SAINTS OF HYSTERIA, Ed. by DENISE DUHAMEL, MAUREEN SEATON & DAVID TRINIDADSANDY MCINTOSH Reviews
(with a note on the book’s NYC book launch)
Saints of Hysteria, A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry Edited by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad
(Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, 2007)
Some traditionalists among writers, painters, composers and practitioners of other arts are baffled when considering the idea of collaboration. After all, collaboration seems to go against the solitude and introversion of the creative process. Why should what goes on inside that process be anyone else’s business? Other artists—emblematically those poets whose work is represented in this unique collection—relish the idea, or at least see its usefulness. “We’re hooked bad,” write the editors in their Introduction, “and we’re deep in the impulse—to connect with each other, to stymie the purists, to transgress aesthetic boundaries…. And our laughter, in many cases, can be called hysterical.”
This anthology presents more than 130 poems by more than 200 poets whose work here was written during in the second-half of the 20th century. They’re arranged in more-or-less chronological order, but “chains”—when a poet collaborated with more than one person—are also grouped. Although the order is arranged more by dates than by schools of poetry, sometimes a clump of, say, New York School poets appears because these poets were writing around the same time. The majority of collaborations consisted of two poets, although sometimes three, four or five worked together. Poets who teach or taught, such as Allen Ginsberg, Joanna Furman and Denise Duhamel, have created poems with classes of up to eighteen people. The editors cite perhaps the most ambitious recent example of mass collaboration entitled “Crisis,” which was made of two “word towers,” each 110 lines long to commemorate the September 11th destruction of the World Trade Center. Hundreds of poets contributed to this project.
Historically (if not hysterically), there’s been a sense about the collaborative process that it should be work shared equally among participants. In the best of these poems, the literary kinship between poets comes through, at times making the poem better because it is the work of two or more people. In “Riparian,” (cited by the editors in their Introduction, iv), Anne Waldman and Andrew Shelling are willing to put aside their membership in schools of poetry in order to blend their intentions, in lines such as:
--I am not a poet of Edo
--Not a New York School poet
--We are not poets with any name exactly though half of us is a New York School
--Collaboration was not invented in New York nor in Edo
Helpful “Process Notes” accompany many of the poems, and they are evidence of how comfortable the collaboration was. It would be wonderful if all collaborative work could be accomplished with such grace and ease as Thomas Fink’s and Timothy Liu’s. Their Process Note states simply: “…we emailed each other a few lines at a time. Then, when we agreed each poem was finished, we each suggested revisions. Once these changes were agreed upon, we brainstormed to find a title (247).” On the other hand, the detailed and by turns technical and theoretical notes of Lyn Hejinian’s and Leslie Scalapino’s “from Sight (201)” evidence the difficulty of the process and, by inference, the struggle of the collaborators.
Often, collaborations descend from the ideal of equal work shared to a reliance on a pecking order to get the work done. In a pecking order, someone dominates the action while someone else cooperates. If there’s an unresolved rebellion, the results might be silly, hellish, or anything in between, but more often than not, boring.
In “Listening to a Storyteller (153)”, Robert Bly and Yorifumi Yaguchi trade lines, ostensibly in the memory of William Stafford. Yaguchi leads and Bly follows:
In an Ainu house an old Ainu
Woman’s recital was flying like bees.
Her voice brought honey into the room,
And the bees were preserved in that honey.
Honey tastes of wildflowers, out of which
The songs of the bush-warblers come flying.
There is water dripping in the deep forests;
And the gods eat the cries of the bush-warblers.
This poem meanders around for a while—unfocused—until:
Suddenly silence flies up in the form
Of a bird from a bush nearby.
and Bly snatches the opportunity with typical Bly flourish:
I think the dead spend a lot of time
During the day in the nests of shy birds.
and closes the poem.
Those are pretty good last lines, but why wasn’t Yaguchi allowed a comeback? The sense I get is that Bly had had enough, was bored, and more than ready to move on.
The Surrrealists brought an ancient method of preserving the equality of collaborators into the 20th century. They invented chain poem games such as The Exquisite Corpse, The Game of Definitions, The Game of Conditionals, and so on, with definite rules of composition that challenge the ability of each collaborator, rather than pressuring the collaboration itself. There are a number of examples of these in the collection.
In his Process Note, Charles Henri Ford explains the method of the chain poem: “Thus, after the first line is written, the problem of each poet, in turn, is to provide a line which may both ‘contradict’ and carry forward the preceding line. The chain poet may attempt to include his unique style and make it intelligible to the poem as well; in which case the chain poem will have a logical and spontaneous growth.”
The editors in their Introduction make only passing references to these forms, allowing the various Process Notes to fill in the specifics. But a sampling of the rules for one Surrealist form, The Exquisite Corpse, will give an idea of how these work:
The players sit around a table and each writes on a sheet of paper a definite or indefinite article and an adjective, making sure their neighbors cannot see them. The sheets are folded so as to conceal the words, and passed round to the next player. Each player then writes a noun, conceals it, and the process is repeated with a verb, another definite or indefinite article and adjective, and finally another noun. The paper is unfolded and the sentences read out. Players may agree small changes to ensure grammatical consistency. (A Book of Surrealist Games, ed. Alastair Brotchie, Mel Gooding. Boston & London: Shambala 1991)
These games distribute the burden of the creative process by a kind of slight of hand, much as the writing formulas created by Kenneth Koch in the 1970’s did for elementary school children. In any case, the idea of universal creative equality was especially prevalent in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in every kind of art. These “Happenings” however, failed when the collaboration disintegrated, or succeeded when someone moved ahead and picked up the pieces, making a product with his or her individual stamp on it, abandoning equality. (See an account of mismatched collaboration in the 1970’s, featuring the painter Ilya Bolotowsky and the writer Norman Mailer beneath this review as an Appendix.)
Despite these considerations, this anthology (which was assembled by extensive research in moribund little magazines and hard-to-find collections of collaborations) is filled with spontaneity and raucous joy. While some collaborators took their work seriously, many others seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Typical, I think, is this from Robert Creeley’s Process Note on his collaboration with Ted Berrigan: “Did we write it in a bar? No doubt we were sitting down somewhere in relaxed company, demonstrating our prowess as poets…. It was fun! (29)”
A note on the book launch for Saints of Hysteria
For those who don’t know about it, the Cornelia Street Café is a familiar venue for art events, including poetry readings, in New York City. This was the scene of the March 21, 2007 book launch for Saints of Hysteria. Since not all collaboration members could attend, various improvisations had to be concocted on the spot. Introduced by editors Denise Duhamel and David Trinidad, the readers included: Thomas Fink reading his collaboration with Timothy Liu; Denise Duhamel and David Trinidad reading his poem he wrote with Bob Flanagan; William Wadsworth reading his poem written with David Lehman; Stacy Harwood reading his collaboration with David Lehman; Sparrow reading the poem written with Mike Topp and Sparrow’s wife (in whose absence Mike added her part to his own); Jacqueline Johnson reading the poem she wrote with devorah major; Guillermo Castro reading with Ron Drummond; Tom Breidenbach reading with Nathan Curran; and David Trinidad and Denise reading the Kenneth Koch/Allen Ginsberg work.
Two other readers took the ad-libbing further conceptually. In the absence of the father/son team of David Shapiro and his son, Stephen Paul Miller, whose own father/son collaboration had somehow missed publication in the anthology, made a doppelganger stand-in, reading the Shapiros' work. Finally, a dramatic collaboration took place between Erik Gamalinda and Nick Carbo. Nick couldn’t attend but telephoned his reading of the poem, which Erik recorded, mixed with background, and then performed in a kind of Karaoke lip-sink—effects that added the additional dimension of live performance to the printed text of the original.
Sandy McIntosh’s collections of poetry include The After-Death History of My Mother, Between Earth and Sky (Marsh Hawk Press), Endless Staircase (Street Press), Earth Works (Long Island University), Which Way to the Egress? (Garfield Publishers), and two chapbooks: Obsessional (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry) and Monsters of the Antipodes (Survivors Manual Books). His prose includes Firing Back, with Jodie-Beth Galos (Wiley), From A Chinese Kitchen (American Cooking Guild), and The Poets In the Poets-In-The-Schools (Minnesota Center for Social Research, University of Minnesota. His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. His original poetry in a film script won the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. He has been Managing Editor of Confrontation magazine published by Long Island University, and is Managing Editor of Marsh Hawk Press. His latest book of poetry, Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways To Escape Death, will be published in September 2007.