On Collaboration: Jen Tynes Interviews Deborah Poe and Kyle Schlesinger

JT: Can you start by just telling me a little about your background with collaboration? What was your first collaborative project that you remember? How/why did you become interested in collaborative writing? For this particular project, how did you decide to begin a collab together, and what sorts of guidelines, constraints, rules, procedures, premises, etc did you start out with?

KS: Oddly enough, Keep the Change was a collaboration that was sort of spurred on by another collaboration. James Yeary and I wrote The Do How together, and I gave a copy to Deborah over coffee one afternoon in Austin, and she read it and wrote some terrific poems in response on her way back to New York on an airplane. I think those were the first poems in Keep the Change—is that right?

DP: Yes, I was in Texas to visit family in and around Austin for Thanksgiving in 2013. Kyle and I got together for coffee. He gifted me with The Do How that dayI read their book on the plane ride home and had an idea for a handmade/written response, which I intended to do. I mentioned this to Kyle in an email, and he brought up the idea of collaboration down the road. He said he felt his ‘solo’ work was often better when working with someone else at the same time. I felt that the contact between our work would be interesting. I tend to get a lot out of putting different texts into conversation with one another and to enjoy what arises from those contacts, so I was game. When I read The Do How on the plane in November, I had marked my favorite phrases. I also (though a struggle at moments) finished Tinkers by Paul Harding on the plane. Harding had these gems of questions, which I viewed as writing prompts really. I thought it interesting to put The Do How favorite phrases in contact with those questions from Tinkers. After Kyle’s nudging through email in January, I went ahead and started playing around with this, scrambling those phrases under three or so of the Tinkers questions. We were both pretty much wide open to whatever happened, as I remember. So no guidelines or constraints to start. Right Kyle?

KS: That’s right. We worked on the call and response for a while, a natural progression for a collaboration, but we gave it up at some point and moved into another mode, maybe a more nuanced form of call and response that transcended titles. You can see what we’re talking about in the book, just read the table of contents. Alan Loney said that a writer should read with a pen in hand and write with an open book on the desk. I think that that’s solid advice, an ecosystem of reading and writing, and in that sense, I feel like I’m always collaborating, with the living, reading to the dead, with the words and ideas of others. You can’t own language, right? But stepping into ‘live time’ as Deborah and I did with this collaboration is a joy, it really keeps you on your toes and challenges me to think differently, more assertively. What an honor and delight to make something new with someone you admire.

JT: I love that collaboration led to more collaboration here. Can you both talk about how your project differed from that initial text that inspired it, Kyle’s project with James Yeary? Deborah, you’ve talked about what you were doing in those first responses: how do you think the landscape/space of your collaboration with Kyle is different than what seemed to be happening in his collaboration with Yeary? Kyle, how do you think that the way you were engaging with Deborah’s writing differed from your writing in The Do How?

KS: James and I just got back from a little road trip reading from The Do How, so the sound of the poem is fresh in my mind. Maybe we could start there? The prosody, tone, and lexical pitch of The Do How and Keep the Change are really distinct from one another. Deborah and I haven’t actually read this together yet, but I’m looking forward to it! So one’s a literal voice, the other figurative, but that said, I don’t hear myself (by which I mean the rhythms and routines of my solo work) in either of these collaborations. It’s less duet than a third voice. In both works I recognize little murmurs that might be ‘mine’ but for the most part they have a sound all their own. The Do How has a coda at the end of each page that revives lines from the previous three pages, so there’s a lot of reverb and echo in the closing chorus, where I think that there’s more symmetry in Keep the Change, a mirroring that’s kind of abstract and suggestive.

DP: Thank you Kyle for the kind words, and to Jen for your great questions. You ask about landscape/space. I remember when I started reading James’s and Kyle’s The Do How, I was struck with the consistently short lines and the four-stanza pages. Maybe this was notable because structure and symmetry tend to please me. But in The Do How, at least in my mind, there is all this turning of aphorism, idiom, and the mundane on their heads. That in combination with the structure (the visual occupation or spatial arrangement) gave the book this highly appealing tension and energy. The reverb and echo that you talk about, Kyle, amplifies that tension and energy too. The book is sharp and smart. I want to say sarcastic too, but it was not off putting in a way you might associate with sarcasm. So, I definitely had all this in mind going into our collaboration. (All this takes a very angular shape in my mind.) Anyway, I started writing with Kyle wanting to carry that play with aphorism, idiom, and the everyday. (An aside, I have friends who laugh at me because I have so much trouble with idioms, such as “I bought it for a scream” instead of “a song.” I think this problem has much to do with the way my memory and poetry brain work. But this makes play with idiom or aphorism even more attractive). Maybe I was more mindful of structure than I would have been otherwise coming from reading The Do How. I think even from the very beginning of Kyle’s and my collaboration we were following each other’s lead on stanza and line length—that mirroring, as Kyle mentions that’s abstract and suggestive. And there were all these surprises—and the sass! There were several times during our process where I burst into laughter reading our latest. I mean: “Let’s get meta—hell’yeahs!”

JT: This has me thinking about idiom and aphorism and sarcasm (especially the inviting variety you describe, Deborah) as unifying languages, kind of like a chorus (in a song, I mean) that keeps an audience knowing it’s invited to the collaboration, because they can sing along for that part. Considering the balance of your readers’ orientation and disorientation isn’t unique to collaboration, of course, but there’s something distinct about the process when it involves more than one writer, perhaps? Does that ring true to either of you? Do you think that structural reminders (the mirroring, reverb, etc) that you’ve talked about serve unique purposes in a collaboration?

DP: I have this pivot point in me. One side of it manifests in being excited about reaching out, connecting with others, sharing ideas. The other side manifests in anxiety around communication or lack thereof. This is something I have worked on, an inheritance that I negotiate. Of course this has become more navigable as I have grown older. But it is a thing. In any case, your thoughtful question made me wonder. Do I thrive with such structural reminders—the mirroring, the reverb? Do those help me spin to the energetic and constructive side of that pivot point?

KS: Good question. I suppose one risk of collaboration is writing the reader out of the poem. Sure, poets have different ideas about audience ranging from total indifference, disbelief, solipsism, an occasional poem written for a specific person or occasion,  to a total imaginary world—you name it. But in a collaboration, the poets may become so invested in their conversation that the reader is basically just an eavesdropper, a code-cracker. Play is important in collaboration, like kids making up a language no one else can understand, and that’s an important part of the intimacy that occurs, that special feeling of making something together that no one else has made before. At the same time, there’s a certain clarity that the collaborator has to honor within that private or codified language, an obligation to be clear with one’s collaborator even if uncertainty and doubt become way of learning together.

JT: We’ve taken a long break in this conversation and maybe that, along with how you’re both using daily life as a way to talk about the collaborative relationship, has me thinking about time and how collaboration affects your own dailiness. How do you think your writing and thinking (and maybe even physical) rhythms are shaped or engaged during the days or weeks or months you’re working on a collaboration?

KS: It’s always been a wonderful change of pace in my experience. There’s always someone else there nurturing you with new perspectives, challenges, and forms of inquiry. You come home different, altered, full of zeal and flutters of anticipation with every switchback, not knowing what will happen next. Writing collaboratively is like traveling on a familiar path in the dark with a friend—the patterns and assumptions about writing in place are suddenly new and exciting, strange in the best way. A new ritual of syncopation takes shape.

DP: What a great answer, Kyle. So, in June I went to Block Island Maritime Institute, Rhode Island, to do some research for my new poetry book and interviewed retired oceanographer and meteorologist Judy Gray. She recommended I read atmospheric scientist Susan Solomon’s The Coldest March about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed expedition to the South Pole in 1912. I did not expect this book to be so compelling; this morning I will finish the book. Each of the men offered unique strengths as part of the team Scott gathered for the expedition. Based on their diaries and letters, it seems that they steered clear of petty conflict, keeping the overall goal in mind and developing close relationships to which they were thoroughly devoted to the end of their days. For me, collaborations like Kyle’s and my Keep the Change offer a space where strengths come together on the page. Collaborations, like Scott’s expedition, have a clear focus—the gaze is on the art, not the bullshit. And collaborations allow us the chance to get to know each other better. All in all (in zeal, flutter, and syncopation), a beautiful thing.

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Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections Keep (in circulation), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats),Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène(Furniture Press). Deborah also co-edited Between Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Fiction and Criticism (Peter Lang) and is working on finding a home for her first full-length novel. Her work has appeared in journals like Denver QuarterlyCourt GreenLoose Change, Colorado Review, and Jacket2, and in anthologies such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women & Place and In/Filtration: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry from the Hudson River Valley. Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop in Washington, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson and will serve as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016. www.deborahpoe.com

Kyle Schlesinger is a poet who writes and lectures on typography and artists’ books. Recent books of poetry include Parts of Speech (Chax Press, 2014), The Do How w/ James Yeary (Great Fainting Spells, 2013), and Picture Day (Electio Editions, 2012). Scholarly works include Letterpress Revolution (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2016) Threads w/ Steve Clay (Cuneiform/Granary Books, 2015), Poems & Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book (Center for Book Arts, 2010). He is proprietor of Cuneiform Press and Associate Professor of Publishing at UHV.