Friday, February 11, 2011

Kyle McCord & Jeannie Hoag

Kyle McCord is the author of two books of poetry: Informal Invitations to a Traveler (Gold Wake 2012) and Galley of the Beloved in Torment (Dream Horse 2008), winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize. He has work forthcoming or published from Boston Review, Columbia: a Journal of Art and Literature, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. He’s worked for The Beloit Poetry Journal, jubilat, and The Nation. He currently coordinates the Younger American Poets Reading Series and reviews for Pleiades. He’s received grants or awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Iowa Poetry Society. He lives and teaches in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jeannie Hoag lives in Buffalo, New York. Her work has appeared in GlitterPony and notnostrums. Her chapbook New Age of Ferociousness was recently published by Agnes Fox Press.

The Only Day

Start with weather,
evaluate. Today
is hot. Today is
cold. One day
doesn't cause the next
Flowers bloom, Miss Kim,
the next day wilt,
burning to no benefit

Say it is cyclical,
say it renews itself:
today there were
accidents & tomorrow too
Another leaf on
last year's leaves
the ground under
inches of leaves
This the only honor this

from Informal Invitations to a Traveler, forthcoming from Gold Wake Press

How did your collaboration begin?

KM: It started in Northampton Brewing Company in Massachusetts nearly two years ago. I’d just finished my first book and was working on getting it published. I was thinking about the prospect of writing another manuscript, and I realized it seemed more daunting than I could handle by myself.

I don’t remember having an epiphany about working on a collaboration—it just seemed natural. But I do remember having an “ah-ha” moment when I realized Jeannie seemed like the right person to work with. We hadn’t worked together much, but she’d been an excellent editor for my first manuscript and I liked her poetry. I approached her with the idea, we got together for lunch in NoHo, and I think we both came away pretty psyched about the prospect of writing a book together.

I don’t think either of us realized it would take nearly a year and a half to write and edit it, but I suppose it wouldn’t have surprised me either. Poetic collaboration is a tricky animal because, unlike fiction for example, the parameters are so much wider. Jeannie and I’s work had just enough stylistic similarity that we both thought it would be a good match without the two voices sounding too similar. It was the right choice, I think, but it did mean three months of editing and arranging the voices to make sure they weren’t talking past or over each other.

JH: Kyle contacted me around December 2008 with an idea for the project, and we met to talk it over. I was really interested in the idea, particularly by the correspondence. I hadn't really participated in long-term collaboration, and it seemed like a good chance to develop and commit to a different type of voice.

Have you collaborated before? If so, how was this different than other collaborations?

KM: This is actually the first collaboration I’ve ever worked on. Many of the folks at UMass did collaborative work: the Agnes Fox folks in particular seemed very attracted to the medium. But, at least from my end, this was a completely new experience.

JH: I had written a collaborative play with Madeline ffitch for the UMass theater department that fall. I loved working with Madeline, but the project had a lot of constraints—we were given a topic, source material, and a very specific deadline which made the process seem pretty high-stakes. At the other end of the spectrum, I had done very short poem collaborations, but always with a perception that they were amusements rather than poems that would live beyond that moment. This collaboration fell somewhere between those two. Without an immediate audience or deadline I felt more freedom, but still felt I had a responsibility to Kyle to follow through.

What were the rules or parameters for the collaboration?

KM: At the first meeting, we set out a few basic guidelines that we’d largely discarded by the time we finished. It’s not that the rules weren’t helpful. They just became obsolete by the end of the work. We set out that each week one of us would write a poem and send it to the other. The other person would then write a poem that responded in some way to that poem. That worked most of the time, though both Jeannie and I got caught in a few potholes along the way which actually became part of the process itself. Much of the book is about the breakdown and renewal of communication, especially as it relates to the seasons.

The poems often have an epistolary quality (as you can tell from the title), but they aren’t always letters in the way you might envision letters. The poems are always responding to each other, but sometimes it’s on a sonic level, sometimes on an associative level. Sometimes one voice just changes the subject. It’s meant to mirror real communication.

We had some ideas about who the two voices—Ms. Kim and J.R— were but we’d largely discarded that by the end as well. They’d really formed pretty independent identities through the work, and neither Jeannie nor I wanted to impose on that.

JH: We tried to keep the project open to evolution, but there were still some parameters that stayed with me throughout. When Kyle first brought up the idea, he had some character ideas, and I found writing as a specific voice was a way to approach each round of poems consistently. Another parameter was that each poem would respond in some way to the previous poem. Beyond that, we had a general agreement that there would be a two week turnaround time—something I was not very good at following.

Did the collaboration affect your own work?

KM: I didn’t write anything else until Jeannie and I had moved into the editing process. I have to admit it’s been tough not to write poems now without imagining a particular audience on the other side. My new manuscript (which I’m currently working on like a dog) utilizes the “you” much more than any of my previous work. I think the collaboration has a lot to do with that.

JH: As with Kyle, I didn't write many other poems during the time we were working on the project, but my current writing has definitely been affected by it. My voice in the project tended towards disjointed flashes, and I find that even though it wasn't my natural way of writing at the start of the project, it's become a default for me now. The project had more of a focus than my usual writing life, and for that reason I think it trained me.

Did anything happen in your collaboration that surprised you?

KM: Mostly the way the voices morphed and shaped each other’s identities was unexpected. I particularly remember Jeannie and I discussed how our own struggles and the seasons might seep into the poems. Both things happened, which wasn’t the surprise. Both Jeannie and I finished our MFA’s as the recession was sweeping across the markets. I don’t want to overstate anything, but it was tough time to be writing or teaching and especially to be looking for a job. It was also a horrific winter in Iowa where I was and in Buffalo where Jeannie was. All of this worked its way into our communication.

However, the surprise was how the call-and-response took on a life of its own at certain points, and the characters started articulating some anxieties and delights that didn’t have much to do with me or Jeannie personally. It was both strange and enlightening to watch a relationship develop that I had prompted but didn’t fully control. It was like introducing two friends and watching their friendship blossom, only at a much closer angle.

JH: I had expected responding to be difficult, and I was surprised that a small element like a word or phrase could work toward creating a dialogue. I also expected myself to behave more literally than I did, which I'm glad didn't happen. You can't quite gauge how a conversation will go until you're in it.

How do you feel about the finished product?

KM: I’m excited to see the new book in print and hear reader’s reactions. With the distance between us, Jeannie and I haven’t been able to do readings together with the poems, so that will be a real thrill as well. We just saw a rough draft of the cover a week or two ago, and it was pretty exhilarating. Big kudos to Brian Mihok for being a secret graphic design expert in addition to a great fiction writer.

Not to be overly personally laudatory, but I do think this is the sort of book that sparks discussion. I’ll be excited to see where that discussion leads and how the community feels about the work!

JH: During the time we were working on this, I finished one graduate program, moved, and began another one. Beyond getting my poems written each week (or month), I didn't have a strong sense of how it was developing. I was really surprised to see how many connections were present between the poems. The voices are so distinct, but the conversation is there.

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