Thursday, June 22, 2006

Two collaborations: Continuations by Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy and apostrophe by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry

I don’t know what it is about collaborative works that have been all the rage lately. After smaller appearances with a number of chapbook presses, including housepress and above/ground press, Toronto poets Jay MillAr and Stephen Cain finally have their collaborative Double Helix appearing this fall with The Mercury Press; jwcurry has been collaborating with authors for years, and a trade edition of these pieces have been threatening to appear with a Toronto press for as long as I've known him. I've even done my own versions lately, but have yet to see any of them in print.

Edmonton, Alberta poet Douglas Barbour and Phoenix, Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy have been engaged in an email collaboration, writing alternating six line passages to make up their collaborative work Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006). A long poem made out of twenty-five sections, the poem encompassed both daily activity, distance of years and thousands of kilometres (or miles, depending) in the form of a sustained long poem, starting out at the beginning, writing:
storm und
with that angel always
back upon
the piling ruin

solo fires thicker
than or wider
wings spread to
raise the ante
'in front of' the sun
what signs float in the empyrean

foreground of stranded
sun sans
seamed mild
blue eggshell
her name, Celeste
over a win afield (p 1)
In their collaboratively written text at the end of the collection that includes bibliographical information on the two authors, they include a note on previous texts [see also their collaboratively-written piece on collaborations in here]:

In Canada, Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie have performed extensively in
sound poetry, in the innovative tradition of The Four Horsemen, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol. Other sound poetry groups, such as Owen Sound, also 'wrote' performance pieces in a collaborative manner. Further innovative and accomplished collaboration by Canadian writers includes the work of the group Pain Not Bread, formed in 1990 by Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, and Andy Patton. Anne Szumigalski and Terrence Heath's Journey/Journée (rdc press), like Heijinian and Scalapino's Sight, clearly indicates who wrote what. Double Negative by Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland specifically works to merge the two writers, with a poem, followed by a self-interview, and then a series of pieces written out of lines in the earlier poem.

United States poet John M. Bennett has composed and performed joint works with numerous other writers, many of whose texts have appeared in the long-running magazine of textual and visual poetry, Lost and Found Times. Sheila Murphy has worked extensively in making collaborative texts with Bennett, as well as Peter Ganick, mIEKAL aND, Charles Alexander, David Baratier, Ivan Arguelles, Rupert Loydell, Lewis LaCook, Al Ackerman, and Beverly Carver, among others, including a collaborative quartet with Mary Rising Higgins, Gene Frumkin, and John Tritica.

Countless examples of poetic collaboration are evident on the web, including works initiated on listserv groups, such as the poetics list from the State University of New York at Buffalo, in which poets representing many different countries have participated over the years. Many collaborative works exist across artistic disciplines, rather than within the textual realm: Robert Creeley collaborated extensively with visual artists such as Jim Dane, Alex Katz, and Susan Rothenberg, as well as composers such as Steve Lacey and Steve Swallow; Lyn Heijinian has collaborated widely with artists such as Emilie Clark, with the appearance of The Traveler and the Hill and the Hill. Numerous others have collaborated across disciplines. (pp 104-5)
Ending finally with:

Students of innovative textual work will undoubtedly pose questions concerning the place of collaborative poetry: What is the relationship between collaborative efforts and the individual works of a writer? Should collaborative texts be regarded as a category of their own, or classified within the sphere of innovative textual creation?

We share the belief that textual collaboration must undergo the same critical rigour as any written work of literature. The process of jointly writing an extended piece naturally entails risk, but the sustained engagement with crafting what is possible in language easily surpasses such risk. Stabilizing structural features such as the six-line format and daily practice, provide the necessary structure for propelling innovation. (p 106)
Barbour has been producing poetry collections for years, with the first, I think, appearing in 1970, and some of his strongest work coming out over the past few years, and moving through much more of a jazz/intuitive sense of poetry than in previous works, including Fragmenting Body, Etc. (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000) and Breath Takes (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2001), as well as his collection of essays, Lyric/Anti-Lyric: essays on contemporary poetry (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press / The Writer as Critic: VIII, 2001). Way down there in America, Murphy has been publishing both individual collections of her poetry as well as collaborations for almost as long, including including Falling in Love Falling in Love With You Syntax: Selected and New Poems (Elmwood CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1997), and more recent Incessant Seeds (Pavement Saw Press), Proof of Silhouettes (Stride Press, UK) and Concentricity (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, NY). What makes any collaboration between two writers, specifically, interesting, is that when the project is done well, it introduces a third author that is neither of the two, but a combination of both. Neither the work of any individual, but the space where the two writers/works meet.

the breath of disappearing
moments loses sunfall, folded
points filled with imagined
integers breeze toward
skin blessed with other
skin, through fields again

what is the point of aspiration,
is there a place to which dance finally
arrives, the step merely a metaphor
for something, perhaps a world within
the chosen calling that eventually
confiscates what inherently is there

taken away it goes further
than believed and the feet stumble
slowly to a stop beneath
the great blossoming chestnut tree
leaning toward seed reaching
out to the dancing stars (p 57, from "XV")
For Toronto poets Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry, their collaborative apostrophe (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2006) is, as the press release claims, "the first book ever written with a search engine." [see Sina Queyras' review of same here] Writing on the project in the press release, they include this "How The Apostrophe Engine Works," that writes:
The Apostrophe Engine is a website operated by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry. It is the source of the poems in apostrophe, a book published by ECW Press in 2006.

The Apostrophe Engine was used for the first time on April 18, 2001, and existed on a private Web server for the next five years. As of April 19, 2006, the Apostrophe Engine is available to the public at

The home page of the Apostrophe Engine site presents the full text of a poem called "apostrophe," written by Bill in 1993. In this digital version of the poem, each line is now a hyperlink.

When a reader/writer clicks on a line, it is submitted to a search engine, which then returns a list of Web pages, as in any search. The Apostrophe Engine then spawns five virtual robots that work their way through the list, collecting phrases beginning with "you are" and ending in a period. The robots stop after collecting a set number of phrases or working through a limited number of pages, whichever happens first.

Next, the Apostrophe Engine records and spruces up the phrases that the robots have collected, stripping away most HTML tags and other anomalies, then compiles the results and presents them as a new poem, with the original line as its title … and each new line as another hyperlink.

At any given time, the online version of "apostrophe" is potentially as large as the Web itself. The reader/writer can continue to borrow further into the poem by clicking any line on any page, sliding metonymically through the ever-changing contents. Moreover, because the contents of the Web is always changing, so is the contents of the poem. The page it returns today will not be the page that it returns next week, next month, or next year.
Much like the questions posed by Barbour and Murphy, what is the relationship between this writing and the writing by an individual author? Can the writing be seen as purely writing, or is it overshadowed by its composition? Is this a method of creating work, or a reading game? George Bowering has played with earlier versions of constraints that he called "baffles," as did bpNichol as well, making the play of the composition the point of much of the work that resulted, or Christian Bök's Eunoia (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2001), which won the Griffin Prize that year, working a further level of constraint. Does any of that matter when reading the final product? It was a question posed by editor Joshua Kotin at the end of the most recent issue of The Chicago Review (51:4 & 52:1, spring 2006), in his "Can a Computer Make a Period Style Obsolete?," where he wrote:
The poems in this issue by Gnoetry and Eric P. Elshtain were written in a little over eight minutes on 30 November 2005. Their titles mark the time of their composition. Elshtain set the form—three four-line stanzas, lines between five and ten syllables—and selected the following five source texts: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, H.G. Well's The First Men in the Moon, A. Maude Royden's Sex and Common-Sense, and Margaret Sanger's Women and the New Race. The computer, Jon Trowbridge's Gnoetry 0.2, analyzed how often various combinations of words appear in these texts and used the information to generate the published sequence. As Trowbridge
describes, "Gnoetry's approach is statistical. The software does not contain any a priori knowledge of grammer." Gnoetry allows the human collaborator to regenerate specific lines; Elshtain did not otherwise edit Gnoetry's language or replace it with his own.

The result of this interface is a fascinating six-poem sequence that resembles much contemporary poetry. But does it replace much contemporary poetry? Because Gnoetry replicates and refines a period style, instantly, ad infinitum, it threatens to render that style obsolete. For why write poems a computer can generate more efficiently? Why labor over unsolicited submissions when you can fill a journal over lunch? Gnoetry evacuates craft of meaning. When every MFA graduate has Gnoetry on his or her desktop, verbal pyrotechnics will no longer indicate a creative, skilled mind at the end of the poem. By flooding the market with linguistically innovative poetry, Gnoetry asks us to reconsider what we value in the period style, in poetry. And as it satisfies our appetite for surprising syntax and brilliant word combinations, it challenges poets to invent a new style that means, a style that cannot be replicated by a computer. (p 254, The Chicago Review)
(an ode to the west wind)

you are wonderful, smart and witty; someone wants to spend the rest of her life making you happy (that someone is me) * you are rich enough to afford it * you ain't talking 'bout love * "You Are My Flower" ― "Old Leather Britches" ― "Across The Blueridge Mountains" ― "Going Back To Harlan" ― "Poor Rebel Soldier" ― "No Hiding Place Down Here" ― "Going Up Cripple Creek" ― "Foggy Mountain Special" * you are also permitted, in fact, encouraged, to use the proceedings as a testing ground for paper topics and even for paper drafts * you are united * you are undivided * you are pure * you are brave * you are loyal * you are honourable * you are good * you are hopeful * you are true * You Are My Flower * you are interested in actuarial or computer consulting services * you are in their territories * you are used to looking at things in the world, not actions * you are on and ask what characteristics does this idea have? What else has those characteristics? Then watch ideas tumble out onto your page * you are using only one eye * you are Jessica Simpson, age 17 (p 72)
Darren Wersler-Henry certainly isn’t a stranger to conceptual work, working his version of bpNichol in his Nicholodeon (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1997) or his tapeworm foundry (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2000). I've heard the argument that the only way to force invention is to limit your options; to provide a constraint of some sort is to force the mind to work in other ways. At nearly three hundred pages, there is a lot of text to go through in this collection, this conceptual unit of work, and a lot of material that still could have been produced. Is excess the key? Moving from extremely short pieces to extremely long ones, the book moves as arbitrarily as the Web seems to, itself. As jwcurry once suggested, even two words beside each other presume a narrative; how to take meaning out of an artificially constructed text? Are the significant accidents of collusion the complete and utter point?
(the space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field)

you are going to create something of this ilk, you should really be doing it on your own * you are saying and I am going to do a lot of this on my own but I also believe in doing something right the first time and the best way to do something right is to get a lot of collaboration from the start * you are viewing this page in a single window * you are lost in a haze of alcohol soft middle age the pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high and you hide hide hide behind brown and mild eyes * you are dead safe in the permanent gaze of a cold, glass eye * you are sleeping with your new-found faith * you are still missing it; you are still winding things up too tightly * you
are pretty much going to have to go with the storyline Roger used * you are going to send a copy of the script to Rog? That's the funniest thing I have heard yet on these forums * you are in favour of this idea * you are thinking there is a story (p 124)

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