Towards an Ethics of Collaboration: A Practitioner's Roundtable

Kristina Marie Darling

Mar 12, 2018

About the Participants

Mary Biddinger is the author of six full-length poetry collections, most recently Small Enterprise and The Czar (with Jay Robinson), both from Black Lawrence Press. Her work has recently appeared in numerous journals including Denver Quarterly, Diode, Five Points, Green Mountains Review, Grimoire, Jubilat, The Laurel Review, and Pleiades, among others. Biddinger received a 2015 NEA creative writing fellowship in poetry. She edits the Akron Series in Poetry and is a Professor of English at the University of Akron. Her first collection of prose poems, Partial Genius, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2019.

Traci Brimhall is the author of Saudade (Copper Canyon, 2017), Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry, The Believer, The New Republic, and Best American Poetry. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.

Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997).  She and Maureen Seaton have co-authored four collections, the most recent of which is CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015).   The Unrhymables, her collaborative book of non-fiction with Julie Marie Wade, is forthcoming in 2019 by Noctuary Press.  Duhamel is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Jay Robinson is the co-author of The Czar. He teaches at Ashland University and The University of Akron. He’s also the Co-Editor-in-Chief/Reviews Editor for Barn Owl Review and helps edit The Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. Poetry and prose has appeared in 32 Poems, The Laurel Review, Poetry, Whiskey Island, among others. The Czar, forthcoming in August 2016,is his first book.

Brynn Saito is the author of two books of poetry, Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2016). Brynn is a recipient of the Kundiman Poetry Fellowship and a California State Library Civil Liberties Public Education grant. Originally from Fresno, Brynn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is the Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Saint Mary’s College of California and co-directs, with Nikiko Masumoto, the Yonsei Memory Project.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires, When I Was Straight, Catechism: A Love Story, and SIX.  Her newest collections are Same-Sexy Marriage: Poems (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2018) and The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019), co-authored with Denise Duhamel.  Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach.

I think the best way to get started would be to describe the mechanics of your collaboration.  What was your writing practice like, and how did it differ from your work outside the boundaries of collaboration? 

TDB: I usually try and give myself some uninterrupted time so I can get that first rough or “zero” draft (hate to call those first scratches a first draft) out, so the collaboration forced me to wait for the next lines. Sometimes Brynn and I got a poem out together quite quickly. Sometimes it took awhile so a lyric didn’t represent a moment but days or weeks.

JMW: The most exciting thing about collaborating with Denise, for me, has been the blending of familiar and foreign writing sensibilities.  When we started writing our book of essays together in 2013, I had never collaborated with any writer before in any genre, but I had published two collections of single-authored essays.  Denise, on the other hand, had published a number of collaborative collections of poems, but she had never written or published creative nonfiction. A lot of collaboration seems to be about giving the other person permission to try something new, so Denise was guiding me into the give-and-take of a collaborative enterprise, and I was guiding her into the new terrain of personal and sometimes lyric prose. 

Usually, we start conceptually and make some kind of map of the essay at hand, and then we set limits to shape the territory before us. For instance, we might decide at the outset that an essay will be written in 12 sections, that we will each write six of them in a call-and-response kind of arrangement, and that each section will be a certain number of words or will fall within a certain word range.

DD: Collaborating with Julie in prose has been quite different from the work I did with Maureen Seaton in poetry.  While poetry with Maureen lended itself to exquisite corpse and cut ups, the prose Julie and I have written has been mapped out ahead as she describes above.  And yet still so many surprises and reversals!  It’s been an ongoing joy.  Our collaboration differs from solo work in that we are each other’s “prompts” in many ways.  It’s also generative in that we both are taskmasters and write our sections quickly.  There is no hesitation in our collaborative work whereas I can spin my wheels left to my one devices.

MB: The most noteworthy departure from my usual process when collaborating with Jay on the poems that became The Czar involved the location of files. Rather than composing in a private document, we used a shared Google doc and sometimes found ourselves both writing at the same time, or being unexpectedly privy to a writing session in progress. This was voyeuristic from a process standpoint, as well as exhilarating. It was kind of like watching a basketball game on television and then getting the itch to go shoot hoops. Except with poems. When writing on my own I can find all kinds of reasons to do something else. With the collaboration, I knew that the work was brewing and expanding in my absence, and that prompted me to remain motivated.

BNS: Like some of the others have mentioned, Traci and I worked in a shared Google document, each of us writing a line or stanza, then waiting for the other to add her part. Our chapbook is a collection of poems about a girl wandering through the ruins of the city, so different settings—the library, the watchtower, the bridge—provided the initial landscape for each poem, with one of us starting the poem and one of us closing it. The project was both more structured and less structured than my usual writing practice: I loved having the location set, and also loved the mystery and uncertainty of interacting with another voice, Traci’s, as I composed.

KMD:  If you would, tell us about the sense of ethics that emerged as your project unfolded.  What did it mean to be a good collaborator in this project?  What would it take to be a bad collaborator? 

TDB: I have a bad habit of being an enthusiasm bully. I can get so excited about a project that I can take over a little bit. A lot of the rules that were created were created BY me to keep myself in check. In the dictionary next to the word “Extra” there’s a little picture of me, so I try and make sure I’m not taking over a space or overdirecting it.

JMW: Oh, I fear that I too may be an enthusiasm bully! I have a fear of exploiting Denise’s good nature by dragging her into something that may not sound as exciting to her as it does to me. The ethics of collaboration I think we have built in writing our first book of essays and our first collection of prose poems is a level of trust that the other person will tell us if she has doubts about the idea or doesn’t think it’s a point of interest for her. While Denise and I have many interests and passions in common as people and writers, we have different styles, and the strength of collaborating is harmonizing our voices to make a new sound.

Sometimes I have to recognize that an idea I have is really one I want to explore on my own, but something about that idea scares me. If I’m honest with myself, I can see that I’m trying to corral Denise into writing about this topic with me so I only have to face half the fear. That’s a bad and possibly unethical reason to collaborate. By contrast, I know a collaboration is really working, and is really ethical, when I feel like the collaboration is asking more of me than even my solo projects, not less.  Because not only am I trying to put forth crafted language on the page in a collaborative piece, I am also trying to make that language sing in tune with the crafted language Denise has put forth on the page. Good or ethical collaborations aren’t really 50-50 then but more like 150-150. The effort bar is raised, but the outcome is also potentially greatly heightened.

DD:  I agree with Julie!  I would say that we are both enthusiasts, but I have never felt bullied by Julie.  One of our strengths--and potential weaknesses--is that are both excitable and can fill up pages and pages.  I’m not sure if this falls under ethics exactly, but one of the things that has been most helpful in our creative work is the establishment of word counts so that we have some sort of reins.  I have written about things that I know I wouldn’t have written about on my own so I think that Julie and I bring out a dialogue that I didn’t even know could occur.

MB: Our project required us to maintain a consistent tone even when we were satirically evoking events from history and the present day. Thus, we had an obligation to set aside stresses and gripes for the health of the project. The nature of the collection also demanded frequent attention to the individual poems, as one of us would start a poem, and the other would finish that poem, and then we would move on, so being an attentive collaborator was key. Thankfully the energy of the collaboration (and maybe the other things we were less excited to work on at the time, which allowed for some fruitful procrastination) propelled us forward.

BNS: Yes, the rules we set out from the start held our various tendencies at bay! I learned, from the process, to come forward with my voice, be timely, not fade into the background as I’m wont to do. I suppose there’s always an ethics involved in collaboration and community work, an ethical code developed and practiced by the partners to ensure a sense of accountability and respect. Traci and I have known each other for years, so we already trust one another on a very deep level. It was because of that trust that I could even jump into the project in the first place, knowing I could feel free enough to play, experiment, and co-create.

KMD:  The poet Myung Mi Kim once noted that a fully realized collaboration still leaves room for the other to speak.  Here, the other is both a fellow practitioner and your reader more generally.  Tell us how you imagine the reader interacting with your collaborative project. 

TDB: I’m so grateful that Brynn and I got to publish a chapbook and feature our collaborative project and create an order and an arc and suggest a narrative behind the poems themselves. I hope the collaboration between our writing and a reader is the same as most experiences of reading, which is the mutual generosity of writer(s) and reader(s). We brought all of ourselves to the writing, and hopefully a reader meets us there.

JMW: I love the idea of a “mutual generosity” between writers and readers. Probably all of us who teach talk to our students in creative writing classes about “reading as writers” and how that experience can be different from reading as literary critics who are expected to write analytical papers about the contents of a text. Every text we teach in a creative writing class is about the content of that text, of course, but it serves a dual purpose--exposing all of us as readers to a new perspective on what it means to be human and new strategies for how to write about that unique experience of being a particular human in this world. 

I guess I like to imagine Denise’s and my collaborations being read in both ways--as feminist reflections on two women’s lived experiences of the world and as a literary invitation to other writers and collaborators to endeavor to write about some of our subjects and/or using some of our aesthetic approaches and/or writing together with another trusted writer-friend. And since I came to the collaborative poetry of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton by reading Denise’s single-author work, and as a consequence of reading the Duhamel-Seaton collaborations began to read voraciously the single-author work of Maureen Seaton, there is always the exciting possibility that a reader picks up a collaborative volume because of familiarity with/interest in the work of one of the writers and leaves the volume having found a new literary companion as well.

DD:  When I encounter collaborative writing, I always feel as though I am in on it in a way that I may not be while reading someone’s solo work.  Collaborative writing always seems to me to have an invitation to the reader in that it is part performative, the way a play is.  Even when the “dialogue” between two writers presents as one voice, my knowing that the work was made by two people lends itself to a more social invitation--a debate at a dinner party that is going on in my mind.

MB: Collaborating with Jay allowed me to be funnier. It seemed like we each tried to up the ante in the humor category as we composed, as if the poems were a continuation of our typical banter. It is my hope that a reader of The Czar would be chuckling along with us, and appreciating the irony. That said, I did not anticipate to what degree the book would be reflected in future events and occurrences in our country, and I wonder if our readers ever think, “Hey, this ridiculous incident sounds like something the Czar would do.” The project also allowed us to share an abundance of past and present popular culture references that may or may not resonate with readers. I hope that when Jay read my line about Men at Work, he got their top hits stuck in his head, for example. Writing this collection enabled us to open our inside humor and quips up to a greater audience, letting everyone in on the joke, so to speak.

BNS: I love what others have mentioned about the social invitation and letting readers in on the joke, the dialogue, the exchange of ideas! Most of the chapbook Traci and I wrote is written in the 2nd person voice, with lines like: “The spires are lit by a low flame. Behind you, / a chorus of lamentations in the dark.” My hope is that the poems call the reader into the ruined world we’ve created; my hope is that they, our dear reader(s), wander around for a bit, and emerge inspired in some way, or changed.

KMD:  One of the most beautiful things about collaboration is that the boundaries we imagine - between artistic styles, mediums, ages, genders, etc. - are examined, challenged, and reimagined.  What boundaries were challenged during your collaboration?  Was the hybridity that emerged purely aesthetic, or political in nature? 

TDB: Our boundaries were pretty intense. We had rules about stanza length and turns and editing, all around keeping each poem as balanced as possible. For instance, we took turns starting the poems, and whoever started the poem got to decide the form. The other person wrote the next stanza, and whoever started the poem also got to finish. But that meant that the other person got editorial control. So the person with the most influence on the poem’s inception didn’t get control over its final draft. My hope was that we’d get equal amount of control over the project as a whole and each poem. Because again, I’m an enthusiasm bully and didn’t want to let my excitement take over. Once we had the rules established, I think we stuck to them pretty well.

JMW: I don’t know that Denise and I ever talked about this in any deliberate or official way, but I notice that when we are collaborating on an essay, we don’t talk much, if at all, about the essay until we’ve finished a draft of it. We teach together at the same university, we are neighbors who sometimes walk together, and often we carpool to literary events that feature our students and colleagues. So while we do a lot of in-person brainstorming about individual essays and prose poems and what we’d like to write--usually I’m driving, so Denise writes everything down and emails our notes to me when she gets home--and while we also “debrief” about various essays and prose poems after we’ve written them, including how we might revise and where we might submit--we don’t tend to talk about what we’re writing as we’re writing it.  This seems to me like an intuitive boundary.  There are two conversations happening: one between us in the office or the car or at the event and another between us on the page. It feels important somehow, and probably necessary, too, not to interrupt the literary conversation with any extraliterary critiques or even sneak previews.  I can’t recall ever saying to Denise, “Wait till you see what I’m going to write tomorrow!” Of course it’s also true that I likely won’t know what I’m going to write tomorrow until it is tomorrow when I sit down to meet the page again face to face.

DD:  Yes! I think this is really important.  I have a rule with students--I don’t talk about unwritten work.  I won’t brainstorm with them or let them prattle on about how to enter a certain subject.  Call this superstition, if you will, but I truly believe talking about an idea before you write it kills any chances of potential magic.  So Julie and I map our idea or theme in an extremely loose way so that the work can breathe.  The boundaries Julie and I have had to traverse have been those of identity--sexual orientation and age differences--but these differences have also lead to really interesting turns in our writing.  

MB: As collaborators we didn’t discuss the project much while writing, perhaps because we did not realize we would write enough poems to become a book. Our process was spontaneous, and so were the poems that resulted. The revision of the work, however, required us to evaluate the collection of poems as a whole, and to eliminate some repetition of language and perform other acts of tidying. Jay’s aesthetic pushed us to include references to things such as the debt ceiling or Lady Gaga’s meat dress, while my tendencies flushed the poems with Wuthering Heights allusions and goth night club gear. As poets we are very familiar with each other’s work, so there was not much dissonance when collaborating, including in our address of gender and desire. We let the poetic line guide our content, even when that line was part of a prose block.

BNS: Indeed, as Traci mention, we created boundaries and rules that were super helpful and generative. At the same time, the collaboration necessitated the breaking down of inner creative boundaries, so much so that a third voice—the co-created voice–could emerge. A voice that was not wholly mine or Traci’s. Collaboration helped me see the extent to which so much of the writing process is about letting go, living at the edge of uncertainty, listening for voices, awaiting the appearance of one word or line that unhooks the creative flow. In this collaboration, I was waiting for Traci’s line—a process that has helped me listen for lines even when I’m writing alone.

I do think the emergent hybridity was both aesthetic and potentially political. Besides creating new poetry, I, more and more, feel that collaborative writing has helped me to sense (and write about and into) the primary interdependence of the life-world. Which, in turn, moves me beyond the ego of my poet-self and towards a collective subjectivity, one that is generative, boundary-crossing, and potentially ripe for collective thought and action. Perhaps!

KMD:  When returning to your practice as an individual artist or poet, what did you bring with from this collaboration?

TDB: Retrospectively, I think I learned a little more patience with my own lines and to let them come at a slower pace, to let them arrive rather than to chase them down. I also think I knew more about Brynn’s syntax because we were often finishing each other’s sentences in the collaboration. So her patterns of thought and the rhetorical shape of her own poems was more explicit to me when I read her work, and who doesn’t want to know their best friend’s syntax more intimately?

JMW: Denise is one of my best friends, too, now, though first she was a poet I read and revered for years. I thought I knew her syntax so intimately as a poet, but there’s something about reading her prose that shows me how a Denise Duhamel poem can morph into something else. There are similar elements, of course, and yet there are also moments of watching a poet leap off a prose-ledge and stitch her literary parachute mid-air. In other words, I think I get the best seat in the house to observe Denise’s realization of herself as an essayist, and that is hugely rewarding on its own.

I know also that Denise is very funny--her humor pervades the anecdotes she tells in person and also the poems she writes--and so her humor, as it appears in our creative nonfiction, delights me, of course, but also instructs me. Since I began writing with Denise five years ago, I have allowed and even cultivated more humor into my own single-authored essays than ever before. Also, because of Denise, I’ve taken more narrative risks in moments when I might have been otherwise inclined to hide behind the (relative) comforts of lyricism. Where I could turn toward opacity, dressed up in pretty language, I think Denise inspires me to veer toward greater transparency about what I’m actually trying to say.

DD:  Julie has made me rethink so many issues of feminism and write about feminism directly in my own latest solo work.  Her youthful energy has made me return to concerns I had as a younger woman.  Her kindness (in person and in her writing) has made me, I hope, more generous as I write about political issues that enrage me.  I’ve yet to try creative nonfiction on my own, but maybe that will be in my future!

MB: This is an excellent question. I have branched out in my content since working collaboratively with Jay, and increased my comfort with using casual diction. I also think the whirlwind writing process for The Czar freed me in many ways, so that now I am not as daunted by the prospect of finishing a collection of poems, or as self-conscious about where a poem might fit within a greater structure of a project. We did not set out to write a book, but the poems kept arriving and feeding the book’s narrative. Perhaps it’s easier to surrender to a series of poems, and to let them guide the way, when you have a co-pilot on the journey.

BNS: Yes to intimate syntax and surrender! It was such an honor to write so closely alongside Traci. We, also, didn’t set out to write a book. We were both at a place in our writing lives where we weren’t writing much; I, myself, was in a period of upheaval and depression, and the poem-making pulled me back to life and to myself. Traci’s enthusiasm and energy bolstered me in such core ways during that time, and I am in awe that we managed to actually co-write an entire chapbook of poetry together. In that sense, there we so many gifts from that time, many of which the other writers have beautifully alluded to. I’ll add that, in my practice as an educator, I find myself returning to the story of our collaboration, both to encourage new writing from students and to inspire students to cross creative boundaries and open to the idea of co-creating art.