How to Write Collaborative Poetry

Picture of Wendy XuAuthors: Wendy Xu and Nick Sturm

What exactly is collaborative poetry? What are some different ways you have seen poets collaborate?

Wendy Xu: I have an increasingly broad definition of collaborative poetry–and maybe it’s a stretch (and maybe it really is not!) but I wonder if all poetry isn’t collaborative? Am I collaborating with the thing I am writing about? Is this poem co-authored by me and this bagel? I don’t think it’s necessarily useful to answer those questions, but it’s kind of exciting to think about …

But yes, in more practical and helpful terms, collaborative poetry is poetry with more than one author. And I say author because I think it can be more than two people. Epistolary poem-writing seems totally within this category for me, as well as translation, “in response to” poetry, etc–correspondence (with anything) is collaborative. And I really feel like the spirit of collaboration is alive in everything poetry is about. I think history and tradition and influence and having read anything ever and then having written anything after that, is inherently, collaboration.

I’ve seen poets write poems switching off lines, or switching off individual words, either face to face or somehow online, over gchat or email or working within a single document, text message, or speaking a poem into life while driving in the car, or exchanging titles or lines or phrases, or one person ask questions and the other answers, the list goes on and on. There are so many ways to do it.


Picture of Nick SturmNick Sturm: I am agreeing completely with Wendy, especially re:bagels, which is to say that my disjunctive-mess-made-experience interaction with the world, how a poem takes my hand and leads me onto the dance floor of not-knowing-what-is-happening, is never something I do on my own. Collaborative poetry simply makes this explicit. But that’s not to say there are two (or more) people in every collaborative poem. I mean, more than one person writes the poem (do they?), but there’s someone/thing else there letting itself be known, teaching us new dance moves, putting the cream cheese on the bagel a way we’ve never seen. It’s an exciting thing to be witness to; it’s liberating. Though this doesn’t mean you’re less “responsible” for the poem, or that it’s easier to collaborate than to write on your own, because it certainly isn’t, but if I’m on the phone with a poem and someone else picks up on the other line, all of a sudden there are a lot more things we can talk about. The day just got way more interesting.

I don’t know how aware either of us were when we were writing, but I think the poems raise those kind of questions, like thinking about the plural “I,” acknowledging the contradictions of authorship and being or not being a singular person, and how those ideas relate to friendship and knowing/not knowing who we are in relation to those friends. Those are fun things to play with. Important things.

WX: Nick, you are making me hungry. You are also making me think that bagels and cream cheese really is a good example for all this, or food in general and the culture of sharing a meal with someone you love. You can eat to stay alive, or you can choose to sit down at a table across from someone else and the act becomes something entirely transcendent. A bagel by itself is totally fine, and it is maybe just MY bagel, but if I borrow someone else’s cream cheese, then who gets to eat the finished product? I don’t own it anymore. You don’t own it. It is just a delicious snack we made together and are subsequently obligated (privileged!) to share. And maybe later when we’re full, we’ll go dancing.

Tell us about your forthcoming collaboration. How did it come about? What was your process?

NS: Like all good things, the origin of these poems was a gchat conversation Wendy and I were having about serial poems. I said something about serial poems being fun, but how I felt like I was always writing serial poems. And Wendy said something about not being born, which was the correct response, and I was like, yep, there’s a series title, but I’m not going into this alone. Then all of a sudden there were thirty-something poems and I’m not completely sure how it happened. I do know that I’ve never had more fun writing poems than during this process. It was something we were both doing continually throughout the day, sending things back and forth from Massachusetts and Ohio, and, without talking about it directly, both of us just kept going. There was no plan at all. It was so great! And motivating! And really, it made Wendy and I closer. Poetry is always an intimate experience. All good poems acknowledge and give in to this, but collaboration isn’t possible without the willingness of those involved to sacrifice their ego and give in to the possibilities of what happens when you let another person’s poem-heart lead yours.  

WX: I love the internet. And I love gchat and I love that I can be on it and say things to people who are not next to me. That is the understatement of the year, I think, re: why the internet is great. But what I mean is, I use the internet for so much bullshit everyday. So when something that is objectively not-bullshit comes out of my using of it, it feels really special. Nick is a very special thing on the other end of my daily internet usage, so when weird poem fragments pushed their way into our conversations, I felt compelled to see what could happen.

As I’m sitting here now asking myself “but really, what was our process?” all I’m thinking is how our collaboration, any poetry collaboration, is about continuing to be a person living a life filtered into, but more through, the language of poems. Which is to to say that whatever filter you were using, you let someone else be it for a while. You let someone else hurl language and feelings at you and drip them all over your eyeballs and you say “ok,” you say “that is fine and good.” And fuck, the world really does become different and more gorgeous for it.

For me, this collaboration really came at a time when I needed to give a giant middle finger to the fear that poetry was a lonely thing. I don’t believe that anything that is ordinary is ordinary if you can find someone else to marvel at it with you–I think that so much of this collaboration is a back or forth of 1) someone saying LOOK AT THAT! I AM INTO IT! and 2) the other person affirming those very important kinds of feelings. I mean, sometimes it feels so hard just to meet a person who will say to you “yes, I see you, I hear you, I believe in you and you are worth my time, I believe in what you believe because you believe in it.” Reading poems gives me that feeling, and the act OF reading them is a way of saying that to another person, but I think the process of writing these poems was a way of affirming that more explicitly between ourselves. I have never felt more heard than while writing this book with Nick. And the process became an exercise of receiving a fragment of enthusiasm, and writing back as quickly as possible with acknowledgment, questions, and observations. These poems came to class with me, to the grocery store, to the movies, down to the bar for a beer. My life didn’t change at all except it changed completely.

How do you feel collaborating on poems changed your approach to your own poetry?

NS: I’m not sure I could point to it in any of the poems I’ve written since, but I know Wendy’s voice, her turns and syntax and diction, all of those things live inside me now in a way that I wouldn’t have access to if I had only been reading her poems. Really, my approach to my own poems changes every day. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But writing I Was Not Even Born was, like I said before, an amazing exercise in sacrificing my control for the sake of a bigger, more full-of-light thing: our poem. I think that’s something all poets are constantly dealing with. Though writing collaboratively, I think, helps one to retain that need more thoroughly.

Also, Wendy and I both write a lot of poems. This is no secret to our friends or to people who know or read our poems. I used to have an anxiety about writing too many poems, like maybe I should slow down and look at these longer. Make them “greater,” whatever that means. But I’d rather write twenty new poems than spend a month “perfecting” one poem. Not that I don’t revise; I do. Though one should never take for granted the energy that comes into being every time a new poem is written. I thrive on that. I write my life through it. Writing these poems with Wendy made me more okay with that way of approaching writing. We gave ourselves over to these poems and they belong to themselves and the world and the moment they were made in. They’re not ours to own and alter.

 WX: “ … [the collab poems] belong to themselves and the world and the moment they were made in”

Yes! That is what I want to say too. That is what I love most about collaborative writing, and that is the thing that has changed most within my own writing.

I remember at some point after the manuscript was finished, I went back through and read all the poems in one sitting. And something happened that made me so happy–I had a lot of trouble identifying who wrote what. There are things I read that I immediately thought “that is so not a ME thing to write,” but it was, and vice versa. And that is the thing. They poems are not authored by me or Nick, but a strange phantom voice, a ghost “I” that doesn’t exist outside of the collaboration. I would imagine most poetry collaborators feel this way! When I turn back to my own poems after thinking about this, I feel very free. I am also not the sole author of my poems, and I feel that uncontrollable forces have more strength than I thought. Learning to sacrifice some control in poems is a forever-task, but I Was Not Even Born helped me on my way.

Were journals receptive to your collaborative poems? Do you feel most journals approach collaboration with an open mind?

NS: We’ve been really fortunate to have a number of these poems published in wonderful places like La Petite Zine, Redivider, Phoebe, Beecher’s, Country Music, and others. So yeah, journals were receptive. Collaboration has never been off the radar of most people in poetry, but over the last few years collaborative work has definitely had a resurgence of popularity. I think that’s a sign of incredible health for poetry, especially among younger poets. I think this has to do with how the spirit of collaboration is ubiquitous in the contemporary poetry community, from small chapbook presses to new journals to the ever-increasing network of reading series across the country. No one person is in charge, everybody is sharing and growing, so it makes sense that collaborative poems would be thriving.

WX: Journals were so kind and receptive, and it was like being served a second slice of cake after already eating a very delicious piece of cake. I like what Nick says above about the spirit of collaboration being ubiquitous in contemporary poetry. I mean, can you imagine being staunchly anti-collaboration in general, in 2012, in the landscape of poetry? That would be so nonsense. And thank goodness it is not that way! Collaboration is everything, it is kindness and it’s everywhere in poetry, and we are so lucky to be alive inside it.

How did you approach submitting and publishing the poems?

NS: I apologize for this not being interesting at all. Submitting is usually pretty fun for me (confession of a poetry dork), but talking about it after the fact is hardly exhilarating. It was super simple: we each took half of the poems, made lists of where we’d send them so as not to overlap, and went about it. I think the acceptance rate was pretty similar for both of us. (I wish this answer had more to do with bears.) We were both ecstatic when Bruce Covey decided to publish I Was Not Even Born as a chapbook through Coconut Books early next year. One of the things that’s been great about the publishing process for these poems has been sharing the happiness of publication with another person. It was a constant party.

WX: Ditto party. Ditto the process of submission not being any more or less exciting than usual, but the e-highfiving afterwards being outta control! Being able to split the work of submitting individual poems from the manuscript was a practical bonus I didn’t even think about in the beginning. It was so rewarding time after time to report back, to say “hey, I hope that sandwich you are eating is delicious, and our poem found another home.” It was so special. It invigorated me to submit more, because I was accountable to the poems but more importantly to another person. It was Nick’s good idea to split the poems in half and cross-reference our submissions with each other. I would not have thought to do that, and a few dozen journals might have been very angry when we double submitted. That’s the other unforseen advantage of collab writing–when you are half-awake in the morning spooning yogurt into your face, there is someone else in Ohio who is undeniably more on-top-of-their-shit than you to look after the poems.

What sort of collaborative projects could you see yourself taking on in the future? Any last minute tips you might give to writers considering collaborative work?

NS: Right now I’m in the middle of a collaborative project with the great Carrie Lorig involving simultaneous erasures of paperback biographies of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It’s been pretty rad, and frightening. Look for it in the world as the campaign season heats up.

As far as advice: if you wake up and want to do it, do it. I honestly don’t know how other people have started collaborative work, but it does take some bravery to get things going. It might fail, it might not. Either way, I think you just have to want to have fun. And to eat bagels.

WX: I’ve been working on a collab-thing-series with Leora Fridman, and it’s completely weird and fun and completely different. But the same spirit is there. And if it wasn’t, I’d bail in a second, and I know she would too. I think as it relates to I Was Not Even Born, it will always be the collab with Nick that allowed me to understand why collaborative writing is so important to me. This is getting dangerously close to a collab-virginity joke, but here goes: I Was Not Even Born showed me the ropes, and it was a hilarious and powerful experiment where I broadened my personal definition of what poetry can do. And I am a different person because of it, and I have Nick Sturm to thank.

As for tips: if you aren’t writing collaboratively, as Nick said, do it if you want. And if you do, and are, and you stop having any fun: quit immediately. I really stand by the idea that it MUST be enjoyable first and foremost. Get prepared to know your co-collaborator really well, and to go into weird uncomfortable amazing poetry depths with them. There is light down there. Grab their hand. Squeeze once for courage. Pack some snacks, and poem your face off.