March 15, 2010KR BlogKR

On Collaboration, II: Kate Schapira & TOWN


Kate Schapira wanted to build a town but she didn’t want to do it alone so she sent a charming letter soliciting input to about one hundred “friends, relations, and acquaintances (some working writers/some not).” The contributions that Kate received presented many contradictions–enough to fill a town–and she decided to accept all of these contradictions as true (and in doing so examine the idea of “consensus”, asking: “how do contradictions mutually and simultaneously exist and what gravity do they exert on one another, without erasing or swallowing the other”).

Kate’s new book, TOWN, just released from Factory School as part of their Heretical Texts Series, is a living and dreaming organism: committeed by poem and poemed by committee.

Q: I tried to position these questions in terms of collaboration, but I feel this work has a clear ???author’. That is, I see the ideas as yours but constructed out of the source material. Is that a good way to explain your process with TOWN?

A: Yes, mostly. Before people sent their contributions, I had no ideas except about the structure of the project. Everything I wrote developed out of what they told me. So I had a lot of control at the beginning (I set the terms) and end (I determined the wording) but very little in the middle. Is it more of a division of labor than a true collaboration? The project wouldn’t exist without me or them.

Q: How did you develop the organizing system (sort of a naming system, too) for these poems? They’re subject-oriented (EDUCATION / TOURISM / COMMERCE) and also thematic (HAUNTINGS / DISASTER / CONTRADICTIONS), as they run above each poem. (Reminded me of something Edward Tuftee would approve of. I like how you called them “notional bins” or “committees” in your afterword.)

A: When I started the project, I imagined those categories as tabs running down the side of the page–I think the model I was working with was of a manual or tourist guide for “using”, “running” or living in the town, with all the unevenness that implies. I developed the categories after all the contributions were in, figuring out what might apply, what might need covering, though I predicted some of them beforehand (like “construction/ infrastructure” for example).

Q: You use a couple of terms to describe your TOWN collaborators: In the title page you call them Council (and include yourself in the list); and in the afterword you call them contributors. In what shape were the original contributions–in prose or verse? Did your Council offer comments on the poems or suggests revisions? (Was it wholly an intake-output process?)

A: It was a one-way process, yeah. The contributors didn’t see drafts or anything.

The original contributions were a mix. Some were very transparent and informational in their language; some felt more poeticized, troubled or worked-on, or put their language more out in front. When it felt like a contribution’s syntax and diction were important to it, I tried to retain that in at least one place, even if I treated it as information in other places. I also sometimes retained the language of the more informational ones, if I liked it, and sometimes I included bits of people’s explanatory notes. I did this kind of intuitively–if I said anything about how I knew which contributions privileged information and which privileged or insisted on wording, it’d be retroactive–and I do think there are some assumptions there which I haven’t examined about what information is.

Q: There are ten first-person pieces labeled “From the Dreamwall”. Can you talk about what inspired that recurring feature? Were dreams a surprise topic from your collaborators?

A: The dreamwall itself was a contribution–”There’s a wall in the town where people go to write their dreams,” or something similar to that. I don’t think anybody contributed a dream; the language in those poems is mostly from me, and I used the dreams to further play out or explore ideas and feelings that had come up in the contributions–and to let some individual people in the town speak. But I think they’re also kind of the project’s dreams, because they reveal and recast the town’s/the book’s preoccupations.

Q: While reading TOWN, I was thinking of The Spoon River Anthology and Our Town and, one of my favorites, Winesburg, Ohio. Those works present town-life through identity of characters, but in your TOWN the citizens are nameless. What was your thinking in avoiding explicit characters?

A: That wasn’t a conscious avoidance–I mean, I wasn’t thinking, “I don’t want to have specific characters.” (There are a few characters, like the last witness and Mrs. Bodega, but they are more like “characters”–the town knows who they are and feels okay about commenting on them, but doesn’t know them, and they have roles instead of names. That was on purpose and has to do with the question of what being a member of a community means–are you a person or a role, or what?) I guess I was more interested in the way a community says “we” and “they” than the way its members say “I”; although the dreamwall poems do say “I,” it’s anonymous both to the town and to readers.

Q: The name of the school in TOWN is Crooked Places Made Straight Christian Academy. There’s a line: “Explain what you’ve never understood: how to be a child victim. / This is what we learn in school, but don’t repeat.” How would you characterize the input on childhood from your contributors?

A: Actually there was much more input on adolescence than on young childhood, which I think reflects the stories that communities tell themselves about teenagers as a source of trouble, unease, unrest, sexual mania and “anti-social” choices. (I was imagining Crooked Places Made Straight as a high school.) Teenagers as victims of society and teenagers as degraders or destroyers of society–people that the community simultaneously needs to protect and be protected from. A lot of the contributions that came in had that flavor, and of course none of this is new news. The name of the school dovetailed with another contribution I had about a “bastion of Bible-thumping republicanism”, and that made me think about the very odd relationship that Christianity and sexuality have had and continue to have.

Q: In TOWN, currency is literally a consumable: “Every two weeks when men and women take their / paychecks and cash them at the bank. They don’t / deposit the money but begin to chew it.” You return to this theme a few times, extending it to an absurd length but presenting it always in practical terms. What’s the commentary?

A: The two contributions I had about currency were the first contradictions I encountered — it’s true that both are consumable, but in one case food and currency were synonymous, in the other currency was a separate thing–and it made me realize I was going to have to come up with some way of dealing with contradictions in the town. I had another set of contributions about mortgages, Section 8 housing and people relocating, and because of the U.S.’s current relationship to mortgages, the connection took shape. The two kinds of currency also seemed to suggest a class or status difference, even if only in the “consumers'” attitudes. So I think it is informed by both what is on my contributors’ minds (most of my contributors live in the U.S.) and what’s on my mind. I don’t see it so much as an allegory for what’s going on right now–more as an examination of how people are controlled by, and act in accordance with, what they assume always has to be true about their economy.

Q: Do you have any new collaborative writing projects on the horizon (even in the conceptual stage) or is there a writer with whom you’d like to work?

A: Yes! Erika Howsare and I are in the final stages of a collaboration on the subject of waste. We collaborated on an e-chap that either is or is about to be up at The Cultural Society; this new project is bigger and has a lot more going on. I love working with Erika because her perception and articulation are so sharp and her pace and tension are so different from mine. I’ve also been corresponding, and just did a mutual interview, with a writer/blogger in Canada, and your question has inspired me to ask her if she’d like to collaborate on something. Kate Colby and I started collaborating on a project about Providence that is on hiatus but that I’d like to revisit. What’s funny about all of this is that for a long time I couldn’t stand to collaborate at all and would always fall down on the job.

Writers I’d like to work with? If someone reads this and has an idea for working together, I’d like to hear about it.

In addition to TOWN, Kate Schapira is the author several chapbooks, including The Saint’s Notebook (Flying Guillotine Press, 2009), Heroes and Monsters (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2009) and The Love of Freak Millways and Tango Wax (Cy Gist Press, 2009). She organizes the Publicly Complex reading series in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives, teaches, and writes.

Order TOWN (Factory School, 2010) at Small Press Distributors.