Dispatches | June 19, 2013

Last year I wrote a post exploring the relative lack of graphics in contemporary poetry, at least compared to fiction. Since then, the trend of graphic poems seems to be growing. A famous new example is Mary Jo Bang’s adaptation of The Inferno illustrated by Henrik Drescher.

This year I find myself wondering about the trend of collaboration. Mostly I see it in poetry. Probably, if you are a hip young poet or know one then you’ve seen or taken part in the collaborative, usually two-author, poem.

By point of contrast, why the relative lack of collaborative fiction? Wouldn’t collaborative authorship make more sense with fiction, with (presumably) more work to divvy up vs. cramming two heads into a poem’s little box? Is collaborative fiction too suspiciously like Hollywood writing or ghost writing and so “cheapened” somehow? Is there a resistance to collaborative fiction because there’s actual money to be made in fiction, money the writer wants to herself?

At the same time, is there something about the contemporary “lyric” poem especially suited to collaboration? Perhaps disjunction, voice play, fragmentation and the exposed constructions of reality and truth are nourished by multiple inputs, multiple tongues, Bakhtin’s poly-, or is it hetero?-glossia. Yet, for Bakhtin, it’s the novel alone that can speak in tongues while other genres (like lyric poetry?—epic, anyway) are fixed and dead, their identity dependent on a homogenous voice.

Is the lyric finally adapting? Pushing into new territory where even the novel fears to tread?

Collaborative poetry is not a new phenomenon, of course. One of the most famous historical examples is the decadent poet “Michael Field,” who was really Katherine Harris Bradley (27 October 1846 – 26 September 1914) and her niece Edith Emma Cooper (12 January 1862 – 13 December 1913). They even wrote a collaborative journal. (Is today’s memoir/personal essay conceivable as a collaboration? Certainly, experiential writing, as it’s commonly understood as limited to a unique, individual perspective, seems to resist the collaborative model.)

One salient difference between Michael Field and the current poetic trend is that Field, supposedly, wanted to keep their pseudonymic secret. They wanted folks to think it was one voice, one mind, one genius. But these days the double-author poem advertises its doubleness, often with a big-name on the bill.

So why not three authors, or four? A whole workshop? Two authors, but how many voices?

It reminds me of those Renaissance works attributed to a big name but worked on by any number of workshop hands under the master’s tutelage or direction.

Of course, the notion of work is very much at issue here. On the one hand, we think as a culture that hard or worthy work is worth good money. On the other hand, any halfway experienced poet would laugh at that notion when it comes to poetry, which, no matter how “hard” you work at it, is mostly worthless, monetarily.

If you talk to your writer friends about all this, someone’s bound to bring up Eliot and Pound. Pound totally changed the shape of “The Waste Land,” but it’s not called a collaboration. Or fiction-wise, there’s Raymond Carver and his drastically influential editor, Gordon Lish.

Though theory has long told us that all literary engagement is collaborative, maybe collaborative authorship requires a contract of shared authorship between collaborators. But when does that contract take effect? Before the first word is written? And are there clauses in the contract guaranteeing mutual workload?

I find myself remembering the sticker on the sullen sensitive kid’s guitar case: “Doesn’t play well with others.” Is all that changing now? Are we coming out of our isolated cells? Is the capitalist monolith breaking down?

Or maybe we’re seeing a shift from the heroic to the corporate model of authorship.