Poetry and Collaboration: Joshua Beckman & Matthew Rohrer
In September 2002, Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer published a book of collaborative poems called Nice Hat. Thanks (Verse Press). For the entire month of October, Beckman and Rohrer went on an extensive national tour, reading from the book and also performing live improvised poems. The following is a description, written collaboratively, of the origins of the Nice Hat. Thanks. project.
The Collaborative Project
We got together in the early spring of 2002 and walked around New York City with a tape recorder, going variously to parks, piers, and different neighborhoods to record collaborative works, which we planned to transcribe later. Initially, we tried to write in traditional forms, and it seemed to make sense that those forms would be some sort of guiding principle that would help us along. We had been listening to some old recordings of Kenneth Koch and Allen Ginsberg collaborating in this way at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. We tried rhyming poems and collaborative free verse, but it was all dreadful. We kept searching for something that would give us the structure and propulsion an improvised, oral poem needed. Eventually we became interested in shorter forms like haiku and tanka, and then we hit on the idea of writing a poem word by word, with one of us saying a word, and the other adding a word or, instead of a word, punctuation. While the shorter poems were done line by line, all of the long poems in Nice Hat. Thanks. were written this way.
The only rule we gave ourselves was that when one's turn came, one could say either a word or use punctuation (and later, parts of words). As we got more comfortable with the back-and-forth exchange, the process became as much about challenging each other as it was about helping each other complete the poem. For instance, a phrase that, were it printed out afterwards on the page would read "weirdly eyeing" was actually made by adding suffixes and such to each other's words, so that the content of the phrase was constantly shifting, like this: "we / 're / d / ly / I / ing".
Our Own Work
Of course, pretty soon our collaborative work had an effect on our own writing. The most obvious effect was that, during the months we were working on these oral collaborative poems, we each wrote more on our own than we had ever done before. The energy of the project and the drastic change in our compositional process opened us up to experimenting with what we were writing individually. We also really got an inoculation against failure, or at least against the dread of failure, because there is no question that you are going to fail if you perform live improvisational poems. And it sounds obvious to say this but you learn from those failures. The most important thing collaboration taught us was to see more clearly the patterns and ruts we each fall into in our own work. It is nearly impossible to disguise your little personal clichés when you are writing a poem word by word with someone else.
How the Process Became a Book
In the very beginning, there was a sense that we were two poets hanging out doing things and why not hang out and do something that we both liked to do—which was writing poetry. So we just started writing poems together and didn't think about the typical publishing concerns at all. A very important part of our process was about moving away from those concerns and instead focusing on our collaborative efforts. And even though we have now published a book, the way we think about the whole project is still, and always has been based on the process. The book is in a way a catalog of the process or maybe a musical score. It is there to point to how we did things and what came out of it. Our hope is that the book brings to the reader's mind the animated quality of the process of writing poems.
The Idea of Collaboration
We've always been interested in collaboration and the idea that being an artist or a writer in a community becomes a form of collaboration—not just working in dialogue with people, but actually writing with them. We also thought of our audiences as collaborators. When we were giving a reading, we'd ask the audience to give suggestions for each of the poems. In one way, it brought the audience much more deeply into the poems and into the tension we feel as writers—the uncertainty at the beginning of writing a poem. Allowing that to happen, or allowing ourselves to be tested in that way, was a way of relinquishing certain amounts of authority a poet usually holds to tightly, and challenged us to make poems differently than we otherwise would have. We wanted to say, "poets can act like this." A lot of people responded by saying, "oh wow, this has never happened before, this is so new," when the truth is, there is a long history of collaborations like this. However, the fact that they thought of what we were doing as something new made us want to demonstrate even more that this was a possibility for poetry.
Some people want to think of what we're doing as comedic, and they want to imagine that what we are doing, because it gets laughs, is for laughs. When, in fact, most people are not just laughing at our jokes but at the absurdity of the position in which we've put ourselves. And we in turn can't help but relate that to the absurdity of the position we put ourselves in by becoming poets. Everyday we are trying to do these things with language on our own and when we stand up there in front of people and try and do it, it is funny.
On the Road
The tour was very gratifying, because we were able to push ourselves and come up with a whole new body of work. It was a thrill to see the way audiences responded with amazement at our process. When our editor came up with the idea of putting out a book, he said explicitly that we had to do a big tour because he wanted people to witness how the poems were made. For us, the tour was a chance not to show what we had done, but to see what we could do. We ended up going to about twenty-three states, the District of Columbia, and back to all five boroughs of New York City. We set up readings anywhere. We read at universities and bookstores, we got heckled at a bar in Nashville, we collaborated with musicians, we read in people's houses, we read at a brunch in Cincinnati, a warehouse in Massachusetts, and at Harvard University. We really just decided to bring our work everywhere we could. We drove about 4000 miles, crashed a truck, flew to the West Coast and then drove the West Coast. We had the idea or the hope that we were both seeing the world and spreading the word. And every time we left a place we would get great emails from people—they would say, "after you left we all went out to a bar and got drunk and made poems the way you do." And we thought, okay, that's the best response we could ask for.