Laura Wetherington’s Lightning-Fast History of Collaboration
From Sarah Messer, One Pause Poetry Director
When thinking about the One Pause mp3 Project, a few amazing audio archives immediately come to mind. Penn Sound, which has the best and oldest recordings of poets I've found on the web, and From the Fishouse, which is singular in its awesomeness and groundbreaking in its collection of emerging poets. Another great site is the audio-journal Textsound, run by Laura Wetherington and Anna Vitale. This site strips it down to mere sound, publishing a wide range of experimental poems in a collected bi-annual audio journal. "Our mission is to bring together a range of experimental soundworks from the U.S. and abroad," they write. We are lucky to have Laura as our guest blogger for the next few weeks—we couldn't be more excited. Laura's experience and also her poetic process is in keeping with our love of procedural poetics and collaboration. Laura, in fact, will be writing on collaboration.
Laura is the first in a series of One Pause guest bloggers who will be writing on different poetic topics.
A Lightning-Fast History of Collaboration
By Laura Wetherington
When you think of a modern-day poet, hard at work, dedicating long hours to her or his craft, what picture comes to mind? Probably not a group of people trading a piece of paper around a table (thanks, Virginia Woolf.) Even though nonfiction books are often ghost-written or co-written (like Jennifer Granholm and Dan Mulhern's A Governor's Story: The Fight For Jobs and America's Economic Future), most people don't normally think of creative writing as a group effort. However, Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad are doing their part to change our impression of how poets work. In 2007, they released Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.1 Poems by craftsmen like Harryette Mullen, Douglas Kearney, Anne Waldman, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Marilyn Hacker, and Ted Berrigan are followed by short reflections on the poems' compositions. The editors, in their introduction, give a short history of collaborative poetry, citing French Surrealist games like exquisite corpse as its origin in the West.
Surrealism certainly is a predecessor of the poems we find in Saints of Hysteria, but in a wider sense, collaboration in the literary arts predates the 1900s. As an ancient example, scholars have built careers on dethroning Homer as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. As far back as the first century, people were questioning whether or not Homer even existed.2 It's now accepted that his books were transcribed from oral recitations of collectively composed stories. So poetry is rooted in a tradition of intermingling voices and revision by improvisation. As a more modern example, T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" was heavily edited by both his wife and by Ezra Pound. The manuscript Pound edited survives and indicates that Eliot, following many of Pound's suggestions, cut the poem virtually in half. So poetry is also rooted in collective feedback loops.
(Painting, above: Indefinite Divisibility by Yves Tanguy, an American surrealist painter. Surrealism was a movement in the early 1900s which spanned the arts. Through free association of thought and expression, its proponents sought to liberate mankind.)
Whether in a formalized environment like the creative writing workshop, or as an organic part of a writing friendship, authors are often calling on other authors to help shape and tame their writing. We don't call this "collaboration" because of historical and legal issues concerning authorship and copyright. Benjamin Mako Hill, a technology scholar at MIT, writes that the onset of copyright law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served to simplify the attribution of texts for publishing purposes. He asserts that many of the proponents of individualized authorship during that time were, in fact, collaborating poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge.3 The myth of a solitary author is, for the most part, just that: a myth. Outside eyes on a developing piece of work is an essential part of the creative process. I don't mean to argue here for a revised definition of collaborative poetry, but I do want to bring attention to the broader context of collective writing. Before the idea of intellectual property and before the Romantic insistence that, as Wordsworth put it, genius equaled "the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe," writing together and revising together was an expected norm.4
Perhaps beliefs about individual intellectual property and the correlation between original ideas and literary genius can, in part, explain some of the reaction to collaborative poetry. Hill describes Keats' literary circle and points out that some scholars blame collaboration for Keats' weaker poems while celebrating his later work as "the product of his unrestrained Romantic individualism."5 In a 2010 issue of Poemeleon dedicated to collaboration, Marilyn Taylor subtitles her article: "Collaborative Poems Often Fail, but I Admit They're Pretty Darn Fun." She echoes the sentiment that collaborative poetry usually isn't as successful as other writing. Her reasoning: "Too often, co-authored poems degenerate pretty quickly into jokes, games, or good-natured mutual taunting. Nine times out of ten, collaborative poems can't quite rise above the vaguely inharmonious elements of the two different voices."6 Tom Hunley, in a review of Saints of Hysteria, presents a similar assessment, saying, "While these poets' collaborative processes are fascinating, unfortunately, often their finished products leave much to be desired. Often the poems feel like exercises, like practice, and I don't enjoy watching athletes training or musicians practicing nearly as much as I enjoy watching them compete and perform."7 I point out these comments not in an effort to take issue with these authors' views (both of the articles also include generous praise of poetry collaborations), but to locate and historically situate a particular resistance to collaborative poetry.
As an advocate of jokes, games, and atonal elements in poetry, and as a co-editor at textsound.org, I feel particularly drawn to defend a place for collaborative poetry. Textsound is an online literary journal that publishes audio files of poetry and sound and was started collectively by a handful of poet-friends in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area in 2007. Many of our contributors work in collaboration, either because the artists want to produce something outside of their technical expertise, or because they believe in the ethics of collective effort, or because they just find it more fun, surprising, and exciting. Over the course of several weeks, I'll delve into ideas of collaboration and interview some of textsound's artists in order to make a case for written collaborative poetry as an important part of contemporary practice.
1. Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton and David Trinidad. Saints of Hysteria: A Half Century of Collaborative American Poetry. (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2007).
2. Foley, John Miles. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988), 2.
3. Hill, Benjamin Mako. "Literary collaboration and control: A socio-historic, technological and legal analysis." (Amherst: Hampshire College, 2003), http://mako.cc/academic/collablit/.
4. Wordsworth qtd Martha Woodmansee. "On the Author Effect: Recovering Collectivity." In The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. ed. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 16.
5. Hill, Benjamin Mako. "Literary collaboration and control: A socio-historic, technological and legal analysis." (Amherst: Hampshire College, 2003), http://mako.cc/academic/collablit/writing/BenjMakoHill-CollabLit_and_Control/x332.html.
6. Marilyn L. Taylor. "Dare You and Another Poet Collaborate?: Collaborative Poems Often Fail, but I Admit They're Pretty Darn Fun." Poemeleon, Vol. IV, Issue 2 (Winter/Spring 2010), http://www.poemeleon.org/marilyn-taylor-on-collaboratio/.
7. Tom C. Hunley. "Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, eds. Denise Duchamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad." Poemeleon, Vol. IV, Issue 2 (Winter/Spring 2010), http://www.poemeleon.org/tom-c-hunley-saints-of-hysteri/.
Laura Wetherington lived in Ann Arbor from 2005–2009. Her first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence, 2011), was chosen by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She co-edits textsound.org with Anna Vitale and teaches creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.