Collaboration results in seamless poetry

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May 9, 2013

Every now and then, a book turns up that is immediately intriguing. Such was the case with the beautifully produced Whisk, published by Pedlar Press. But what/who are the authors, identified jointly as Yoko’s Dogs. It was no big mystery, once Lynne Van Luven took a closer look. The collective consists of Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis and Jane Munro. They live in different cities, and yet are truly collaborative. The group can explain itself, and its process–and does so below, speaking with one voice. 

I was intrigued to learn about your group of poets called Yoko’s Dogs. Can you tell me its history: how it got started, how long the pack has been together, and what you hope to achieve?

The idea for Yoko’s Dogs came about in 2006 around a small tin table in Montreal when the four of us, living in different places and time zones, decided to explore collaboration in an engagement with new forms to expand our individual practice.

In 2008, we met for a three-day writing party in “Marshland,” Ontario where we composed our first site-specific poem. At this meeting we found our name in one of our early images: “Yoko’s house is dark, her dogs/ tied in front, too cold to bark.”

Following tradition, which we happily and radically break to invent anew, the Doggies’ practice is rigorous, exacting, challenging, and exuberant.

I notice many, many animals make appearances in the poems in Whisk. So does the natural world.  Was that intentional, or do you all just happen to slant that way?

Our focus on animals and the natural world is deliberate and purposeful. Many of our verses are composed while walking outdoors. We want to think and write about the world outside ourselves, the animate world we humans are part of. Other animals sense and know the world differently from us; by observing and interacting with them, we learn about these other ways of knowing. Again and again, we’re reminded that the world carries on without us.

We tend to think of poets as writers terribly invested in personal voice, so I find it really interesting that readers may not know who wrote what poem in the collection.  What did you hope to achieve with this sort of “anonymity”?

We’ve moved towards anonymity in our public work in an effort to accurately represent our process. We sign verses as we compose, mostly so we know where we are in any given sequence. We follow a standard rotation when composing, taking turns with who starts a poem, linking and shifting in various ways as we go. The order doesn’t change, though the kinds of links and shifts we make do. Any one of us might send someone’s verse back to the drawing board if we feel it isn’t working. So even in the earliest stages, composition is collaborative. Removing signatures from our published work, as in Whisk, is a reflection of this process, and of the fact that we work on revisions together. By the time we’re done, no one “owns” any particular verse.

Japanese linked verse is traditionally composed by a group of poets. Some methods of composition put a lot at stake for individual poets within a group: to have the host or master of a cycle choose your verse, well! We didn’t compose that way with Whisk, though we have experimented recently with this kind of selection process as a discipline to sharpen our chops. In the form of kasen composition we’re now practicing, we all offer verses and only one gets chosen. Even this approach leads to collaboration in the revision and shaping; our first kasen “Yellow,” appearing soon in Room, was composed this way but prepared for publication collaboratively. We learn from and inspire one another–it’s work, but it’s also a lot of fun.

And leading from there, each of you is an established poet, with her own career and fans.  What has the response been, when you explain the project that is Whisk?

Nearly everyone with whom we’ve spoken–in person or electronically–about Yoko’s Dogs and Whisk has been interested and sufficiently curious to ask questions. There’s been some skepticism, of course, but even that comes with curiosity.

How difficult was it to agree upon selection for the book, and upon the style of poems?  Did you each take on a style or a certain number of selections?  

Not difficult at all, and no, the entire book is a collaboration, whole cloth. We all worked on all of it.

We work by email and Skype, normally, only meeting in real time and place about once a year, and that’s how we worked with this manuscript. For the book we decided we wouldn’t tamper with the order the verses were written in, we would only decide where to stop and start. Most of the material resolved neatly into four-stanza poems because that’s how we’d composed them, but we realized as we discussed the manuscript that some of the links carried through more than four stanzas to make engaging and resonant longer poems. Agreement on these divisions was much more easily achieved than you might think–the poems sort of divided themselves, not unlike when you dig up large plants to separate them for propagation and find the root divisions are kind of clear. And titles were just plain fun to write.

It’s hard to remember if there were things we chose to leave out; quite likely we didn’t disagree much about that. Generally if one of us has a strong urge one way or another, the others listen and consider. Learning to articulate our experiences with and responses to any given poetic move has been enormously important; so too has listening.

The thing that often happens around the table as we work through our poems stanza by stanza, the discovery we make together when we hit on the right note in an image or for a move, the aha! of a good fit–might be illustrated by this verse that closes a cycle that has travelled through several landscapes and conditions, settling finally in sub-continental India at monsoon season: “so that’s how the cow/ got in the tree!”



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