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Anne Dalke's picture

Collaborative Poetry Writing

Stepping off from our last session, in which Michelle Mancini described the "aesthetic" limits of the sonnet form, Darla and Elizabeth traced the various ways in which limits might "bring forth some freeing stuff."

In a course on Joyce and Beckett @ Haverford some years ago, they collaborated on a paper that opened up new creative and academic possibilities for themselves, a paper in which they explored multiple viewpoints, multiple endpoints. From that point, they have evolved a collaborative poetry writing process, during which they write in silence, finishing one another's sentences. They described the process as "feminist," because open; as "political," because they're listening, not intervening prematurely when another is speaking; and as a revision of the writing process, because it is neither solitary or linear.

After writing contrapuntally, they edit, and title their poem, because they think "naming is important." The product matters to them--they hope to create poems that matter to others--but "it's largely about the process; and meaning-making happens in the revision." They use this process to alter a mood; if one is feeling tired, or discouraged, for instance, the other might say, "Can we just write a poem real quick?" It works like a prayer. Like a song. Like therapy. It can be a way through strain.

Evoking 'the artless art" described in Zen and the Art of Archery-- "when the body is working, let it work. Get out of the way"--Darla and Elizabeth demonstrated their process of collaborative poetry-writing, and then invited the group to pair up and try it out. In doing so, we discovered what it might feel like to "shut off the process" of anticipating the next line, by letting one's partner write it.

For some of us this was a "game," a practice of "stopping, giving it over"; for others, it was more competitive, a one-upman-ship or challenge to the other. It is certainly a way of "working on self-editing," of giving over the need (or possibility) of controlling the outcome. When it works, this can be a process of "getting rid of control," a kind of honesty that "allows things to come that are not preconceived." Perhaps--chemically, physiologically--it involves a kind of "alignment on the inside."

We speculated about the degree to which this process exemplified "theory of mind"--the ability to imagine that another has thoughts different than oneself (as well as the ability to anticipate what those thoughts might be, what the other is going to do). This process is akin to that of being a poet who anticipates what a reader might think about one's writing; it is a form of collaborative criticism. It is reminiscent of the collaborative exercise of drawing a "chimera" (in which several  children are each invited to draw a portion of an animal's body, without seeing what the other portions look like).

We also imagined what it might be like to do "collaborative" architecture on this model, with one person drawing a plan, and others successively "adding a wing," etc. Other possible areas of application include therapy, and workshops in the Social Justice Pilot program.

In this process, one discovers that what "appears to be an ending" might actually constitute a new beginning. Rather than writing lines that might "close down the poem," one learns to write those that might be generative for another. This process demonstrates not only the large number of connections among us, but also one way to find them.



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