“Chalk Song: A Conversation with Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, & Judson Evans about Collaborative Poetry & the Archive” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling: Your stunning collaboration was recently launched by Lily Poetry Review Books. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the poems themselves? 

First of all, thank you Kristina for giving us the opportunity to talk about our work! 

All three of us were part of a Writer’s Collective lead by John Yau in NYC where we focused on writing about visual art that resisted easy narrative description. The group started a press called Off the Park Press and invited writers to respond to artists such as Neo Rauch and Nicole Eisenman. When that group disbanded, we decided to continue writing together.  Gale had seen Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams – a film that offers multiple perspectives in an approach to understanding Paleolithic Cave Art, specifically wall paintings, largely of animals, at Chauvet Cave in southern France. We saw the film as a stimulus for the kind of writing we had already been doing.

The film is not a traditional straight documentary, more an essay-film in which the author/filmmaker asks questions through his camera, interviews, and voice-over commentary.  The result is haunting and evocative. (What is a Forgotten Dream?) Herzog interviews not just scientists, but paleontologists, music historians, and even a perfumier who finds caves by tracking odors. Likewise, he disrupts the sense of an all-knowing narrator by interjecting seemingly tangential episodes—a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow; an account of albino alligators proliferating at a power plant near the site. We felt that there was enormous room for using poetry as a kind of emotional-imaginative spectrometer to explore the echoes, auras, and images paleolithic humans left in the cave’s traces. The very nature of the film freed us from any obligation to recreate the film representationally. Herzog has spoken of what he calls “ecstatic truth” – not the “truth of accountants” but an artistic grasp that demands “fabrication and imagination and stylization.” (The Minnesota Declaration).   

KMD: Tell us about the mechanics of your collaboration. Did you write line by line? Or poem by poem? Were you composing in the same physical space, or across geographic boundaries? 

We decided early on to use the “call and response” method for our collaboration. Gale was in a chorus and was interested in how poems by individuals might be like the voice parts of a chorus, or like instruments in a symphony – echoing, clashing, harmonizing. We used words and phrases from one another’s poems. Sometimes a phrase that originated in one person’s poem, but was edited out, survived in another person’s poem. This created interesting reverberations.  An example of this is Judson’s Sundial Moraine. Much of this poem is borrowed from Gale or Susan, creating a cliff of falling phrases.  (see note 1.)   

The cave paintings are overlapping; they are marks/images drawn over thousands of years. Our poems are not written over thousands of years, but our phrases reverberate, from one poem to another. Unlike the cave painters, though, we were writing from different cities. A few times a year (and this is before Covid) we met in person to visit museums or places that were modern parallels to ancient caves.  (see note 2.)  I remember (Susan here) sitting on the floor of my office building, in a public corridor. The phone felt like a cave wall – a place for projection, connection.  It mediated distances, from me in a hallway, to Judson’s study, to Gale’s office. 

Writing apart from one another could have fed our subconscious choices. We felt the distance between us; the intimacy of our voices, via phone; that time was passing (we talked for 10 years); that our conversations were rare and irreplaceable. There were times when each of us decided to quit, worried that we were not holding up our end of the collaboration. Each time this happened we found that it was never just one of us who was feeling insecure.   

One of the most important themes of the book was that cave walls, to the cave painters, may have been like a membrane between worlds. We recognized that language is also a membrane between experience and expression; between reader and collaborator; between geographies; between the three of us writing from different cities.  (see note 3.) 

Chauvet Cave itself is now closed to visitors. The content of the caves is too fragile to be exposed to human breath.  We layered our modern experience over what we were learning. We realized that we could not know the past, only our present, but the two could exist simultaneously in our cave.

KMD: I’m impressed by your ability to blend collaborative writing and documentary poetics. Can you speak to the importance of moving beyond autobiography in co-authored collections? 

Judson: When you reference documentary poetics I think of work like Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, where actual documentary evidence—tables and charts—are incorporated into the poem, and where the poem’s project is investigative, where language cuts away from personal lyricism (though her work includes a very different kind of lyricism) and takes an interrogative role. I think our work might be said to be documentary in a different way. It took much reading, watching, thinking together to discover what the “cave,” and “cave wall/membrane” meant for us as an imaginative construct, as place to write “in.”

Just as vision-questers, or shaman, had multiple ways to enter the transformative space of the cave in paleolithic culture – through fasting and sensory deprivation; through intense rhythmic activity, percussion, song; through ingesting hallucinogenic drugs – we, in our much more conventional writerly ways, grabbed onto whatever facet or angle let us into the space. We drew upon documentary elements in the sense of referencing language, images, and scenes from Herzog’s film or from readings that offered scientific or anthropological dimensions of the cave or cave ritual; while in other instances, we played with the frame or form of documentary (see note 4.) Sometimes, the “way in” seemed to demand a push away from the self into the mineral facts, the sensory ingredients. (See Codex Collapse Syndrome or Lost Wax Method.) But sometimes elements of personal biography allowed an opening in the “membrane.” (See Mind in the Cave, Bow, Neanderthal Bromance.)

Susan: A self is a geography – communal, factual, imagined. The artists who drew in Chauvet Cave did not sign or own their drawings. Perhaps they were creating a shared experience (we can’t know this for certain.) They had no concept of autobiography, yet the paintings feel deeply personal. I have wondered what creates this feeling – and have concluded that: who I am will seep into everything I create (like watercolor); and every day I am changed by streets, people, clouds, microbes. Other voices overlap mine. I don’t exist without these. I hope to be like Herzog who does not allow his agenda to overwrite another’s history (the history of cave painters) – to be both an individual and to enjoy the gorgeous invasion of what interests me. The autobiography of myself must be a sea of shifting portraits and landscapes.

Gale: Of course we are interested in “stories” – our individual histories and how those informed our responses to the film; the stories of the painters, of the animals, of the stalactites and the frozen footprints in the cave; Herzog’s story and those of all the (myriad, quirky, lovely!) scientists and explorers in the cave.  But none of us are ever writing (in this book or otherwise) autobiographical, narrative work that is tightly pinned to a particular experience or moment in time, so we didn’t have to suppress any urge to include a poem that was strictly private or personal. In my poem, You Say, I draw upon the experience of a mosquito buzzing my ear – is that a personal, private memory? Sure, but it’s there only as an echo of what it means (what can it mean?) for a human to “say” anything about this experience of being human.

Also, we started the project with the shared experience of having watched the Herzog film. The whole point of the project was to write that story – what resonated for each of us in the film and in the cave, and the resonances that came out of that shared experience. We were writing first from that place and then, in echo and memory, back in time with our individual histories.

KMD: The poet Myung Mi Kim has often spoken about the importance of leaving room for the other to speak. With that in mind, what makes a good collaborator? How do you conceive of the ethics of collaboration? 

First and foremost, we embarked on this project because we admired and respected each other as poets, and we trusted each other to be honest, generous, and ambitious for each other in critiques of the poems. Someone once asked us what forms we used and the answer was that the only formal process we used was the intention of responding to each other’s work and the permission – imperative, really – to listen. We constantly read and re-read each other.  We developed an intimate sense of each other’s preoccupations, verbal gestures, personal vocabularies and influenced each other’s editing and revision.

Susan:  My process is messy. After someone has sensitively given me feedback, I might change a whole poem.  It takes a very open and patient person to be with my mind (thank you Judson and Gale.) When I think of leaving room for the other to speak, I think of this: “. . .when one human being tells another human what is ‘real,’ what they are actually doing is making a demand for obedience.  They are asserting that they have a privileged view of reality.”  Humberto Maturana, from David Bohm’s book, On Dialogue, p.xi

Gale: Collaboration has helped me to understand how much a reader, or a collaborator, inhabits my work and makes it their own – the many meanings they see, what they hear, how their experience shapes my meaning and what I am endeavoring to communicate. Meaning isn’t something I create or give to the poem – it arises out of that participation. And maybe they have stolen my words; surely, they have married my meaning.  So often Susan and Judson would comment on my poems, and I would be both mystified and enthralled by what they brought to the poems and what they took from them. I would think, “really, is that what this poem is about?” and I never doubted that indeed, for them, it was.

Judson: I know that in relation to issues of ethics, my experience over several years working with the great Japanese master of “renku” (linked verse) Tadashi Kondo, taught me that close in collaboration with others creates a “mandala,” as Tadashi called it, where the individual imaginations intersect. Each participant brings a different receptivity and set of key experiences and images to the whole gestalt that forms. There is, as in ritual, a way of reconstructing a world in community within the work. Renku with its progression of seasonal cycle, its set of inclusions and exclusions, has a structure that encourages each participant to draw something unique out of themselves, but also to subordinate the more urgent ego-driven imperatives to broader patterns of meaning. I felt something of this phenomenon in our work in Chalk Song.

KMD: Relatedly, what advice do you have for writers who are perhaps embarking on a first collaborative manuscript? 

Just start.  See what happens. Take time to allow things to happen. Be willing to let your collaborators interrogate your work, to echo or amplify it. Think or yourself as an explorer, a teacher, a student. Have all the answers and none of them. Even a singer performing a solo is enriched by those who have sung that song or note over years or centuries – even the songwriter herself who may have rehearsed alone is drawing on her history. And of course, poets are famous for stealing from their predecessors. So you already are a collaborator!

KMD: What else are you working on? What can readers look forward to?

We are working on a project that is called for now Homo –?, using our own variations on Latin names for Man and Woman. Some poem titles are:  Homo Thanatopsis, I Do Not Understand Blue, Homo-Head-in-Cloud. We are coming at this topic from many, many directions and these are still very open ended. This is how we start projects. The focal point will shift. The poems will eventually find a structure.

For now, we are interested in how the “human” has been named by scientists and philosophers. Take the term homo sapiens sapiens, for example. An anthropologist in Werner Herzog’s film strongly questions the appropriateness of this designation and substitutes homo spiritualis. Other thinkers have come up with names to highlight unique features of our species: Marx’s homo laborans or Johan Huizinga’s homo ludens.  (see note 5)

For fun, here are some lines from the poems, strung together: “The flowers you left/ were tampering my body/ that I do not understand. . .What is a body anyway? Flash and cloy, a brother’s dust. . .I have tried to remember/ dear farewell dear arrival. . .Take off my dog collar, my cock ring. . .I will send more bees/ into your meridian slipstream. . .we don’t appreciate anything that doesn’t/ die.  We are catenary blue caw counting/ the worry beads . . .”

Thank you Kristina! 

note 1 Susan based her last poem, Mutt D’Arc, on Gale’s first poem Chauvet Pont D’Arc (using her phrase “to say”— an idea that started the whole collaboration); but Gale edited this phrase out of Chauvet, to use it in the titles of Say and Let’s Say.  Gale and Judson created a resonating music about naming in Elegy in the Bevel and Lexicon.

note 2 As a part of our ongoing conversation, we did a bit of Show & Tell when any of us discovered something relevant, even if oblique. We looked at reconstructions of Muybridge images of bird flight, and at otoliths (symbols carved on rock). We read Bernadette Mayer/ Clark Coolidge’s The Cave, 1978, and Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse, 2003. We visited an exhibit of contemporary Chinese- American artists responding to scholar stones at the M.F.A in Boston; an exhibit of high-tech unreflective “black” pigments at the Harvard Fogg Museum; and Jasper John’s Gray Paintings at the MET (among other explorations.)

note 3 For this idea of the cave wall as a membrane see: Mind in the Cave, Combed Horses, Here Dreams a Curve of Cave Wall, Bow (which is the curve of the wall), Me and My Shadow.

note 4 See Field Entries, Dear Studio Anthropologist, or Judson’s use of a computer error message in Dauer Stage.

note 5 Scientific discourse (at least in its popularized forms) has used Neanderthals as the “other” against which to define homo sapiens and yet the goalposts keep moving as more and more cultural complexity is found in Neanderthal sites. The attempt to define homo sapiens has been contaminated by the need to find a lesser “other.” What if we discover that all the crayon outlines and boundaries, which we try to draw around ourselves, are artificial constructs—a kind of “human exceptionalism” that dissolves on close inspection?  Alva Noe has said that to try to find unique human consciousness by looking deeper and deeper into neuroscience is like trying to understand money by putting a dollar bill under a microscope. So where do we look to find a definition of ourselves?