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On Collaboration

By Alli Warren


Shut up alone with a blank page and my own habits, I can get caught in a hall of looping self-doubt. But when I’m attending to another in poetic collaboration, I’m brought open to possibility, to new bonds and intimacies. Collaboration is for me a way of being permeable and open to change. It is a powerfully direct way to engage other practices of reading, listening, and thinking. If I’m being bold, I might even say that collaboration is one way to expand the boundaries and limitations of subjectivity.

This is my understanding of collaboration—what are others? For this post I invited poets who have engaged in collaboration to say a bit about what that process has meant for them. Here’s a gathering:

Cedar Sigo:

I have been involved in many different kinds of process that could fall under the heading of collaboration but in each instance the conditions were entirely different. The pairing of a poet’s work with that of a visual artist and made into a book is a fairly classic approach. This is permanent proof of the artist being so moved by poetry (often that of a friend). It can be a form between two poets that catches fire. They may write on a given concept completely separately, one that is made whole when each voice is given space alongside the other. Collaboration is a set trap. A wide carriage Remington left open at a party. Endless nights of collaborating have spawned a permanent shifting prism within the poems I write on my own. The third mind begins to take over with its taste for ingrained interruption and surprise brackets that surface within my voice without consent. They seem to upset any restful arrangements within the line, dying to keep it active. It’s a queer kind of glimmer over clearly encased language.

j/j hastain:

For me, merge is a primary basis for proceeding in fulfilling ways.
There are the practicalities of collaboration and there are also the more subtle, vibration-based aspects. I find all of these in the pleasurable category. As long as attunement to the psychic particulars of the collaboration are kept at the forefront of one’s intentions therein, I find the practical and subtle components of collaborations to lend themselves in beautiful ways toward nurture. Is sharing in a shape or a stance a form of divine will? What can we accomplish together in the particulars of the premise or promises of this collaboration?

I work actively with Quan Yin. I appreciate her proclivity toward dispelling loneliness from its root rather than just applying a poultice at the event or experience or infliction of loneliness. I treat all of my collaborations as puja to Quan Yin’s choices, the vastness of her compassion field.

For me, collaboration is only troubling when it ends. I feel affront in my cosmic identities when this occurs, when for whatever reason/s we can’t work out a way to keep the telepathy open and pumping, and it atrophies due to human limit. Elaborate memorial services for such deaths need be made in me in order for them to not have the power to revert me to previous states of disparateness and mourning.

Jen Hofer:

Dear Alli,

A letter is a kind of collaboration, sort of.

I read your previous Harriet posts before writing this, and lost 30 seconds of my life to the ad forced upon me before the film about skywriting (itself a kind of ad for a kind of ad-making). That ad ended with a breakneck-speed reading of the fine print by a mostly monotone male voice. Final line: “risk includes possible loss of principal.” Which pretty much encapsulates what I want to say about collaboration.

I think most of my art-making and writing-making is an endeavor to inhabit myself (and inherent to inhabiting a self is a questioning of what it is to be a self in various contexts) and an endeavor to move beyond myself, expand these parameters, explode this consciousness. Collaborative processes make it possible for me to do things I wouldn’t be able to do without my collaborators. And collaborative processes create conflicts, frictions, difficulties, and discomforts that wouldn’t exist if I were working alone. Moving through those challenges is as crucial an element of the work as whatever legible “products” the work produces.

I collaborate as much as—or possibly more than—I fly solo in my practice. I usually describe my work as 50% poetry, 50% translation, and 50% Antena (yes, that’s more than 100%—aren’t most lives like that?). Antena is a collaborative project between John Pluecker and myself, focusing on language justice and language experimentation. Translation is a collaborative-ish endeavor—not collaboration exactly, but not not collaboration. At its most basic, translation as I practice it is a conversational process in which I am writing and I am written, I am myself most fully and I am most fully not myself. I can’t do translation without the other person, the other text; hence collaboration. And in my “own” writing — my lone wolf projects, as I think of them—I collaborate about half the time, with other writers (Patrick Durgin, Jill Magi, Sawako Nakayasu, for instance) or with other artists (Hillary Mushkin, Deborah Stratman, for example) or with other works/phenomena (the mass media, cinema, language my research unearths, to name a few).

If “I” am the “principal” in the transactions and exchanges of my art-making (and I include writing as a facet of art-making), then I want to risk the loss of that principal. I want to risk being lost, eroded, led astray, unraveled, changed, transposed, tarnished, blemished, affected, compelled, destabilized, interrupted, and otherwise made other than what I imagined myself to be (or what I actually was, am) through encounters with other thinkers and makers. I want to be accountable to something larger than myself, but including myself. I want to welcome the unexpected. I am myself all the time, for better or for worse, and though being a self is never a singularity, it is also never multiple enough. Or perhaps it is just simply never enough, and so I look outside myself to get further inside myself, and to move further beyond myself.


Kevin Killian:

All of us who promote collaboration stress the sex aspect, that writing with another is like a sexual act—though we don’t say which kind, that would be reductive wouldn’t it. It’s addictive, becomes necessary after a short while. And what of our production? Okay, by and large it’s not that good, not as good as our solo work. Sorry but that’s the plain truth! If everything of mmm, Frank O’Hara’s perished but the poems he wrote with others, what would we think of him I wonder? On the other hand, collaboration is a form of aleatory practice—it adds the element of chance, opens the work to the unknown. Take a chance, write something with someone you hate! (An update of the lessons we were taught in the old Maoist days of early gay liberation during which, to expand one’s consciousness, and to break down the prison walls of societal programming, one was encouraged to go to bed with all kinds of trolls.) Didn’t Gilbert & Sullivan despise each other and yet, how beautiful their operas. And what about Rodgers & Hammerstein—Rodgers, the horrible creepy pig, vs. Hammerstein, so sweet the angels envied him. Hmmm, which show queens among us have dared to prefer Sondheim’s collaborations on West Side Story, Gypsy, No Strings, over the pretentious solo dreck of Passion and Pacific Overtures!!! I seem to have turned around my argument and the sharp will say, “But musicals are not poetry and vice versa.” The sharp will further roll up their sleeves and add, “Besides, all writing is an erotic act and you don’t have to share the moment with anyone—but one’s reader.”

Juliana Spahr:

I think I use collaboration b/c sometimes I am too scared to say things on my own. I know that some of the talks I wrote with Stephanie Young were doing some work I couldn’t do on my own. Didn’t feel strong enough to do, didn’t feel like I could take the inevitable complaining on my own. And sometimes when I have something tricky I want to do, I try to talk Stephanie into doing it with me. But I feel that way with the Jacket stuff too.


Trisha Low:

It’s funny that Alli has asked me to talk about my feelings about collaboration because when I think about it I think about this: Person X aged twenty five with ruddy cheeks and yellow hair; penchant for cribbing in examinations meets Person Y aged twenty three with wild-rose complexion, active in the choir. Life ambitions in the yearbook are recorded as veterinarian and set designer respectively. They meet, hit it off drink milkshakes and make beautiful art together while also being underemployed, pretentious commitment-phobes who party too much and are ambiguously gay-seeming? Sometimes they also kiss on the mouth—I mean, ever look at a flower and just like, fucking hate it? I’m sorry, that’s just how I feel! But I I’m sitting here listening to the new Izzy Azalea song “Fancy” feat. Charli XCX (rules, btw), which is kind of a collaboration but definitely not because I mean let’s face it I think that structure of one artist “feat.” another is always kind of passive aggressive? Like, the single is theirs anyway, they’re just using the other person’s cache, so the notion of collab becomes kind of a total throwaway. “Now tell me, who that, who that? That do that, do that? […] I be that I-G-G-Y, put my name in bold” Iggy Azalea sings, and all I can really see is this totally bizarre double gesture of simultaneous one-upmanship and slavish admiration for Charli (warranted, btw) which makes me throw up my hands about these torque-y power dynamics and just imagine the two of them duking it out covered in blood from barbed wire and a staple gun (hot, btw).

But collaboration, right? That this interminable coldness could end? That’s what the promise of our fantastical conglomeration is? Because here’s the thing: collaboration is really just a scapegoat that incarnates a communitarian burden of guilt about individual action and cleanses the community through it very expulsion via production, which is to say sometimes these things we call “collaborations” are not interesting and maybe even bland. Sometimes! Some are great. But I think at the end of the day for me I just prefer this “feat.” structure which can be but is not limited to the following things: obsession, theft, usage, transparency. Who doesn’t steal from their peers? Who isn’t jealous when they’re better and who doesn’t want to ride that train to paradise? It’s like “let me figure how i figure into your ideas” at the same time as being “I totally respect you dude.” Transparency in the aggressive, affectionate appropriation of a friend’s work or mode is an action that can implicate both others and otherness. It’s erotic in its failed attempt at ownership, its hyphenating function (X feat. X) distinguishing between two creative spaces at the same time as inextricably linking them, both edges prospering like a lush Amazonian rainforest you get the idea. “feat.” becomes a kind of weird dedication, a performative act emotionally blackmailing both parties in a manner that is both necessary and frightening. And more importantly (to me anyway) maybe it can become a squandering of the mythos of collaboration itself. As Federico Campana writes—”Squandering is an extremely serious business, which requires the concentration necessary to handle dangerous, promie-loaded goods without falling into their trap.” Maybe we could sneak each other into all of everyone’s goals without falling into any kind of heaven. Community or Communion feat. Trisha Low. I love u babies. xoxo

Carla Harryman:

In collaborating the difference between being alone in one’s work and not being alone in one’s work takes on rhythm and shape that changes one’s relationship to being alone and being with others productively.

The productive exchange significantly includes an encounter with the limits of one’s knowledge, practice, and process and offers one the opportunity to better understand how others think. Collaboration allows one to work, move, play across lines of cultural difference, languages, aesthetic vocabularies, diverse abilities and sites of reference and thereby approach both art and critique in an open way.

Collaboration offers one an opportunity to shift one’s perspective with respect to process or ideas, and it also offers the opportunity to sort out how to present work in which various perspectives can remain separate and co-exist in the same space. I find such encounters worthwhile in and of themselves regardless of success or failure or whether or not a process resolves in a fully realized tangible something.

Perhaps collaboration draws me out of certain compulsions toward inwardness. I want to know how other people think and what it is like to think with them. Inwardness becomes factored into the social dynamically. To cooperate, contest, rearrange, and rethink within a collective laboratory nourishes and advances capacities to reimagine and act under conditions of world deranging controls and economies.

Rob Halpern and Taylor Brady, on their collaboration Snow Sensitive Skin:

“we saw the invitation to collaborate as an opportunity to enhance the intimacy of our mutual care and raise the stakes of that affinity.”

“The idea of ‘massaging’ one another’s poems, working with them in such a way that they might yield to the body of an other writing offers a resonant metaphor for the kind of body-work we were after, as we began to think about the affective and political extension of particular bodies in social space.”

“to allow our prosodic ‘instruments’ to blend, separate, return, and feed back on each other.”

“What would it mean to respond to one another by way of gestures charged with the potential to know more than what either of us might compose, argue, or interpret on our own?”

“if our compositional practice was spawning an ear, what was it prepared to listen to? To respond to what?”

Feliz Molina:

What I want to say is that collaboration feels like dating and falling in love, that it begins to feel like you’re becoming that other person. Almost like an actor who completely understands and empathizes with the one they are studying to become. Collaboration is mostly empathy and the rest negotiation? It’s a tension. Like that moment in a boxing match when the two boxers are hugging. Because of time, space, or circumstance, eventually they break apart. What I want to say is that collaboration might be a way to love a person and the thing made is a souvenir of that love.

I have loved Sabrina Calle for Hair Hearts Flip (Guass PDF) and Nail Hearts Clip (UbuWeb); Daniel C. Howe for Roulette (Electronic Literature Organization, Vol. 2); Ben Segal and Brett Zehner for The Wes Letters (Outpost19); and Ben Segal for The Middle (forthcoming).

Michael Nicoloff:

I find myself thinking about collaboration on two levels, the immediate process and the social world surrounding that process, and my thoughts on both feel painfully subjective and full of gaps. But whatever, that’s no reason not to proceed. What I’ll say about the first part, the actual activity of collaborative poetic work, is that it’s at this stage of my writing life a very familiar and natural process that is at once very destabilizing. Really, it feels natural because I’ve done it enough to know that it’s destabilizing, that the words and lines you write and the prosody you think you’re generating can turn in a radically different direction once your partner in collaboration hands you what they’ve added. It’s nerve-racking–are they going to mess it up? Or did what I just wrote mess it up and now they think I suck? It requires cultivating a non-attachment to the product as it exists in any given moment as well as a radical acceptance of instincts, abilities, and quirks of the person/people you’re working with. It’s intimate in that regard, and even if you’ve known your collaborator for many years there’s still that negotiation, vulnerability, and pretending you’re cooler than you are that are the hallmarks of a new relationship, whether platonic or romantic. Do you like me? Check Yes or No, etc. It never ends.

On the other hand, if it is the other hand, the social context in which collaboration happens feels harder to pin down. Speaking only for myself, I know that as my life has proceeded I find more of my time and available brain space taken up by an expanding plethora of responsibilities, some of which (a relationship, parenting, various leftist organizing projects) I find fulfilling and worthwhile, and others of which (like wage work) that I have to grudgingly take part in. I think the changing realities of work in particular have an interesting relationship with the ethos of collaboration. Wage work continues to worm its way into “real life” for more and more people, whether through having to work more in order to make enough money to get by, or through the increasing demands to always be available to one’s job at any hour of the day, or through the anxiety cloud that comes from being precariously employed. That artist thing of having a part-time job and a lot of free time is a decreasingly viable option. Whether or not that means that statistically less poetic work, collaborative or otherwise, is being produced, which I think is pretty debatable, I do think this points to that the way many people’s time is structured, along with a prevailing ethos of individualism typified by certain uses of social media and poetic micro-celebritydom, tends to support social atomization. (Though for the record, I don’t think Facebook is the root of all contemporary evil.) Even if we’re not spending more time alone, which we might be, there’s still a kind of naturalizing of an anti- or neutrally non-collective mentality. (That’s a theory, anyway.) Poetic collaboration, a kind of collaboration very different from the forced kind we experience on the job, provides one albeit minor node in which that mentality can be prodded at and ever so slightly destabilized, especially if we can view it not as an out-of-the-ordinary departure from our “real” poetic work but rather as an integral–or even the main–part of our creative activity. Poetic collaboration by itself is definitely not going to usher in another world (not even close), and it could easily be recouped and defanged, but it’s one kind of activity that, if enacted alongside many others, can cultivate a perspective other than the individualist one we’re so familiar with.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, March 17th, 2014 by Alli Warren.