One of my hopes for the new year was to try out new ways of writing and performing, and the start of 2016 has happily involved just that: I’ve been composing and performing lots of collaborative poems! Before this year I’d never written collaboratively before. Writing poetry had always been an intensely solitary event for me, involving plenty of quiet and months over which to edit, but never other people, at least not until I had a draft I was happy enough with to show friends. Writing team poems doesn’t allow for that kind of solitary reflection or leisurely time frame: it means composing, editing, and rehearsing in real time with a group of other poets who may have radically different composition techniques from your own. For me it’s been a rewarding challenge and has yielded some of the most exciting work I’ve done in a while. Here I discuss some of the unique challenges and joys of collaborative writing I’ve discovered, as well as some tips I’ve found for working well in a group and creating innovative work.
So far this year I’ve worked on two new collaborative pieces. First, the Loud Poets were commissioned to write a poem for Fathers Network Scotland for their Year of the Dad campaign, which promotes positive narratives of active fatherhood and campaigns for equal rights between genders in the home as a basis for equal rights throughout life. We debuted that piece, “Super Dad,” at the Year of the Dad conference last Friday (Feb. 12), and you can watch that live version here:
Secondly, Catherine Wilson and I were delighted to be asked by Rally & Broad to create and perform a collaborative work for their Ampersand sessions in Glasgow on Feb. 21. I won’t give anything away about the content of that piece since we’ll be debuting it this Sunday, but it’s a collaborative poem with physical theatre elements that we’re both very excited to share publicly. (You can get tickets for that show here).
My writing process usually involves jotting down fleeting metaphors in a notebook then leaving them undeveloped for months until I have a framework for a poem. I’ll then trawl my notebooks for relevant images and stick the metaphors in where they work. It’s not often that I start a poem with a structural framework or message in mind, but when I do I tend to work in the same way: I brainstorm images, metaphors, and lines, and leave them for ages, then come back to them fresh after a while and try to jigsaw them into a cohesive work, adding material as I develop the piece. It’s only after the point where I have this fully developed poem that I’ll share it with others and ask for feedback: up to that point the point is a fledgling mess about which I’m intensely private.
The challenge for me about this collaborative writing process is that it flips my usual writing process. Let’s call my normal writing process the Lego technique: I start with little building blocks of language and slowly build them up until I have some kind of poem, maybe with a cohesive structure but not knowing that structure when I begin the poem. However, while making a group poem it’s more difficult to work that way, since if everyone just writes bits and pieces, you’ll get a lot of material that maybe doesn’t gel together cohesively, and it might be harder to fit into a framework. This would be like giving five painters their own swaths of canvas and telling them to paint something together but not telling them what they’re painting or allowing them to see each other’s work. So instead what we’ve been doing in the Loud Poets collaborative writing process is establishing a structure for the poem relatively early on and working to fill in that structure (more of a colour-in-the-blanks technique).
We start by talking through the ideas we’d like to convey in the piece, then discussing various frameworks to convey these ideas. For example, for the Year of the Dad poem, we knew that we wanted to convey the message that there isn’t one single way to be a father and that to be a present father is to be a hero, even if it doesn’t look glamorous or garner immediate recognition or awards. We tossed about many ideas for how to best convey these messages, including more conventional structures of confessional poetry (i.e. each of us saying something we love about our fathers) and some more conceptual material (i.e. casting some of us as fathers and doing more theatrical work). What we settled on in the end was a more narrative framework: we tell the epic tale of SUPER-DAD!, an impressive hero who must leave Earth to quell an intergalactic temper tantrum, leaving ‘normal’ dads to take up his work (with a rather sob-inducing ending). We were conscious that the audience for commissioned performances of this piece would be fathers and their children who may never have heard performance poetry before, so we wanted the framework to be accessible and entertaining for them. So, considerations of the commissioned message, the intended audience, and the most innovative and effective way to present the material were all factors in our decision of a framework for the poem.
The composition process for collaborative pieces (at least how we’ve been working) doesn’t allow the luxury of piecemeal composition and letting a poem marinate in the head for months. When writing a poem along with others, you need to be composing in the moment. This requires getting everyone together in the room at the same time (having pizza helps) and thinking through ideas, structures, and pieces of writing together, sharing out thoughts in real time. For someone accustomed to taking months to come up with a rough draft of a poem, this process was rather flustering: but it was also quite useful since it forced me to stay on task and consciously compose to a theme rather than just jotting down a couple lines then abandoning them for a while.
The process of writing collaboratively also means all of your initial attempts at creating beautiful poetry are raw and out there on display. Writing collaboratively is hella humbling. So many times while working with my fellow poets I would jot down a line off the top of my head, then start refining it into something better, but another poet would see the first draft and start howling hysterically (to be fair, there was some pretty terrible verse in there – I recall something along the lines of “Dads don’t need fit bods and hot rods” – so the laughter was fully justified). Like with all collaborative creative projects, you need to check your ego at the door and just put everything out there, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and show your rubbish first drafts: if you’re reluctant to show your collaborators anything short of gold, the composition process will stall and you’ll create nothing at all.
In that same vein, you need to be willing to allow other collaborators to edit and pass judgment on your work. A line which maybe would have worked brilliant in one of your poems may not fit into the style of the team poem. Or maybe one of your lines could be improved with a tweak that another collaborator can see better than you can. Allow your work to be altered for the good of the piece, and allow yourself to alter others’ work. This may be a conversation that everyone needs to have at the start of the collaborative writing process, so that folks can all agree to mutual editing. That’s not to say that if you think one of your lines works very well within the context of the team poem, you shouldn’t fight for it: but it’s also important to choose your battles and not to be too precious with all of your lines while dismissing others’ work. In short: don’t be a jerk.
This ties into a debate within the spoken word community about originality in team poems. The film Slam Nation, about the 1996 National Poetry Slam, details a controversy over the originality of one of the group pieces performed by the team from Providence, in which another team alleged that the piece was written by one member (Taylor Mali) rather than being equally co-written by each member of the team. There is currently a rule in U.S. slam that group poems must be written with input from each performer: this fits in line with the slam community’s valuing of originality and authenticity. However, originality in group pieces is very difficult to determine. What if one poet came up with the framework for the piece but the other poets contributed to the writing? What if each member just wrote their own sections which they speak? What if the piece was composed by one team but is being performed by another team? Originality is hard to gauge, so this debate will likely continue. (For a discussion of this debate in collaborative writing, see Chapter 4: Lyric Collaborations in Lesley Wheeler’s excellent book Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (2008)).
One of the unexpected lessons from writing collaboratively for me has been realising how much my own poetic voice has shifted from working in a collective with other poets. I was initially worried that in both the ‘Super-Dad’ poem and Catherine’s and my poem, our voices wouldn’t mix well – that it would be easy to tell which sections were written by them and which were mine. However, when we wrote together the rhythms flowed easily into each other and everything meshed together relatively smoothly. I think this is a result of hearing so much of each other’s work and absorbing those cadences. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have known the poets you’re collaborating with for a long time—sometimes the most exciting collaborative work is between complete strangers—but in our case it really helped to have that familiarity with each others’ styles so that our voices meshed together well in the final work.
Another great aspect of collaborative poetry is that it allows so much scope for innovative performance. You’re not tied to the structure of four performers in front of microphones speaking in turn: you can play around with sections in unison, poets playing different characters, advanced physical elements, having the poem primarily voiced by one performer while others do sound effects (see Team Austin’s ‘Motor Red’ in Slam Nation), switching roles throughout the poem (see Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley’s ‘Lost Voices’), etc. The sky’s the limit for group poems, so try innovating beyond the familiar!
As I get more accustomed to collaborative writing projects, I’d like to experiment more with different techniques. I’d like to see what a “Lego technique” collaborative poem composition process would look like, with each poet creating work independently then all of them coming together to make the group piece, and whether it could work. It would also be fun to try more character-based or high-concept collaborative poetry. (Fellow performance poets in Scotland – if you’re keen to compose collaboratively, please hit me up!)
A technical tip: for our collaborative work, Loud Poets have been using Google Docs to compose together in real time. It’s incredibly helpful to each have access to a shared document on our separate computers so we can see what each other is other is working on in simultaneously and be better able to knit material together, even if we’re working in the same room.
Finally: memorising group poems can be a special challenge since obviously it requires all performers to be physically together to properly rehearse the piece. A trick I’ve found useful is to record audio of the poem and play it often, only saying your own parts. Alternately, you can memorise the entire poem yourself and recite the entire thing to yourself, although this can have the drawback of you not being able to remember which lines are yours and which are another poets’. It’s still important to do lots of live rehearsal, though, to really get down the timings of the piece and transitions from poet to poet, especially if there are any rapid-fire sections.
Poets: Have you ever written collaboratively? What techniques do you use to compose and perform collaboratively?
Some other collaborative poems that I love:
‘Big Love’ by Kevin Mclean & Doug Garry (the Loud Poets classic)
‘Nerd Love’ by Kevin Mclean & Doug Garry (the sequel to Big Love)
‘Tube’ by Team Austin at the 1996 NPS (in Slam Nation)
‘When Love Arrives’ by Sarah Kay & Phil Kaye