarking on these little adventures with others, a marvelous thing happens—we get to dialogue about what we encounter in our own and others’ writing, as we are writing it. An immediate audience is present, and that audience is articulate and invested in what is unfolding because they literally have a voice in it.
Though rare in work done by a single author, polyvocality is an inherent property of collaborative poetry. It is both blessing and curse—multiple voices within a single poem do often grate against each other, creating more dissonance than harmony. This inherent dissonance forces poets to dialogue about technique and craft while sharing each others’ processes, a thing rarely found outside the university workshop. The poem’s anatomy is explored as it grows outward from the first word. Authorial decisions get scrutinized from multiple angles. This scrutiny lets each poet potentially take some new stylistic awareness from the creative act.. Though this scenario may sound intense, if authors can put down their egos in order to play in this realm, who knows? They may just have fun while learning something.
From ancient Japan to France between World Wars to my Arizona living room, collaborative poetry asks little and offers much: attention to voice, opportunity for artistic dialogue, and goofy improvisation. I’d like to see more of it in the world, but the truth is it’s difficult to find not only willing collaborators, but also pleasant ones—those whose mojos mix well with your own. But like with most things, the more we do it, the better we get at it. Worst case scenario: nobody gets hurt, and a poem gets written. So find some friends, paper, and pens, and set aside a little time to see what happens when minds collide.
part 2 of this article coming soon