Friday, October 27, 2006

Collaborative Poetry

In this post, I'd like to think more about collaborative poetry as it relates to Asian-American poetry. If one defines "collaborative poetry" as a poem or sequences of poems authored by two or more poets, I think that there is simply not much collaborative work in Asian-American poetry. I know that I've never come across a sequence of poems, or even a single poem, authored by two or more Asian-American poets, and I'm not sure if there are any such poems out there.

In general, one could say that there is and there isn't much collaboration in American poetry today. As I've defined collaborative poetry, there isn't too much of such work going on, especially on the level of book publishing, which makes Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar's Wanton Textiles, as well as the postcard poems of Tim Yu and Cassie Lewis, relatively unique works of art. But I would say that there is a lot of collaboration among poets in other forms -- for example, writing workshops and conferences, feedback from poetry editors, suggestions and critiques from other poets and friends. You could even expand this list and point out that poets live in societies and are greatly influenced by the time and place in which they live. I would thus assert that the notion that poems typically exist in some kind of "pure" form, uninfluenced by the opinions of other individuals, is somewhat overly romanticized and outdated. In this sense, I think that most poems are the products of a certain degree of collaboration among poets.

But in the less abstract sense of "collaborative poetry," I find it interesting that there is almost none of that happening in Asian-American poetry today. I think that it points to the importance of the individual in the generating of poetry, especially poems that are more personal in nature. But I also wonder whether such a lack of collaboration is essentially a byproduct itself of a particular tradition in contemporary American poetry that presumes a poem to have only one author and thus approaches collaborative poems with some measure of bewilderment. In other words, if you read enough poems in literary magazines that have only one author, pretty soon you presume that is the way that poetry works.

From both history and modernity, however, we know that there are different ways in which the art of poetry could and does work. In some Asian cultures, oral history is the primary means through which poetry is generated, shared, and passed down from generation to generation. The renga is a form of collaborative poetry that originated in Japan, and poets throughout the world continue to work in the form today. Then there is the whole concept of "postcard poetry" in which, in its simplest form, poets exchange poems on postcards, which may or may not touch upon specific geographic locales depending on the poets' definition of such poetry.

While I think that most poets who engage in collaborative poetry find it amusing and a nice change of pace, I also think that such work can and should be taken more seriously as well. There are many potential upsides to collaborative poetry -- it could point to similarities and contrasts in writing styles between two poets, work as a means to highlight different perspectives on particular issues, like matters involving race or ethnicity or gender, and help poets grow as authors and thinkers by showing them a different way of approaching a topic or theme.


Blogger EILEEN said...

One of my collaborations with Nick Carbo will be in the upcoming Soft Skull-published SAINTS OF HYSTERIA. The anthology is presented as "The first definitive collection of American collaborative poetry, ranging through the New York School, the Beats, Language poetry, to the present, with 140 poems by more than 200 authors culled from various magazines, out-of-print collections, and previously unpublished material, plus insightful process notes and author biographies" by Soft Skull's website; more info at

In that same anthology, a collaboration between Eric Gamalinda and Nick Carbo is also presented.

As regards your thought that not a lot are going on because "it points to the importance of the individual in the generating of poetry,...", my gut tells me that this may be overstating/overdetermining the matter. But there's no proof either way, of course, and mayhap you're right.

But I just think there's more going on than may be immediately evident if one looks at chaps/books published. In my case, I have collaborations going on all the time with a number of poets, both AA and non-AA poets, some of which have filtered out there in journals.

Theories of collaborations interest me. For me, collaborations are not just something I do to get beyond that authorial "I". For me, collaborations are tied to a transcolonial/postcolonial poetis that recognizes that I'm writing in English and knowing that this is the case because of colonialism.

Won't belabor my own theory here, but if perhaps one doesn't have a strong poetics perspective as regards collaborations -- and maybe are just doing it because they can be fun -- then that would make collaborations secondary to individual authorship.

But I still think they're out there!

7:47 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

How do attitudes toward collaborative art in Asian-American culture differ from such attitudes in Euro-American culture? And are there any clues there?

11:03 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Eileen, thanks a lot for the timely recommendation! I'll be looking forward to reading the anthology.

You're right that it's hard to speculate on "the importance of the individual in the generating of poetry." I guess I was trying to make the very specific point that I've seldom come across a particular poem, let alone a sequence of poems, with two or more poets listed as co-authors. This new anthology might suggest differently, but the fact that it's presented as "the first definitive collection of American collaborative poetry," as you've noted, may also point to the relative scarcity of collaborative poetry.

Yes, I share your interest in collaborative poetry. I think that getting beyond the traditional authorial "I" is another great reason to engage in such work. I'm not really sure why there would be the notion that collaborations are secondary to individual authorship, but I think that there shouldn't be such a hierarchy and that collaborations can be productive, entertaining, and useful.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Robert, that's an excellent question! Actually, I think that it could be the central question for a master's thesis. But I'm not sure if I know enough about "attitudes towards collaborative art" in either Asian-American or European culture to answer it, so maybe others with more ideas can chime in.

But I'll note the work of the Angel Island poets here as another possible example of collaborative art. In the early 20th century, many Chinese immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station, and they would carve their poems into the walls of the woods of the barracks at the station. It's difficult to say the extent to which any of these paintings/poems were "collaborations," but there does seem to be something collaborative/communal about the writing of these works of art in crowded conditions, at least some of which illuminate the challenges that the immigrants faced. Here's a link to a Modern American Poetry webpage that has more to say about Angel Island and the poems there: angel.htm.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

I am enjoying the discussion & book recommendations here. I look forward to Saints of Hysteria (love the title!) and other such projects. While books of letters are not technically poetic collaborations, they certainly help artists feed off (or on) one another, and I always love reading them. The famous Robert Duncan/Denise Levertoc letters...and there are some new books coming out about correspondence between William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, and I think one between Pound and Cummings. Maybe poets will be the ones to preserve the art of letter writing and other such written collaborations?

2:59 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

By "secondary to individual authorship," I mundanely meant just the volume (number of poems) done and not something as a hierarchical judgment (I was unclear, though, but hope this addresses that point since I certainly don't think one approach is privileged over the other -- it depends on the results, ultimately, IMO).

Just read above paragraph -- still not sure I was clear. Let me be more specific. If I did collaborations for fun (and they are fun) and even to get away from the limits of my imagination (example of getting away from I), I would do a certain amount of collaborations.

But it's precisely because the collaborative form speaks to my poetics that I do a whole lot of them, and not just some (so to speak).

My 2007 poetry book -- _THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES_, Marsh Hawk Press -- will feature a number of collaborations with other poets. And I just remembered that Paolo Javier's first poetry book -- the time at _the end of this writing_, Ahadada Books -- included a collaboration he and I did together.

As for Robert's notions about the nature of AA culture and how it affects collaborations, it's a great question. Depends on which AA culture, but I also can suggest that the Filipino trait of "kapwa" lends itself to facilitating such collaborations -- one reason why I collaborate with poet/decolonialism scholar Leny M. Strobel in two of my other books. Also, I'll quote a poetics essay by Michelle Bautista on kapwa: "Loosely translated into English, kapwa is to be like the other. But in the Filipino sensibility it is more than that--there is a deeper sense that one is interconnected in inseparable ways."

Which explains why Michelle's inaugural poetry collection, KALI'S BLADE (forthcoming in a month or so from Meritage Press) will include other poets with whom she did poetic collaborations in the field of kalil (a Filipino martial arts form).


3:24 PM  
Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...

Hey Roger,

A group of us collaborated on this project a few years ago. It was great fun.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

Eileen, as always, I learn when I read you.

And Oliver, thank you for posting the link to the collaborative blog you all did from 2004. What came of those poems? Were they published somewhere?

2:35 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks a lot for all the recommendations. Yes, I would agree with Lee that letter-writing can be another form of collaboration. I also find Eileen's discussion of "kapwa" quite interesting, and coupled with the collaborative project that Oliver links to here, which features many Filipino/a-American poets, it makes me wonder the extent to which there has been a tradition of collaboration in Filipino/a poetry and the extent to which that translates into the contemporary work of Filipino/a-American poets.

5:53 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

Well, also, I'm missing the obvious (not unusual for Moi): my most recent visible collaborative project is the hay(na)ku form. Information at, and

As with an earlier collaborative project "Poems Form/From The Six Directions" (info at, the hay(na)ku required collaborative input from not just one other but NUMEROUS poets (from around the world).

Notwithstanding examples here noting Filipino poets, I'm not positing, btw, that there is a relatively higher interest in collaborations among them because of kapwa or other Filipino cultural traits (for example, I've not seen many Filipino poets theorize on kapwa to link it directly to their practice, though I eagerly await correction if I'm not correct). The Buddhist notion of interconnectedness can be like kapwa, but do Buddhist poets collaborate more than non-Buddhists?

I do think there can be a difference if a poet chooses to consciously explore the role of collaborations in their poetics.

We also can note more the collaborations done by AA poets with artists who work in other forms than poetry: those who work with visual artists include John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (who's also collaborated with composer Tan Dun), Bruna Mori, Shin Yu Pai...there must be many others whose names just aren't surfacing with me at the moment.

I've collaborated with artists who work in a variety of mediums besides poetry and, on one level, I more appreciate those efforts for heightening the element of surprise that I relish in all collaborations.

Let me recommend, too, John Yau and Archie Rand's book of etchings-based collaborations, 100 MORE JOKES FROM THE BOOK OF THE DEAD; info at What's useful about this book is an essay by John at the end of the book that discusses the nature of their collaboration -- how it differs from other collaborations viz its spontaneous nature (which also explains the form of etching as the chosen medium because that medium forces *first mark, best mark*...or last mark, anyway).

The dogs are whining for my attention,

9:58 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

that's funny. the locus of collaboration for many seems to be with Eileen. must be her abundant font of creative mana or maybe she is accepting of all to the comfort of her blank page. she and i had just finished two new collaborative poems which build upon our earlier work together. it is interesting how our collaborations change and deepen as time goes on. the big question is, do you collaborate with others who are different in style or form, or do you choose a partner who has a similar temperament? can one collaborate with a poet who does not inspire you? hmmm. a good idea would be to make a fantasy list of poets you would just die to collaborate with. here's mine:
1. Jenny Holzer
2. Yoko Ono
3. Anne Sexton
4. Jose Rizal
5. Lee Anne Roripaugh
6. Shin Yu Pai
7. Kimiko Hahn
8. Fatima Lim-Wilson
9. Myung Mi Kim
10. Barbara Jane Reyes

how do you ask? how do you deal with rejection? haaaaah, it's the highschool prom all over again!

10:30 PM  
Blogger Oliver de la Paz said...

Lee, some of those poems appeared in Indiana Review, Volume 25, Number 2. It was a special collaboration issue. I know Sarah, Aimee, and myself appear in that addition. Some of the other poems have appeared in people's books. Patrick's piece, "Greed" appears in My American Kundiman. I think Barbara Jane also put her piece in a manuscript.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

Thanks for letting me know, Oliver.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Yes, thanks for all the information! I know that I've learned a lot here about collaborative poetry.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Gene van Troyer said...

Around 30 years ago, Octavio Paz initiated a collaborative poetry project called RENGA, inspired by his encounter with this Japanese form of shared poetry. He, Charles Tomlinson, Jaques Robaud, and one other whose name escapes me at the moment, shut themselves into a basement flat for a rainy London weekend, settled on a modified sonnet format, and started to write according to a rule about having to use certain lines from each poem produced to establish at leat some sense of "linking". I believe the book length result was published in 1969 by George Brazilliers Press, but my memory may be failing.

Paz noted that the inspiration to him for doing this was that it presented to him an excellent avenue to escape the personal "I" that he felt had siezed European poetry like a sickness and had culminated in an obsessive confessional poetry. Structured ways of sharing poetry represented to him a liberation from the primacy of the individual poet, and returned poetry to the collective consciousness. I'm paraphrasing Paz here and may have got him a little wrong, but I think I've got the spirit right.

However, collaborative poetry is not an easy activity to sustain over long periods of time, and the results are often perhaps felt to be uneven and unfocused by readers and editors. This may be a reason why so little of it sees wide circulation in journals, and why small presses are (in my experience) reluctant to invest resources in producing expensive books. Editors at publishers seem to want collections of poetry that have a purpose or direction of some sort, and collaborative efforts often may seem to to them result in efforts that head off in too many directions--in short, they fragment and evaporate towards the end.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Jennifer K Dick said...

I adored reading through both the original post and the following discussion. It's been a year since you have reflected on these questions and here I am just beginning, I think of a few recently co-authored books such as ‘Braided Creek : A Conversation in Poetry’ (Copper Canyon 2003) Jim Harrison & Ted Kooser;‘Tao Drops I Change’ (Subpress 2003) Steve Carll & Bill Marsh;‘3:15’ (The Owl Press, 2001) Bernadette Mayer, Danika Dinsmore, Jen Hofer & Lee Anne Brown;‘Nice Hat, Thanks’ (Verse 2002)Joshua Beckman & Matthew Rohrer;‘Well well reality’Keith Waldrop & Rosmarie Waldrop;‘Sight’ (Edge Books, 1999) Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino. I have recently gotten to thinking about this because of the blog project and I do think in general there are more short term collaborations and works which are co-authored, but fewer works where both authors write over and into each others' work. This is something perhaps we should all give more of a go! Best, Jennifer K Dick

7:35 AM  
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