Dare You and Another Poet Collaborate?

Collaborative poems often fail, but I admit they’re pretty darn fun

By Marilyn L. Taylor



    One of the most rewarding things about being a poet is, for many of us, the pure pleasure of discovering and getting to know other poets.  Our relationships often have a way of blossoming into a remarkably supportive community-- a flock of enthusiasts who find joy in talking poetry, reading poetry, arguing poetry, and sharing with one another the poetry we’ve written.
    I’ve found, in fact, that if a poet hangs around long enough with kindred souls, chances are excellent that somebody, sometime, is going to suggest a poetry collaboration project.  In other words, someone will decide that if two or more of us team up, pooling our talents and energies, the result will be something wonderful, publishable, and more than the sum of its parts.
    That person will be wrong.
    Well, maybe not entirely wrong.  I admit to possessing a strong sense that the odds are stacked against the true success of most poetry collaborations—at least in terms of their real artistic merit, and the likelihood of their being read and appreciated by others.
    Why do I come to such a grumpy, unsubstantiated conclusion?  Here are my three main reasons:  Too often, co-authored poems degenerate pretty quickly into jokes, games, or good-natured mutual taunting.  Nine times out of ten, collaborative poems can’t quite rise above the vaguely inharmonious elements of the two different voices.  Finally, my own collaboratively-written poems are perfectly awful.
    That said, not everyone shares my sentiments.  Certainly you can find famous poetry pairs who have worked together successfully over the years, such as  Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley, Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton.    
     So if you’re determined to collaborate on a poem, following are some examples of collaborations that are more successful than most, and why they work.
    In our first example, Robert Bly and Yorifumi Yaguchi teamed up because they had something quite meaningful to say—not merely to one another but to the reader.  Here are the closing lines of “Listening to a Storyteller,” written in memory of the late William Stafford:

YAGUCHI:     Suddenly silence flies up in the form
                         Of a bird from a bush nearby.

BLY:              I think the dead spend a lot of time
                         During the day in the nests of shy birds.

This pair of couplets almost certainly arose out of a deep grief shared by two poets with complementary ways of expressing themselves.
    Another fine collaboration comes from Denise Duhamel and Tom Hunley, who riffed on two lines by the poet Bill Knott, hence the title “Villanelle on Two Lines by Bill Knott”:

I know there is something lost
like my girlfriend, the blonde--
as if to say, what I have least

wanted is that I’ve gotten, at first, at last.
True, towards the end she was bland,
But I know there is something lost

and I will fight to get it back, lest
she and I be blind—
as if to say, what I have least

wanted to reveal, you’ve seen, my guts and lust
all swirling in a blender.
I know there is something lost

and forgotten or cut away from every list,
my masks and murders, blips and blunders—
as if to say, what I have leased,

what I have taken, what has been laced,
what I have blown.  Duh.
I know there is something lost
as if to say, what I have least.


Interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell here which of the two poets might have been responsible for which of the lines that make up this villanelle.   On the contrary, the work comes across as a smooth series of graceful handovers from the first poet to the second, and the second back to the first.
    In another successful joint poetic venture, Karla Huston and Cathryn Cofell, titled “Flea Market in Dickeyville”, which was originally published in Indiana Review:


Thigh can’t breathe,
all this poor white trash leaning in on her

throwing up dust and mold.
She’s looking for something she can’t

hold, something to wear her
down like a lambskin coat, a rubber float,

or that old goat down the road who ran
his hand up her leg when she was nine.

Today she wants the porcelain kitty,
the lamp like driftwood from Toledo
or the litter of junk left along I-75.
She remembers the time she flew
to New Jersey, drove the six-lane
like a woman overcome or the time
she heard footsteps behind her in the dark,
felt cornered like a fish in a tank.
Today she’s a queen-sized support hose,
empty and dangling, stretched to the limit.
What she needs is to be in control, to grab
the joystick, the bowling shoes, the clay pot,
to empty all her pockets.

    Once again, two poets have managed to create an effectively unified voice for the speaker—a voice that’s extraordinarily good at conjuring up a colorful string of memorable, recognizable images from the real world: that lascivious old goat, the lamp like driftwood from (of all places) Toledo, the porcelain kitty, the queen-size support hose, the joystick, the bowling shoes, the clay pot.  The poets manage to keep the reader’s attention entirely on the poem itself, eliminating an intrusive sense that they’re shooting little “cues” back and forth to each other.
    For more fine examples of collaborative poetry, see the anthology  Saints of Hysteria: a Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, edited Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad.  You can also find them in publications such as qarrtsiluni, Admit 2, Prairie Schooner, and Indiana Review, all of which generally welcome collaborative work and do an excellent job of showcasing the best of the genre.
    But still—despite the number of quality collaborations that have come from brilliant, well-established practitioners like these—I believe that collaborative work will probably not survive as anything more than a digression, a minor part of a particular poet’s legacy.  Poems do best when they’re born to a single parent.  
    I recognize, though, that collaborations can be great fun to write, and even (on occasion) to read.  The banter that bounced back and forth between Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, for example, is undeniably entertaining, to which this excerpt will attest:


AG:      The hydrogen jukebox repeats the old prophecy
KK:     And many a poem’s writ by you and me

AG:    Continuing for the generations yet to come
KK:     I think to go on more like this is dumb . . .

Not what you’d call memorable, maybe, but what’s wrong with being a little un-memorable now and then?  And here’s another quick excerpt, this one from a poem by Joshua Saul Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, who took turns writing it one word at a time:
    In Sumerian plazas demons are sewing drapes each evening for their landlord’s girlfriend’s bedrooms.

It’s pretty clear they had a terrific time writing this, even though the result is perhaps more Goofy Experiment than genuine poem.
    In any case, it’s undeniable that creating a poem with a partner can be fun, instructive, motivating, and, occasionally, even good.  I recommend trying your hand at writing one with a fellow poet for the sheer pleasure of it.
    There are a couple of time-honored ways to do this.  One is to take Beckman and Rohrer’s word-by-word approach, which they explain as follows:
    “The only rule we gave ourselves was that one’s turn came, one could say either a word or use punctuation (and later, parts of words).  As we got more comfortable with the back-and-forth exchange, the process became as much about challenging each other as it was about helping each other complete the poem."

A terrific plan for a whimsical poem, but not if your intention is that the resulting poem be taken seriously.
    Another option is to use the technique known as “Exquisite Corpse,”  With this, the poets each write two lines of poetry at a time, and then fold the paper in such a way so that the other can’t see the second line.  They then exchange papers, and compose their own second line for the stanza, and a third.  This exchange keeps up until a pre-agreed-upon line-count is reached.  Then the whole poem is unfolded, and some amazing things might be revealed.  
    So if it’s assumed that the objective of a collaboration is not necessarily to create a great poem, but instead to generate a topic, riff on a form, or fool with a point of view, then who knows?  The result could be greater than the sum of its parts.  You and your collaborator could be the ones who beat the odds, go down in literary history, or at least have a hugely good time.

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Joshua Saul Beckman and Matthew Rohrer’s book of collaborations is titled “Nice Hat. Thanks.” Publisher: Wave Books

“Flea Market in Dickeyville” by Cathryn Cofell and Karla Huston was originally published in The Indiana Review.

This article first published in The Writer and used by permission of the author.


Marilyn L. Taylor is the Poet Laureate for the State of Wisconsin and the author of Going WrongSubject to Change, Exit Only, and the chapbooks The Seven Very Liberal Arts & Greatest Hits.