The Unlonely Art: Notes on Poetic Collaboration

David Graham

Writing poetry can certainly feel like a lonely enterprise, at least in contrast to some other arts. No one puts on a play alone. Dancers may perform solo, but there is typically a choreographer involved, not to mention musicians, director, lighting and set designers, and so forth. (All of whom have opinions and desire creative input.) With musicals, lyrics and music are often composed by different people. Symphonies, plays, or ballets are not truly considered complete until given shape and style by being performed the presence of an audience or recording device. The credits that can take five minutes or more to scroll by at the conclusion of a movie remind us every time of the radically collaborative nature of that particular art form. Poems, however, may be and often are both written and read in silence and in solitude.

With poetry, loneliness also results because readership tends to be small and fame almost unheard of, as in the well-known joke: “’Famous poet’ is an oxymoron.” But I’d say it’s lonely mainly because for the most part poems get produced the same way now as they did thousands of years ago, with the poet in solitude or at least a quiet corner putting one word after another until the poem is finished. After that there are editors to consider, possibly; fellow poets and other readers to offer criticism and other response; and in rare cases (Robert Frost, Mary Oliver) a substantial readership; but the creative act itself, even in revision, tends to be solitary.

Yet writers, no less than other artists, are tribal creatures. We frequently gather, when the day's work is done, to blow off steam, swap notes, offer critiques, or just drink, brag, and complain. We seek companionship just as much as anyone. I can’t speak for other poets, but I’ve often longed to experience something of the camaraderie available to cast and crew of a theatrical production.

There’s no good reason poets can’t collaborate on the actual writing of a poem, of course. In fact the Japanese tradition of renga (linked poetry) originated over 700 years ago as a collaborative activity, with each poet providing a new stanza to the growing poem. Strict rules developed over time about the form and content of each stanza. Eventually, poets who were particularly good at writing a three-line stanza called a “hokku” became famous for it, and anthologies of examples were produced. Those single stanzas eventually became stand-alone poems in their own right, and thus was born what we now call “haiku.” 

But with the exception of some exuberant times with friends in grad school scrawling collective poems on bar napkins, and occasional workshops where we all created exquisite corpse poems together, I mostly haven't succeeded in writing fully collaborative poems. Relatively few American poets have, it seems. After all, not many books of original poetry list joint authorship.

What I have done, however, is engage with a number of fellow poets, at different times and in different ways, in poetic correspondences. The first time was with a good friend, Dennis Finnell, whose poems at the time (early 1980s) seemed to resonate harmonically with my own. Over several years we put our letters to each other into verse.  This was back in the day when people still wrote letters, when carbon paper was my main way of recording what I would put into an envelope and send on to Dennis.  I found it very liberating. Both of us wound up eventually publishing poems from our experiment, and a good number of them appear in each of our first books. 

I don't think this project could have worked if we were not already close friends, if we weren't in the habit of swapping and critiquing work, and if our own styles and sensibilities did not run for the most part in parallel. While these were not collaborations in the sense of joint authorship, they did achieve some of the same benefits. We spun off each other's ideas, incorporated lines from each other's poems into our own, composed on the same themes, and generally performed a kind of poetic ping-pong that was very stimulating. I’m sure we nudged each other out of our comfort zones and provoked each other in ways that would not otherwise have occurred. I’m confident we both wrote better, at least in fits and starts, than we might have alone. Because we led busy lives, though, we imposed no deadlines on each other, and occasionally months would pass between letters. As more months and then years passed, our correspondence-in-poems sort of slowed to a trickle, and finally halted.

Nonetheless it was a great experience. From time to time we talked about starting up again, but as our lives got even busier and our careers developed in different directions, we just couldn’t sustain the momentum. As more years passed, I occasionally floated the idea of a similar project with various other poet friends, but nothing ever got off the ground. We were too busy, our styles didn’t mesh, or for some other good reason nothing came of these pipe dreams.

Fast-forward to he era of email and the internet. Talking with a former student, I happened to mention my long-ago correspondence with Dennis, and this time things just clicked. Brent Goodman is one of the best writers it has ever been my pleasure to have in my classroom.  Thanks to our computers, we had kept in touch after his graduation, and I had the great joy of watching an extremely promising student turn into a peer and a friend, and, in short order, a startlingly good and original poet. 

At this time, I was well into one of my own solo projects, begun on sabbatical in 2008, of drafting a complete new poem every day. I've always found the discipline and habit of regular writing very helpful. As I often would remark to students in writing courses, anything you put on paper is better than a blank page, because when you have nothing it cannot be revised. Frequent writing spurs my creativity and I believe increases my fluency and strength as a writer. So by this point I’d been putting something in my journal every day for years. But drafting a complete new poem each day, rather than just scribbling some fragmentary lines or recording what I had for lunch, was a fresh challenge.  Please note that I don't say a finished poem, and certainly not necessarily a good one--simply a complete one, with beginning, middle, and end. Most of my daily poems were duds, as you would expect, and I certainly never showed most of them to anyone.

Brent was and is much braver than I am. He had begun a blog, on which he began posting daily poem drafts for all to see. For him it was a National Poetry Month challenge.  And then, part-way through that month, I was startled to read about the speaker of a poem experiencing a heart attack and being taken by helicopter to the Intensive Care Unit. Holy cow! When I contacted him in alarm, sure enough, it was all true.  Happily, not only did Brent survive his cardiac event and indeed thrive in recovery, but most astonishing of all to me, he never missed a day. He even wrote a poem while hooked up to tubes and wires in the ICU.  I remember thinking, now this is an unstoppable poet!  I was and am amazed not only by his talent but his sheer doggedness.

Brent’s heart attack was in 2009, as I recall. It was a couple years later, as National Poetry Month 2011 approached, that we agreed to try a poetic correspondence via email. Unlike what Dennis and I had once done, we committed to doing it daily—one poem from each of us for every day in April. I was apprehensive at first, but we both had a great time swapping poems that month; and we’ve now been at it every April since, seven years and counting. Brent and I do differ greatly in one respect, quite neatly demonstrating that there are many roads to the same destination. As noted, I’ve been a daily writer for decades, so in one respect these month-long challenges are no big deal. I can write a mediocre poem any old day. Brent, on the other hand, is not and never has been addicted to a daily regimen. He sometimes goes months or more without writing much. But to my amazement, he can turn on the juice whenever he wants to. And he writes like a dream. (I’m sure this all connects to his day job for many years, where as a tech writer he was called on to churn out copy in demanding forms on strict deadlines.)

Since writing every day was a familiar habit, I was a bit surprised, that first April, at how much I got out of corresponding in poems with Brent. My recollection is that before we got started I fussed a good bit about what our rules and guidelines would be, what limits we might put on our enterprise, and so forth. Brent was more inclined toward free improvisation. Ultimately, the only rule we have maintained over the past seven years is: one poem per day for each of us.  Brent’s always inventing new challenges, too. One year he made up a strict form to write each of his poems in (I declined). Another year he announced he would write nothing but haikus, and I ended up doing so too (I became a big haiku fan). Then it was haibuns. At other times, I would take a line from Brent’s poem the day before as a prompt for mine; and he would do the same with mine. And occasionally we’ve thrown all rules out the window and just improvised.

Since I was once his teacher, it’s a little embarrassing to admit how intimidating it can be to exchange poems with Brent, he’s so adventurous and gifted. It always feels like playing tennis (with the net up). Just when I believe I’ve hit off a real winner, her fires another ace right back at me, and I struggle to return something with half as much speed and spin. With someone like Brent, I have to raise my game considerably just to keep up. And this is just one of the pleasures and advantages of this sort of collaboration. He keeps me guessing and I am sure that, in general, I write better in this situation than I do when I go completely solo. It’s exhausting, to be honest, but I look forward to it every year.

After a few years doing this with Brent, I was able to get a similar email poem-swap going with my old friend Eric Nelson. We are now in our fourth year of doing a month-long swap—in a different month, of course. He’s a very different poet from Brent, but every bit as good. And I have to confess that he regularly fires aces at me too that I struggle to return.

I don’t know how better to conclude this little meditation on collaboration by correspondence than by example. So I’ll offer four consecutive samples from Brent and my 2012 April poem-swap, which will give you a taste, at least, of what such collaboration can look like. This was one of the years we both improvised. But without really planning it, we found ourselves on many days grabbing an image, phrase, or notion from the other guy’s poem to incorporate into our own. I can’t speak for Brent, but when I sat down at the desk each day I had no idea what I would write about, or how. Typically I just lifted some phrase or image that I liked from what he’d sent the day before, and begin free associating. He would do the same, and the poems became a kind of loosely linked chain of recurrent themes. Whether these are great poems or not is not for me to say, of course. But I can attest that it’s been a great ongoing adventure, and when I read back through our correspondence I am permanently grateful for this conversation in poetry with my friend, who always surprises, challenges, and frankly scares me more than a little. (Same goes for you, Eric, and you too, Dennis!)

Re-reading the following sequence of poems after not looking at it for years, I’m struck by how much Brent’s style has infiltrated my own. For any reader who knows our work, I’d bet that if the names were removed, you might have trouble identifying who wrote just what.

How to Pick The Right Stone

As you’re brushing your teeth in the bathroom mirror
ask your day for as many surprises as humanly possible.

Have you ever seen celestite in its druze botryoidal habit?
Dalmatian Jasper barks when danger is near. Shadow-

banded Malachite is a green fire. Ask the stone you haven’t
found yet to find you first, then get out of its goddamn way.

Or does one say “Duck!” Avoid the fluorite dolphins, they
tend to be high maintenance knick knacks. A man offered

to sell me a medium basalt boulder filled with vugs of copper agates
“Guar-an-teed” he half sung with each metal detector screech.

Thousands of dollars inside for $75 if I wanted to roll my sleeves up
and hammer them out. I’d sooner bend over in a creek bed and croon

whadoyaknow ain’t that a pretty one! Which is to say stones
are made of light, just slow enough for us to carry. Take a handful.

Fill your pockets. Walk somewhere no one lives and stay a while.

--Brent Goodman 4-21-12 

Ask the Stone You Haven't Found Yet

Stones /are made of light, just slow enough for us to carry

We’re confused about time, but the fields greening
a month early are not confused, nor the sandhill cranes
opening their umbrella wings wide over the wetland,
nor the skunk cabbage, may apples, jack-in-the-pulpits,
and trillium shouldering their way up through loam
to see what’s what in this oddly early spring.  Climate
change, we say, but the clouds say nothing, and rain
hitting the walnut tree hard also has no comment. 
My dog with his snout deep in the arbor vitae searching
something I can’t imagine has no opinion, either.
Shall we ask the stones a thing or two?  Ask the stone
that marks his grave how things are these days?
Ask her granite marker how long it took to turn to light?
Or pose some question we haven't thought of, to
the stone we haven't found yet, and the river we have?
We blubber and boo-hoo when the earth opens to admit
another father, a sister, a friend, but the earth couldn’t
care less how hard we keen, how keenly we remember,
because, after all, we are the stone, the wind, and the fire
that turned it all to ash.  And now the gentle rain falling.

--David Graham 4-22-12

Blubber and Boo-Hoo

The ramps arrive early to the amish grocery,
my green bag blossoming curly kale and
organic golden beets under spring sun.
So what one of us thought we were arguing.
The sun followed us all the way here. Didn’t
the bald eagle land on cue in her baby’s nest
atop a telephone pole as we drove past dragging
our silence like a sloshing bucket between us?
The twist in every story is what resembles DNA,
and that’s how ladders ascend too. I spent
the afternoon climbing one, and when I finally slept
it was in someone else’s attic. They say
soulmates break the surface like islands
in an archipelago. I know you were born
an island. I know because I was born
the ocean, meaning you were a river once,
and before that, we both must have been the rain.

--Brent Goodman   4-22-12


The sun followed us all the way here

As a boy I followed the moon,
or the moon followed me. 
It was hard to tell which,
wedged in the back seat
between John and Jill, riding
the hump, catching flirty glimpses
of a full moon strobing through
the woods along Route 10.

The moon which was nothing
but an idea, some theorem
I hadn't yet learned, promise
of soft light in dark places.  I didn't
understand how we could
turn and turn and it came along.
The five of us in the old Dodge,
turning and turning, Mom
and Dad sure we were all asleep
and talking that throaty, deep talk
I still listen for late at night.

We were headed home,
ten miles of dirt road from the lake
to the first hardtop, Dad going
slow so no one would get sick,
and I was half asleep, but
for all that, never more awake
than those nights, scent
of pine in the air, promise
of a fox or deer in the headlights
around every curve,
and the moon itself curving
around my mind for good.

--David Graham  4-23-12


David Graham

David Graham

In the summer of 2017 David Graham and his wife Lee departed Wisconsin after 30 wonderful years in Ripon, where he taught writing & literature at Ripon College, and Lee served in the Art Department. He has published six collections of poetry as well as the essay anthology After Confession, co-edited with Kate Sontag. His essays, reviews, and individual poems have appeared widely, both in print and online. For the past two years he has been writing a monthly column on poetry called “Poetic License” for the online journal Verse-Virtual: He and Lee now live in Glens Falls NY, which is tucked between the Hudson River and The Adirondack Park.