The Lyric “I” as a Conversation: On Collaborative Poetry and the Fiction of the Single Speaker

Guess-Olszewska-CoverRecent years have seen an ever-increasing preoccupation with the ownership of literary texts, a desire to claim everything from lived experience to pieces of language and literary forms. One might argue that this proprietary approach to writing may be linked to an artistic tradition that has for so long privileged a definition of the lyric that allows for only a single speaker, who is charged with portraying shared experience without another voice to strike sparks against. As a result, the “I” is almost always made to claim what is communal as his or her own. This very individualistic approach to the lyric, and its prevalence within contemporary literary circles, has fostered a culture that values the articulation of one’s own ideas over simply listening, a single voice over dialogue and conversation, and ownership over rewarding artistic exchange.

With that said, three recent books of collaborative poetry remind us that, as Marianne Moore rightly argued, poetry is not just speech, but rather, an attempt to listen and respond. Carol Guess and Daniela Olszewska’s How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents, Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito’s Bright Power, Dark Peace, and Noah Eli Gordon, Noah Saterstrom, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Figures for a Darkroom Voice each offer a lyric “I” that is at once plural and singular, that proactively blurs the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, viewer and viewed. They offer a vision of the self that is essentially relational, a self that is inextricable from the other.

It is no coincidence that such a radical shift in the lyric has arisen out of collaboration. As Adriana Caverero argued in a recent study of vocal expression, all of speech is a collaborative act, voice itself being a social construct. Indeed, it is only possible to speak in response to other voices. Even in isolation, one remains in constant dialogue with the shared narratives, cultural symbols, and various ephemera that populate the psyche. As a result, one might understand collaborative texts like How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents, Bright Power, Dark Peace, and Figures for a Darkroom Voice as a microcosm, a metaphor for what Mikhail Bakhtin so aptly described as a “dialogic consciousness.”


*          *          *


Now get on a plane. Arrive in Iceland. Discover that Icelandic horses are fuzzy and fussy, and live in red barns. They graze for hours, draped in blue blankets. Horses in their dreams are clouds.

Pet your Icelandic horse gently. Call it “Sigrid” or “Astrid.” Feed it some hay…


In How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents, Carol Guess and Daniela Olszewska take up WikiHow as their source text, a choice that suits their project perfectly. In much the same way that Wikipedia and its companion sites afford us a collective voice that is at turns reliable and utterly strange, a voice that is both familiar and deeply unsettling, these writers have constructed a lyric “I” that is as singular as it is polyphonic and multifaceted.

As the book unfolds, Guess’s voice blends seamlessly with Olszewska’s, and perhaps it is this turn away from the fiction of the single speaker that allows an altogether thought-provoking approach to lyric address, and the logic, assumptions, and hierarchies that govern it, to emerge. The lyric becomes a dialogue between parts of the self and parts of consciousness, and the self is revealed as world.

What does this make possible, then?


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I remember you now.

You were the stranger beside me, waiting in line at the airport. We watched a wall of water crumple cars, bury houses. The airport was made of glass. We watched our city drowning past…


Guess and Olszewska’s collection calls our attention to the constant presence of the other within the self, within consciousness, and in one’s most solitary moments. As the poems drift between discourses, registers, and vastly different textures of language, it becomes clear that all of these types of rhetoric, however dissimilar they may seem, are an integral part of the speaker’s own voice. While certain pieces of found language within the work may seem more real or more authentic than others, they are deeply embedded within the speaker, even if only so that she may define herself in opposition.

For Guess and Olszewska, there is really no such distinction as “self” or “other.” Rather, there is appropriation, re-appropriation, and recasting of text that circulates within a shared cultural imagination. When we engage the tradition of the lyric, it is inevitably an act of theft.

As Andrea Rexilius rightly states, “To be human is to be a conversation.” And in a lively discussion, there is no greater satisfaction than to witness a transformation of language you once thought was your own.


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Standing in the aisle like a broken tulip,
you search for a history. What happened
to your self from six years ago, and why 

can’t you remember the title of the book
that says a word once divided land from sea,
light from shadow? Every story is a door…


Much like Guess and Olszewska’s book, Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito’s Bright Power, Dark Peace offers a collective voice that seamlessly blends what might seem like very different sets of interests and writerly aesthetics. In many ways, it is difference that makes this collaborative text possible. As the book unfolds, one sees Brimhall and Saito push each other to take risks, make leaps, and forge connections that would not be possible for a writer working within isolation. While Saito and Brimhall choose not to include process notes in the collection, one could plausibly argue that this project was completed line by line, as each line reads as an invitation, an aperture, a thread to be picked up and woven by someone else’s hand.

An empty train station. A temple lit by a low flame. A history that is at turns hidden and revealed. In Bright Power, Dark Peace, the lyric imagination makes possible an entire world. It is these writers’ ability to embrace what they do not know about this imagined country, and to leave unturned what the other has hidden beneath its seemingly unremarkable stones, that strikes sparks within the reader’s imagination.

What, then, sustains this beautiful fiction? What laws, what rules?


*          *          *

When you stepped from the burning dream
and into the city’s grass heart, the world
returned to you with blood on its hands.

You sat down among the crests
of jasmine and took what was yours—
the knotted vine, wet with nectar…


What is perhaps most interesting about Brimhall and Saito’s collaboration is the rules that govern it. They present a provocative fragmentation of voice, a dismantling of the single speaker, in the context of inherited literary forms. Within pristine couplets, tercets, and quatrains, the very tradition that they represent, and its assumptions about the human voice, are interrogated and undermined.

With that in mind, Saito and Brimhall work within the lyric tradition, and its repertoire of literary forms, to expand to what is possible within them. Unlike so many contemporary experimental poets who wish to simply discard tradition and its discontents, these writers retain some degree of respect, even reverence, for their literary inheritance. At the same time, they remind us that it is possible to work within the confines of our artistic heritage to render it more pluralistic, more inclusive, as a result, more true.


*          *          *


unnamed a task rigidity disappearing

excuse for notice with swarm hailing

roped above held welded is where marks mar holding

knocked & arrives yellow summer follows turns white & black….


Noah Eli Gordon, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and Noah Saterstrom’s Figures for a Darkroom Voice offers a similar blurring of voices and writerly aesthetics. At the same time, the dynamic changes to some extent when text and image intersect. Because the project involves two writers and a visual artist, who contributes magnificent drawings in response to their poems, one might argue that it becomes possible to separate, even if only in part, self from other, and viewer from viewed.

So what happens when independence, to some extent, becomes inevitable within a collaborative text?   In Figures for a Darkroom Voice, this innovative and cross-disciplinary approach calls our attention to the illusory nature of artistic autonomy, as well as the rhetoric of originality that still dominates many avant-garde circles. As one attempts to separate Saterstrom’s work from the poetry that populates the book, and vice versa, they become even more intricately connected.

The drawings remain provocatively inscrutable apart from the poetry, and it is Saterstrom’s artistry that challenges the writers to make wildly unexpected associative leaps. Thus the voice within the text remains as singular as it is multiple, as focused and as clear as it is expansive.


*          *          *

brother of the ironing board, of the phonebox wires, we
found him awake, the straw in
his pink mouth…


This piece appears after an enigmatic drawing of a priest in an empty hospital ward. As startling as they are necessary, these moments of disconnect within the collaboration, these fissures and gaps, leave room for the reader’s imagination. In this sense, the text becomes not only a conversation between Saterstrom, Wilkinson, and Gordon, but also, an invitation to the reader. The audience is invited to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work, creating a more egalitarian model of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience.

The author is no longer in the privileged position of actively creating meaning, then handing it over to a reader who passively accepts it. Within this innovative text, both the artist and his or her audience participate actively in the process of creating a world, and finding significance within it.


*          *          *


A boundary dismantled, the gate unlatched.

In a process note, which accompanies her contribution to Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad’s anthology of collaborative poetry, Saints of Hysteria, Olga Broumas writes, “Collaboration is compassion.” And there is no greater act of compassion than leaving room for the other to speak.

There is no greater act of compassion than listening.



Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry and hybrid prose.  Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, and the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Ora Lerman Trust, and the Rockefeller Archive Center.  She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.