• Owen Bullock


The collaborative writing of free verse poetry is a rare endeavour in any country but perhaps particularly so in New Zealand. The field of haikai literature, however, offers frequent examples of collaboration, through various forms of renga, and its influence on poets who collaborate has been significant. Following the example of Octavio Paz, this paper will consider whether collaboration might mitigate against ‘the myth of the unique author’, the single and authoritative signature with which 20th-century theorists such as Barthes, Foucault and Derrida found so much fault, and which Paz tried to dispel through collaboration. The paper will consider examples of co-authored poetry published in New Zealand, in particular those involving Jenny Powell-Chalmers, who has been New Zealand’s most active collaborator in free verse. In discussing collaborative poetry, particular attention will be paid to voice and heteroglossia, including its social aspect, and with reference to Bakhtin’s stylistics of the novel. As well as analysing collaborative poems for the effects of voice achieved, this paper will try to suggest why writing collaborative poetry is productive and has potential for invigorating creative practice.



Keywords: collaboration—poetry—New Zealand—Jenny Powell-Chalmers—heteroglossia


The rarity of co-authored poetry in New Zealand is such that I find few examples in my reading of New Zealand writing from the mid-1990s onwards. I first came across collaborative writing in free verse in a poem by Hazel Hills and Biddy Selden in Poetry New Zealand #22 (2001), titled ‘The fierce girl’. The work of these two English poets was fused on the page, with no indication as to which part had been written by whom, which was intriguing. The poem is an ekphrastic response to a painting by Mary Fedden. One gets a hint of call and response between two voices and the image of a character progressively embellished by each. The sense of both identity and difference between these two voices is enriching, and recalls Saussure’s description of the mechanics of language and our shared linguistic history (Saussure 2005: 106). At times, though, the two voices seem to merge into one (there is also a hint that they might be sisters), so that the possibility for variations of voicing are immediately apparent. After pondering this portrait, ‘poised on some English lawn’ and from a base near the Thames, the poem imagines the girl in the present time, and speculates on what she does. Later, a voice unified into the use of the first person suggests she may have seen the girl on Lambton Quay in Wellington, New Zealand. The girl may have just disembarked, even jumped ship; she may be on her way to Cape Reinga. In another life, she may have ‘hung around in Crete’ assisting Theseus, but really bored (Hills and Selden 2001: 46-48). The poem sees universal qualities in the portrait, and the heteroglossia of this collaborative response extends the ekphrasis and diversifies the tones of the poem. The social nature of this heteroglossia brings to mind Bakhtin’s stylistics of the novel, which will be discussed below as further examples are considered.

Apart from my own forays into this field, the only other collaborative free verse poems appearing in journals at this time were two short poems I published as editor of Spin #47 (2004) by Australian poets Mel and Teri Kelly, then living in New Zealand. The magazine Spin was founded by David Drummond c1986 [i]. In 2004, it was the only journal in New Zealand other than Poetry New Zealand dedicated exclusively to poetry. Mel and Teri Kelly’s ‘lesbian hooker with attitude’ and ‘urban punk’ were alive with demotic language, contained bold enjambment, internal rhyme and a sense of irreverence and fun (Kelly and Kelly 2004: 45). The writers told me in a letter that they had so far had no luck getting their collaborative poetry published in New Zealand, which probably reflected the lack of familiarity with collaborative poetry at the time.

The influence of renga and ‘the myth of the unique author’

In the world of haikai literature (haiku and its related forms), collaborative writing has, historically, been far more common. Traditional renga—linked writing—was a kind of literary parlour game where collaborators alternated writing the two sections of a tanka (the ‘short song’ that was the mainstay of Japanese poetry from its emergence in the ninth century anthology the Man’yoshu until Basho’s time). A tanka is usually comprised of two structural elements: an observation of nature, followed by an internal or philosophical reflection on that observation. Sequences were built with a clear connection between, say, link one and two, and between two and three, but not necessarily between one and three. The initial observation was known as the hokku, eventually being written by Basho for its own sake, and renamed haiku at the beginning of the 20th century by Masaoka Shiki. Haiku, then, arose from renga. But both tanka and haiku have survived contemporaneously, as has renga itself, in various strict forms—with emphasis on the seasons and the cycles of the moon, and known as renku—as well as in freer collaborations. An important characteristic of renga is the looseness with which it is approached and the relative lack of editorial input into its completion. This relaxing of strictures seems necessary to give participants permission to write in their own fashion and to assist the sense of freedom that one needs for the creative act.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz had brought some understanding of renga to a wider, western audience following his collaboration with Charles Tomlinson, Jacques Roubaud and Edoardo Sanguineti in the 1971 collection, Renga: a chain of poems. Though these poets adopted collaborative sonnets as a more relevant vehicle for themselves as western writers, the impetus came from Paz’s knowledge of Buddhism and Japanese forms of poetry. Paz was also interested in the idea of ‘the myth of the unique author’, which seems to be his response to issues raised by Barthes and Foucault. He saw authorial uniqueness as a myth because of the way the shared language that we use, together with its implied previous usages, passes through the mind of each individual. Paz felt that western writers should attempt experiments in de-emphasising the role of the individual writer (in Guibert 1973: 229-230). This was a bold decision on Paz’s part, as was his decision to enlist the partnership of three other poets who were each speakers of a different first language.

It seems as though poets before Paz were reluctant to respond in practice to the challenges to authorship laid down by literary theorists, and his ideas are not only in allegiance with them but seem to deal with 20th century re-appraisal of the role of the author in a more radical way than the theorists themselves. Barthes talks about the author as no more than an instance writing (1977: 145) and Foucault sees the origin of the term author as a ‘privileged moment of individualisation’ (2000: 174). In troubling ‘the myth of the unique author’, collaboration acknowledges this writing instance and de-emphasises the privileged moment of individualisation. The sense of ownership of a poem, including the attendant egoic thrill of publishing solely in one’s name is also reduced. What Barthes calls the ‘prestige of the individual’ (1977: 143) is important to writers and the very idea of no longer being able to lay full claim to a work might be distressing to some, whilst for others, it might form part of the charm of collaboration. The hyperbole of Barthes’ title, ‘Death of an Author’, does not extend to his signing work anonymously, which might seem like the natural next step. Foucault asserts, ‘An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer—but not an author’ (2000: 179), yet he too perpetuates the myth. Deleuze and Guatarri are notable collaborators amongst the most influential of literary and cultural theorists. Answering the question, ‘Why have we kept our own names?’, they reply, ‘Out of habit’ (1988: 3). It is nice to speak like everyone else, they tell us, but also to work towards the point where it does not matter who is speaking (much as Foucault remarked on the poignancy of Beckett’s infamous question about the speaker).

Barthes talks about the text as the destruction of voice, but this point is qualified by the phrase ‘of every point of origin’ (1977: 143), so that the issue of transcendent origins is stressed, rather than generic comments about the voice in terms of stylistic effects. This concern about origins is shared by Derrida in his discussion of the originary nature of the sign, with its transcendent signified sharing the same epoch as the idea of God (1997: 13-20); but here, too, the myth of the author is maintained by Derrida’s name. Whilst collaborative writing is clearly not anonymous, it does reappraise the name of the author and what it might describe—to borrow Foucault’s concerns (2000: 177-179)—since the two names given together cannot describe uniqueness in the way that a single name does. Collaborative poetic texts, such as the two poems discussed above (by Hills/Selden and Kelly/Kelly) often do not designate which sections were written by which poet, which means that the name is not able to function so well as a descriptor of quality, style or particular characteristics in the writing, but instead is a more arbitrary designation, which effectively achieves the demythologising of the uniqueness of the author that Paz encouraged in poetry.

Too often, the worlds of haikai forms and mainstream poetry have operated quite separately, with mainstream poets unaware of the contemporary practice of the other, and vice versa. Interest in haikai forms in New Zealand was in part generated by the annual haiku competition sponsored by the New Zealand Poetry Society and initiated by David Drummond in 1987 (Childs and Simpson: 2015). In 1995, Spin began publishing a winter issue—WinterSpin—which focused on haiku and related forms, and frequently included renga [ii]. New Zealand poets Patricia Prime and Catherine Mair were prominent as collaborators and also published a form of renga in mainstream poetry journals such as Takahe and Brief, giving collaboration a slightly wider audience. Inspired by their work, I myself collaborated with Catherine Mair in a variety of renga forms and we eventually published co-authored pantoums in Poetry New Zealand and Catalyst, both mainstream journals; I also published collaborative free verse with Tania Brady in Catalyst (all 2004). These were fascinating experiments, especially as the renga and poems moved towards a greater degree of co-authorship. With Brady, in particular, and as the editing process resulted in lines and stanzas being re-ordered, we lost track of who had written what. This experience was indeed liberating because to let go of the sense of ownership of a poem, which is often anguished and problematic, was to admit to and accept a lack of control over the creative artefact.

Ownership is problematic since most poets borrow from others, both consciously and unconsciously, and because, like language itself, we do not and cannot work without a shared context. The mechanisms of language, like sounds themselves, are determined by identities and differences, and the differences are counterparts of identity; in fact there are only differences (Saussure 2005: 106, 117-118). Collaborative poetry can have the effect of expanding identity and the sense of a voice in a work by utilising the differences that two poets can bring to the text that an individual cannot. The sense of shared creativity in my own experience of collaborating was also enhanced by the feeling that at no time did the process take anything away from one’s solo writing, since the new spaces that co-authorship invited one to inhabit also seemed to create new energy.

As well as Paz’s theoretical considerations and the inspiration provided by renga, there are other significant forms of impetus for collaborative writing, such as a desire for intimacy between the collaborators (Webb 2015: 4-6). In the case of the Kellys, for example, this accords with their relationship. In practice, each example of a co-authored poem must be read as openly as possible for differing manifestations of the creative experiment, such as heteroglossia, unity and difference of voice and conversational and responsive approaches.

The publication of a much larger scale work of collaborative poetry by New Zealand poet Jenny Powell-Chalmers and a group of predominantly Dunedin-based poets familiar to readers of New Zealand journals offers an opportunity to evaluate collaborative poetry in more detail.

Double-Jointed (2003)

By 2003, Powell-Chalmers had already published two solo collections, Sweet Banana Wax Peppers (1998) and Hats (2000), both with HeadworX. Also a musician and arts administrator, she wrote in collaboration with ten other poets for this project: Rob Allan, Martha Morseth, John Allison, Larry Matthews, Emma Neale, John Dolan, Peter Olds, Trevor Reeves and James Norcliffe. The musical backdrop is important. Music not only occurs frequently as a topic, but is structurally and intentionally implicit, as Powell-Chalmers reveals that the collection ‘is about exploring the reproduction of chamber music. I was after that close intense interaction between musical voices and wondered if it could occur when I wrote with another person. So I attempted it as a whole lot of duets.’ She notes the influence of Vikram Seth’s An equal music and the possible need for the presence of more than one voice to represent music in poetry (in Rickerby 2004: 33). This strategy is a significant point of difference with other renga-inspired collaborative poetry, whilst also setting up heteroglossia as an aim. Powell-Chalmers produced between four and nine poem duets with each collaborator (with an average of five and a half by each pairing). Most of the sets include two or more poems with the same or similar title; only those with John Dolan and Trevor Reeves do not, though in the latter, the poems are strongly thematically linked through an imagining of the character of Moll Flanders and so share that sense of a cohesive suite of works. 

The first collaboration with Rob Allan is full of pantoum-like echoes and unexpected syntax—‘placed one feels / placed one could imagine / placed in one’s being’. The three ‘takes’ on the same title, ‘Dreams of Hollywood’, give a sense of a shared and repeated conversation in which images of the city and music vie for prominence; the music wins and seems to demand strong rhythmic structures that the third ‘take’, in particular, achieves. This balance of rhythm and image is characteristic of other poems, together with a sense of strong and differing personas. The musical repetition includes the use of names and surprising double stresses such as ‘around us / tight too tight’ (‘Forest of Singing’), so that the idea of the duet is given grounding in the musicality of the poetry.

The sense of shifting voices in ‘Playing Mozart 1’, with John Allison, coheres with the topic of learning music and helps suggest the music’s structural movements. Use of the second person enhances the sense of rehearsal, and a third person ‘he’, Mozart himself, enters the room to join the others as the playing blossoms. In ‘Playing Mozart 2’, use of the double margin form (originated by New Zealand poet Alistair Paterson) also helps accentuate the effect of two voices, which comment on major and minor keys and the mirrored phrases of the music. ‘High Country Raga’ juxtaposes sitar, tambra, tabla and the terminology of Indian classical music with the New Zealand high country setting. Along with the drum, the buzz of the cicada increases the sense of ‘tactile sound’, whilst onomatopoeic words allude to the embodied nature of music.

‘Symphonie Fantastique’, as its title might suggest, has a large scope. In the first section, a dream-like conversation is evoked, conflating strange images, such as hot chocolate and sea water (the former large enough to swim in), and with Linus from the Snoopy cartoons walking on its surface, trailing his blanket. Again, the second person is used as the characters address each other. The other Snoopy characters appear and the addressee floats in a hot air balloon, with Snoopy in a Sopworth Camel, calling their names. Overall, there’s a sense of one character moving into and out of another’s dream. In the second section, one voice addresses the other as Lucy, who replies (via indented stanzas) exalting Harriet, whilst being driven mad by Schroeder’s music and the confusion of dream-like events. The conversation and role-playing continue into the third section, with the colloquial banter increasingly like a parlour game, together with the new and sinister idea that one party has poisoned the other. The fourth section is more reflective as the voices comprehend their environment, where the dream has turned into a march to the scaffold. The fifth section witnesses the procession of Harriet’s coffin. The tone is that of a Plathian pastiche of death and uncertainty, ending with the re-emergence of a certain dog that departs in his bi-plane. The poem’s investigation of drama through conversation adds greatly to the diversity of the book and is another thread of its heteroglossia.

Both iterations of ‘To Let’, with Emma Neale, begin with the epigram ‘Generous skylights give a sunny interior and permit star-gazing if desired’. Characters in the poem seem to argue in the sultry heat. In the Spring, the tenants try again to live peaceably, and the poem closes with the same epigram that opened it. The third person plural ‘our’ is used and at times the two personas’ voices become so commingled that it is impossible to tease out separate threads, so that a unified voice is suggested. It is outside the scope of this paper to make a comparison between the richness of this combined voice and those the poets might achieve alone, but it is, nevertheless, a product of the two poets’ collaboration and troubles the ‘myth of the unique author’ with a new kind of uniqueness. Foucault identified in the author function ‘the principle of a certain unity of writing’ (2000: 181) but unity is of an inherently different order in collaboration. Even the use of the first person in the Hills and Selden poem mentioned above is a significant new variable from those fluctuations of first person voice that Foucault outlined in the novel (2000: 182).

In some poems, a strong shift of rhythm between the voices is detectable in the ‘two takes’ on the same theme. In ‘Lindy’ a third person is described – the young woman of the title—from two different perspectives. The two poems titled ‘Ballad of the Fascination Café’ (I and II) include sudden changes of direction, rhythm and voice. These features are intensified as the friends from the first version of ‘To Let’ make a comeback within a pattern of stress and unstress, rhyme and meter:

Charlotte Chantel Martine
Max and Marcus lean
on leather bus seats
sip their long whites
their short blacks lick
their cappuccino froth
lick their lips sip
the slick liquid fuel

Narrative thrust is balanced by these rhythmic devices and the lines emphasise the sense of a duet being played.

The collaborations with John Dolan diversify the voicings with the kind of leaps of imagination one might expect from a poet such as Dolan, whose irreverent humour permeates his poetry, often through the voices of exaggerated imaginary personas [iii]. Peter Olds’ personal preoccupation with mental health is also apparent in his collaborative work with Powell-Chalmers who somehow takes up the thread of his topic and works with it without any sense of pretension; at other times, it seems as though Olds’ voice feeds sympathetically off Powell-Chalmers’:

had baked beans on toast for tea,
listened to Schumann’s Symphony No 3 in E,

pulled on my oldest cleanest denim jacket,
dropped a Panadeine, walked to the town hall

References to characters like ‘bald-headed Mike’ evoke both Olds’ earlier work in the 70s and 80s as well as that of his friend James K Baxter’s poems of alternative lifestyle in Wellington and Auckland, so that Olds’ voice and his name as a descriptor remain surprisingly evident. In a second run at ‘Tuesday morning’, some of the same ideas are re-visited in different form and phrasing, nonetheless giving a fascinating and ongoing sense of the duet and musical variation.

The long poem ‘Jazz at the Robbie Burns’, with James Norcliffe, juxtaposes contemporary poetry with short rhyming lyrics, giving the voices very differing forms. The closing metaphor of the trapeze in the last two poems, ‘trapeze’ and ‘double-jointed’ emphasise the performative quality of the language. The series ends with the lines ‘doubley daring acts / of the night’. Overwhelmingly, daring characterises this collection of collaborative poetry. Reviewers were struck by its diversity and the way in which its voices react and intertwine (Reeves 2004; Wyatt 2004); Reeves went so far as to suggest that the book was, ‘a “new look” at poetry in our age’ (2004).

The diversity cited by reviewers is a result of the different interactions and effects of the co-authored voices; these might be summarised as:

  1. Unified voice
  2. Divergent voices
  3. Responsive writing
  4. Conversational writing
  5. Dramatised, character-based interactions.

As suggested above, the unified voice of collaboration is arguably more shifting than is commonly found in literature, so that even it is relatively heteroglossic. These indications are provisional and comparison with other single-authored contemporary poems would be productive, though again outside the scope of this paper. Effects two to five each point towards a high degree of heteroglossia, for which consideration of Bakhtin’s ideas, though ostensibly focused on the novel, is also insightful for the reading of poetry. He claims that the notion of poetic style relies on the unity of both the language system and the poet’s individuality. By contrast, the novel not only dispenses with these considerations but also makes stratification of language, social heteroglossia and diversity of individual voice prerequisites for ‘authentic novelistic prose’. Bakhtin’s conception of the poem may have been a limited one, and various elements of his stylistics of the novel might be applicable to much 20th and 21st century poetry, but it is clear that many of these factors are indeed at work in the poetic collaborations discussed. His stylistics of the novel include authorial literary narration; stylisation of oral forms; stylisation of semi-literary forms (e.g. the letter); extra-artistic literary speech (e.g. oratory), and the individualised speech of characters (Bakhtin 1981: 262-264). Bakhtin noted that a novel combines any or all of these categories into ‘the higher unity of the work as a whole’ (Bakhtin 1981: 262), so that we might expect a collaborative poem, if it makes a similar attempt at such a higher unity, to use at least some, but not necessarily all, of these techniques. And that seems to be the case here. For example, literary narration is overt throughout; oral forms are made use of in ‘Jazz at the Robbie Burns’, and character-based interactions are common. The fact that the collaborative poem seems to have achieved this suggests that it has expanded the range of poetry in a way that is productive for the poets concerned and potentially appealing to readers through its diversity of voice.

Bakhtin’s focus on the ‘stylistics of genre’ is founded in his claim that stylistics is defined by individual craft rather than social discourses, which leads to a stylistics that is largely historical, since it is centred outside the living, social realm. The social aspect of collaborative poetry and its frequent heteroglossia would seem to correct the tendency, as well as moving beyond that privileged sense of individualisation that Foucault noted. Bakhtin also notes that changes in the stylistics of the poem are sometimes thwarted by attempts on the part of commentators to capture an essential ‘authorial identity’ (Bakhtin 1981: 259- 265). Again, we have already seen ways in which collaborative poetry works against this single identity (with the exception, at times of the pieces written with Olds, and perhaps Dolan), as Paz recommended. The collaborative poetry discussed is social in its framework far beyond that of the social parameters of a reading group which enjoys poetry, for example. Powell-Chalmers and others socialise in and whilst writing and allow the diversity of their interactions and voice to be evident in the poetry.

If Bakhtin proposes ‘a continuity between system and performance’, which is effectively a complementarity of langue and parole, they nevertheless operate in a state of tension and conflict, with canonisation and heteroglossia two of these opposing forces (Clark and Holquist 1984: 14). In poetry, canonisation typically equates with the unified voice of single-authored poems. Heteroglossia often manages to trouble this canon and, in doing so, disturbs perceptions of the differences between prose and poetry and the latter’s scope.

Powell-Chalmers’ experiments with collaborative writing continued with another, quite different project, published a year after Double-Jointed.

Locating the Madonna (2004)

This collection features 32 poems, 20 by Powell-Chalmers and 12 by Anna Jackson. Jackson had published three collections by this date, The Long Road to Teatime (2000), The Pastoral Kitchen (2001) and Catullus for Children (2003), all with Auckland University Press. The poems here are entirely responsive, rather than sharing the pages, but the effects, in many cases, are no less interesting for our consideration of polyvocal qualities; authorship is noted only by an index in the back of the book.

The titular section of three poems, ‘Locating the Madonna’, introduces the important metaphor of the plait to illustrate the connections that the two voices seem to be expected to form. The persona is also concerned with the geographic divide as poems are sent north—Powell-Chalmers to Jackson—across ‘the ditch’ between the two islands, just like the cable which shifts electricity between the two land masses. It is hoped that some poetic electricity will reach across the divide, ‘through plaited / cables’; the voice also addresses the other directly in the second person. The plait metaphor is developed in the next poem with the lines:

Let me plait
your gold leaf hair
to stop you flying
in gusts of wind

The phrase ‘gold leaf’ anchors the concern in the literary project and also includes a sense of wanting to be truly connected. The persona will anoint two strands of hair with myrrh and frankincense, valorising the project with religious allusion; a third strand will ‘be left / to tangle and twist’ until they can bring it under some control. Jackson replies with the question, ‘If we are in it together, / what is it we are in’, suggesting the unfamiliar. She picks up the flying reference of the previous poem by wondering what wing they are under, as well as considering that they might be inside the plait, and even, somewhat perplexingly, inside the hair of poetry. The questions extend the feeling of a conversation begun, and the line, ‘I am held’, implies attention and tension, like an agreement to partake. But this is not a grip, or an embrace, not even a gaze, it is a glimpse. The relationship is not an arrival, but a reflection, and memory is already suggested as an important component. There is a hint too that the reference to a bell implies a subtle stimulation between the two voices, that one will impel the other.

The first poem of the section ‘The Madonna on Tour’, by Powell-Chalmers, introduces a Madonna-like character visiting the poor ‘lost Christs’. Initially, the persona is with a companion who has made Indian tea, and the source of the narrative may well be a dream:

she sips the fragrant
steam he rides a rickshaw
dream down a Delhi road
his hands are transparent

The surreal hands are illustrative of the dream. The back cover asserts that the motif of the Madonna is the ‘third strand’ that the first poem prophesied. An interview reveals that Powell-Chalmers felt that their combined voice would become a kind of third, whilst Jackson wondered, more literally, if a third poet should be invited in. After a time, they both felt that the Madonna was indeed that third strand, and a kind of presence which kept the whole project together (in Rickerby 2004: 30). It certainly seems as though this third (unified) voice is a product of the collaboration.

In the next poem (also by Powell-Chalmers), the Madonna appears in the McKenzie country (New Zealand), frost feeding from the tips of her fingers and her breath cracking the air. She also walks ‘in your shadow’, and the fact that the only previous use of the second person seemed to be directed to Jackson, again makes us think of the other collaborator. The Madonna of this poem is naturalistic, walking barefoot through ‘shallow strands of water’, yet ill-prepared for the cold, and the whole image suggests some feeling of trepidation. In contrast, Jackson’s ‘Madonna of the Ureweras’ tramps through mud, with mud in her boots. She knows both ‘hunger and excess’, is conscious of the sorrows and pains of the other and is ‘with you’; she describes different forms of hunger with strong and diverse images; she ‘has trees in her eyes’, suggesting another naturalistic incarnation of the Madonna:

Her smile is a river
that runs
further than you have walked.
She is dawning on you like the sun.

This Madonna is a symbol of potential. In these two poems, the personas begin to entwine their stories, to add to and embellish the poetic visions so far created, so that a more nuanced journey is begun, again affirming the sense of a third voice.

The motif of the Madonna is then able to take many forms; she becomes ‘Madonnas of the Owairaka shopping centre’ (Powell-Chalmers), pluralised and concerned with the domestic, finding newspapers, buying sari material, going to the Saigon bakery, the TAB (betting shop), visiting Maori historical sites and even meeting the ‘Gold Leaf Madonna’, perhaps an image of Jackson. The narrative development also enables other characters to speak of the Madonna, for example, Georgina, who has seen ‘the real Madonna of the West End / World’—a news reference to a work of art being sold to clear her debts—alongside a Jackson Pollock. ‘The Madonna of the film festival’ celebrates the cogency of art in all its detail, mulled over ‘Stanislavskyly’. Moreover, the frames of film are:

like the juxtaposition
of two wires
for the first time
in a circuit newly contrived –
I light up with every shot.

This delight again seems to allude to the collaborative process, not just in relation to film, which is so inherently collaborative, but to this specific ‘Madonna’ project.

‘The Madonna at Oamaru’ suggests the persona of the south islander returning south, and, in the Whitestone gallery, she sees an actual Madonna and speculates on her sense of loss at the baby who is gone. There is a call-back here to the filmic reference of the previous poem, but it is from a traditional picture frame that the ‘mother of all’ looks down. ‘The Madonna of the traffic lights’ describes a pedestrian negotiating traffic, wearing ‘clouds like a halo’, and on the way to meet ‘you’. The interplay between the two voices is literal, relating to both writing and meeting processes, and figurative, as each collaborator offers a new context for the other to investigate and respond to. The responses include this shared exploration of the way women are represented by the Madonna image and theme.

Though the poems in this collection are less clearly collaborative, the voices achieve many of the same qualities found in Double-Jointed, namely, divergent voices, responsive writing, conversational writing, and dramatised, character-based interactions, all significant aspects of heteroglossia; and as mentioned above, even the unified third voice could be argued as heteroglossic. In reviews, the range of tones achieved in Locating the Madonna is noted (Sunday Star Times 2005), as well as the way the two poets work off each other’s ‘vibrations’ to form a single sequence (McQueen 2005; Dominion Post 2005); so that the unified voice seems affirmed. We might recognise the unified voice as the Bakhtinian higher unity of the whole, and Bakhtinian stylistics are again detected in aspects of authorial literary narration: stylisation of semi-literary forms (the poems as letters between the poets) and the individualised speech of characters created in the poetry; the social aspects of the writing are obvious.

Another interview comment throws further light on the idea of a unified third voice. Jackson talks about the two poets’ plan to write together and ‘that feeling you get when you read someone’s work you really like and just want to write exactly like them.’ Instead of denying this impulse, she comments on their overt decision ‘to steal from each other, to send poems back and forth and to see how we might influence each other’—the stealing included lines, phrases, images and stanzaic structure. The freedom their process suggests resembles that of the spaces and levity of renga, but perhaps with even more variation possible. Their theme was established later, ‘and it became what we wanted to keep, what we wanted to keep working with.’ The emphasis on the collective first person here is crucial and, it has to be said, is a rare experience in writing. Jackson adds, ‘we were both working with the imagery of the self as a house, and the Madonna as a presence within the house/self’, again demonstrating a shared terrain and impetus, and also reflecting back on the connection between the image of the Madonna and combined voice. The effect of one poet on another did not stop with this particular volume: Jackson acknowledges Powell-Chalmers’ influence on the structure of her writing over her next two solo collections. Powell-Chalmers notes a similar on-going influence by Jackson on her later writing, even more so than after Double-Jointed, since, she suggests, the musical impetus of those collaborations was already present in her solo work (Rickerby 2004: 29-33). Again, we see the social function of collaborative writing and the dramatic way in which it pervades structure.

In Locating the Madonna and its aftermath, ‘the myth of the unique author’ is modified and the practice of collaboration expands the range of what each voice might achieve. The debate as to what extent a piece of collaborative writing is jointly formed necessarily remains. After all, even if we write one word each at a time, we still have choice over that one selection. The examples of collaborative poetry published in New Zealand suggest that the extent of collaboration is relative. A poem that responds to another poem in a sequence may appear less collaborative than a poem where two poets share the same stanzas, but it may be no less a response to the other, and in fact importantly nuanced, inspired and contextualised by the other. Much writing that is not identified as collaborative has elements in common with it, for example, in the use of intertextuality in the postmodern era, and ekphrastic texts. Whatever the extent of the collaboration, ‘the myth of the unique author’ is disrupted. The collaborative poetry considered here also points towards the joys of intimate social writing, which I hope will intrigue the reader. The potential of this genre lies largely in the enhanced scope for heteroglossia which it embodies, creating new voices and effects which would probably not appear in solo writing, and which are dialogic and expansive.



[i] Drummond also founded the journal Poetry New Zealand in 1990, inspired by Louis Johnson’s New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, 1951-1964 (Kraus 2005: 9).

[ii] This publishing of renga was very much in keeping with trends in other English-language haikai journals, such as Frogpond (US), which publishes tan-renga (a single tanka written by two poets) and renku, in both traditional and contemporary forms, and Presence (UK), which similarly included a variety of collaborations. The online journal Lynx (1994-2014) was devoted to formal poetic structures, including ghazals and the Japanese forms, with a large section of what it called ‘symbiotic poetry’: collaborations in these forms, though not in free verse.

[iii] Dolan is also an outspoken critic of the academic world that he has inhabited for much of his career (Dolan 2002).


Works cited: 


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