All too often, poets insist on claiming complete ownership over the texts they create. This kind of proprietary gesture is somewhat surprising, given the artistic tradition we have inherited. Literary practitioners since Homer’s time have envisioned poetic voice as an alterity that speaks through the individual, and for this reason, the act of writing affords them little or no agency, let alone ownership over the work.
This belief that the writer is merely a vehicle has taken many forms. For Homer, it is the muse that speaks through the poet, his texts frequently beginning with an attempt to summon her. Jack Spicer, on the other hand, described literary works as radio transmissions from outer space, the individual serving only as a transistor. And H.D. envisioned poetic voice as yet another manifestation of the unconscious mind, which surfaces, takes shape, and slowly crystallizes during the composition process.
Three recent collaborative texts remind us of this rich, diverse, and subversive tradition that links poetic voice and alterity. Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney’s The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere To Go, Carol Guess and Kelly Magee’s With Animal, and G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher’s Your Father on the Train of Ghosts each begin as dialogues between two writers with somewhat different aesthetics. Yet collaboration affords a rhetorical space in which a third voice emerges, belonging to both of the authors and neither one of them. These writers provocatively envision voice as a collective endeavor, as it is the presence of a community that speaks through the individual. Appearing in the midst of a culture populated by claims of writerly intent, these innovative projects offer a necessary excavation of a literary heritage that privileges spontaneity, surprise, and wonder.
What does this make possible, then?
* * *
The silverware floating past. The caught glimpses
of napkins. And look how calm we are.
Look at our beauty...
At the beginning of G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher’s lyric collaboration, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, the reader will encounter two distinct voices, which at turns address, respond to, and appropriate from one another. Although conversational in structure, the book affords each writer some autonomy within the project as a whole, particularly as they contribute whole poems, rather than lines or stanzas.
What’s truly fascinating about the work is the way that this autonomy slowly dissipates. Not only do the two voices become more and more indistinguishable as they draw from a common vocabulary of images, but they are revealed as wholly interdependent. After all, when it is only possible to speak in response to another voice, how can one ever claim ownership over a literary text?
As the book unfolds, Waldrep and Gallaher prompt us to consider the lyric as a kind of collective consciousness, and it is this shared aesthetic imagination that allows poetic voice to emerge. The terms of lyric address become increasingly intertwined with the internal logic of the luminous and disconcerting world that these two poets have constructed. Here, the landscape may look hospitable, but more often than not, something is slightly off. The reader begins to sense that “there should be sirens, the almost surgical glare/of TV cameras.” Familiar domestic scenes are revealed as uncanny, delightfully strange, and nearly always volatile.
For Waldrep and Gallaher, speech arises out of this hypothetical, and deeply unsettling, fictive topography. Aesthetic imagination makes possible an entire world, and as a result, the boundaries between interior and exterior are slowly dismantled. We are made to see voice as a social construct, a chorus that arises from one’s interactions with many different types of language and cultural texts. And so the other is revealed as an ever-present part of the self.
Who is speaking, then? And to whom?
A kind of clarity rises, like leaving a room, going
and coming back. It forms a narrative
where the goal is to count the bodies,
to make them into furniture...
Throughout the collection, we are made to see consciousness itself as dialogic in nature. After all, without another voice to respond to, there would be nothing to strike sparks against. What’s more, this idea that to be human is to be a conversation is enacted in the work’s smallest stylistic choices. The boundaries between narrators, texts, and individual poems become increasingly porous as the work unfolds. We gradually see that it is the other that speaks through the poet, that makes possible the lyric “I,” that illuminates the individual voice.
Although we begin with two distinct speakers, a third voice also emerges, belonging to both of the poets and neither one of them. It is this third speaker that embodies, perhaps more than any other aspect of the collection, the notion that poetic voice is an entity that remains, at least in part, external to the individual. As a result, one retains only some agency over the text, its internal logic, and its larger implications. While one might wonder why relinquishing the idea of control would seem attractive, this gesture makes possible a creative practice that privileges not only spontaneity, but also, humility and collective achievement, rather than remaining focused solely on the individual.
With that in mind, this thought-provoking collaboration may be read as a corrective gesture, offered in response to a literary culture that remains focused on questions of writerly intent. An intervention into an environment in which the poem is envisioned as the product of introspection and singular personal insight, rather than being seen as a dialogue, a conversation, a confluence. Here the work of art is revealed as a collective endeavor, one in which all of culture participates, and in which the reader is implicated.
And so Waldrep and Gallaher call into question a thoroughly nineteenth-century model of the relationship between an artist and his or her audience. The writer is no longer the only active agent, dolling out meaning to an audience that passively accepts it. It is the reader that actualizes the literary text, particularly as he or she is prompted to forge connections between the disparate voices, images, and textures of language that populate the work. The collection offers not only an exchange between two writers, but also, a collaboration between the poets and their audience. The text becomes an alterity that speaks through the reader, that transforms and is transformed by the reader.
Now the children whisper.
Distant figures trace names in the snow.
Where do we go from here?
* * *
The change appeared like the onset of a fever. Her skin ached. Her legs threatened collapse...
In their recent collaboration, With Animal, Carol Guess and Kelly Magee engage similar questions about the nature of voice. Much like Waldrep and Gallaher’s collection, the two writers’ aesthetics ultimately blur as a single voice emerges from the collaboration. Yet Guess and Magee prompt us to consider several new and truly fascinating questions: If collaboration affords an interstitial space in which an alterity speaks through the individual writer, what responsibilities does the individual have with respect to a larger community? What does this liminal place, and the emergence of a shared aesthetic consciousness, make possible for activism? Can collaborative texts, and the collective speaker that emerges, give voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless? As Guess and Magee consider these questions, they do not pretend to offer a succinct answer, but rather, refine the question, refract it, and complicate it with each provocative syntactic rupture, and each strange dreamscape that these two gifted writers traverse.
Structured as a series of hybrid genre texts, each of which depicts a woman pregnant with a different type of animal, the work ultimately asks us to reconsider the boundaries we have constructed between self and other. More specifically, we are made suddenly aware of the ways in which we have othered the natural world and its inhabitants. The collective voice that emerges from Guess and Magee’s collaboration, then, questions this construction of nature as other, while at the same time offering a graceful matching of style and content. Just as the sheep, dragons, and jellyfish that populate the collection are revealed as part of each narrator’s conventionally human nuclear family, this dismantling of boundaries between self and other is enacted in the style of the work itself as a single voice emerges from Guess and Magee’s collaborative practice. And so the lyric “I,” and the psychic terrain out of which it arises, are both revealed as porous, volatile, and inherently unstable.
Now the doors have been thrown open. It seems that everyone speaks with a new humility.
But isn’t all this too beautiful to be true?
Without a word she fixed her hair and we walked into the lunchroom as if nothing had changed....
In many ways, Guess and Magee envision collaboration, and the subsequent emergence of a shared consciousness, as a kind of ideal. Much like Waldrep and Gallaher’s book, With Animal offers us an intricately imagined world, and it is out of this luminous fictive landscape that voice emerges. For Guess and Magee, this topography is simultaneously utopian and dystopian, as the presence of a collective consciousness affords both possibilities and dangers. If the individual retains little agency over this shared aesthetic imagination, and the world that emerges, who is responsible for the events that come to pass? Who will hold its inhabitants accountable for their transgressions?
Guess and Magee do not pretend do have a concise answer, but rather, they allow the possibilities to proliferate, to multiply, to complicate one another. The alterity that speaks through the individual, which makes possible lyric address and a shared aesthetic imagination, gives rise to both beauty and horror. As the boundaries between self and other are dismantled, transcendence is revealed as both necessary and deeply unsettling for the many characters that populate this collection.
Now the same room, its small terrors.
What happens when we unlock the door?
* * *
Beware of people whose motto is “No regrets.” They are violent innocents. Ravaged by love.
I want a point of view that isn’t mine…
Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert’s The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere To Go, much like With Animal and Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, offers a seamless merging of two distinct voices and writerly aesthetics. While these two writers choose not to include process notes with their recent collection, one might easily infer that they contributed individual lines, as each one reads as an invitation, a gate thrown open in anticipation of guests.
Taking the form of prose poems and lyric strophes, the work frequently returns to the notion of strangeness, offering an insightful meditation on the uncanny nature of this ongoing presence of the other within the self. The reader, too, is implicated as he or she tries and fails to separate self from other, art from its audience, and viewer from viewed. As the book unfolds, we are made to experience ourselves as foreign, to consider the dim spaces within our own consciousness over which we retain little agency or ownership. For Gabbert and Rooney, this notion of the self as strange becomes a source of great wit, irony, and humor. Because so many contradictions, complexities, and disparate fragments are housed within the individual, her voice cannot help but give rise to laughter.
Everyone goes through a weird stage, and later, a stage of romanticizing weirdness.
The moon, asteroids, planets with names—this suite of destinations is no longer that weird. And one day soon, no one will find Pluto’s demolition weird...
In many ways, the laughter that arises within the text is itself an alterity that speaks through these writers, implicating the reader in mischief and irreverence. Helene Cixous once argued that humor is fundamentally illogical, resistant to narrative explication and rational analysis. For these reasons, she saw it as the beginnings of a revolution.
For these two writers, laughter makes possible the beginnings of a shared aesthetic consciousness, which resists conventional modes of thinking and writing. Their provocative dialogue gives rise to a lyric “I” that is difficult to situate within the existing economy of texts, a marketplace that undoubtedly assumes that a single individual will retain ownership over the work.
Here both writers inhabit this shared rhetorical space with great wit, spontaneity, and precision. Their subversion of logic and reason, their resistance to the commodification of language, remain a constant source of wonder, even more so as the audience is made to participate in their interventionist gesture. As the poems spark laughter, the alterity that speaks through Gabbert and Rooney, that gives rise to this third voice, begins to work through the audience as well. With each comedic moment, readers are made to partake in a subversive and mischievous community, made possible by a shared aesthetic imagination.
Like many other collaborative teams, Rooney and Gabbert’s collection embraces the spontaneous nature of conversation, allowing this surrender of agency to become a source of inspiration, surprise, and wonder. The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere To Go remains distinctive as its authors mine the unpredictable nature of their process for its potential humor. What’s more, the artful comedy that readers witness in this new book is as playful as it is provocative and philosophical.
For Rooney and Gabbert, the strangeness that they each encounter as their voices collide, and that the reader encounters throughout the text, offers an apt metaphor for the individual consciousness. As the book unfolds, we come to realize that only disparate fragments, echoes, and contradictions are housed within the individual subject. Thought is revealed as an attempt to unify these strange artifacts that are undoubtedly external to individual.
And if the mind is dialogic in nature, if thought is itself a conversation, will anything ever be familiar again?
* * *
A gate unlatched, and all of the doors left open.
Although vastly different in subject, form, and approach, these three collaborative texts remind of some of the greatest insights in modern philosophy. Just as Paul Ricoeur argued that we become truly human by participating in a community, these books show us, through form and artistic process as much as content, that it is the presence of a community that speaks through the individual poet.
As we begin to respond, the voice we hear is made strange, deeply unsettling, and somehow more beautiful than ever before.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in English Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.