By CL Bledsoe
When I started collaborating on poetry, my writing partner and I were both in creative lulls. Life, am I right? So much meh, so little time. We were close friends with similar senses of humor, who wasted a lot of time bantering on social media or in emails, texts, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something productive with that energy, we thought?
But, just because we got along doesn’t mean we would be able to collaborate. In fact, it might destroy our friendship. The thing to remember is that many — probably most — artists think they’re unrecognized geniuses. Maybe not consciously (that we’ll admit), but on some level, we’re all just waiting for that knock on the door when the prize money and gold sash arrives. (“Oh, I’m so surprised!” I will say while pulling a prepared speech from my pocket.) I, myself, have been known to look a little too closely when passing statues in public places, trying to see a resemblance. You never know; someone might’ve finally put one up of me. Lord knows I’m due after all those great ideas I had and never followed through with.
But ego doesn’t work in collaboration. The focus should be on the piece, not your own ambitions. I’ve had some bad experiences with collaborators who don’t understand this. If your goal is to end up with something that looks exactly like what you would’ve written, you shouldn’t be collaborating. If you’re going to reject everything the other person offers, then go write by yourself. Collaboration should be like stage improvisation. When you’re on stage with someone, you’re both in it together. If one of you presents an idea, the other has to go with it. Otherwise, people are going to start throwing shoes (which, hey, free shoes!).
This attitude of collaboration on stage is referred to as “Yes, and.” One person presents an idea. You accept it (metaphorically say “yes” to it) and then you add to it. This provides a structure and tone that allows the performers to explore ideas without devolving into bickering.
With poetry collaboration, some people get around this potential source of tension by trading lines back and forth, so that each person gets to make a fair contribution. Others take turns contributing poems to a collection, collaborating more thematically. Or, maybe they trade and finish unfinished/abandoned poem starts.
These are all great ideas, and I wish we’d thought of them before we started collaborating, but we didn’t. We didn’t know how to write a collaborative poetry collection, but we went ahead and did it anyway. Our method was simple. One of us would write a few lines and send them to the other person, who would add a few lines to that and send it back. Maybe one of us would cut a few words or tweak something that had already been written, usually as a suggestion before actually doing that — “What if we change Jeremy Benthem to Jeremy Irons, here?” Maybe one of us would double back and insert some words into the other person’s lines. When we got to something that felt like an ending, we’d go through, trim, and shape the thing. There were often digressions that could be cut, throat-clearing at the beginning, etc.
During revision is where the ego can come in. What if my favorite lines I’d written get cut or altered? How will I get my statue?! Honestly, it rarely happened because we were each capable of setting our egos aside and working toward the quality of the poem as a whole. I was just as likely — more likely — to cut those lines myself. We approached this cautiously, suggesting things, feeling each other out, but what we both soon realized — what we’d really known all along — was that we trusted and respected each other. We are both accomplished poets with similar tastes and complimentary styles. We almost always agree with the other person’s suggestions. If it’s a bold suggestion, we talk it out, see if it works. The bolder it is, the more exciting it probably is, after all.
Our first few collaborations were terrible, awkward, disjointed things, but after a few, we started to get into a rhythm. Humor became the defining theme of our collaborations, though there have been plenty of serious ones. Our primary goal with writing collaborative poems was to have fun and to break out of our writing lulls. Looking at these poems now, it’s difficult to distinguish who wrote what, though we each have our favorite lines or moments. They are funny and even striking in surprising ways (to us, at least).
These collaborations looked different from what we usually wrote, separately, and that’s ok. When we started to send them out to magazines, we really weren’t sure what would happen. Surprisingly, people seemed to like them, and after we’d published a few dozen, we decided to put together a book.
We tried to keep our approach with compiling a book similar to our approach writing individual poems. We took turns picking poems to include, and in what order. One of us would pitch an idea for a design approach, a cover photo, etc., and the other would build on it. We went through and revised again and again, no matter how much it hurt, because we knew the poems needed to be as good as they could possibly be. To accomplish this, we mostly focused on concrete ideas such as avoiding clichés or familiar phrases, evocative word choice, structures that kept the poems moving, and things that generally weren’t that open to esoteric interpretation, though we also debated themes and more ephemeral things.
Probably, the main reason this all worked was that the poems and the book were different from what we each usually did. That meant that we didn’t really have a lot of expectations. It also meant there were two of us to get the less fun things done, like promotion and paperwork. We had already been doing readings together for a few years, and now we had this extra level to add to that.
Not every idea either of us pitched paid off. Plenty of poem starts never went anywhere. Plenty of poems didn’t make the book. Plenty of other ideas fizzled. But overall, we have had a really fun and rewarding experience because we made the effort to keep the process fun and non-competitive. My favorite lines in the book are almost all ones I didn’t write. It’s not the book I would’ve written, but I probably wouldn’t have written the book at all.