Before embarking on a collaborative manuscript, John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrop were both accomplished poets and literary editors. John Gallaher's most recent book is In a Landscape (Boa Editions, 2014). He currently edits The Laurel Review and teaches at Northwest Missouri State University.
G.C. Waldrep is the author of Testament (Boa Editions, 2015), among many other collections. He teaches at Bucknell University, where he directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and serves as editor of West Branch.
G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher's Your Father on the Train of Ghosts has been called "one of the most extensive collaborations in American poetry." First published in 2011, Waldrep and Gallaher's co-authored manuscript was also a harbinger, foreshadowing a wealth of beautiful collaborative writing to come. I recently had a chance to pose a few questions to these poets about their interactive writing practice, dispelling myths about about collaborative writing, and collaboration in a rapidly changing literary landscape.
KMD: When starting a collaborative manuscript, many writers are quickly overwhelmed with possibility. The real task is often choosing among the many directions a project could take. In the early stages of the writing process, were there constraints that governed your collaboration? Did you begin with a structure already in mind, or did you discover the form of the book as you wrote?
GC: Well, we eased into this. I had been thinking actively about collaboration in poetry and had in fact started a few collaborative enterprises with other poets, which hadn’t gone very far: one lesson I learned is that however much you admire another poet’s work and person, for collaboration to succeed there has to be some affinity or concinnity with working rhythms, with process. John and I had met at AWP and weren’t quite friends yet, but we’d struck up a correspondence, which began evolving into writing poems back and forth, via e-mail. There was a certain point when we realized the energy might be right, and we dove in. (Or further in.)
JG: Once it got going it really took on a momentum of its own, and was difficult to bring to a close. We wrote it in two phases, each in the end comprising about half of the book--hence the two-part structure, which, as chance would have it, fit well the doubled nature of the collaboration.
GC: There were various micro-constraints along the way, for instance the period when one of us would come up with a title and the other the poem to go with the title. (This is how the title poem came into being.) But these all evolved over the course of 16 months, in the middle of which we took a break, yes. By the end of the second phase we were both starting to work away from that collaborative space, in our own respective, changed directions.
KMD: In your conversation on the BOA Editions site, you mentioned that your manuscript was initially 700+ pages. I’d love to hear more about the process of editing and shaping the work. How did you preserve the spontaneity of your collaborative practice while crafting the manuscript into a finished product?
JG: It was a fairly long process, I think? We each read the whole thing, tagging things we thought worked best, with--am I remembering this correctly--a numbering system? Or maybe a check, check plus, and check minus system. Peter Conners, as well, read through and made a selection. In the end, the only rule we had was that we each would have the same number of individual poems in the book, so it would retain its 50/50 split. The process took some time, but the selection turned out to be fairly easy, as we, I think, agreed much more than we disagreed.
GC: The original writing wasn’t difficult at all--it was fun; it represented a great freedom, not having to start every poem ex nihilo (because we were responding to each other’s poems). Some of the cuts were hard, but harder yet was joint revision. Part of me always wanted to revise everything back towards a GC Waldrep comfort zone, and I think the same was true for John--the urge to revise towards a known voice--but what we were hoping for, what we thought the book wanted, was to evolve towards a third voice, neither GC Waldrep nor John Gallaher. Learning to listen for that voice, and to revise towards it, was a new experience.
KMD: Collaborations have arguably become more fashionable since your book was first published. Can you speak about the experience of publishing and marketing your project when co-authored volumes of poetry were less commonplace, and were far less present in the public imagination?
GC: I was surprised by the resistance many people had to collaborative work. None from BOA--Peter Conners was interested in the project from the moment he heard about it. And really not so much from journal editors, since many of the poems appeared in journals under our individual names, before the book. But after the book came out, we encountered many readers and reviewers who complained that they didn’t know how to read the poems, or demanded to know who wrote what, etc. (There are 150 poems in the published version, exactly 75 from each of us. The book opens with a 1:1 back and forth but swerves unpredictably as it goes, largely because of poems we cut at various points along the way.)
JG: People still, now and then, ask me about a specific poem. I often don’t remember right away, looking at a poem at random, as we were borrowing a lot from each other--reusing images, riffing, quoting, answering back, but I can tell by the end which of us was the author, or more like “primary author” of the poem. It’s not really a secret or anything, though. I mean, if someone really wanted to know, they could find most of these poems published in journals under our individual names.
GC: There were moments in the revision process when I lost track of who wrote what, too! Once we were editing the complete manuscript, we felt free to work on each others’ poems. As for the book, we wanted the reader to work towards that third voice--that collaborative voice--also, rather than focus on who wrote what. When we read in public public from the book, we usually both stand up front and alternate reading poems--not necessarily poems we’d written originally.
At one point, I had this idea that BOA should issue the book as an electronic text that would always consist of 150 pages of poetry, but somehow the electronic book interface (containing all 700+ pp.) would randomly select and shuffle 150 pp. each time the reader opened the e-book. So that one could never open the same Your Father on the Train of Ghosts twice. BOA was not, for some reason, open to this. I still think it would have been excellent.
KMD: If you could dispel one myth about poetry collaborations, what would it be and why?
GC: The one about the tortoises, I think.
JG: Agreed, but I thought it was turtles.
GC: I always vote to keep the myths about the fire, and the seven or eight myths about the hands. But John knows fire and hands are two of my obsessive images.
JG: They go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
JG: Or a platypus! Now there’s a myth for you. I was just reading, speaking of myths, about a sighting of Bigfoot in the Philippines, I think it was, walking through a waterfall. The article said “myth of Bigfoot” but then went on to say it was odd to see one in the Philippines (if that’s where it was, I’m working from memory here) as they were thought to only be in America. That strikes me as a kind of metaphor for collaborations.
GC: 21st-century American poetry: reading about someone watching a cryptid walk through a waterfall, and wondering where the myth was hiding, all along.
KMD: What advice do you have for creative practitioners who are interested in collaboration? And for reviewers, critics, and scholars of poetry who are interested in writing about collaborative texts?
JG: I have one for this! There’s this thing people were upset about, or some poets seemed upset about, when Your Father on the Train of Ghosts came out, that we should have acknowledged who wrote what, and since we didn’t, then it wasn’t a serious book, because if we really believed in the poems we were writing, we’d want to claim single ownership. It’s the Highlander model of poetry collaboration: There can be only one. I disagree strongly. I believe in the BOOK, not simply my 50% of it. And I think that if one enters into a collaboration with a Highlander mentality, that seems to me a depressing way to collaborate. Kind of soul-killing, if you ask me.
GC: I have my own thoughts about souls, but I agree they should not be killed.
KMD: How has this collaboration enriched your approach to single-author projects?
JG: Everything’s changed after that, for me. I think of options differently now, and I see more of them everywhere, from collaborations with other writers (like you, for instance!) to ways a poem or a book might go. One thing I was able to do after Your Father on the Train of Ghosts that I wasn’t able to do before, was to use direct, unadorned autobiography in my next book after it, In a Landscape. Something about inhabiting the collaborative third space of Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, allowed me the freedom of my absolutely singular space of In a Landscape. I never would’ve imagined that.
GC: For me, the lasting benefits have more to do with a sense of literary community, of literary endeavor as not necessarily something that separates us from other people. John and I were not close friends when this started, and it was an astonishing way to deepen a friendship, since most of our communications over those 16 months were poems, not e-mails or phone calls etc. I was interested in collaboration, in the wake of Dada and Surrealism in particular, as a means for artists and writers to work together--and poetry, of course, traditionally, is the loneliest of the arts. Reading poems is, paradoxically, one way we feel less alone. But writing poems? Could that work too?
Patterns Imbued with Meaning Appear in the Heavens
Where science will save us from the things that science created, we stop for a picnic. One always thinks one is going to stop for a picnic, as that’s what we think of when imagining we’re going someplace. Here’s a view. Here’s an imagined danger. There’s a band hitting the stage. They’re really nailing some songs that no one wants to hear. I like these late shows, you know? I wonder what Skitch Henderson’s up to right now. The trees here grow bird heads. Our shoes turn to fish in our hands.
The Well Is Sleeping
The well is sleeping. I touch it with a stick. This is an election season and I have fled to a nation where I am a guest. The well dreams this. It is haloed in flies. In medieval iconography there were many forms a halo could take; the well takes all of them. The well door is locked. Nevertheless water gushes forth, from beneath the splintered wood of the door, between wood and stone. This is the pulse of the well. It is sleeping but it is not dead. The clouds of insects construct elaborate hosannas about it, ephemeral choreographies. They know whom and what they worship. They have painted their faces. They have found refuge here. They will be rewarded.
It’s Oppressive to Think Everything’s a Competition but Everything’s a Competition
We have to give up one of our most cherished beliefs. We just can’t agree on which one. Like how, this morning, I caught myself looking into the mirror, and then I continued looking into the mirror until I looked like someone I’ve never met. So is this me being present or absent? So present that whatever happens is so only this, only now, that there is no one to have met before. Or so absent that there’s only this shell, this nothing. Empty tomb. Yes, my head is on fire. No. No it’s not. There are real heads out there that are on fire, and for no purpose, even as the world is dark and shouting.
Every idol down. I have been awake for so long the world feels cast in glass, sharp and antiseptic. The fennel in the garden inclines perceptibly towards any tintinnabulation. I listen to myself breathing. I cannot say I had a beautiful youth. Nevertheless the taxis come and go when I call them. Sometimes we bear burdens, other times we are the burdens borne. A man told me he realized quite suddenly he was middle-aged when he developed an interest in vintage automobiles. I take a few steps out onto the ledge, where the view is better. I have been awake for so long now I believe in views. I painted the lid of the coffin in bright colors, then watched the pigments melt into the depthless grain. It lies empty, even with me in it. Is this an idol? I blood myself from its excess hunting. Rousing from my cot I scrawled “Time is: one part sleeved, one part ____ (?)” and “Till the forest with the wounded and their wounds.” I study the mismatched glasses of my childhood, on their shelf in the night cupboard. The first trains of the day pass. I am going to write a hundred more poems just like this one. Even the insects are glass, and draw blood. A thrush tweaks a bit of snagged wool from a crippled hawthorn, flies off with it. At certain heats all idols breathe. Those through which the light passes, and those others also.