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On Collaboration, V: John Cotter & Shafer Hall

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Shafer Hall and John Cotter have been writing poems together for about ten years. Their work has appeared in failbetter, absent magazine, Shampoo, Anti, MiPOesias, and elsewhere. Their writing is often cinematic in its presentation of character and narrative and image. They write poems with a darkly humorous edge, and they write poems about loss and not ever having.

Can you talk about how your collaboration started? And how do you sustain such a writing partnership?

We got started with a bottle of whiskey. And like so many things that start with a bottle of whiskey, we’ve had trouble sustaining it.

Of course, we’ve had some times that were more prolific than others. We’re not poetry monsters, like Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert. We can’t even compete with the solo efforts of the Maureen Thorsons of the world. But we have a lot of fun. Every poem we write is special because we did it together. The thing that keeps us writing is our friendship.

Is your collaborative process different from the writing process you use individually? Do you discuss process or examine it as you/after you work? How has the process changed over the years?

In John’s case, the collaborative process is less organized. In Shafer’s case, it is far more organized. Of course we discuss our poems during and after, and our discussions are not limited to abject high-fiving, but we do slap a lot of skin. In the way that Sampson Starkweather collaborates with Ceasar Vallejo, one of us is usually half-dead.

Our process has changed most significantly in that we write less. When we were starting out, neither of us was entirely sure how to make a poem, so it was convenient to lean on one another’s hunches. Nowdays we don’t need each other in quite the same way ??? but at least we made a real good book out of the time in which we did.

How does the physicality of writing play out when you’re collaborating?

We don’t have the physicality of a team like Josh Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, but anyone who knows us would admit that when we get started, we are slow to slow down.

We write from our individual desks (or we used to, before Shafer had an iphone), so when we are physically present behind them, respectively, at the same time, we tend to get more done. In many ways, our most productive period was the year when Shafer worked as an analyst at Standard & Poors, and John was frantically freelancing in Daniel Ellsberg’s old dining room in Cambridge. Consequently, so you could say the best periods for our poetry have simultaneously been the worst for our actual bodies.

I really liked “Black Label Nocturne,” a villanelle. Is writing to a proscribed form more challenging in collaboration?

Form is where it’s at. It’s what makes poetry different from prose. Without form, we would just be a couple of clowns. Or everyone would more easily identify us as clowns.

Every good poem has a form, but if your form is pre-packaged, well, that’s one less thing you have to worry about.

There are two series of haiku in the collection. Explain how two writers collaborate to write seventeen syllables? (Must be intense. Must be like seventeen compromises.)

I think when you say seventeen compromises, you are thinking about writing haiku alone. It is much nicer to let someone help you make those decisions.

A lot of folks seem to think that collaboration is hard. It’s actually much easier. Like raising a barn, particularly if you are writing in form, half or more of the work is done for you.

I want to write a paper called “The Mask of Collaboration.” Can you give me the opening and concluding paragraphs for that paper?

This mask is only half a mask, of course, and it isn’t a mask but your friend’s body, half of it. It is like Charlie Schlatter in 18 Again, unique, while also being good deal like everything else.

In conclusion, there is no mask of collaboration. You are exposed to your partner in a way that an individual writer could never or would rarely be exposed to his reader. Unless you are Bill Knott.

A lot of poems are from the first person point of view. Do you guys see a character and then write the poem as that character? Or is it more a case where certain poems speak to the reader as John would and other poems as Shafer would?

Our first point of view was face down on Shafer’s driveway. Our second point of view was a thirteen-year-old girl from a state neither of us had ever seen. Later, we wrote from the point of view of a Sam Peckinpah bounty hunter. But mostly we are just a couple of old Asian dudes. We’re not Mathias Svalina and Julia Cohen but we may try to write from their point of view next.

I’d like to pick one poem and ask you guys to tell the story of its composition (how it was composed and what it is composed of). Would the poem “Ophelia” be a good story to tell? If not, can you pick another poem and give me the inverted pyramid of its composition?

When we wrote our first poem together, John was in a cold Back Bay apartment, and Shafer was on a hot Houston driveway. We were talking about representations of Ophelia — we decided they were played out. This was the late nineties, and angels were all over the place in popular culture, Ophelia too (cf. the Indigo Girls, Natilie Merchant, et al). We decided “she may as well be an angel.” It made a good first line, and we decided that we should write the rest of the poem. Then we wrote a few hundred more. Writers are often told “that would be a good thing to write about;” a productive response is “why don’t we write it right now?”
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Shafer Hall is the author of Never Cry Woof from No Tell Books. John Cotter’s first novel, Under the Small Lights, is just out from Miami University Press.