Monday, 20 October 2008

author author

It occurred to me after writing the post on ‘doubt’ that one way out of the problem of culturally ingrained romanticism in writing classes is to consider collaborative work. It’s paradoxical in a way since Wordsworth and Coleridge are among the earliest public collaborators with their jointly authored Lyrical Ballads (even though in their case the poems are still clearly by one or the other of the pair). Later in the nineteenth century ‘Michael Field’ furnishes a different kind of example: two authors (Katherine Brindley and her neice Edith Cooper) posing as one. Their project with its single male pseudonym has much to do with a desire to have the work taken seriously. They are erecting their author just as, decades later, the surrealists are dismantling theirs. Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault’s text The Magnetic Fields is an exercise in automatic writing with the added feature of voices that intercut and undermine the unconscious as a kind of lode of personality. It is this kind of writing that the authors of ‘Ern Malley’ emulate in an attempt to discredit it. Through the twentieth century numerous examples of collaboration on all sorts of levels occur, from Pound’s famous edit of 'The Waste Land' through Auden and MacNeice’s lighter pieces in Letters from Iceland to the poet-to-poet and the poet-to-artist works of the New Yorkers. In Britain examples range from the artist-writer work of, say, Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey, to Ric Caddel and Lee Harwood’s Wine Tales, a work that uses the illustrated labels of French vintages as starting points for jointly written narratives. There are dozens more examples of varying degrees of collaboration, one of the most recent American items being the Grand Piano project (subtitled ‘an essay in collective autobiography’). The items I note here barely make up a Cook’s Tour of the genre. I want though to focus on some Australian instances among my immediate peers. John Forbes co-wrote poems with both Mark O’Connor (aka John Nash) and Chris Burns, taking his cue from Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara. Pam Brown collaborated with Joanne Burns on their book Correspondences (Sydney, Red Press, 1979), with Ken Bolton and myself with Let’s Get Lost (Sydney, Vagabond, 2005) and most recently with American resident Maged Zaher in farout_library_software (Tinfish, 2007).

Perhaps the most interesting Australian collaboration (and certainly one of the most persistent) has been that of Ken Bolton and John Jenkins. They have now jointly authored six books: Airborne Dogs (Brunswick Hills Press, 1988), The Ferrara Poems (Adelaide, Experimental Art Foundation, 1989), The Gutman Variations (Adelaide, Little Esther, 1993), The Wallah Group (Little Esther, 2001), Nutters Without Fetters (Berry, PressPress, 2002) and Poems of Relative Unlikelihood (Little Esther, 2005). These works are all collaborations in the strict sense of the term: they are jointly authored pieces rather than grouped works by one or the other authors. And they are not like the earlier work of either of their progenitors. Ken Bolton has said that he has trouble working out who wrote what in these broadly narrative poems. The writers literally abandoned themselves to the task (I’m pulled up here by the vision of a drawing Ken might do of an author abandoning himself) and the results were, like the Malley poems, something else entirely. In Ken’s case the collaboration fed into later poems of his own (presumably the idea of narrative structure) just as in my own case work as a screenwriter fed into a (very unfilmable) poem, The Ash Range, which is, in an odd way, a collaboration with hundreds of dead diarists and journalists).

It was Pam Brown who was responsible for getting together Let’s Get Lost, the book jointly authored by herself, Ken Bolton and me. This was a collaboration of the ‘soft’ variety. The three of us had for some years fired off each other and so the work already had connections. With Pam then based in Rome, Ken in Adelaide, and myself in Brisbane the book functions much as an exchange of letters might do. The names of individual authors are left off the poems though it’s not too difficult to work out who wrote what. The work was something assembled after the fact and this is the case too with my only other collaboration, the poem ‘Breath’, written with John Scott in the early 1980s. John had asked me for any unused drafts that he could then use as the basis for a new poem. The result looks much more like his work than it does like mine, yet so many of the phrases in it are mine. I enjoyed the fact that we could both place the poem in our own respective collections. Here it is:

XXXXXXIn windows he sees
women comb their hair: light failing
in distance, horizon light.
Women combing hair against the light.
XXXXXXAnd 'against' might mean
'they fight the darkness' or 'provide
a counter motion to the darkness'
or 'their bodies lean out from
darkness'; there is no way to be sure.
Only that he sees their hair spiral
from the clouds; the faces of visitors
caught in the light, vague as lost sailors,
and the light trailing like
XXXXXXwomen's hair.


XXXXXXand now rain.
And now rain ceasing.
He sits in a room. He feels that gentleness
has been lost from the circumstances
of his life. He wonders at its 'peculiar lack'.
He wonders how it is that things change
unaccountably. 'Change' meaning
'to grow different' or 'to take another
instead of'. What he feels
compressed to this word. What
he sees compressed to the contents
of this room. What he hears.
Outside, a road already half-dry
XXXXXXwith traffic.


XXXXXXHe hears her breath.
This trace of presence: air rustling
distance, horizon air,
the faintest assertion of being.
XXXXXXOnce he heard
her fight for that same air
against the rush of former lives
and saw her come to life.
XXXXXXNow he lies awake,
the closest he will ever be to her.
And from the sounds that might
name this place, or give it shape
and sense when all is dark, there is
XXXXXXonly her, breathing.


Andrew said...

G'day, mate. Very interesting thank you. I have started collabs with people, but then get possessive and go my own way. A born loner, perhaps. I have written at least a dozen renga - that's a group project. But not quite the same. Are you collaborating with UK?

Laurie Duggan said...

In the general sense, yes. In the particular, no.