How to Get Started with Collaboration in Poetry

When you collaborate with someone else, you are embarking on an exciting adventure together. Collaboration offers the chance to be pushed in new ways, to work in new forms, and to pay attention to another discipline and someone else’s obsessions. Working with other people might even lead to a shift in your personal practice and process. In this feature, we hear from a handful of poetic collaborators below on their process and their advice on how you can begin to work creatively with a partner. Find out more about collaboration and enter our collaborative challenge by 3 January 2021.

Steven J Fowler on The Enemies Project, his latest project and collaboration

Several photos layered on top of one another: Maria holds a microphone with her eyes closed, and over the top of that Steven Fowler's face is imprinted ghost-like

Steven J Fowler is the originator of The Enemies Project, a long-running programme that started in 2010 and has resulted in hundreds of collaborations and events. He shares some wisdom:

I’m lucky to work collaboratively often. I organise events where I pair poets and ask them to make new work, over 300 of these events have happened around the world, and I’ve published two volumes of selected collaborations too, having written with over 100 artists and poets. I collaborate a lot because it’s generous, it builds friendships, and it forces one to be inquisitive. To be a good collaborator, you simply need to be interested in how the other person creates, as much as what they create. You need to so interested in this, you’re willing to allow their idea prominence, to let it supplement yours. I’m currently working on a book-length poem with Russian poet Maria Malinovskaya. We’ve spent a year exchanging lines, fragments, paragraphs – the project constantly changes, and this has been the joy of it. It’s an act of friendship, where the normal creative and editing processes I’d have in my head for my solo work are mediated through the originality and brilliance of another, of Maria, who thinks in ways I’ve never encountered. The book is now a series of questions and answers, it’s taken a year to find that form. I ask a question in the form of a poem, Maria answers in poetry and poses me a question. On it goes, and we don’t know, or care, when it finishes, or how it will finish. This, to me, is pure collaboration, the joy of the process over the product.

‘I’m starting to believe in pre-nostalgia’: a collaboration between Matthew Haigh, Vik Shirley, Niall Firth and Astra Papachristodoulou

On the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, poets Matthew Haigh, Vik Shirley, Niall Firth and Astra Papachristodoulou embarked on a four-way collaboration that would lead to their poem ‘I’m starting to believe in pre-nostalgia’, which will soon be published in issue 78 of Magma (a special issue themed around collaboration), thanks to editors David Floyd and Alice Willitts.

Astra says:

My journey in collaboration started in early 2017 with my participation in S.J. Fowler’s The Enemies Project. Since then, I’ve had the honour of collaborating with some very talented poets and artists including John Kilburn, Phoebe Power and Muanis Sinanović, and made some good friends in the process. I was thrilled when Matthew approached me about a four-way collaboration – my first attempt at one! There’s something magical about collaboration – to be open to your collaborator’s ideas and suggestions, and embrace the spontaneity of the exchange. I like to think of poetry as a shared experience.

Matthew adds:

This might sound contradictory – I find it very difficult to relinquish control, but I also find it exciting to have a rogue element in my work, i.e. something slightly unwieldy that wrestles complete control away from me. Collaboration is thrilling because it’s like walking through the dark when you can only see a few steps in front of you. Nothing kills the exhilaration of creativity more than certainty. I don’t always want to know where I’m going and I get bored if I fall into a pattern. Niall initially asked me to collaborate and I was very much up for it. I invited Astra and Vik into the mix because I love their imaginative prowess but also thought it would be a greater challenge with 4 of us all throwing ideas in. Watching the poem mutate and grow was brilliant; just all these weird phrases spilling out of us. It was like tuning into an alien broadcast…

Niall also adds:

I feel exactly the same about control! When I started this, I did worry: what if the poem wasn’t exactly like I wanted it to be? What if the various concessions that would have to be made would mean the resulting poem was lacking in some way for me? And then when Matt suggested Vik and Astra were added to the mix I realised that this was going to be something new. My control freakery would have to be relinquished and I’d have to just embrace the newness. The joy of it is that the poem that resulted could *never* have come from me alone. Everyone brought their own sensibility in both the contributing lines and then the final scrambled free-for-all mass edit. I can see myself in the poem – but also strangeness that I wouldn’t have tapped. A success!

Vik agrees:

Yes, it was interesting how our voices blended. To the point that by the time we looked at the proofs it was hard to remember who had done what! I had only taken part in one collaboration previously, so was equally nervous and delighted to be invited to write with such exciting poets. I couldn’t really imagine how a four-way collaboration would work, but we soon established a process and the plunge was taken. We took it in turns contributing four lines each for a while, then the rotation stopped and things were left hanging until a day before the deadline, when we all jumped in and edited what we had. A lot happened and changed at that point. Ultimately, I feel the poem was written from daring and doing more than planning and deciding. It was exciting to be part of.

Remnants: a musical collaboration between composer James B. Wilson and poet Yomi Ṣode

Photo of Yomi Sode speaking into a microphone in front of a conducter and Chineke! violins

On 19 October 2020, Chineke! (Europe’s first majority Black, Asian and racially diverse orchestra) premiered a commission by composer James B. Wilson and poet Yomi Ṣode. It was inspired by a seminal moment in the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, and you can listen to it and the artists’ introduction for a limited time on BBC iPlayer from 25 minutes in. Yomi says:

When James and I were briefed in regard to this commission, it was important to create a space for us to discuss the topic in the first instance. I’d like to believe that great work comes with many intense conversations and, as a group (including Southbank Centre), we had plenty.  

The writing process (on both sides) was separate. Not because we didn’t like each other, we just had different ways of working. We kept in contact throughout the process though. Also, let’s not forget COVID being a big factor.

The process took roughly a month. We then prepped for a four-day rehearsal with the orchestra. This was the most intense period. James and I sat through the piece. He explained the points in which I should start reading the poem. This was by way of a single finger lifted high enough for me to see. “Listen out for the drone, and wait for the signal to start,” he would say.  

Then it felt as if we were both thrown in the deep end when faced with the 70 piece Chineke! orchestra, breathing life into James’s composition. I was snapped into a sharp reality as Kevin John Edusei called me to start my verse. Drone, single finger, I’d think to myself nervously. After each take, James would provide feedback and make suggestions, as would Kevin. Every step of this was done as a group. Even at points where the poem had me in tears, the instructions were to remain still.

This is collaboration for me, the invisible safety net that holds everybody involved steady. The collaboration wasn’t the part where I read my poem and left. It was sitting and watching the orchestra go through other compositions, it’s watching the fierceness of the conductor, it’s the orchestra’s patience for every mistake I made in rehearsal, it’s the time taken in appreciating everybody involved, in making monumental moments happen.

Paper Trail: a collaboration between Julia Bird and Mike Sims

Book cover of Paper Trail by Julia Bird and Mike Sims: a turquoise/teal background with line drawings - a squiggly brown line joins a yellow circle with a red circle

Julia Bird and Mike Sims both work for The Poetry Society, and write together regularly. Last year, they published Paper Trail, a book of poems and artwork which came out of a long term writing collaboration, and over lockdown, they have embarked on another exchange and writing project.

Julia says:

The way I write when I’m working on a project with Mike is different from how I write individually, and I really value the different creative perspectives that collaboration brings. I have a really strong project management impulse, and think that I always need to know EXACTLY what the planned outcome is before I start work. Mike is much better at letting things develop organically – and the proper combination of these approaches means that we end up with something unexpected, every time. Paper Trail was a project we based on an exchange between the poet Katrina Naomi and her artist partner Tim Ridley, and it’s a really easy one to emulate – have a look at the website to work out the structure, and give it a go with a friend. My top tip – and it’s probably advice to myself as much as anything – would be to keep things loose at the beginning of any collaborative writing project, and see what shape it turns out to be before you have any thoughts about publishing or exhibiting or sharing it.

Mike adds:

That’s really nice of you to say, Julia! All I’d add is that I couldn’t help trying to second-guess what my collaborator was up to – you may think you know the person you’re collaborating with, and you have the ‘clue’ of the thing you exchange (swapped poems and objects in our case). But guesswork and clue-spotting is a really enjoyable part of the process. Julia and I didn’t talk about our exchange until it was done, months and months later. Moving between what I thought I knew and working somewhat in the dark was what made the collaboration so challenging and enjoyable.

Inspired to find a collaborator and get creative? Enter our collaboration challenge by 3 January 2021.

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