Collaboration – Best with a Little Stir

Andrew Burke

Recently I posted here about Collaborative poetry, citing examples by renga poets, a ‘mock’ poet, and an award-winning Canadian poet, Phil Hall, and myself. As usual, I stepped in blindly, and started writing before I had done the research. This is the creative side of me: I’m just an excitable boy, as some pop song said years ago.

When I was a university lecturer, I warned students off relying on Wikipedia for their research. It was early days for the online encyclopaedia; many of the entries were biased and incomplete. I still believe Wiki has to be used with extreme care. However, I have clicked into Collaborative Poetry because it simply came up in my search for toads never trampled, roads never rambled. It immediately served its purpose by reminding me about a famous collaborative poem written in modern times by a trio of my French favourites, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Rene Char. When I say ‘favourites’, I must admit Surrealist poetry often intrigues me then immediately exasperates me. Both sides of my brain fight for supremacy and nobody wins.

Over five days driving through the countryside in 1930, Breton, Eluard and Char wrote a collection of poems called Ralentir Travaux. The actual process was never made public, so some may be ‘exquisite corpses’ and some may simply be straight-forward collaborative. Luckily, for people like myself whose schoolboy French may open a window but not suffice to travel through Surrealist poems by masters, the collection was translated by Keith Waldrop with the title Slow Under Construction, published by Exact Change, 1990, and now a collector’s item.

The most visible thing about this collection on the ‘Net these days is the mention of a review by ‘The Rev’ whenever said collection is mentioned. Here’s a relevant snip:

If you’ve never been introduced to the work of any of them, it makes a great starting point; the quality is about the same as you’d get from any of the three individually, but the style is slightly different from any of them on their own. And, as always with Exact Change, the quality of the book itself is just as high as the writing contained within it.

Here is a short quote –

I will remove my shoulders
Each step provokes a misfortune

To be lost in the vast of my temples

In my former Southerly Collaborative post I mentioned the positive aspect of egolessness in collaborative writing, citing renga as one example. This same point is well-expressed by the Wikipedia contributor:

Another recent [collaborative] experiment is the “Poem Factory“, a collective poetry-writing project by an Arabic-language web magazine called Asda’ (or Asdaa, Arabic: أصداء)… The stated aim of the “factory” is to “liberate poetry from the disease of ownership and its pathological offsprings, such as fame obsession and copy rights, which have become characteristic of creative production.” It also aims to discover the “collective inside us as poetic beings” and “to bypass the passivity of the reader towards an active contribution.”

Christine McNair

French, Arabic, English – the international aspects of the Internet itself has led to a multitude of collaborations across websites and links too numerous to mention, but one example is right here, when I’ve been writing these posts.

When I first exposed the collaborative poem Shikibu Shuffle by Phil Hall and myself (written via emails) on TRUCK Magazine and then used parts of it here at Southerly, Rob McLennan, Canadian publisher of Aboveground Press, asked Phil if he could publish it as a chapbook. In correspondence with Rob, I then requested a quote from a collaborative poem he was writing with his partner, poet Christine McNair. (Another twist appeared: Rosmarie Waldrop, who is epigrammed at the beginning of their first poem on TRUCK, is the wife of the man who translated  Slow Under Construction – unintended collaboration or kindly chaos?)

Their collaboration is absolutely different in style to the Hall/Burke shuffle, the French Surrealists or the links of a renga, so I’ll show you some here:

Dismantled, lodge

But how with gnarled hands holds the many and how? The sun and shadow of Rhode Island? Let alone the earth?

Rosmarie Waldrop


A strata, many featured. Afterlife of trees. Streetcorner, dance. So barely noticed. Does, her little move.

Arrangement, in the teeth. Red daisies, diamond truck. My name is, not. Grammar. Red-winged blackbird, curls. No one, possibilities. The room. We speak no, French.

Authorial, activity. Barnswallow, trance. Poignant, and ephiphinal. Determined. Laurentian Hills, so named.

My father, a distant cousin in St. Marguerite, 1950s. Am I the last to know.

A talent for arranging. Words, can’t break. Imagine, her left hip.


Sessional, cloud. They come in curlicues. In, waves.

Hybrids, peaches. So, you make. Misty expectations. August. What we try to, hold. Vowels, a lung. An eighth troubled day. An undergrowth of bodies. Landed.

You were significant, rail. Tethers, the bike paths. Written, from opposite ends.

Old age is its voice. Invented, out of sight. Basement, cooling stage. The birdsong, insular. Make tea, play guitar. Autoharp.

Pecked, out a balloon. A red remark.


A corporate appeal, denied. The trap door, opens. Ultimately, appeared. A warbled, contradiction. Cowboys, up a name. In French, les voyageurs. Hernias hold in, scarves.

Not to know our time. Placing bones into the earth. A perfect, bit. They raid the biker hills.

As old as I am, now. Porcelain, chops. Deceptions, wire. String.

The snow precludes. It is, only August.

Rob McClennan

No need here to pick at the invisible stitching to find out who wrote what. It is the poem, the text, that stands before us and not the authors. It is the creation of a third party with a richer lexicon than one poet owns and new rhythms breathed into old syntactical habits.

A rich collaboration has been evolving across the Canadian/US border for some 10 years now between Sheila Murphy in USA and Douglas Barbour in Canada. It has the catch-all title Continuations. Sections have been published as chapbooks and selections in magazines. Over at TRUCK, I was lucky to snap a section up, plus some words after about the process. (I have selected short sections. The whole can be seen at

Continuations XCIX:

find a way through mapped
or unmapped trajectories  a passage
way beyond all sales
or under glass promotions   just walk
beneath refracted sun or rain
wind or whether blown out of doors

slippage lops off
variations on a them(e)
devotion:          read to me
pooled cinch of an idea         whose time treads
upon (what) lies (ahead)
of willowy surfaces

a new ear all legislated   hear all
never listening   listing
to starboard   stars bored
st(r)ay thought  full
load of in (or ex)
cremental logic systems

thought through stories
boarded up       to keep
light                  in and out
stars            reach pores
fill outer surface
with      like       slate

date(d) narrative slush   a
slippery scope   out(ed)
and a way too far
to tell    sell   fell
or full fury of
oil(y) fired  sincerity

although            and yes
a way to           through
sails      or
species in                    or outer
fields                lush      with

Comments on Collaboration:

With collaboration, there is an even broader sense of subject, that is, less of tightly controlled ‘about-ness.’ ‘Concepts, referents, even possible sites of imagery,’ are alive, balancing the roles of receiver and sender in a two-way process. When one writes collaboratively, there’s a comfort and a simultaneous ‘ready for anything’ sensation, as the spectrum of surprise and expectation is touched in various places. On seeing or hearing the collaboration partner’s response, one is often stimulated by the passage just received and read, then drawn into the work by wanting to respond. The curious thing that can happen in collaboration is the blurring of lines between writers. In one view, the better the collaboration, the less evident the two (or more) writing styles. Not a lowest-common-denominator approach to writing. Rather, it would seem that at its most artistic, collaboration brings into being a new writer, different in many ways from either of the individual writers. Such a presence cannot be forced into existence. It comes with committed working together over time.

In Continuations, we agreed on a more or less fixed format of six lines, and have bounced the ongoing process of poem-construction back and forth over the years, since November 2000. It seems that in that time a ‘third individual’ has emerged, who writes differently from the way that either writer would be creating independently. Emmy Lou Harris, speaking of her collaboration with  Mark Knopfler, makes a point that allusively applies to this poetic version: “When you combine two unique voices it creates a third, phantom voice.”

– Doug Barbour & Sheila Murphy

John Jenkins

I’m not sure of the current standing of the Australian collaborative poetry duo, Ken Bolton and John Jenkins. I know Ken is still writing and producing his special individualistic style of ‘journal’ poetry (with more cumulative depth than that description may imply), but, back in the day, they created one of the liveliest of Australian novels, The Ferrara Poems (Experimental Art Foundation, 1989). That other Australian creator of great verse novels, Alan Wearne, said ‘Bolton and Jenkins possess that entertaining mixture of style and substance which makes the reader exclaim, “What will they do next?”’ To quote the blurb, ‘… in literature it might come from a blend of Queneau, Jane Bowles and A Nest of Ninnies.’

            Giselle asked Milo, “You are married?”
“I am divorced,” Milo answered.

           “I am twenty three,”
she continued.

           “It was a scandal – a small one.
It was in Focus.”

           “That must’ve been terrible, “said Giselle.
“It was. For the family.

           For me it was simply irritating.
But the whole family expected me to be upset.

           It meant no money
from my father.

            My husband should have lost his job
–          He was a bagman.”


           “What’s a bagman?” “Mostly company men
who become disgraced.

           In Japan there is your family and your company,
both for life. These men drop out.

           But they are not bohemians.
They drink and live in subways.

           They rent a locker. It is their home.” Miko giggled.

           “Your husband would have become
One of those?” “For a little while, he might have

           until someone in the family had
taken him in.”   “You are very young,” said Karl.

           “Twenty three,” she said. “But it is too old
for me, in Japan.”

Ken Bolton

There have been great collaborations in music and art, in science and even in politics. Often, if you get to be able to squint behind the scenes, the collaboration isn’t so cosy, but a little frisson always helps things grow and expand. The Australian poet Phillip Salom once said to me in an interview, when I asked him what he liked to see in poems, ‘I like a little stir,’ he replied. And I think that is one of the elements you can achieve by teaming up with another creative artist and working together. Ingredients in the pot, but a little stir to give things a kick along.

1 thought on “Collaboration – Best with a Little Stir

  1. I like the idea of the disease of ownership. I find the difficulty of claiming “true” ownership of the automatic writing I’ve done in the past quite confronting, as it’s a challenge to my sense of ownership of the poem. I’m similarly ambivalent about the few collaborations I’ve engaged in.

    This sentiment ties in nicely with something I was just reading about ways to save poetry from its contemporary ghetto, which recommended (among other things) that when poets read their work aloud, they do so alongside poems that they did not write, so that the focus was poetry, and not the poet.

    I’m also interested in whether collaborative works tend more toward abstract writing and less toward realism or whatever the opposite of experimental writing is. It seems on the face of it that neither is particularly more suited to collaboration, but also that there are more abstract collaborative works than not.

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