Saturday, January 17, 2009

Loyola University Talk on Collaboration

A few months ago, at the invitation of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, I participated in a poetry presentation-reading at Loyola University of Chicago. I prepared remarks for the event, and here they are in edited form.


Notes on Collaboration

First, I'd like to thank Joshua and Loyola for inviting me, and also say how wonderful it is to be here with all of these exceptional writers. Some of them I know personally and some I'm just meeting for the first time, but I know their work and am honored to have the opportunity to be here with them.

I was invited to speak about collaboration, and so I thought I would speak about several different kinds of collaboration in which I've been engaging in relation to poetry. The first is direct collaboration, which is to say, working directly with another artist, on a specific project. I have wanted to collaborate with other artists since childhood, where collaboration is stressed these days but probably wasn't as much when I was small (though it was to some degree when I was in Montessori pre-school) and I guess I was already doing some of this when I was in high school and served on the literary magazine and did these drawings, based heavily on imagery from GQ—it's so bizarre to think about that now, but I had all these drawings based on the men in GQ, which I guess was telephoning something to everyone around me, though I didn't have a clue—that accompanied my classmates poems, even as I was publishing my horrid poems in the same issue. I also drew for the newspaper and the yearbook, in a kind of collaborative fashion; some of it was illustrative, but a lot of it was in dialogue with the texts others had written. I received no encouragement, and I think what happened by the time I'd graduated from college was my internalization of the idea that you should NOT collaborate in art, but only in office settings. The idea of the lone, heroic artist, preferably straight and male and fluent in his craft, with a decisive style or styles, lives on in our society. So I had this idea that you shouldn't collaborate, and that you were—and are—rewarded for individual effort, and yet I knew there were numerous prior examples, such as one of my favorite works of all time, Sweet Flypaper of Life, which paired texts by Langston Hughes and photos by Roy DeCarava, or the famous collaboration between Aimé Césaire and Pablo Picasso, or Erica Hunt's collaboration with Alison Saar, and outside of visual art with texts, there are other kinds of collaborations, of dually written texts, so Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman, writers working with choreographers, composers, and on and on. There are, as we know, collaborative art genres, like theater and architecture, and so forth, and though I don't practice any of them they fascinate me greatly. I should add that I learned a few years ago about the concept and practice of the livre du dialogue in French literary culture, which goes back more than a century, and there are other forms of collaboration, including collaborative books and other texts, etc., which dot the history of literature and, even further, oral culture.

So when I had the opportunity to work with Chris Stackhouse, a poet and visual artist, editor and performer, I leapt on it. What becomes immediately clear when you're collaborating is that you must surrender your ego, or yield, to a greater degree than you might be used to, especially if you are working on equal terms with your collaborator. The word itself spells it out, coming from the Latin cum or co-(with) -laborare (to work) via French's collaborer–working together. Of course it's not a free-for-all, but what Christopher and I did was to push each other, past our limits, aesthetic limits, senses of what constitued a dialogue, what constituted working together, to create our project Seismosis. So what we came up with was probably different than what we would have done if we'd created the texts or the drawings separate from each other; they can stand on their own, we both think, and have been published that way, but they are also very much the product of this active working together, which entailed passing texts and images back and forth, commenting in person and via email and phone, listening to the same kinds of music, reading the same books, looking at the same art. A real project of collaborative looking, thinking, dreaming, making. Which is what poetry is. Now we haven't stopped with Seismosis. We're currently working on a new project, which we've tentatively called RAM (Radical Access Memory), based on the works of various radical political poets from the American literary tradition, and some OuLiPo-oriented techniques. I can't say too much more about it, but we hope to debut some of this in January, and I'm also hoping it works out, but part of collaborating is exploring, and you might not get it right all the time. To add another note to this discussion, I also remember coming across one of W. H. Auden's dicta, which was that "gay men should collaborate." Until recently, I hadn't collaborated with any other queer artists, even on anthologies, though I do have a new project in the works with another poet and a visual artist, who queer, unlike Chris, and we've been working on a different kind of project, which we hope to get to work on soon. Since we're in different cities, we've had to communicate almost completely via email and phone, so that makes it tough, but I hope this winter to get out to see them so that we can advance that project forward too. These collaborative projects have shaped my own practice, in that I am willing to push myself in ways that I might not have had I not collaborated, and I am even more aware of the idea that writing of any kind, all art, involves a collaboration with the viewer, reader, spectator, the person who engages the work, and remakes it as she or he sees fit. As with direct collaboration, translation is a profoundly ethical act.

The second kind of collaboration has been two-fold. One example of this has been my translation work. I've been actively working as a translator—from French, Spanish, and Portuguese primarily, but to a lesser extent Dutch and Italian, two languages I don't really know well but can make my way through—for some years now. In the cases of nearly all the writers I've been translating (Francophone writers like Nicolas Pages from Switzerland; Rachid O from France; Alain Mabanckou from Congo and France; Spanish-language writers like Mateo Morrison from the Dominican Republic and José Balza from Venezuela; and Lusophone writers like Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, Jean Wyllys, and now Horácio Costa and Narlan Teixeira, all from Brazil), I did not know them before I began translating their work, but in some cases, like Edimilson, after I began translating their work and publishing it, both in periodicals and on my blog, I developed a dialogue with him about both his work and my translations of it—and this is something that many translators both hope for and dread, because you always want a certain amount of autonomy from the author but also, of course, to render as best and artfully as you can the other author's work into the target—new—language. But I'm not here to talk about translation theory, which is a vibrant and contentious field right now, so I'll only say that translation, even if you are not in conversation with the writer you're translating, involves a great deal of collaboration. For me to render the work of Mateo Morrison, a Dominican writer, into English, involves my entering into the lifeworld in which he produced his work—and I'm thinking here about his poems in his tiny and beautiful little volume, Dorothy Dandridge, which he published in 2007—and to draw upon that even as I am trying to recreate the poems in an appropriate American idiom. What's also interesting to me with regard to Morrison's project, of course, is how in translating him I am engaging in a generational conversation with another writer, a black writer from outside the United States, and thus, across the African Diaspora, about a particular American and African American icon. So we share certain assumptions about a figure like Dandridge, but then we diverge in other key ways. The same is true for the queer writers I have translated, like Pages, who is about 5 years younger than me and so in the same generation, more or less, but his particular life experiences and so on are in some ways very different from mine, though there are aspects of global queer culture that we both connect in and with. To literalize what Jimmy Santiago Baca once said to me in an interview I conducted with him years ago, "Poetry is what we speak to each other." So I think of translation as a form of collaboration, a dynamic but indirect form, usually, and it has, as translation always does, influenced my own work and how I think about my work. In particular, it has made me especially attentive to language, to English, itself, to the valences of each word and how they are or are not translatable. (I also write fiction and I think fiction writers, especially American fiction writers, think a little less about this and more about story, character, and other technical aspects of their projects.) I should add that recently, two French-speaking writers who also write in English have begun translating some of my work, and they've chosen the most difficult pieces, really, so this involves another kind of collaboration where I am less active as a participant, but a participant nevertheless. As with direct collaboration, translation is a profoundly ethical act.

One final area of collaboration that I've engaged in has been in a few conceptual projects I've done. I'm very interested—obsessed would probably be the right word—in certain areas of contemporary art, and conceptual and abstract art, is one of them. Participatory, language-based, durational, and relational aesthetic forms, projects and activities, from the Dadaists and Duchamp on through Fluxus, Om Kawara, the textual paintings of Lawrence Weiner, Adrian M. S. Piper's performances and creations, on through the now almost passé participatory "events" and activities that are part and parcel of the contemporary artworld: all these things speak to me in a visceral way. One collaborative activity that I've been engaging in since around 2002, which would date it back to early years of this current administration, which was one of the triggers, is what I call my "Emotional Outreach" project. It has entailed creating these cards, which I initially passed out in various venues—I dared myself to do so on the streets of New York, the El, at readings and talks—and then to send to random people, especially around the election of 2004. Now I am a very shy person, and am really interested in but not trained in psychology or performance, or lots of other related areas, but I was curious to see how people would respond to something that permitted them to symbolically manipulate their emotional states. [At this point I read one of the cards, front and back, aloud.] So the emotions were not just positive—"love," "glee," "hope,"—should I add "change"—but also negative, such as "rage," "embarrassment," "hate"—and equivocal, such as "Schadenfreude." Originally, and here my interest in figures like Kant, Wittgenstein, Dewey, Adorno, Deleuze, Debord (who argued against the continued viability of the novel and some other forms that I persist in pursuing), Piper, and others, comes into play in that I was less interested in recording what they did with these cards, which is something that Adrian Piper, for example would be very attentive to, than in offering them in the first place, in the social engagement and relationships that were created, in the collaboration over which I would have no ultimate control. I decided, however, that I would try to do a better job of recording or getting others to record responses, so I opened a call for the cards, prepared little packets, etc., and then sent them out. About 6-7 people, most fellow artists and former students, responded. About a year ago, I think. Since I'm interested in the ideas of duration and indeterminacy, I haven't heard back any of my collaborators or theirs yet, but I set up a new blog to record the responses, and that as of this past Tuesday, I guess now that there are going to be many "joyful" people on the left and across the globe and many "sad" people on the right, and many others who will truly feel a measure of Schadenfreude, there might be some responses yet. And I'll end there. Thank you.

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