Unicycle Slipstreams and Making Camels: Collaborating During a Pandemic

My favourite part of the collaborative process is right when the pieces begin to fit—when you reach that place where the poem opens up—and it’s a collective moment, not a lonely and individual one.

*

I leave Sean a voicemail. I have a conversation with Hannah. In both examples, I address someone. When I talk with Hannah, I hear back. This is what I say when asked about collaboration.

When I write by myself, I am responding to someone and addressing someone but am alone in my room. When I collaborate, a voice answers back.

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Poets like to say stupid poet things like “every poem is political” or “every poem is a love poem”. Poets like to seem smart.

But maybe there’s something in the idea that every poem is a collaboration. Poetry can’t happen without context. Tell someone who has never read a poem or even heard of poetry before: write a poem. Maybe you could make an argument that what ends up on their paper is a poem (that would be another stupid poet thing to say), but it isn’t—it just isn’t. You have to see or hear a poem and understand a piece of what it is in order to write one.

My first collaborators were Johns Donne and Keats. They helped me write a lot of those early poems. My current collaborators are Anne and Hannah. You win some, you lose some.

Working together makes the collaborative nature of poetry evident. We are the ones prompting and the ones being prompted. The boundaries between us blur. We become one I arguing back and forth with I-selves.

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In January 2017, we went to Dublin in a conscious effort to bond ahead of a team poetry slam. As it turns out, Sean and Anne had already bonded rather well: they had been secretly dating for months. Either I was very unobservant, or they were very good actors. I had no idea.

I sometimes joke that I was third-wheeling, but it didn’t really feel like that and still doesn’t. True, one cannot possibly be on entirely equal footing with a couple, but let me stretch the wheel metaphor: if Sean and Anne are a bicycle, I’d like to think I am a unicycle, happily wobbling in parallel—an independent vehicle rather than a superfluous extension.

How much further can I drag this? Well, if we are bikes and/or unicycles, we are in a race of some sort, but we are on the same team. Certainly, we benefit from each other’s slipstreams. The more people gather into a peloton, the faster everyone travels. Sometimes we aim for podium spots, sometimes simply for personal bests, and it is very unsportsmanlike to elbow someone into the path of an oncoming car.

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You could put the five most talented people at any one craft all on the same project, but what would come out almost certainly wouldn’t be the best product. Chemistry matters more than talent. The talent comes organically. Everyone rises to the level of the most talented, forcing them to try even harder. You can’t do that with chemistry. You can’t force it. You could probably cultivate it over a long period of time. Maybe we just got lucky.

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I would have never incorporated singing—not only something I’m awful at but something which legitimately terrifies me—into a performance had it not been for these two. People who take risks and push their crafts force you to take risks and push your craft. Not being the only person responsible for an experience gives me permission to take more chances and not worry about failures as much—to even look forward to the opportunity to learn some things from them.

*

I didn’t know Zoom existed until the pandemic—like how Among Us has been around for years, but people only started playing it recently. And now I’m paying money for this thing which is just some glorified version of a service which almost certainly has a free counterpart somewhere online, but it makes working with other people enough more convenient that it falls into that category of things which aren’t so important on their own as to warrant the time spent researching alternatives. That time needs to go to my poetry.

And it has been more convenient. It feels like a place you enter, somewhat sacred. I’ve not heard the others (or anyone) talk about it in that way. Most of the impressions you get make it seem like people look at Zoom as this thing from the professional world which creative communities are stealing for the moment. But, to me, it doesn’t stick out as being out-of-place or borrowed from the kinds of people who attend business meetings in skyscrapers, playing on phones instead of watching PowerPoints.

The major drawback of something like Zoom and having to collaborate in a pandemic is not being able to take cues from body language. You work with people so long, you begin to understand the slight changes in their voices and how their sitting positions give you information about when to elaborate and when to shut up. People think in specific ways. I tilt my head up and slightly to the left. My speech comes out slower and slower the older I get—not because the thoughts take longer to form but because the right words in the right order matter a lot more to me than they used to. It’s easier to understand that about me when you’re in front of me. You can see things coming together in my mouth before they manifest. Much tougher on Zoom. Much tougher, too, to figure out the rhythm and timing of speech, since we’re at the mercy of respective wireless connections. When it comes to the creative work, so much of what we do is about timing, either in performance or knowing when to put the right emphasis on the paper. Zoom, or whatever, takes that away—dangles it close enough that you keep thinking you’ll be able to grab it, but it never works out that way.

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In an undergraduate editing class, the teacher was showing us a picture of camels taken from space. Instead of seeing the camels, we were looking at their shadows stretched out in the sun.

Yesterday I re-watched Parks and Recreation. In one episode, the characters compete to come up with a design to replace a defaced mural. They can’t decide on any one design and so sections are cut from all of them and stuck together to make a new mural.

“You made a camel”, Mark says. “You never heard that saying? A camel is actually a horse designed by a committee. And what you guys have here is one ugly camel.”

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Camels haunt me. Camels probably don’t haunt me. It’s probably just another stupid thing for a poet to say.

But collaborating is a bit like making camels. When we write, we all aim for a horse, but Sean’s is a cob, Hannah’s is a baroque, and mine is Li’l Sebastian. When we write, we end up with a Frankenstein’s Camel of the three.

The longer we work together, the more we understand each other’s horses, and so our camels become streamlined: the nose lengthens, the hump flattens, the hooves are shod.

When I write by myself, my poem may end up as the horse I envisioned. But it won’t have Hannah’s easy rhymes or Sean’s wry wit. So, we choose to write together and produce camel-horses that may be lopsided and imperfect but contain us all. The longer we write, the better we get and the more we want to get better.

The best quality for this is determination. My mother calls this stubbornness. The three of us are stubborn enough.

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