Saturday, May 14, 2011

Six Degrees of Collaboration

Six Degrees of Collaboration:
An Essay on the Creative Process in the Second Person
by Scott Owens

(first published in Pirene's Fountain)

You decide to write a poem. You’ve read plenty of poetry, so you have some idea of what you’re doing. You figure you don’t need anyone’s help to do this. You certainly don’t need to collaborate with anyone. Nevertheless, as soon as you use the first word, in fact, as soon as you decide to write a poem, you enter into what I’ll call FIRST DEGREE COLLABORATION or UNCONSCIOUS UNILATERAL COLLABORATION. Everyone does it. It is, in fact, inescapable. Any use of language is influenced by every use of language we have encountered. Any attempt to write a poem is influenced by every poem we’ve encountered, even by the idea of certain arrangements of words constituting this thing we’ve learned from others to call a poem. It’s Frost’s line from “The Tuft of Flowers:” “Men work together, I told him from the heart / whether they work together or apart.”

With a finished draft in front of you, you realize that the poem echoes something else you’ve read, maybe something by Frost or Williams, Whitman or Dickinson, or maybe something more recent that you’ve read online, and you decide that the poem would gain texture and depth through intertextuality, by playing up that connection with another poem. So you find the piece being initially unintentionally imitated, and you make the imitation intentional, purposeful. You’ve just committed SECOND DEGREE COLLABORATION or CONSCIOUS UNILATERAL COLLABORATION. Not all poets do this, and I would guess that no poet does it all the time, but most good poets become at some point aware of their influences and utilize them on a conscious level. It remains a unilateral collaboration because the poem or poet being imitated played no active role in deciding to be imitated.

So you finish the poem, not really thinking that you’ve collaborated with anyone in an active way, but you decide, as so many poets do, that you’re proud of your creation and you want to show it to someone, someone, perhaps, whose work you admire, presuming that your admiration means they would appreciate your work as well. When you do, your audience is suitably impressed; however, they suggest that it might be stronger if you did something a little differently. Upon reflection you realize that they’re right, and you make the recommended change. Now you’re guilty of THIRD DEGREE COLLABORATION or CONSCIOUS BILATERAL COLLABORATION. Obviously, you intentionally, consciously, even pre-meditatedly accepted someone else’s help in this creation. Granted, it wasn’t an equitable bilateral collaboration. Your critiquer didn’t wield as much power in the final decision as you did, but nonetheless there were two conscious minds at work on the same product.

As you think about what you’ve just done, you come to the conclusion that you liked it. You surmise that most poets do it this way, and that since, to borrow a line from Frost again, “What worked for them might work for you,” you decide to do it again, only this time consciously so from the very beginning. You commit one or both variations of FOURTH DEGREE COLLABORATION: SERIAL CONSCIOUS UNILATERAL COLLABORATION, where you continue to imitate the style of a certain poem or poet; and SERIAL CONSCIOUS BILATERAL COLLABORATION, where you continue to seek the input of a particular audience. Perhaps, since the poems often derive from the same imitated source or are revised under the guidance of the same advisory source, they begin to cohere as poems with a related voice, perspective, or story.

And that’s when you dare go where few have gone before, into the dubious realm of FIFTH DEGREE COLLABORATION, a rarely visited place where even the word “collaboration” is no longer adequate to describe your actions. You realize as you hammer out the final details of a poem that it has been reworked to such a degree by the commentary of your critical audience that it has become as much his or hers as it is yours, that you have, perhaps unintentionally, taken the leap into SINGULAR COAUTHORSHIP. And in a moment of epiphany you also realize the ultimate irony of Frost’s “Mending Wall,” namely that the seemingly Cro-Magnon neighbor was in fact right, that “Good fences [do] make good neighbors,” albeit not because they separate, but rather because in maintaining them, we are brought together.

Having deviated thus far from the path of individual integrity, you finally give in completely to the dissolvent temptations of collaboration. You’ve come to learn that by surrendering absolute control, individual authorship, things do not, as Yeats feared, “fall apart,” but rather, perhaps, fall together. And so, you approach your collaborator with the idea of repeating this process not just on individual poems but on a sequence of poems, each consciously writing poems in response to poems written by the other, and each working together to revise poems begun by either of you, and determining together the nature of the poems that remain to be written to complete, or better, continue, the sequence. And since you are no longer certain which of you is responsible for any given poem, or line, or even word, you know you can only call this SERIAL COAUTHORSHIP, which must certainly constitute that most seditious, most subversive, and most insidious SIXTH DEGREE of COLLABORATION.

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