Friday, March 4, 2011

Simone Muench & Philip Jenks

Simone Muench is the author of four poetry books: The Air Lost in Breathing (Marianne Moore Prize for Poetry; Helicon Nine, 2000); Lampblack & Ash (Kathryn A. Morton Prize for Poetry; Sarabande, 2005); Orange Crush (Sarabande, 2010); and Disappearing Address co-written with Philip Jenks (BlazeVOX, 2010). She received her Ph.D from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now directs the Writing Program at Lewis University where she teaches creative writing and film studies. She serves on the advisory board of Switchback Books and is an editor for Sharkforum.

Philip Jenks' poems have appeared in Chicago Review, Typo, Fence, Cultural Society, H_NGM_N, Canarium, LVNG, and elsewhere. Flood Editions published his first volume of poems in 2002, On the Cave You Live In and a second volume of poems, My First Painting will be ‘The Accuser’ was published by Zephyr Press (2005). He also published two chapbooks – The Elms Left Elm Street (Plane Bukt, 1994) and How Many of You Are You? (Dusie, 2006). His collaboration with Simone Muench, Little Visceral Carnival was published by Cinemateque Press, 2009. He also collaborated with Sasha Miljevic, publishing Distance, an ekphrastic hybrid of prose and poetry (Dutch Art Institute, 2009). His book with Simone Muench, Disappearing Address is forthcoming on Blazevox Books. His fourth book, Colony Collapse Metaphor is forthcoming (Fence Books, 2013). He is currently working on a revision of the carbon footprint model to incorporate the suffering of all sentient beings, as the farm factory industry is the major contributor to climate change.

Dear Philip & Simone—

Your writing’s overwrought. Too haute.
Not cuisine or couture, but chicken-legged

high-kickin’ rhetoric vetted, vent,
& le vexor. French-fried car-talkers,

superspeed diesel drama. You’re all dilemma
& no serenity. Prickly as Jamestown weed,

more story than history. You’ve been dissed
& rechristened: poet to bootlegger; writer

to gothic romancer. I just want to know:
were you in Louisiana simultaneously?

Is that a place or frequency of syllabic
slowdown? A dos-a-dos at the American Legion

hoedown where everyone’s shouting bingo.
You once had a chance—sparrow & listen.

Trued by circumstance? Forget the men & shake
the dj into harmony, shake yourselves out of

a neutered dance, tremors of a doomed species.
Who locks lips to see what one is not?

Who writes themselves to save themselves,
only to find later that the whole of heavenly frame

is sickness propped up on a slouching tongue.

Dear Deer—

Every time I saw your sign on the North Dakota highway,
one of you showed up puffy, jut-rotted & one of you signaled

with white tail, luring us to the wilderness. What we thought was open
shut us up when everyone left. Blood rivulets bind a white blouse

to a spindly tree. Farther down the Mulberry River, fur is fevered
father damage, o you hunted! Hoofing millennia across the rotten chips

of redwood forests. Surrounded by deep-rooted trees, vertigo moved
these instinct instants collared by clothesline’s linear bulls-eye as if we

were to be decapitated instead of shot. Antlers spinning through wind
in some medieval machinery. When the orange vest shot at you,

there were two other hunters too, he shot them both & heaved you
on his hood. Blood ornaments. Dent in the mental. Forest family picnics

blast Sabbath’s “Thrill of it All”. Clogger gargle fat, tobacco juice smear.
Fiddle, venison & beer. A homicidal father cooking on the grill.

-from Disappearing Address (BlazeVOX Books)

How did your collaboration begin?

SM: Philip and I met at a reading in Chicago in January 2007 on the historic night that Nancy Pelosi was officially elected the first woman to be Speaker of the House. Philip was visiting from Portland, Oregon; I saw him read, loved his work, toasted Pelosi, and an email conversation began. Philip eventually moved to Chicago, began teaching at my university, and we became close friends. I had previously collaborated with William Allegrezza and was interested in continuing a collaborative project so I mentioned it to Philip. Two months after meeting, he suggested the following three possibilities:

1. send me three unpublished poems, I will do the same to you. We
could each pick a favorite of the other person's three (random
number) poems and rewrite it, sending it back and forth until it
becomes more than what was there before. If we each picked one of
the three and did this for a spell, then ideally perhaps at the
end of it all, the two would be linked and we could connect them
as one.

2. you pick the form, I pick the topic. trade off stanzas. secondly,
then I pick the form and you pick the topic. trade off. End result
is/are two poems we never would have written on our own.

3. more ambitiously, perhaps, there is the prose option. a
collaborative effort on a subject matter we both share
(problematics of categorization in contemporary poetics?, or...)
and we work together to produce a publishable essay that is also

I immediately gravitated to #2 as I wanted it to be a work in forward motion, not one that returned to prior work, so I suggested a sestina since I thought it would be challenging—“Haptics, Not Optics” in Disappearing Address was our first collaboration. From there we decided to expand the idea of collaboration to incorporate other voices, so the epistolary poems arose from that.

PJ: There are several moments of it beginning. The first of which was when Simone and I met. I had the fortune of reading for MoonLit with several authors. The great poet and curator Joel Craig was there. My dear friend Rian Murphy and Lisa Janssen. I mention these people because really, language and poetry happen in a community, that’s not a new concept, but the notion of collaborative poetry (which embraces this) seems to meet with so much resistance. Simone was there and after the reading we had a discussion, a bit of a sparring about the South and afterward I left with Rian and Lisa. I vexed on just who was this Simone Muench? Didn’t she know who I was? I mean to point this egotism out, because I think individual authorship feeds that egotism. Later we exchanged books and letters and began talking about collaboration, particularly after meeting another time at Danny’s Reading Series (both of these events were, as many out of town trips are to me, etched in my brain – everything about going from Portland to Chicago carried a different valence). Here, I remember the idea of the epistolary came up. Thinking this over, I am pretty sure Simone had this interest, as I have to fess up that I forgot what “epistolary” meant but the idea of collaborating on poems seemed fantastic. I had a cigarette and looked up epistolary. It was the very thing I had been working on. This seemed all the better. Also, there was some discussion over the meanings of the word “dear” after this and again, we didn’t agree. We consistently seemed to come at meanings (The South, what does saying someone or something is “dear” mean?) differently. This interpretive friction elevated thought on my end after this we started trading lines. We didn’t just write epistolaries, but also a sestina which was a great challenge which I think happens to be really successful or certainly more successful as a poem than any other sestina I’ve written. If we could write a strong sestina, I thought this was very promising. That’s a bit of how it began.

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

SM: As mentioned before, I worked with William Allegrezza and we put out Sonoluminescence with Dusie Press for its fabulous chapbooks project. Additionally, I collaborated with Kristy Odelius in a less transparent manner, in which we engaged in Harry Mathew’s book-length project 20 lines a day, where we’d swap 20 lines via email each morning until we each had a reservoir of material from which to craft poems from. Those 20 lines-a-day became the preparatory material for my “Orange Girl Suite” in Orange Crush and for Odelius’ “Dislocation Lessons” in Strange Trades. I attempted a failed collaboration with the wonderful and unstoppable poet Jason Bredle; unfortunately, our voices and writing styles never notched together in a meaningful way, and nothing was salvageable. Greg Purcell and I tackled the beginning of a Western together for a fun project that Jennifer Kronovet and Brett Fletcher Lauer initiated. Also, Lisa Janssen of Moonlit, created a Chicago community collaboration, which was an extended exquisite corpse affair in which poets were asked to provide anonymous first lines for others to write off of, and then everyone assembled for a performance of the piece.

PJ: Yes. I’ve collaborated with Hugh Bartling in writing political theory and public policy as well as Elizabeth Daly. My work at the Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center on The Future Well-Being of Women in Kentucky and setting benchmarks for progress was entirely collaborative. And, not to be coy but I really think my Master’s Thesis Fear of Clowns (written under Robert Pinsky and Derek Walcott) bore not only their strong influences but also, key people I worked with in the workshop – Erin Belieu, Carl Phillips. Their voices were pivotal in shaping the work. That my name went on the poems is true so I’m the author. But, how many master’s theses and dissertations are written without “individually”? None. Not one. Language and power doesn’t work that way. To say my dissertation wasn’t also a work of collaboration with my committee, particularly Herbert Reid, Ernest Yanarella and Susan Bordo would just be wrong. Officially, this was the first poetry project I engaged in as collaboration. Since it began, I collaborated in an ekphrastic text/performance/multimedia, Distance with Sasha Miljevic and Sabina Pasic (Dutch Art Institute 2009). I also collaborated with Neil Michael Hagerty previously on a blog trying to imagine a blog by a trucker. While I failed to get the voice, this led to further work with Hagerty. This was different than each of these because it was all poetry and because we really developed a third voice that was different than either of our own voices.

What were the rules or parameters for the collaboration?

SM: After the sestina, which we wrote stanza by stanza, we decided on a series of epistolary poems that would be addressed to favorite poets, iconic figures, obsessions, and abstractions, engaging in a more integrated form, accreting the poems in more diminutive units than stanzas; thus, the letter poems were staircased line by line via email, and then edited so that each line might contain both of our phrasings with the idea that the poems would be neither Philip-voiced or Simone-voiced, existing instead as a third-tongued entity.

PJ: Kind of. The focus was on the epistolary and on trading lines. One of us would commence a set of epistolaries with first lines and send it to the other. We would then wait on the other for a response. This was sometimes rapid and sometimes delayed (usually the delay was mine). This wasn’t a rule, but a tendency. I delay and ruminate and yes, procrastinate as well. This isn’t a rule but became a part of the process, whereby certain conventions developed. What I’m saying is that even the pace of the process developed its own rhythm or antirhythm. Surely this would be a source of friction, but at the same time, in the process a unity emerged with surprising results. After we were done, we would revise the poems, aerating certain lines, closing others, and then Simone would send them out for publication. This last one is one I can say I didn’t carry my share on and feel badly about, but at the same time it can be tough to know which poem is where when two people are doing it. Still, had I do-overs, I’d be more organized and giving here.

The introduction to the book mentions a common bias against collaborative work. Was it difficult for you to publish to individual poems?

SM: It wasn’t difficult to publish individual poems, but it was tough to publish the book as a whole. Most journals were open to individual poems; however the book presses were a bit less enthusiastic about collabs. Though some editors simply didn’t like the work or it didn’t converge with their aesthetic, various presses wouldn’t even consider looking at a dual-authored manuscript. “Single-author only” is underscored in their submission guides; however, like the notable growth of books of prose poetry in the 21st century, collaborations continue to develop, and I think in the next 10 years we’re going to see a remarkable abundance of co-authored, and even multi-authored, books. One editor humorously noted that though his press was only open to single-authored manuscripts, he needed to revisit that guideline as he was also in the process of collaborating on a manuscript as well.

PJ: Yes! Even though as I’ve indicated, I think it is regularly acknowledged in and out of academia that a lot of what we do with language and writing is collaborative, still there’s the myth of the Author – even those self-proclaimed “death of the author” people are way into publishing “their” work, “their” voices. This is the age of memoirs (and really good ones exist, sure, but hey do we all need to know everyone’s sordid details? I’m one to talk, I do it as well.), individual blogs, facebook status updates (I painted my left pinky toenail and want 400 people to know immediately!). I’m not above it, nono. But, this bias in popular culture has strong roots in Western culture. “I think, therefore I am.” An individual’s very existence seems to pivot on this fake Cartesian impulse of the Ego. Plenty of authors have understood this (Rimbaud, Surrealists, many oral traditions and nonwestern “authors”). Every other discipline gets it from sciences to social sciences to the realm of art, film, music. But, for some reason in writing fiction and poetry, it’s less common. We need the fiction of the “self-made” being, like we give birth to ourselves and live in a vacuum in order to prop up the patriarchal racist capitalist system of oppression. Far from being this isolated “oddity” in culture, the resistance a collaborative author faces is well-nigh universal. Everything in western culture screams against it, despite the patent reality that we are intersubjective beings. We faced a great deal of difficulty publishing. We even dealt eventually in pseudonyms. People who liked our individual work sought to compare this to our individual works. It’s not a competition. Still, that’s the regnant perception. There were exceptions, such as the great Nate Slawson who published Little Visceral Carnival (Cinemateque Press) and all those who did accept our work. But it didn’t seem to matter what “school” a journal or author was in (“experimental” to formalism), both shared the common trait of resistance to collaboration. That I was not more involved (which was on me, not something “taken” from me) also made it difficult, and I bear that responsibility and regret.

Did the collaboration affect your own work?

SM: Definitely. For one, it allowed for more extensibility, for me to be less rigid in my constructions and flex in various new directions. I tend to be a more orderly writer whereas Philip is fabulous at deranging syntax: when my lines would become plodding and prosaic, he would explode them. In our collaborations, there was no director just a script-less performance, you improvise as you go along and each time you think you know where you are heading you get a surprise. So, the overall unpredictability was revitalizing. I’ve always considered poetry a call-and-response art, so in many ways it’s always been collaborative for me as I tend to gravitate towards forms, both when I teach and when I write, that engage community or conversation whether it be with the living or the dead—ekphrasis, bout-rimes, exquisite corpses, epistolary poems, centos, etc. After Philip and I completed our book, I decided to undertake a different sort of collaboration, mediating pre-existing texts for a collage manuscript I’m currently working on called Wolf Centos.

PJ: Yes. Pointedly, Simone's attention to revision and image gave a certain "permission" to dwell longer with my own work before declaring it "done." I came from a space where if it went down on paper, there it was. To some extent, I feared harming the poem if I touched it again. My relationship with revision is still complex but working collaboratively showed me again (as I learned in school) that yes, revision can help. Also, the very fact of recognizing the collaborative role of all writing influenced certain elements of my poetics. The I may be another, to follow Rimbaud, but that another comes into being in the presence of spirits, other voices, people, animals.

Did anything happen in your collaboration that surprised you?

SM: Mainly, I was surprised at how well our minds converged, and negotiated, to create work that I believe transcends what many people mistakenly believe collabs to be, and what my mentor Michael Anania refers to as “the bi-polar diffusion or poetic ju-jitzu contending egos can produce.” Additionally, I’m thrilled that we were able to sustain the project, our “workshop of filthy creation,” to its book-length completion.

PJ: Yes. All of it! The publication of these poems, which began as a thought or debate in a bar thousands of miles from home eventually became a voice that isn’t/is “mine” (Is Disappearing Address “my” third full-length book? Yes! And publishing any book is surprising to me.). The collaborative work with Kim Ambriz (artist), Nate Slawson (publisher of our chapbook), the introduction by Kevin Killian in Disappearing Address (which was collaborative as well) and the generous contributions on the back of the book by some of my favorite authors blows my mind. Ed Roberson said that?! Robin Schiff? But, not just being amazed but also realizing that all texts are really collaborative. I was squarely in the single-author notion before – and now I see this as the superstructural ideology for the Great Man theory of History – and I see this sexist racist speciestist imperialist Great Man notion going down. I see the possibility of people ending Empires. Or at least the reality and necessity of resistance. I’m just a spoke in the wheel, no big deal.

How do you feel about the finished product?

SM: Collaboration is such a manifold process with multiple approaches: our approach was one in which we edited heavily and revised over the course of a couple of years; but, it’s a much different process to edit with a partner than without because each decision has to be revisited by both. As a whole though, I think the book turned out really well. There are only a few poems in the book that perhaps were less cohesive, or more slack, than I’d like them to be. But then again, Philip and I have conflicting ideas about what constitutes a “finished” poem. As an artifact, I couldn’t be more pleased with the book with its fabulous linocut cover from Kim Ambriz, a dazzling introduction by Kevin Killian, and an absolutely lovely publisher to work with, Geoffrey Gatza.

PJ: Thrilled. It's an honor to have published and worked with Simone. I believe in the work and am really pleased with/by Kevin Killian's Introduction, the generous reflections by other authors, the cover art by Kim Ambriz, and the great work of all at BlazeVox. Also, there's another feeling, one distinctively different from my excitement about my solo publications. For some reason, I feel more free to brag about it than I would my own work. I think this has to do not only with it being great, but also because collaboration creates a different relation to the work. This is and is not my book. Perhaps that shared notness permits a certain celebration that when I publish I can’t engage in. I don’t know how to explain it.

What are some collaborative books you would recommend?

SM: There’s a wonderful journal that was published in the 60’s called Locus Solus and edited by John Ashbury, James Schuyler, Harry Mathews, and Kenneth Koch. The collaborative issue is Locus Solus II: A Special Issue of Collaborations edited by Koch. If you can find a copy, buy it. My first introduction to a contemporary co-authored poetry book was Denise Duhamel & Maureen Seaton’s Exquisite Politics (1997). I’m looking forward to Your Father on the Train of Ghost by John Gallaher & G.C. Waldrep (2011). Recent anthologies I enjoy are Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry (2007) edited by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton & David Trinidad; > 2: An Anthology of New Collaborative Poetry (2007) edited by Sheila E. Murphy & M. L. Weber; and New Pony: A Horse Less Anthology (2010) edited by Erika Howsare & Jen Tynes. There are numerous other collabs that deserve mentioning as well. Nate Slawson of Cinematheque Press, who put out our chapbook Little Visceral Carnival, is devoted to collaborations and is publishing work by Emily Kendal Frey & Zachary Schomburg, Mathias Svalina & Julia Cohen, Karyna McGlynn & Adam Theriault, and others.

PJ: Putting aside the claim that all is more collaborative than it seems as well as other fields (e.g. Marx and Engels, Laclau and Mouffe), I’d recommend: Disappearing Address! Revisiting the Exquisite Corpse work of Breton, Char, all is worthwhile. Saints of Hysteria is a great anthology/introduction – and Duhamel and Seaton certainly have contribution their own great collaborations to the field. Creeley’s work with Ted Berrigan. Locus Solus II, while not a “book” is a great journal/anthology of collaborative poems (and one of the most generous gifts ever, thank you Simone). In it are phenomenal collaborations such as Basho, Bonsho, Fumikuni and Kyorai’s “The Kite’s Feathers” and cut ups with Burroughs, Corso, and Rimbaud are awesome. Something Really Wonderful (and others) by Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert. Anne Waldeman’s work is fundamentally collaborative as are so many. No matter how I answer this, I know I’m leaving off a ton of people whose works I love but am spacing out…

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