Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The success of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson, is such that it throws light on the limitations of other recent anthologies. One that I happen to like a lot, tho not without reservation, is >2: An Anthology of New Collaborative Poetry, edited by Sheila E. Murphy & M.L. Weber, recently published by SugarMule.com Press. After the disappointment of the badly edited Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, it’s instructive to see a major collection of collaborations that would not even appear to exist if one took Saints’ heavily blinkered view of history at face value. Which seems particularly bizarre since, regardless of how one conceives of it, contemporary collaborative poetry exists mostly on the post-avant side of the Grand Canyon of literary aesthetics.  (Hysteria does include work by Robert Bly, Olga Broumas & Ted Kooser, but they jump out as the exceptions they are.)

Yet here is a 200-plus book containing work from 41 different collaborative combinations that includes such well-known literary names as Mary Rising Higgins, George Kalamaras, Maria Damon, mIEKAL aND, Michael Basinski, Rupert Lloydell, John M. Bennett, Jim Leftwich, Penn Kemp, Alan Halsey, Jesse Glass, Nico Vassilakis, Geof Huth, Bob Grumman, Eileen Tabios, Nick Carbo, Vernon Frazer, K.S. Ernst, Juka-Pekka Kervinen, Erica kaufman, Anny Ballardini, kari Edwards, Steve Dalachinsky, Mark Young, Nico Vassilakis, Peter Ganick, Tom Taylor, Andrew Topel, David Baratier, jUStin!katKO, Tom Beckett & Thomas Fink, & many more. One wonders just how the three editors of Saints could have conceivably missed this much work by these poets. Of that list, Tabios, Fink & Carbo may be the only ones to appear in both books.

The happy thing about >2 is that it doesn’t seem bothered by this exclusion in the slightest. Rather, it presents the more experimental side of collaborative writing pretty much as it has occurred over the past decade. It’s fun & exciting, as a book like this should be. Not that it’s perfect. It takes great freedom with typefaces, because the poets themselves have, but the ones that use courier as a font look washed out & amateurish, because courier always does. Perhaps the book’s largest & most telling weakness is the exclusion is the work of Sheila E. Murphy herself, a primary practitioner within this terrain, but that’s a conscious decision discussed in her excellent foreword. Murphy traces her own interest in collaborative writing, interestingly enough, to Absence Sensorium, perhaps the finest extended collaborative project ever written, a book-length poem by Tom Mandel & Dan Davidson composed shortly before the latter’s suicide. Unfortunately, that project isn’t represented in either anthology tho Mandel contributes a blurb to >2.

Collaboration itself has existed in English-language literature since at least the days of Elizabethan theater (contrary to Hysteria’s genealogy, which extends back only to the surrealists), yet it has almost always been treated as the ugly stepchild of Western LitCrit’s focus on the individual. If the Allen anthology in 1960 had no prose poetry, it also had no collaborations, either by its NY School contributors (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch & Schuyler are all in Hysteria) or the Beats (Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Kerouac & Welch also in Hysteria). Indeed, the taboo is significant. T.S. Eliot’s role as the apotheosis of the New Critical version of modernism largely collapsed once it was shown that virtually all of The Waste Land’s major literary devices were editing effects from that ultimate avant agitator, Ezra Pound. The whole notion that The Waste Land might not be a collaboration, frankly, reveals which decisions count as writing & which might not, even when they turn out to be the most substantial ones of all.

Collaboration has been nearly as prominent among the language poets as it has amid the New York School (or the Actualist movement of the 1970s, which is not visible in either of these collections¹). Langpo is included strictly on a token basis in Hysteria & referenced only in Murphy’s intro to >2, tho she gives a better sense of its role than the other book. A truly comprehensive anthology of the form would need to take in all of these different strains &, ideally, have some idea of historic drivers & aesthetic principles active in each.

For example, one might read the New American collaborations as part of a larger resistance to the rugged individualism behind New Critical theory in the 1950s, and on the part of the Beats as an element in an aesthetic that was actively looking to get away from the poet’s ego as sole proprietor of textual real estate, essentially for the same reasons that John Cage & Jackson Mac Low turned to chance operations in that same decade.

But the real distinction between these two books is social. In general, one might say that most of the poets in Hysteria used collaboration as a mechanism for cementing face-to-face relationships with their buddies while most of the poets in >2 are using collaboration as a means of transcending physical distance, exploiting the web’s capacity to erase geography.  One thing that is curious about >2 is that, while it includes the writing of many poets widely known for their visual poetry, there’s really no vispo here. Have we not yet learned how to collaborate in that genre? Or does a visual aspect to collaboration instantly move us over toward the realm of the conceptual or performance art? Here is Geof Huth in five different combinations with other poets – and no vispo?

There are other questions also that both books raise. What is collaboration’s relationship to poets’ theater? I’m reminded of Actualism’s relationship to physical theater & even contact improve, a version of dance, and the fact that Actualist Conventions were held in conjunction with Berkeley’s Blake Street Hawkeye’s theater troup, run by Dav Schein. Indeed Schein’s wife-at-the-time, Karen Johnson, took her work from the Conventions onto the stage successfully as a one-woman show under her then-emerging stage name, Whoopi Goldberg. Which leads to the question: what about spousal collaboration? Or between parents & their children? Spousal collaboration goes back at least to Alice B. Toklas' work with Gertrude Stein, and to Celia Zukofsky's “A”-24.

And then there is the question of invisible collaboration – Pound’s role in the work of Eliot, Eliot’s use of his own maid’s text, Dorothy Wordsworth’s role in the work of William, Ginsberg determining the order of pages in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. My own editors at the University of Alabama didn’t recognize that the epigram at the start of “Engines” in The Alphabet, which reads with Rae Armantrout, actually signaled her role as co-author of that piece (the poem also appears in her selected poems, Veil).

We are still a long way from having a good understanding of what collaboration means & why it seems so powerful on one side of the divide between American poets while it is so muted & marginal among the School of Q. And we are still a long way yet from having a decent first comprehensive gathering of the historical field. What we can hope for, at best, at this juncture in history, is going to be projects like >2, which focus intently on specific parts of the overall spectrum without making too much of a claim to represent the whole. And on those terms, >2 is a job well done.


¹ The most prolific collaborator of that decade, Darrell Gray, died young of alcoholism & his residential hotel landlord simply threw his belongings, including 15 years of manuscripts, into the dumpster. Yet a search of the journals of the 1970s in particular ought to produce a collection of collaborations by Gray & such other Actualists as George Mattingly, Pat Nolan, Jim Nesbit, Victoria Rathbun & G.P. Skratz along with fellow travelers Andrei Codrescu & Jim Gustafson as large, & possibly even as impressive, as >2. Gray may have been the first poet for whom collaboration was a primary, if not the primary, mode.