Poetry and Collaboration: Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton
Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton have been writing poetry together for fifteen years, and have published three collaborative books: Little Novels (Pearl Editions, 2002), Oyl (2000), and Exquisite Politics (1997). In the following piece, they talk about how they started their poetic partnership and offer ten rules for a successful collaborative experience.
Denise Duhamel: About fifteen years ago, I went to hear the poet David Trinidad give a reading at the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City. I was surprised and a little confused when, mid-reading, David asked his friend Bob Flanagan to join him on stage to read some of their collaborations. It was the first time I had ever heard of collaborative poetry, and I had no idea what to expect. The poets read their joint efforts, alternating line by line, after explaining that they were not necessarily reading their "own" lines—that is, the lines they had actually individually written. I felt lucky to have seen the work performed, a living indication of the influence friendship plays in the work of poets. David's own poems were strongly narrative, infusing pop culture with his Los Angeles boyhood. When Bob joined him on stage, the poems' narratives blew open—suddenly the two poets were in a world of surrealism, collage, and, dare I say it, fun. Perhaps because I was able to see and hear the two poets reading, I was not intimidated by what I didn't literally understand. What I heard was wacky, dynamic, and nonlinear. The next morning I called my best friend Maureen Seaton, and explained as best I could what I had witnessed . . . Want to try this? I asked her.
Maureen Seaton: I had worked in a kind of "spiritual" collaboration with my significant other, Lori Anderson, over several years when she was wood-sculpting. We shared space, vision—it was wonderful, empowering. I worked solo on paper but with Lori's energy close by. My second book, Fear of Subways, came from that period. I have the sense that the book would not have been birthed without her. So when Denise called, I jumped at the chance. And as it turns out, Denise and I have something extraordinarily rare, a lifelong creative partnership.
Duhamel: At the time we started the collaborating, Maureen and I were committed to a more accessible poetry, although we were curious about what was going on in other areas. I had just earned my M.F.A. and Maureen was an assistant poetry editor for The Croton Review. Back then, we were unaware, for the most part, of collage and the surrealist tradition which encouraged collaboration. Maureen was game, though we had no idea how to go about creating collaborative poetry. All we could think to do was plod along, one line after the other. I felt more comfortable opening the poem, so I usually did. Maureen loved wrapping up poems, so that became her forté. At that time, I was living in Chelsea and Maureen was living in the Bronx, and visiting each other was an hour and a half commute. What we did most often was to leave each other lines on our answering machines. (This was B.C.E., Before Corresponding Electronically).
Seaton: One of the first topics we chose, which became a minor theme in our collaborative debut, Exquisite Politics, was eco-feminism. Denise was one of the few women I knew who didn't throw the word "feminism" out of her vocabulary and thinking when many, both men and women, started ridiculing it. And we're still involved in exploring sexual politics today. Our second book, Oyl, recasts Popeye's paramour, making her the plucky protagonist. In our third book, Little Novels, we boil the canon down to sonnet-sized tales of disenfranchised characters.
Duhamel: The most delightful part about our collaborating is the shared creative burden. Even when we think we are stumping one another, providing lines that seem almost impossible to finish, the other can usually think of something to follow right away. We are open to mess and mayhem. We have found what we believe to be a third voice, a voice that is neither Maureen's nor mine, but rather some poetic hybrid.
Seaton: There's a bit of the extreme in our collaborative third voice—at least as far as her themes and obsessions. The content of these poems is head-on. This voice of ours feels restless, goofy, shrill—basically unbecoming to a woman. Sometimes it is easier for us to be unbecoming together. Denise and I stoke each other artistically, play back and forth off each other. Another poet told me recently that he thinks Denise and I have the same kind and level of energy. I think so. But our styles are very different and the ways we see the same subject can be humorously opposed. We love those differences. Projects that seem daunting to me alone are like eating M&M's with Denise by my side. I think I'm addicted to surprise. We love that about the process of collaboration, and that even if we wanted to, we couldn't plan the direction of the poem. Imagine working with someone else and a muse, both of them constantly redirecting. What a whirl.
Duhamel: We must have written thirty or forty poems one-line-at-a-time until Maureen came across The Book of Surrealist Games describing Exquisite Corpse, a method in which writers write two lines of poetry at a time, and then fold the paper in such a way so that each writer can only see half of the lines her partner has written. Maureen and I started playing. We even adapted the game so that we could still play by emailing just half the lines we wrote and filling each other in on the missing lines when the poem was "done," which usually meant we had reached the line quota we set for ourselves before beginning to write.
Seaton: I love those surrealists. I remember when I first discovered André Breton and the French visual artists of the 1930s and 1940s who played with image and meaning—a whole political movement!—a flying cow with a man's head on it! Exquisite Corpse also presumes the power of first thoughts (á la Ginsberg, Goldberg, et al). It's great when you're trying to create a third voice. It can be played by as many people as want to—two, five, eighteen—I've taught a hundred people, divided the group into four, and watched as a hundred wild and wacky poems result. Denise and I wrote so many poems this way that we began to tamper with the form, giving ourselves limits, rhyme schemes, and so on. Any writer can do it and many know about the game. Denise and I are not unique, we've just exploited the concept.
Duhamel: We've written Exquisite Corpse sonnets, sestinas, pantoums and villanelles. We've even written Exquisite Corpse centos, which are made up entirely of lines from other poets. After those early days of collaboration in New York, Maureen moved to Chicago and we continued our collaborations by email and writing visits. Now, by some miracle, we are both living in Florida, four miles apart, writing this together by the pool.
Seaton: We've put together a set of guildelines we call "The 10 Commandments of Collaboration:"
1. Thou shalt trust thy collaborator's art with thy whole heart.
2. Thou shalt trust thy collaborator's judgment with thy whole mind.
3. Thou shalt trust thy collaborator's integrity with thy whole spirit.
4. Honor thy own voice.
5. Honor thy collaborator's spouse.
6. Thou shalt not be an egotistical asshole.
7. Thou shalt not covet all the glory.
8. Thou shalt love the same foods as your collaborator.
9. Thou shalt eat and tire at the same time.
10. Above all, honor the muse.