A YARN preamble. A few months back, we read an unusual submission: a series of poems written collaboratively by Jessy Randall and Derek Rowley, who met on the staff of their high school literary magazine, “Galaxy,” in the 1980’s. Jessy had submitted to us before (in fact, her “O Oreo” was part of the inspiration for our Candy & Cookie Poem Drive), and we’d encouraged her to submit more work. The collaborative poems, which you can find in the Poetry section this week, were the happy result. And since we thought the whole idea of writers collaborating was so cool–and unique–we asked Jessy and Derek to co-write a blog about how they got together to write.
Jessy & Derek’s Guest Blog:
Derek: I read a poem you wrote with Dan Shapiro and emailed you with questions about the collaborative process. You said that you and Dan had done a hundred or so collaborations through email, and asked if I would be game for trying one. I was intrigued with the idea of coming up with rules together; all the poets back in the day used forms like the sonnet to trick themselves into coming up with lines that they wouldn’t have thought of without forcing themselves to follow a form, but I thought that collaborating sounded a lot more fun than writing in a form by myself.
A while before this, I had learned that a college friend, Marc, had died. He was the sort of guy who would be standing next to you one second, and you’d look away for an instant and look back, and he’d have climbed half way up a wall or rappelled out the window or something else extreme. After I heard the news, I discovered what I thought was a pretty compelling story – he had become one of the world’s premier obsidian knappers, traveled the world, and died swimming across the Kunene River in Africa. I sent you a couple of articles about his life and a few lines that I intended as a beginning to our project.
You said that since I had actually known this person it might be difficult to collaborate, but you were intrigued by one line I had which ultimately became the title – “You Can’t Go Here.” You suggested that we start fresh with the concept of a character who wants to go wherever the sign says you can’t go, and then you sent me the first three lines.
I kept asking you questions about the rules. “How much should we draw on the raw material? Must I ignore it completely?” You said I could do whatever I wanted with my lines, and I think I ended up drawing on this material a lot, but because you didn’t know Marc, your lines took the piece in a fresh direction that made me think of new things; I think it was actually a creative advantage that you didn’t know him. Sometimes we went back and forth once a day, and sometimes weeks went by. I think it took about five months before we agreed that it was “finished.”
J: We should talk about how we know each other in the first place, since this is a journal for teenagers and we met as teenagers. We met in high school when you were a junior and I was freshman. We were in “Galaxy,” our high school’s literary magazine. We fell out of touch for many years, but the miracle-slash-demon that is Facebook put us back in touch and lo and behold, it turned out we were both still writing.
So, what do you like about collaborating, in general or specifically?
D: I liked the idea of collaborating with someone that has a lot more experience in writing and publishing poetry, because I thought I could learn things from your experience, and I specifically liked your work and felt that your ideas would inspire me. How about you?
J: I like how if you’re collaborating with someone, you owe it to that person to make something pretty good, to finish what you’re working on. Writing is pretty solitary, which is so appealing; I love that generally if I’m writing something I don’t have to please anyone. But it’s also fun to try to please your collaborator and make something good together. I find it more satisfying, in many ways, than solo writing — because both people are author and audience both. But there are pitfalls, I think, like the “inside joke” kind of thing, where you start writing JUST for the other person, making references only that person will understand. I’m sure there are other pitfalls, too.
D: There is probably a danger of being too polite, that one person might write something that the other person doesn’t really like but not speak up. There is probably also the danger that the two people might have different goals, either in broader artistic terms (for example, too many hyphens) or in the specific development of a character or idea. But I think you pretty much cut through that by saying things like, “I don’t really like long poems. What we have here is too long for me. What if we did a suite?” And I felt free to say what I thought, too.
J: Yes, I was rather pleased at how quickly we were able to be not-too-polite. Politeness would have killed the whole enterprise.