On Collaboration: Jen Tynes Interviews Vincent A. Cellucci and Christopher Shipman

JT: If so, can you start out by just telling me about your collab history and how this particular project started?

VC: Our collaboration really started on the river. In graduate school, we would go to the levee after last call and challenge each other to write the better line about the Mississippi. I think the inception of this project can be directly traced to those bridgelight nights sipping whisky on the B of the Port of Baton Rouge. It also has some origin from a long reading road trip to the Carolinas one summer, where I pitched the line/pun of “synch our ship” and the game of Battleship (one that played a prominent role in both our childhoods) as the basis for a collaboration. The personal stakes were there since the beginning given Chris was always referred to as Shippy, so the pun on his name was entirely natural. One summer two years after that road trip, we sat down every morning for a month or two and wrote it. Shippy wakes up early and he’d always have a poem waiting for me to respond to. From there, it practically wrote itself.

CS: I did a chapbook collab with poet DeWitt Brinson called Super Poems that was published by Kattywompus Press back in 2012. The poems are all about or inspired by Super Mario Bros. That was a ton of fun and really got me hooked on working with other poets, but as Vince implied, the collab with him was always going to happen eventually.

JT: What experience had each of you had with collaboration before you began your book?

VC: We had collaborated on a few projects in graduate school. I collaboratively wrote, edited, and produced an audio novel, The Katrina Decameron, with several graduate students and Andrei Codrescu. Andrei also introduced us to the Exquisite Corpse and so we wrote plenty of those at River Writers, a downtown reading series in Baton Rouge we started and managed. I also collaborated with a contempoary Bengali poet and printmaker, Debangana Banerjee, on a set of English translations of her original poems, also highly influenced by the river.  Chris collaborated with his wife on an performance inspired by Joseph Cornell, entitled Metaphysique D’Ephemera and has continued collaborating just releasing the T’Rex Parade with Brett Evans. While we were both fairly comfortable and experienced with collaboration, our decade-long friendship and intimacy with each other’s poetry is really what forged such a strong bond and allowed us to synch our individual poetic voices into one, executing the pun from this inciting line.

CS: The collab allowed me to tackle some issues concerning my past and family that I often feel are somewhat off limits for one reason or another. Honestly, I didn’t think too much about the pun on my name at the onset of the project, but as we went on I sort of felt more and more comfortable dealing with some issues that are a big part of the landscape of my memory and psychological makeup. Well, I’m not sure if comfortable is the right word. I felt as if I was simply drifting that way, like the waters were calm enough or stormy enough to sail on, and the call and response approach allowed me to get a kind of poetic critique of how I was perceiving my own past through the lens of poetry. Vince was really great about responding directly to how I was dealing with these issues at times, both personally as a dear friend, and poetically as a “loved opponent” challenging me to write the deepest line. Looking back, I wish I could have done more of that for him, but that’s sort of one way the book began to take shape, with me putting myself on the line.

JT: How did you decide to collaborate together, and what sort of rules, restraints, plans, guidelines, etc did you begin with?

VC: We had decided to long ago in our friendship, but the problem was starting.  It took years, but was worth it and the inertia built up incredibly fast and sustained us once we started. Perhaps the majority of that was a type competitiveness–trying to out do the other. Write the better line. The response propelled us and navigated the work in general. As far as rules, we really just maintained the subject of imagery should be water-Battleship-and-river-related. Shippy is more of a free spirit when it comes to verse and can make so many things work, while I am much more strict and rigid (i.e., no articles, sound over sense, never use the word love, silly other etceteras), and had pretty much painted myself into a corner of paralysis with my personal work, so working with Shippy and this collaboration really freed me up and enabled me to break some of my own rules that were barring me from getting my emotions clearly down on the page.

CS: I love Vince’s work. Obviously we share affection for certain images, conceits, subject matter, etc. I also admire his steadfastness when it comes to the rules his work adheres to. I enjoy diving into new styles and making up new rules as I go, but I don’t apply the same kind of strictness to my work that Vince does. With this collab I wanted to challenge myself to try to assume aspects of Vince’s style without necessarily using the same rulebook. To do this I paid more attention to sound and the use of the line than I might have otherwise. What ended up happening was really three new voices born from lived experience. We brought to the table a decade of memory, a lifetime of experience, freed each other up in different ways to find new individual voices, and eventually found the overall voice of the book itself.

JT: I’m especially interested in how you’re each describing your collaborative relationship as both empathetic and competitive. Can you say more about that? What do you think you were each doing, in practical terms, to sustain both energies and utilize them in a way that was generative? Has this sort of tension/balance been present in your other collaborative projects, with other writers and artists, or are you describing something particular to the way you two are working together?

VC: Our poetic relationship has always been competitive and our friendship was always highly empathetic–this is likely because both were formed in the context of graduate school, and the fact that Shippy was my elder in terms of age, while I was his in terms of graduate class.  I think we both view the actual birthplace of this collaboration as late nights on the levee after last call where we belligerently challenged each other and anyone willing to accompany us with “what’s your best line about the river?”  These challenges either escalated into aesthetic allegiances and prejudices or more often, they dissipated into lengthy reflections and empathetic conversations on very personal subjects; other times we just sat in silence and listened to the river school us with its sounds.

Initially, Shippy wrote and dedicated a poem to me entitled “Last Call” about those nights, which really set the precedent of the poetic synchronicity of our project because it was unlike his previous poems, and stylistically began to seep into lower territory that he dredged to get closer to me. Resorting back to our competitiveness, I responded with “First Call”, which had lines that verged into Shippy territory, but these were years before the project ever came to fruition. While writing, we utilized competitiveness for energy and propelling our call and response process, and more profound to me now, the empathy of our close friendship actually extended to our aesthetics, enabling us to write poems that resemble work of the other poet. This merger deepened our connection by enabling us to write about personal topics in ways that were familiar enough to be vulnerable with but foreign enough to reach new destinations. Eventually, the abyss swallowed our individuality and initial competitiveness and we reached the point where we could claim the entirety of the poetry as “ours .”

We would latch on to what we would consider killer image or line, and write versions using the identical line or image as a title or starting point.  It was a high compliment to see your collaborator take a line you wrote the previous day and use it next to start their entire piece. There are multiple examples of this in our work one of which, “while I sleep through this version of myself”, ended up functioning differently in several poems.  Then responding to that new course also became a challenge and as a writer you’d feel compelled to navigate the new waters using all the skills you have to impress and inspire your collaborator.

Even though I think elements from our process could be applied in future collaborations, I found this process unique because my other collaborative works regarded translation and fiction.  For the translation project, competitiveness wouldn’t be appropriate because it was all about understanding and executing the original author’s expectations for the work and then perfecting its bodily presence after morphing languages. Empathy is also essential for translating but there are inevitable cultural differences that inhibit its extent. The fiction project had too many contributors to ever get to such a level of intimacy, and I would argue that like siblings, the competitiveness level only heightens when there is some true intimacy present.

CS: I have collaborated with a number of poets now. My first collab was with DeWitt Brinson. We penned a chapbook titled Super Poems (I may have mentioned this) which was eventually published by Kattywompus Press in 2012. That collab was nothing but fun. There was some of the competitiveness that Vince mentioned about our project, but mostly it was a back and forth that lasted little more than an intense night of playing Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo. While one of us played the other would write until the person playing died, which now seems like a metaphor for the spirit of creative collaboration in some way. After hours of this back and forth we mostly just spent a couple weeks transcribing what we wrote that night and revising, with a new poem popping up here and there along the way. The project was great fun, and really opened me up as a poet in a way that I needed at the time. Before then most of my work was all about me and my memories, but with the only rule being that the poems had to be in some way inspired by Mario Bros I was trying my hand at something new and it felt decidedly freeing.

Since then I have collaborated on published books with three other people including Vince. What that first collaboration did for me was huge for the collaboration with Vince. No one I have worked with or likely ever will work with will be as close to me personally as Vince. After having ventured away from my usual mode with a number of collabs I found my way back to some more personal work that I had avoided in the past. Vince has always both indirectly and directly charged me with digging deeper, and one of those dig sites in our project turned out to be one I needed to dig into slowly. No project I have worked on, either alone or with others, has been so emotionally immersive for me as ours. I think I was able to find the spaces I found because of the nature of our friendship coupled with the nature of our relationship as poets. Each of the collabs I have been a part of has been immensely different, but I would find it odd if someone were to say honestly that it is possible to avoid some form of competitiveness. I think it’s always there, and it is up to you how you use it.

Vincent A. Cellucci wrote An Easy Place / To Die (CityLit Press, 2011) and edited Fuck Poems an exceptional anthology (Lavender Ink, 2012). Come back river, his first chapbook, a bilingual Bengali-English translation collaboration with the poet and artist Debangana Banerjee is available from Finishing Line Press. _A Ship on the Line, a battleship-collaboration with poet Christopher Shipman released by Unlikely Books in 2014, was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

Christopher Shipman is the author or co-author of 5 books and 3 chapbooks. Most recently available is a chapbook of short prose pieces, The Movie My Murder Makes and Cat Poems: Wompus Tales and a Play of Despair. His work appears in journals such as Cimarron Review, H_NG_MAN, The Offending Adam, PANK, Salt Hill, So and So, Spork Press, and TENDE RLOIN, among others. His poem “The Three-Year Crossing” was one of the winners of the Motionpoems Big Bridges prize judged by Alice Quinn. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter, and teaches literature and creative writing to high school kids. All of the coolest kids hang here: www.ccshipmanpoetry.com