Collaborating on Creativity

Over the years, collaborative writing —usually the domain of academic research and business writing, or an educational tool to give novice writers an approachable runway— has moved into the cluttered corridors of fiction. Ken Kesey (best known for his 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) worked in collaboration with a creative writing class at the University of Oregon on a 1989 novel called Caverns. The book received attention, partly because of Kesey’s notoriety, but was criticized for what would become recognizable pitfalls: no coherent voice and too many characters. Co-authorship, wherein two writers of equal voice and weight share creative writing, is more manageable.

Boston-based short story writer and essayist, Steve Almond, worked in collaboration with Julianna Baggott, a novelist, essayist and poet, to create Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confessions (Algonquin Books, 2006). The story’s two characters (strangers who meet at a wedding and lust after one another then and later) offered ready-made playgrounds for Almond’s and Baggott’s creative imaginations. The novel’s form, exchanged letters, was the ideal vehicle for discovery (the authors’) and disclosure (the characters’). Though some readers thought Which Brings Me to You verged on erotica, the epistolary approach gave both writers equal time and runway. Which brings me to this: Are there collaborative poems? What if a poet shares the collaborative process with a dead writer? What if the collaborator isn’t even a person?

Islamadora Birds

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Poet Kim Addonizio has invented a form that involves borrowing from other people’s poems. Her form, called sonnenizio, requires the taking of a line —any line— from another person’s sonnet and making it your own first line. Then a word —any word— from that borrowed line is repeated in each of the remaining 13 lines of the sonnenizio. Ideally the poem ends with a rhymed couplet. I tried the form not long ago when I was working in the Room, using this line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59: “Show me your image in some antique book…” The line, from the middle of the sonnet, struck me as modern-sounding. It lacked the archaic weight of some of Will’s Elizabethan words. I was off and running. Then I hit a wall. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a single word in the original Shakespeare line that didn’t fall flat after a few repetitions. So I turned away from my monitor and —more out of procrastination than inspiration— began to study the spines of the books on the shelves behind me. An oversized book on the history of postcards in America caught my eye. As I flipped through it, images flying by like birds, one arrested me. It was a reproduction of a 1952 postcard from Los Alamos, New Mexico: a photo of a white mushroom cloud suspended against a bright-blue sky.

The book got me back on track. I gave up on the dictate to develop a repeated word and instead, ran with the image. By the end of my writing session, I had a new poem, a sonnet called “Greetings….” I don’t know who wrote that postcard book, but I’m not sure he or she was my collaborator. I think the book itself was my collaborator. Its contents became my gateway to some new place, that one image my unerring muse.

—Jane Poirier Hart, Poetry Fellow


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