How collaborative poetry might work

The Fugalists

Rachael Berry, me, Chris Jones and Keri Highland post-gig 17.8 2013

Regular readers may know that I dabble in making my own attempts at the poetic. Recent efforts have used archive material, photography and/or multiple voices with minimalist piano. After more than a few months of working through permutations I think I’ve got a collaborative ‘form’ that works. I usually define my stuff as ‘working’ when it does what was in my head at the beginning (or thereabouts) regardless of the reaction of others- which has usually been one of mystification and/or disdain. On this occasion however, I seemed to have struck a balance between what I want to achieve and what people like. Last week-end my collaborators performed this vocal improvisation in a yurt at a local arts festival. It was the last item of the evening and I rounded things off and joined a friend outside in the gathering gloom to discuss the evening as a whole. Before we could start I was approached by a lady in her fifties who asked for my contact details, I asked her what she thought and she said the last piece really “worked” and then became quite emotional about how well it worked.

I’d liked to have been able to write this off s a single reaction but there has been positive feedback from equally unexpected quarters. I find myself to be ridiculously pleased about this but the main point of writing about it here is to try and fathom what it is that appeals and why it should appeal to such a broad group of people. I’ll start with the motivation: for many years I’ve been interested in work with multi layered vocals; I’m of the view that there’s too much of the poetic in poetry; I’m incredibly interested in what people say about their passions and how they say it.

So, the initial plan involved a collaboration between myself and Julian Winslow, a local photographer who is also my best friend. Our theme is landscape and my contribution involved interviewing a number of people who worked on or with the land in order to make a multi-layered sound file which would then be played at the same time as people viewed Julian’s pictures.

This ran alongside a series of interviews and discussions with a local musician/song writer, Keri Highland, about mental fragility. I then distilled these down to about twenty phrases each which we improvised around at a couple of gigs earlier this year. We were both taken aback by the response. As part of my collaboration with Julian we’d been recording interviews with each other as to the creative process and he suggested that I should interview others from different disciplines. Rachael Berry and Chris Jones had both been exhibiting their art at the second gig where Keri and I had performed together and I cajoled them both into a series of interviews as to their various processes, I also interviewed Keri on the same subject.

The next few weeks were spent playing the sound files and extracting what seemed to me the most honest and unvarnished things that the subjects had said and subtracting the same from the interview that I had with myself – which was essentially my response(s) to what the other three had said.

We then rehearsed once or twice a week, refining the format. I’d known from previous attempts on the landscape project that three voices talking together mostly descends into incoherence whereas it is possible to make some sense from two voice. After some tweaking we decided to alternate the two male voices (with some cross-over) whilst the two female voices should do the same. This produced a piece whereby a male and a female voice were speaking at the same time but not in response to each other. The improvised element was that people could read the phrase that they wanted whenever they wanted in response to or against what the other had just said.

After some further discussion we decided to try a fairly abstract keyboard backing. After some brief exchanges Keri came up with and recorded something that we all felt that we could ‘lean’ into and which enhanced the work rther than turning it into any kind of song.

I’d produced these events through the summer and could therefore decide on where to place this amongst the poets musicians and story tellers. Because the mental health improv had been so well received in previous gigs, I decided to finish the evening with it and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the response.

I’m still not sure why this material gets this kind of response, now why it should appeal to an audience with different interests and tastes. I’d like to think that it’s because it carries some transparent honesty that people can relate to and be absorbed in. The friend who was waiting outside the yurt is of the view that it demands some audience involvement in that people have to really listen to follow a particular thread. I think he’s right and I’m very pleased that people do seem prepared to pay attention.

The other element that is ideologically important for me in my ongoing war with the poetic is that it made use only of what people said in non-poetic and reasonably ordinary conversations. You may argue that interviewing myself is a bit of a cheat and you’d be right. The first ten minutes of my conversation with me are full of neat and pithy little phrases, I then realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making an impression and wittered on about the material that I think is incisively brilliant and the rest of the world is completely indifferent to.

I also discover that I’m on bit of mission to challenge assumptions about poetry: I red half an episode of a soap opera that I’d poeticised which was very well received and a much more standard poetic rant about cultural saturation that was inventive, lyrical and quite skilled but ws ded after about the third line of many.

The next challenge is to try and maintain the momentum without being too ambitious. The obvious dimensions that I seem to be playing with are: subject matter; number and gender of voices and the nature of the musical backing if we feel we need one. Beyond that there’s visual material but I’m concerned that this might detract from the attention that is currently paid to the words.

For some reason I’m also of the view that we should only perform this at the moment because it appears that this collective involvement / attention might be the core aspect.

A final note on collaboration, I know that some find it intolerable and other projects crash and burn due to big egos but I have to say that my experience both with John Matthias and these three have brought me out of my shell in quite unexpected ways.

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One response to “How collaborative poetry might work

  1. Collaborative translation is another way to externalize what are otherwise internal processes. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing very much over the years. I’ve written a bit about how complicated the process can become in my essay called “Prince Marko” in Who Was Cousin Alice? And Other Questions.

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