Michael Longley once said, ‘If I knew where poems come from, I’d go there’. This uncertainty about where poems come from was also shared by Pablo Neruda: ‘Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know...where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when…’
Poetry does indeed arrive, in the way babies do, after a gestation period and a birthing process. Babies may not be found under heads of cabbages but a good poem might very well be hidden there. A poem can flow like a river or shunt its way along like a clapped-out engine on a rusty old track. However poems arrive, it’s safe to say they do not arrive in delivery vans. There is no idea factory out there belching fumes of blood sweat and tears. Nor is there an introduction agency on a sleazy backstreet waiting to match the perfect poem with the poet. If Longley and Neruda focus on arrival, the departure point shouldn’t be forgotten. Poems arrive mainly because the poet has been able to exit the departure lounge and keep faith and some degree of nerve until the craft is safely landed. Between these two points, departure and arrival, lies the collaborative space.This space can be a minimalist’s delight or cluttered up with feelings, images, word play or what poet Anne Waldman calls ‘goofy profundity’.
The first time I wrote in a collaborative way with another writer was back in 2006 when American poet Karyna McGlynn visited me and we sat down and wrote poems alternating the lines. It was very strange, yet liberating. There was the feeling that responsibility for what came was a shared enterprise. Between 2008 and 2011 I’ve enjoyed two collaborative productions with visual artist, Emma Barone. The first of these, Reading Hieroglyphs in Unexpected Places, came about through a collision rather than an arrival or departure. I was running through an art exhibition called ‘Shoe Show’ by Emma when I bumped into her, almost knocking her sideways. When we disentangled from my rugby tackle I knew that I wanted to write poems based on what I was seeing. In this sense, I was already collaborating with completed work.
Our next collaboration occurred last year, the fruits of which appear in From Bone to Blossom. The collaborative process involved exploring Emma’s vision on the subject of trees. Here is Emma herself: ‘I have long been fascinated by the shape trees adopt on the west coast of Ireland. This shape is present as a distinctive windblown profile, sculpted by the elements. The proximity of the Atlantic Ocean is a major determining factor in terms of influencing and moulding the form of the trees. I like to show the life energy of the tree. I like to add a little mysterious element to my work. It makes life more interesting and intriguing, transcending boundaries and limitations.’
As poet, the collaborative space to be negotiated required, for some reason, my purchase of a yellow notebook, and the commitment to include poems concerning environmental themes. Emma interpreted her vision through non-traditional representations which explore a relationship between the earthbound object of natural art that a tree undoubtedly is and its ability to transform and transcend. I found myself reading about trees and dreaming about them too. These poems also became channels for anxiety:
Stars stick like thistledown across a thumbnail sky
Two daughters adrift in a world of juicy spring.
All night I search for mulberries
Along the silken roads of Samarkand,
Enough to glut the greedy worms. Spin two dresses.
Yet, all I can find is air, hard as frost, an aspen stump
Gnarled between empty spaces and a rustling thirst
Snagged on a blackthorn tree.
When we completed the work, we invited poet Grace Wells to write an introduction for us. This was of particular interest because it brings another dimension to the relationship, a critical focus that we couldn’t ourselves articulate about our own work. Grace saw the overall collaboration as being in some ways symbiotic, while both artist and poet retained core individualism. She describes the collaborative space in From Bone to Blossom as ‘shared’, that word and image work off one another.
The collaborative space in From Bone to Blossom is greatly enriched by Well’s introduction. Jean Cocteau said that ‘an artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.’ It’s as if poet and visual artist have been given a third eye which is not distorted, a glass that magnifies and zooms in on places which might well be overlooked otherwise. In this sense it’s safe to say that the introduction of a third perspective results in a lens through which the individual artists find another way of seeing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that ‘Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale ’til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free’: for ‘painter or poet’ read ‘painter and poet’. The collaborative space is an available, liberating, challenging, conversational and indeed, a necessary space.