As Kelly and I developed this project we were clear that we wanted to interview people who work together, in a partnership, but not a romantic partnership. We both had a sense that this kind of relationship was more often underground, less explored, more confusing to people. In this interview, Denise said, "Family and romantic relationships—their disappointments and joys—fuel so many songs and poems and novels and movies. But friendships are so sacred!"
I stumbled on Denise and Maureen during the early stages of envisioning Two Create, before the website was live. I was entering dozens of word-combinations into Google, looking for stories about collaborators, when I found their "10 Commandments of Collaboration" on poets.org. It's a perfect list, one that touches on so many of the themes we're starting to see in these interviews: trust, food, ego, and more.
Even within the same discipline, collaboration can take so many different forms. Denise and Maureen are poets and they bring both of their voices to the same poem, writing together by trading lines, adapting the visual game of the exquisite corpse, or writing sections that they then cut apart and rearrange. Most inspiring to me is the way that both women identify a "third voice" that sometimes arises in these collaborative works.
Where and when and how did your collaboration begin?
Denise: In the late 1980s, I went to hear the poet David Trinidad give a reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City. I was surprised and a little confused when, mid-reading, David asked his friend Bob Flanagan to join him on stage to read some of their collaborations. It was the first time I had ever heard of collaborative poetry, and I had no idea what to expect. The poets read their joint efforts, alternating line by line, after explaining that they were not necessarily reading their "own" lines—that is, the lines they had actually individually written. I felt lucky to have seen the work performed, a living indication of the influence friendship plays in the work of poets. David's own poems were strongly narrative, infusing pop culture with his Los Angeles boyhood. When Bob joined him on stage, the poems' narratives blew open—suddenly the two poets were in a world of surrealism, collage, and, dare I say it, fun. Perhaps because I was able to see and hear the two poets reading, I was not intimidated by what I didn't literally understand. What I heard was wacky, dynamic, and nonlinear. The next morning I called Maureen and explained as best I could what I had witnessed . . . Want to try this? I asked her. She said yes and the rest is herstory.
Maureen: It felt mildly revolutionary for two poets to collaborate in those days—almost thirty years ago!—although maybe what was more revolutionary, come to think of it, was the fact that Denise and I had the chutzpah to send our co-authored poems to some very established literary magazines. Poets have actually been teaming up forever, but I think it was considered some kind of illicit play no one took seriously, maybe even the poets themselves. Denise and I were blown away by our collaborative work. It felt radical to us at the time. I lived in the Bronx, Denise in the East Village. We would both soon leave New York and at least one of us would never live there again. I think New York had something to do with our collaborative beginnings. ’89, ‘90. Another whole new era about to begin.
How is this relationship different from others in your life?
Maureen: It’s one of the best, I can tell you that. It seems to have elements of everything a good relationship can be, a depth that startles the hell out of us constantly, and a big huge dose of joy every time we get together to write. Constant surprise. Completely non-judgmental. Full support in the writing process and experimentation. We’re like improv actors, always saying yes to each other and the muses who work with us. Not sure I can compare this to my other relationships. It works in its own wild way.
It seems to have elements of everything a good relationship can be, a depth that startles the hell out of us constantly, and a big huge dose of joy every time we get together to write.
Denise: I agree! I had a discussion with my class not too long ago about the role friendship plays in our lives and how not many people (including Maureen and I) write about it. You arrive into a family, if you are lucky, with parents and siblings. You get all kinds of needs met by this family. You fall in love and you get all kinds of other needs met. Family and romantic relationships—their disappointments and joys—fuel so many songs and poems and novels and movies. But friendships are so sacred! Maureen and I have friendship in addition to being vital in one another’s artistic growth. That is sacred to the max.
Can you describe the process of writing poetry together?
Denise: We have done one line at a time, back and forth. We have counted syllables, used exquisite corpse, adapted exquisite corpse to writing back and forth on email. We have also written exquisite corpse pantoums, sestinas, and sonnets. We have used Oulipo techniques, written in "chunks" and cut up said "chunks" to rearrange them. We have written litanies and lists, centos, and even mock interviews.
Maureen: Our process is organic, so it reveals itself to us or morphs as we write. Perhaps one of us has seen something fascinating and presents the idea to the other—where it’s received with that “Yes, and…” attitude. One time we worked with old encyclopedia entries (from an actual set of encyclopedias), substituting Olive Oyl’s name for famous women throughout history, coming up with Olive of Willendorf; Olive Magdalene; Olive, Queen of Ancient Egypt. Once we did a kind of internet scavenger hunt, giving each other clues in our lines to send the other researching to unexpected places on the web. Our process is one of surprise and serendipity. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
What are some of the challenges that arise in your creative partnership?
Maureen: How to find more time to be together is our biggest challenge. Once school starts, we’re down for the count, both time-wise and energy-wise. We’ve been through all kinds of upheavals along the way in our separate lives and we’ve even drifted away from each other for a period of time. Like other partners, our writing relationship has ebbed and flowed. But it’s always there, waiting for us whenever we tap into it. It’s a constant.
Denise: Yes, time indeed, is the biggest challenge. I feel this more acutely as we mature. We both have family obligations and teaching obligations, so sometimes it’s difficult to prioritize collaborations. But rather than anguish over this, Maureen and I look forward to the days when we both can come up for collaborative air.
I might be thinking the poem is going north, but Maureen's next line goes west and I follow on a beautiful detour.
You talk about a "third voice," can you describe this voice, where it comes from, and how it differs from your individual voices?
Denise: When we write our solo poems, I think there is a personality or character, if you will, that would mark our work. But when Maureen and I make a poem together all bets are off. The most obvious thing is that a collaborative poem is "out of control" in terms of content. I might be thinking the poem is going north, but Maureen's next line goes west and I follow on a beautiful detour. We are also much more uncensored (and we are already pretty uncensored as individuals!). Maureen constantly surprises me.
Maureen: And vice versa! I love it when Denise changes directions. We trust each other completely. The infamous “third voice” was something we discovered and enjoyed for a long time. Sometimes it’s really clear and we marvel at it, a whole new person(a) speaking our lines. I still appreciate it when it happens, but I really don’t mind it when we pull the voice apart into our own two and carry on from there. This happens when we talk to each other in a poem rather than to the reader. We haven’t done this often, but I love it. I think my favorite of all our poems (well, with the exception of the OYL sequence) is called “A Poem Cycle,” a collaboration commissioned by Danny Lawless at PLUME. That’s the one where we gave each other clues to find on the web. We actually addressed each other in this piece. I guess our third, collaborative voice speaks from an alternate universe, a fiction we accidentally create, while our separate voices going back and forth feel more like music to me, contrapuntal, more transparent: a piano and a cello—or two banjoes!
How have people responded to your creative partnership?
Maureen: At the beginning, there was a prevalent sense among poetry critics and editors that poetic collaboration was low art, a bowdlerized version of the art. One editor told us he considered poetic collaboration an oxymoron. (I still don’t get this.) Now it’s gratifying to see poetry publishers inviting collaborators to submit manuscripts. How great is that? And so many poets are collaborating now. Even the ones who swear they’ll never try it, if they find the right partner, they’re sold.
I wouldn't be interested in writing a poem in which I knew the last line.
Denise: Agreed! So many have asked ask me, “How do you let go of the finished product?” as if poets have that much control over their own poems. I believe in the muse. Of course control comes in revision, but I wouldn’t be interested in writing a poem in which I knew the last line. The people who “get” collaboration can see its value. There are presently more collaborative poetry books being published and so many more collaborative poems in journals. When I edited The Best American Poetry 2013, I included the first collaborative poem and I hope future editors follow my lead.
Maureen Seaton has authored seventeen poetry collections, both solo and collaborative— most recently, Fibonacci Batman: New & Selected Poems (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2013) and Caprice: Collected, Uncollected, and New Collaborations (with Denise Duhamel, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). Her awards include the Iowa Poetry Prize and Lambda Literary Award (both for Furious Cooking), the Audre Lorde Award (for Venus Examines Her Breast), an NEA fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her memoir, Sex Talks to Girls, also garnered a “Lammy.” She teaches creative writing at the University of Miami, Florida.
Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997). She and Maureen Seaton co-authored CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). Duhamel is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.