KMD: Your collaboration with Joshua Beckman, Nice Hat. Thanks., is as lively and engaging as it is thought-provoking. More specifically, I’m intrigued by your approach to collaborative writing as a kind of improvisation. This makes possible a degree of surprise, chance, and wonder that is rare in single-author projects, which tend to be much more deliberative. With that in mind, how does one invite such spontaneity into one’s own writing when working in isolation? Within your own artistic practice, how do you negotiate planning and structuring book manuscripts with the kind of invention and improvisation that we see in your collaborative work?
MR: I think for years now I have been approaching all of my own writing as a kind of improvisation. I am very uninterested in planning out a poem, and am not very interested in reading poems that are obviously written like that. I just don't find it interesting to engage in writing that way (I'm not, after all, a novelist) and luckily for me I am pretty prolific -- so if an improvisation doesn't really work, I just toss it out. I write another one.
I do think, though, that this came to a head after or while working with Joshua on NICE HAT. THANKS. The freedom and excitement and unalloyed FUN of collaborating with him was so intoxicating that I couldn't imagine going back to my own poems with anything other than the same sense of freedom and improvisation.
I got to interview Ron Padgett in 1995 about his Selected Poems and that's something he said then, which I remembered but which I don't think I fully understood until later; he said that after doing so many collaborations with Ted Berrigan, he began to approach his own writing as if it were a collaboration as well. And I think it's that sense of surprise at every turn in his poems that's so amazing, and which I humbly would like to also have in my own.
When I think of your recent collaborations with Kristin Giordano -- the GHOSTS OF BIRDS sequence, I'm amazed at how you are able to take these very spare and stark photographs in black and white-- really just bones on a black background -- and find a world or a poetic space in which they can live alongside your new poems. The sea plays a large role in them too -- which makes sense since the photos almost look like bones washed up on a beach. I'm curious about how you approached the making of your poems in terms of these photos --- how you got to that moment of awareness that let you create this space in which the poems and the photos could live together?
KMD: That’s a great question. And I definitely agree with you that all of writing is a collaborative endeavor. After all, consciousness itself is essentially social, an ongoing dialogue with the various cultural texts, fragments of language, and phenomena that we encounter. But I think there is definitely something unique about collaborating with another practitioner of the creative arts. When I started working on The Ghosts of Birds with Kristin Giordano, I was amazed at how Kristin’s work allowed me to say something that I wasn’t able to say when writing in isolation. In some ways, the spare, barren landscapes in her photographs limited what is possible within the text. At the same time, though, this reduction of possibilities, and the inherent simplicity of the vocabulary of images that we were working with, actually made it easier to represent my experiences faithfully. There is something wonderfully generative about constraints. After collaborating with Kristin, I ended up with some of the most autobiographical writing that I’ve ever done, and they’re also some of my most honest poems.
At the time, I was writing grants and traveling full-time, and thanks to fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, 360 Xochi Quetzal in Mexico, and Willapa Bay AiR in Washington State, I spent an extended period of time near the ocean. For the entire time, I was entirely out of cell phone range. The poems make frequent references to letters sent and received, and the anxiety associated with correspondence. White spaces, silences, and ruptures begin to speak more clearly, more forcibly than the text itself. These anxieties and inferences, the torn envelopes and the nerve-wracked shorelines that appear in the poems, were a very real part of my life during those months. I think there is something spontaneous and liberating about collaboration, but I also believe that we choose our collaborators for a reason. Looking back, I think I gravitated to Kristin’s work because it resonated with my experience, my aesthetic predilections, and my emotional state at that time. Yet her beautiful photographs also pushed me to simplify the vocabulary of images I was working with, to allow meaning to accumulate around them. Honestly, I was amazed at how much I learned about the craft of poetry from her exquisite artwork.
Which actually brings me to my next question. I recently had the good fortune of attending your excellent craft talk in Paris, where you discussed collaborating with unwitting co-writers, dead poets, and appropriated texts. Collaboration becomes a way of thinking through and interrogating another writer’s work, with or without their express permission. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how collaboration intersects with other modes of engaging with and responding to works of art. Within your own practice, when does collaboration become an act of readerly interpretation, the end result being a work of criticism (albeit an untraditional one)? To what extent does this practice of creatively responding to texts begin to democratize criticism as a genre? Can poets make necessary contributions to the ongoing work of interpreting, analyzing, and theorizing literature?
MR: Hmmm. That’s a good question and one I’m not sure how to answer. I do think that, at least for me, much of my collaborative instinct does come from actually wanting to engage with the text (or maybe art work in a museum) in a way that helps me understand it more. Certainly that is what happened when I did my collaborative “translations” of Hafiz poems that are in my last book. I was fascinated with Hafiz and his ideas, and came across some truly dreadful-sounding English translations that threw up huge roadblocks to really engaging with Hafiz in any meaningful way. So I did those as a way to think through what it was I saw in Hafiz. In terms of the collaboration becoming, in the end, a form a criticism, I think that’s probably true – though in a way that traditional critics might bristle at! But I guess I think there’s something to that – I certainly am not interested in criticism written by people who don’t also engage in the act they criticize (I know, I know…. there are lots of examples of good critics who do this but this is perhaps my way of politely expressing my distaste for criticism in general). You’ve written things like this, and I’m interested in hearing more about what you think its role is --- by which I mean, I guess, that if it’s so non-traditional, will it even be read as criticism? Do we need someone (and could this be you?) to introduce the idea of a collaborative, creative criticism?
KMD: These are great questions. First, I think that the concerns you raise about legitimacy, and whether non-traditional criticism could ever be taken seriously within the academy, are important considerations. Much of my writing, collaborative and otherwise, comes from a desire to democratize what are very privileged, carefully guarded scholarly forms of discourse. To make them more inclusive, more hospitable to a diversity of voices and viewpoints. To carve a space for autobiography, aestheticized language, and moments of beauty within these academic forms of writing. With that in mind, the question of legitimacy is fraught with ethical problems, since traditional criticism seems at odds with the desire for inclusion and diversity (in terms of voices, as well as modes of representation and the forms that engagement with literary and cultural texts may take). For me, this is what makes the collaborative, creative criticism so fascinating. It not only creates a more democratic space for thinking through texts, but also, it allows the unique resources of poetry and the arts to be brought to bear on complex theoretical and philosophical discussions.
I recently finished writing a collection of essays called Women and Ghosts, which is now available from BlazeVOX Books. The book is part of an ongoing engagement with Shakespeare’s tragic women, and uses erasure, strikethrough, and greyscale to address themes of voicelessness, self-censorship, and gendered violence in Hamlet, King Lear, and several other tragedies. As someone who also works in more traditional scholarly forms, it was truly liberating to use the space of the page as a visual field, and to see the novel work this could do in conveying an argument about these very familiar plays. For me, the white space within the book spoke more clearly than text, or a description of silencing, ever could. The space of the page also helped the reader to experience viscerally (I hope) what was being described, to render the moments of rupture within the text suddenly and disconcertingly palpable.
MR: Political! I don’t know about that word. But I see your point. I agree with you about the corporatized, compartmentalized way that writing is seen by many people these days – just think about how often you heard people say, about CITIZEN, “but it’s not poetry”. Tellingly, my students rarely said that; critics said it a lot.
I really like your idea of the erasures and such using the white space, using the actual space of the original text to sort of critique the experience we have reading it – or thinking about it. I think Jen Bervin’s NETS points a way forward for something like this – this is NOT what she’s doing in NETS but it’s funny because my students often assume she is; assume that what she’s doing by erasing most of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a critique of Shakespeare. Which is not her project, but someone else could do this. Or do similar things, with other texts. I had a student do something really remarkable with the testimony of Darren Wilson – the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. She just did the NETS treatment to it and what popped out of that was frightening and really powerfully apparent—about his use of language, his attitudes in general. Of course, it’s not “really” his testimony – but it wasn’t a critique of his veracity as much as his diction and his inner life. So yes, that is a very round-about way to agree with you and see a way forward for non-traditional criticism done in collaboration.
As for my creative translations and collages – it’s just always something I’ve done on a small scale (as a way to get one image in a poem, or one line, for instance) and now I’m just letting it go and making whole poems that way more often. And I don’t mean it to be explicitly “political” but I guess I’m concerned that people stop being so uptight about what’s “real” and what’s not and what’s “authentic” and to just ask themselves if they liked the poem.
Just last night I was listening with a friend to his Allen Ginsberg LP where he sings Blake poems – very strange of course. And I heard a line that I used to end a recent poem—I’d forgotten it was from Blake. It made me feel excited to hear it back in its original context. And I guess I assume that if a reader knows the Blake line, they’ll hear me end that poem with it and feel a similar pleasure. Or maybe just outrage.