by Dana Guthrie Martin
I had the pleasure of meeting Anita Boyle and Jim Bertolino last year when they were reading individually and collaboratively written work as part of a poetry series in the Seattle area. I was taken by the writing that Anita and Jim have been doing together over the years and asked if I could talk with them about their collaborative work. They graciously granted me an interview. I hope you enjoy their thoughts about collaboration.
Dana Guthrie Martin: You all say that you started writing together because you were hanging out in bars and it’s hard to hear one another but very easy to write collaboratively by passing a piece of paper back and forth and writing line by line. What gave you all the idea to try this form of collaboration in the first place?
Anita Boyle: Writing poetry collaboratively started as a form of conversation. When you don’t know someone very well, and you’re really trying to talk to them, but you can’t hear a darn tootin’ thing they’re saying, and you happen to be a writer, you pull out your journal. A rational response. You write something in it, and pass it to the person you’re attempting to talk to. Maybe this is something we learned in elementary school when kids first start passing those forbidden notes back and forth. If you’re in a noisy bar, and you happen to be a writer AND a poet, when pen goes to paper there’s not much of a transition from conversation to poetry. So the idea was spontaneous.
Jim and I began writing collaborative poetry shortly after we met, since when we were dating, we often ended up in noisy places: bars, taverns, pubs. We went other places, too, and sometimes wrote collaboratively there: at a coffee shop, or in a park, or beside the Noon Road pond. These were usually quiet places, so once we began to write in the noise, it easy to write in the quiet. And we’ve kept it up because it’s fun to write this way.
Jim Bertolino: While it’s true that Anita and I began writing collaboratively as a way to communicate effectively in noisy bars, for me there were other aspects of the process that kept me interested, generated satisfaction. I am a poet who loves responding to what appears to happen randomly, and when your collaborative partner shares a passage, it can be like an unexpected gift handed to you by a smiling stranger. It calls for your best creative efforts to either create a verbal landscape that might be implied by what you’ve received, or willfully alter the direction of the burgeoning poem to shape a surprise or insist on contrast. Like the curse of tragic nostrils! Participating in a collaborative poem is an acceptable opportunity to release your rational mind from the responsibility of making something meaningful. A chance to get down and roll in language like a white mare in mud.
DGM: Jim, you say that collaboration allows you to willfully alter the direction of the burgeoning poem. Has that ever been a problem for you and Anita when you work together? Have you ever pulled each other too far, so far the poem lost its sense of where to go and how to recover from all the tugging?
JB: Part of the great fun of poetry collaboration is in trying to compose a passage that is imaginative or clever enough to seduce your partner into embracing a new direction. This is an especially useful strategy when you think the territory that the poem has moved into over several exchanges has been explored enough, or when some part of what your collaborator has just written switches the light on in another room, or in another part of town, or even in some other universe. And as for the poem losing its sense of where to go, one of the characteristics of lively collaboration is that you, or your partner, can always tug the poem back to its best direction.
DGM: And, Jim, you also talk about collaboration providing a means to “release your rational mind from the responsibility of making something meaningful.” How can that responsibility hamper a poet’s individual writing, and why is this freedom from responsibility so important?
JB: The reservoir of language and imagery every poet carries is fabulous, and while that source is always there to enrich and embolden what will embody meaning for the reader or listener, diving into that reservoir without a plan can not only be a pleasure, but may take us on currents of language and image to places we would have never visited otherwise. Both in my collaborative writing and in my intentional poems I have come to depend on eruptions that offer unexpected beauty: in deep connections created by the juxtaposition of certain words and phrases, and in images that can simultaneously seem both random and precise. I’m committed to sharing the experience of what I didn’t know was there.
DGM: Anita, so my question for you is: Shouldn’t there be a dating service that pairs people and sees if they are compatible based on their ability to write poetry together? Don’t you think poets would come to a workshop like that if you and Jim taught it? You could call it something like, “Write Together, Love Together.” Too cheesy? How about “Eat, Date, Poem”?
AB: From what I understand about dating services, Yes! Writing poetry together is a good way to interact even with an unfamiliar date, and can introduce a person to another in a unique way. Passing a journal between two poets offers each specific details about the other: handwriting style, type of humor, even political and social perspectives. Most poets have a few words they can’t stay away from (their personal lexicon). Mixing those words up with another’s adds a dimension to conversation that isn’t explored nearly enough. Especially now, with the huge number of communication methods available, it seems to me that collaborative communication will continue to become a norm in the arts, in the workplace and in simple conversation. There’s a lot of give and take in collaborating, and that’s not such a bad thing. For now, collaborative poetry is an opportunity for a extraordinary personal experience in a semi-intimate environment.
Titles are hard to come up with. As far as a title for a workshop like this? Your titles are fine, but how about: “Poetry as Duet” or “How Do You Do? My Name is Not Sue: The Poetry Date Experience”?
DGM: Anita, you also talk about the transition from conversation to poetry being a small one. Doesn’t this fly in the face of those who proselytize about how arduous and lonely poetry work is and by definition has to be? What a drudgery it is? How different poetry is (and should be) from “normal” conversation?
AB: I believe that writing poetry can be arduous and lonely, which often guides the inspiration for a poem and creates a tension in it that makes for great work. But if a poet thinks writing is a drudgery, they should perhaps call themselves a hobbyist and find a new one. Gardening, for example. Life is too short for unnecessary drudgeries, isn’t it?
Writing your own poetry is a similar to writing collaboratively, but is an entirely other experience. Collaborative poetry usually starts out quick and fast by comparison. Two people can write two to five poems in a matter of hours, which doesn’t happen for most poets on their own. (Revising collaborative poems seems to take about the same amount of time as revising one’s own poems. I believe in a revisionary god. That’s where the thing gets the spark.)
With your own poetry, it’s an inner struggle to find the right musical cadence, to construct a rhythm, find the perfect near rhyme, etc. You can tear your hair out for just one word, that one particular, yet elusive word. But in writing together, it’s a poem by committee. Committees are what they are. They can work as well as a rusty fat-tired bike, or as smooth as a professional quality road bike, but all committees depend on the input given from everyone. This is a relief, too, because some of the responsibility of coming up with something fantastic is alleviated, though committees sometimes add other elements of stress. When collaborating, while one poet is working on the poem at hand, the other can be thinking about where to take the poem next, or observing the one currently writing, or they can even be writing a grocery list. And if something from the grocery list makes it into the poem, so much the better.
There hasn’t been any pressure to be the greatest-poet-that-ever-lived when I write with Jim. Sometimes, I’ll finish my lines, set them down in front of him and say, “You can cross that out if you want. It’s terrible.” He never has. Well, maybe a word here or there, but that happens rarely. He makes things work. And when it’s my turn to add onto the poem again, sometime I think, “Oh brother. Where are we going with this?” But we keep going. At the end we read the poem out loud (very loudly sometimes, depending on where we are), and are almost always surprised by what came together. I can’t think of any that we actually ignore as poems or potential poems. When we go back through our journals, we type them up, revise, combine, shuffle, and make them work somehow. I find collaborating with Jim has been a relaxing, enjoyable, and sometimes a hilarious experience, and it’s shaped our relationship in very good ways.
If you like writing poetry, I don’t see any drudgery in that. Hard work, maybe. But it’s just a ton of fun, whether it’s collaborative or one’s own.
Dana Guthrie Martin is the founder of Read Write Poem. In 2010, she is taking a break from completing poems so she can study their component parts, while at the same time learning a new musical instrument, most likely the oboe.