Welcome, we’re kicking off Poetry Awareness with a new poem by Marge Simon, from her Stoker nominated book THE MAD HATTERY…among other goodies…
This time around, I’ve enlisted two prominent genre poets to discuss the process and rewards of collaborations. David C. Koposka-Merkel edits Dreams & Nightmares and is one of a handful of editors who both write and publish poetry. Both have published several collections and collaborated numerous times. Both are Rhysling recipients. Please note the way they’ve approached the topic. I feel like we’re all sitting together in the same room! Thanks, guys. – Marge Simon
DARK COLLABORATIONS by Kendall Evans & David C. Kopaska-Merkel
David C. Kopaska-Merkel and I have written over 20 poems together, and we are currently at work on another. The poems range from sf to fantasy, to dark or horror poetry. So when Marge Simon asked if we would like to write a guest column for the HWA newsletter, about collaborative poetry, it seemed a logical topic for the two of us to tackle. And it struck me there are a lot of things David and I do instinctively, without really talking about them–and that we might even have different ideas about the process. For instance, the motives and strategies for writing a poetry collaboration would be a little different from those for an author writing a poem alone. And there are rewards and frustrations that are also most likely different from those a lone writer experiences. So, to kick things off, I asked David about this.
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That sounds like Kendall is planning to interview me about our collaborations. Considering our collaboration as a unit, that seems almost incestuous, or something. But that might be a pretty surprising interview, for both of us. So to answer your questions….
Motives!? I didn’t know I would have to reveal my motives! As for strategy, I usually originate a collaboration the same way I start any of my poems. However, I choose for a proposed collaboration a fragment for which I don’t see a clear path. Once the collaboration is underway I try to write in a style that is harmonious with my collaborator’s style. For example, I normally use a lot of punctuation but Kendall doesn’t. I take this into account when collaborating with him.
Rewards? First, I didn’t know any of my collaborators well when we started. So one reward is making new friends. Second, the result is almost always a poem I would not have written by myself. Third, these poems sometimes end up in markets I would never have tried, or would not have gotten into, with my solo stuff.
One of the frustrations in collaborating is that sometimes a poem does not go where you intend. I may have in mind a dark, brooding, unpleasant journey toward death, and Kendall may go all perky on me. In “The Bus Stops Here,” which was published this past January in Strange Horizons, Kendall started inserting parenthetical stanzas using the voice of a narrator with a personal interest in the outcome. I had envisioned a more dispassionate tone until the end. But then, this is one I would not have written by myself and it seems to have worked. On balance, the seamy underbelly of collaboration is dwarfed by its rewards.
And now it’s your turn.
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Thank you, David. Now I guess I’d better attempt to respond to my own questions. Motives? It’s been said that writing is a lonely task, but a collaboration allows you to interact with another author or poet, and you get to know each other a little better in the process. I felt that David and I, working together to create sf/fantasy/horror poems, could not help but make at least a million dollars within the first six months.
While several years have gone by and we are still somewhat shy of that mark, I’m not worried. More to the point, I thought it would be fun and challenging to collaborate with David on some poems. I was right about that, and it’s my opinion that the two of us work very well together. If there are darker motives somewhere down there in my unconscious, I remain blissfully unaware of them.
Rewards? The rewards are pretty obvious I think. I believe I’m echoing David on this; I’m able to take part in the creation of a unique poem that I would never be able to write on my own. Collaborating introduces an element of unpredictability into the process, and I believe that this unpredictability is a valuable contribution to creativity. David has taken a number of our poems in directions I would not have dreamt of.
Frustrations? When an author goes solo on a work, he can put in anything he damn well pleases, but the contents of a collaboration need a final o.k. by both parties. If I ever suffer such minor frustrations, I remind myself that the poem is our poem, not my poem. Sometimes, too, I’ll write what I believe it the end of the poem, and David comes along and adds two or three more stanzas afterwards. After about 30 seconds of panic, I adjust. And whatever minimal frustrations there might be, the rewards by far outweigh them.
Now I’ll bounce this back to David and see if he has some questions of his own, or additional thoughts on the subject.
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I have collaborated with several other people, but none for more than a few poems and most for only one. I think there is a difference when a pair collaborates repeatedly. We develop a joint oeuvre and one can look at it retrospectively as one can at one’s own solo work. Looking back at what Kendall and I have done so far I think the benefits of our collaboration are obvious. And I guess that brings me to one more thought; in effect, we have created a new poet. Our collaborative work forms a corpus that neither of us would have produced alone.
People might be curious about authorship. What we have done is to give the first author slot to whoever started a poem. That person is also responsible for marketing the poem. I don’t know about Kendall, but when he has started a couple in a row I feel like I really need to start one myself so as to carry my share of the load. Over the years I haven’t counted but I guess we have been pretty close to even in this regard.
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And what is the result of these collaborative efforts by David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans? A question best answered by the poems themselves. Two Examples follow.
OF TIME AND THE TEETH OF THE BLACK DOG
Kendall Evans and David C. Kopaska-Merkel
(First appeared in STAR*LINE, July/August 2004)
I quickly assembled from my sister’s bones
A crude representation of the Door
It showed me nothing I did not already know or own
A few white shells
A book of many pages in an unknown tongue
A wine bottle drier than my mouth
There have been far too many days
Spent with the Black Dog
Deep under the bell jar
On the dark side of the lagoon
Dregs of emotion / rationality
Edging toward dementia As if I’m sitting here
With flowers gathered from my own grave
Hollowed out lich with blackening fingertips
Or palest ghost of former selves, a parody
I seem to be stranded at creation’s ebb
Where will and flesh disintegrate
As the Dog attacks its master
Perhaps I should divine my fate
With my lover’s toenail clippings
(Painted, each-by-each, in intricate designs)
Talk this over with my Landlord
And the Prince of the Air
Propitiate fierce adversaries
On the bottom of this sea
Or are we all trapped
In far-flung locations
Of sacred entanglement?
The windblown sand stinging our cheeks
As we lie, bound and blind
In the ruins of a still-potent abandoned city
A wolf or dog howling in the dusk
Transfixed in a wave-dashed reef
Dogfish eating our kidneys
Which re-grow every night
In none of these incarnations
Can we utter the few spells we still remember
Your car breaks down
In the middle of an endless sea of grass
We walk towards the sun until it sets
And night’s dark lips bring our oblivion, a kiss
When I wake I am already walking
And I am alone
I come upon your bones
In a dusty draw
A hot wind stirs my hair
David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans
(First appeared in MYTHIC DELIRIUM, Summer/Fall 2002)
Beneath alien stars in unnamed constellations
coffee is brewing and bacon cooking.
This arroyo makes a comfortable camp
where I savor the scent of the fire.
Thoughts of tomorrow’s field work
recede like the tides of a lost continent.
* * * * *
Y’londra rolls up in her blanket, while I smoke on alone.
She hates this land; her kind are so much closer to the sea.
I love it here:
stars everywhere but where the black cliffs loom;
I can almost hear the breakers 30 meters overhead,
crashing against the stony tubes that wove this ancient house.
The planet’s modern seas are brine, small, and reef-less,
home to a million kinds of almost shrimp,
and yet no reefs at all—not now.
Our landlocked corpse:
coral structures forged
before these seas became senescent,
formed by my now-vanished species,
passive while alive, yet now grown strangely restless.
Once many, we are now one,
a single, communal intelligence;
a ghost-like ever-presence
in the desert night.
Strange thought-dreams, these, yet suited to my mood.
I prop my foot on a cobble, then pick it up,
turn it within starlight and moonlight.
It’s a crusty coralline head, torn loose
in an ancient storm, perhaps,
And flung to the wave-swept pavement at the reef’s toe.
Y’londra dreams about water, sunlight, warm salty winds . . .
a hissing insinuates,
sand flashes moonshine as if it were the sea,
hurrying to keep an appointment it missed
millions of years ago.
She feels at home for the first time
since coming to this dry place.
What we can summon, come!
Return to this place.
And you! Man from another world,
dream dreams, open closed ears,
Listen and obey.
Can you hear the tide from another time?
It’s coming with the speed of thought.
Reflections quiver on starlit sand, telling me
to run, now, for the high ground.
The illusion is so real I reach to touch ghost waves,
plunge my hand in blood-warm water.
I kick off heavy boots, take a quick breath, and I’m swimming:
higher, higher, as the tide boils up the ancient face,
dead no more but asquirm with colors.
Fragmented strands, biochemical chaos
of those who once were, and are,
and those who might yet come to be,
the spiral-chetes of inheritance, recombinant,
contend in vortices of quantum turbulence
for sea and sky; for fire and land
Something swims toward me, a dark torpedo;
I shy away and it flashes past.
I cast my gaze down towards the camp
where I had forgotten Y’londra,
asleep in sand half an eon away.
Y’londra metamorphoses as she swims.
Her cells remember, selkie-like,
strange alien from the isles of an ocean moon;
her flesh a garment that
she casts away,
dons another, one more suited to this place.
Bring me coral from the oceans of your Earth,
Aeropora, Diploria, Montastrea, genetically modified
to survive here in my seas.
I will guide it and enlighten it:
tell it of my world, my history
the million miles of coral tubes I wove
and teach it how to speak
in many tongues.
The waves hurl me into the reef
gashing my flank, spilling red
ink into the rushing water.
I grasp the knobs of coral—how they sting!
and pull myself, tattered, out of the bloody froth.
My eyes are burning, and my mind. . .
Y’londra breaches, hurtles over the reef,
Kersplash-landing on the other side,
trailing bubbles in her fishy dream.
Come back! You’ve gone too far!
I cannot recall you from these
days before I died and my ghost
mind was born.
Awake! Go to your star boat!
Do my bidding!
I’m drenched in water,
clinging to the living reef.
The waves pound me.
There is an island not that far away,
I could cross the lagoon with ease,
but something swims there now
and may be hungry.
* * * * * * *
A shark-like brute (parallel evolution,
skeleton all of cartilage)
dreams of land, of walking in the air,
and wonders: who would want to leave the sea?
A whiteness rolls upon the beach,
carried by the tide, and stares,
naked under empty sky.
An underwater mountain (its composite minerals
accrued like a seashell’s)
Strains its food, lives a myriad lives,
And does not dream.