March 1, 2010KR BlogKR

On Collaboration, I: Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney


Elisa Gabbert & Kathleen Rooney have been writing poetry in collaboration for four years. They work together via email (exclusively, never in person). They work in this way almost daily.

Together, they have produced Something Really Wonderful (Dancing Girl Press, 2007), That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008), and a new chapbook, Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing, which is just out from Spooky Girlfriend Press.

Individually, they’re very prolific and they each have new titles: Kathleen’s For You I am Trilling These Songs (a non-fiction collection) is just out from Counterpoint; and Elisa’s first full-length collection of poems, The French Exit, is due soon from Birds LLC. Editorially, Elisa is poetry editor of Absent; and Kathleen is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press.

For this Q&A, Elisa and Kathleen agreed to respond to my questions in one voice, extending their collaborative writing practice to the interview process.

When you write together, do you imagine that you’re creating both a poet and a poem?

Yes! But we usually default to the same poet (and sometimes, on bad days, the same poem“)

When you began this writing partnership, did you consider constructing a pseudonym–a whole, fictional identity–for your collaboration? (I have a potential pseudonym for you. But do you want know what it is?)

Yes! (And yes!) Our pseudonym was Pandora Foessen, an anagram of Fernando Pessoa, if you can believe it. We even flirted with creating a back story for her–a place of birth, a parentage, an education, a day job, a set of poetic influences and so on, the better to make for her a fake brief author bio. Our inability to lie combined with our desire to get credit and/or blame for our work led to our scrapping that plan.

My proposed pseudonym is Gabby Roon. But I believe there is already a poet working under that name, and he isn’t very good. I like your Pessoa anagram. There’s another good pseudonym: Ana Gram.

Do you ever get treated like a novelty act when you submit your collaborative work to journals and presses? How would you characterize their response (from publishers and/or other poets)?

Yes! But on the contrary, we think it works in our favor. We get the feeling that editors like the novelty act so much they’re in a delight with the poems before they read them. And to an extent, all poetry is treated like a novelty act.

There is great humor–or do you prefer I say wit?–in your poems. Where would you place humor on the value scale of poetry? Is it undervalued? (Tell me it’s not undervalued.)

Yes! We find it exceedingly difficult to connect with humorless poetry, however excellent it is.

In fact, we find it almost impossible to connect with anything humorless, anything self-serious to the point that it believes its own bullshit. Pure earnestness seems not to be trusted–oversimplified and emotionally false. And not that we are, by any stretch, a “political” poet, but we like what Matthew Rohrer has said on the subject, that “Sometimes we want to laugh while poking holes in self-righteousness and oppression, whether it be literal political oppression or oppression of a quieter sort ??? cultural and aesthetic oppression.” Wit, irony, cleverness–whatever you want to call it–can do that.

Your wordplay adds a loose, conversational feel to poems like “The Warholizer”, “Temp” and “Clawfoot”. Is that a direct result of the collaborative process, an accumulation of like ideas from two sources?

The “conversational” feel may in fact be a product of our process, but we’re both fond of wordplay in our solo work as well. As readers, we enjoy a conversational tone in poetry, especially if it’s a conversation worth having. Or at least a conversation you’d want to eavesdrop on.

The “Paris Hilton” poems in Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing could probably be the same poems that they are without suggesting her point of view in their titles. What do you think her persona adds to those poems? How is it essential to what you’re saying? And have you written/do you plan to write more “Paris Hilton” poems?

They would be the same poems, but they’d have different titles.

Seriously though: The word persona comes from the Latin for “mask” or “character,” and part of what we’re doing in these collaborations is playing a character who is simultaneously both of us, but also neither one of us. (Did we just blow your mind?) The appeal of collaboration is an escape from the Self, and a means of composition that is free from the restraints and expectations of the autobiographical “I.” Writing from the POV of Paris Hilton–so rich, so immune to consequence–was a further escape from an already fun escape. And we wrote about 20 before we realized it’s far too easy to make fun of Paris Hilton.

There’s an interesting line in your “Fahrenheit 451”: ???I’ve never been inspired by inspiring / passages of literature or quaint / old red barns”. If inspiring passages of literature do not inspire, what types of literary passages do inspire you? And, to be thorough, can you name a few quaint things from which you have drawn inspiration?

That second “inspiring” is a bit disingenuous; we really mean “Inspiring” with a capital I or “inspirational,” and we find quaintness uninspiring in general (but who doesn’t get off on Europe?).

To put a finer point on it, it’s probably sentimentality more than quaintness that we hate–sentimentality in the sense of reduced, simplified, spoon-fed “emotion” for people who can’t be trusted/bothered to handle the complexity of real emotions. As for literary passages, one of us has a propensity to quote and be lower-case-i-inspired by them to the extent that quotations could really clutter up our poems if we didn’t resist the impulse. For example, to quote a witty person on the subject at hand, Oscar Wilde was all: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Screw those people.

One of the strengths of your work is the editing. Your line edits are unassailable. How does your editing process work and is it different in tone than your writing process?

We see that you have thrown us for a loop with this open-ended question. Our writing process is symmetrical but our editing process is a bit lopsided; one of us a bitchy, unrelenting editor. And one of us improbably easy-going about dramatic cuts and re-orderings. It is possible that our editing process has made us both “better people,” simultaneously honing both a wish for perfection and an ability to let go of that wish.

The line “I like the radical tempo changes, but maybe this is really two different songs” from “Canaries in the Morning, Orchestras in the Afternoon” made me think of Lennon and McCartney as collaborators. They sometimes married their incomplete songs to make one song. Are any of your poems made from two poems that originated separately? Or would that approach yield a total Frankenstein poem?

No! Thanks for the idea. That’s one of the few approaches we haven’t yet tried. And a total Frankenstein poem, a stitched-up poetical monster, might not be such a bad thing. We like to give names to the forms we invent/try, and those could maybe be called, handily, “monsters.”

How have your poems changed over the years?

You’re assuming they have! If they have, we would wager they’ve gotten more enigmatic. More enigmatic and lately longer and looser in their lines, though that could change back to shorter, tighter poems at a moment’s notice. We like to try to keep making it new, as the kids say.

What are your long-range plans for your collaboration? Do you imagine you’ll still be writing together ten/twenty years from now?

Yes! At least, we imagine we will continue to email on a near-daily basis. We are committed to this process until we die, or become pure information.