Introduction to Collaborative Poetry
Werner Reichhold

Before we try to get into a perspective of what writing collaboratively means, we may look at the conditions preset to it, at least fragmentarily. This text itself can be read as a collaboration: first in accord with a world as one thinks it exists naturally, second, how an author is presenting it in his way and third, as an attempt to enclose readers as the potentially important collaborators, co-creators.

Indirectly, I'm taking on the view of a person, who is living so far as one of the species in an ongoing process through countless stages of interchangeable energies. I would like to add, that this text does not refer to any kind of a concept that's based on separation in respect to the physical and spiritual life. The goal is rather to accompany the reader into a mental activity based on a collaboration that transforms sensation into notation = transferring the energies of communication into a poetic mix of an existing but never exhausted language.

Let's imagine this stage of consciousness, because from here it's only a little step saying: What's, in one way or another, not working collaboratively? Can you think of anything? If so, please name it, and - as you name it you're collaborating! With your thought you're in fact creating a link to what you just read. In other words: no way out. We can decide to cooperate or not, doesn't matter if reacting positively or negatively, the decision becomes a link. And, please hold on: There's the dawning concept of an Internet allowing cross-relations, cross-reactions possible to all who enjoy to become "co-travelers". Choosing a work of poetry is on one's fingertips. You may start reading into it like you do in a book store and then, in case you begin to enjoy the poem, you print it out. This way one has the pleasure to produce one's own library .

Concerning interrelations, above the fact that Mother Nature conditions them, I would like to give a few more examples of what's unavoidably asking for collaboration. There's the founding of a family life, the construction of a house with the many hands helping to get it done. How many collaborative actions does it need to start the concept for a city? Look at the events taking place in it and let's right away enter into the arts: There's an orchestra and all of its instrumentalists can perform music only through consciously organized collaborative work. There's the playwright and the theater, with its actors and dancers only being effective by working closely together.

We're coming closer to looking at a situation where two or more writers decide to share their voices and start writing collaboratively. In western literature, that hasn't happened often. Besides the former difficulties to bridge spaces, jealousy between writers and the luck of an adequate concept may have been some of the reasons.

Relatively new and only intensely pushed in the west since the late 1980s by a relative small group of inspired writers, collaborative writing is gaining interest. The Japanese form of renga triggered a movement in the west. Now, in a broader approach to all possible kinds of literary collaborative forms I like to introduce the term collaborative poetry or co-poetry. It may take a while to get this term settled, but the advantage will be to see so many different forms used till today in this anthology and new forms getting invented later collected under one roof. Many of the poets corresponding to this project greeted the term collaborative poetry emphatically. The name linked verse, sometimes used, has its Achilles' heel, because naturally verses of a single author are also seen as linked. The Japanese term renga covers only limited concepts and doesn't take in perspective, that the western writers have extended their approach to collaborative works into other kinds of poetry forms.

Interestingly, with the well known and often translated work, Narrow Road to the Far North, an early example of collaborative work appeared in Japan 1694 that fuses prose and poetry. Traveling and writing haiku together, Basho and Sora reflected poetically what happened during a complicated long journey.

When Masaoka Shiki, 1903, wrote that renga is dead, he wasn't that wrong. More accurately pronounced, at the time when Shiki said that, the Japanese writers haven't been able to fill the old form with new spirits. Sure, Shiki couldn't overlook a situation as it appeared to us, when renga made its way to the US in the 70s. And again, through restrictions set up by clubs, in the West collaborative writing couldn't unfold its full powers until in the late 1980s when AHA Books with the magazine Mirrors and later with the magazine Lynx, took up a leading role and American and Canadian writers themselves finally broke the barriers. From then on, ten or more collaborations per issue for three times a year have been published, symbiotic works, each one of them showing their own sensibilities according to our cultural backgrounds and today's problems creating space bedded in the possibilities of English language poetry.

The Japanese, somehow surprised that foreign efforts could go ahead independently, tried to catch up. As one looks closer to what's going on abroad, one has the impression that writing collaborations today are asking for a form of spiritually based liberation as much as haiku and tanka did. As countries and cultures are in a process of getting more and more netted, the real contest slowly but surely becomes the international participation in collaborative works and through that effort receiving the acceptance of a world-wide audience. The Japanese way of looking at the production of linked poetry is still overseen and directed by clans and groups, meanwhile in the West, writers create work based on their own concepts, offer it and gain influence depending on the interest they get in public.

Concerning '5 - 7 - 5' counting, a trip to Japan and meeting authorities at home in both languages, Japanese and English was enough to clear up a constantly wrong interpreted situation in the West. The use of a 5 - 7 - 5 counting system in Japanese makes sense solely for them. We have to understand, that since the Japanese language isn't build on syllables, the Japanese don't count syllables at all but sound units called kana. The differences between the Japanese and our language and script are so significant that a simple transference of a system like 5 - 7 - 5 doesn't make sense to our way of writing poetry. We experienced that already before writing tanka or haiku.

It's a riddle how for some twenty years people in charge for the policies and politics in western organizations insisted on counting the non-existing term 'onji'. Only now they're ready to give up since the Japanese themselves, smiling in their impressive way, explained that the word 'onji' is unknown and doesn't have a place defining anything related to their poetry. The better informed Japanese would wish us to correct the serious mistake still carried on in magazines, haiku books and anthologies. In the field of writing collaboratively, American writers liberated themselves early and wrote in a form adequate to English language poetry.


By writing in partnership, in 'colabs' ('collaborative labor', to shorten the term), two or more writers / voices fuse and offer text consciously set up to merge into a symbiosis. The effect indeed is based on the newness of each of the literary events. The energies emerging here can be highly complex and so diverse, the readers may feel deeply challenged. The fun occurs when the readers' mind meets the poets' attempts, creating a new poetic reality realized in the course of a collaborative poem. It's like watching a chameleon on its path over different colored territories adapting to whatsoever will be met, shooting out its gluey tongue and stopping the flight of an insect. Besides the content of a text and its presentation, there's material imbedded inside the shifts, between the leaps of verse or prose supposed to work catalytic. In European and American poetic traditions, we're used to if two or more poetic voices meet they're out into collision and catharsis. This collision itself contains something new, releases energies partly planned but in its effect loaded with uncertainties that's beyond what the writers of a collaborative work themselves composed consciously.

From practice, the writers and readers learned that for a full development of different poetic voices a collaborative work asks for a minimum of about eighteen links. There are, like always, some exceptions, but it takes time and patience until a special voice introduces itself with a certain amount of links occurring in partnership and getting its particular message over to the person listening to it. It's a process, it's intense work and composing symbiotic poems is nothing for hasty people with a short attention span.

Today, for some poets the 'object status' of a single poem somehow disappeared. In its place occurring we watch group work, collaborative attempts taking over certain unexplored spaces, somehow 'open actions' (somehow comparable to contemporary concepts we watch between painters and sculptors.) The process has a tendency to attract readers to participate in a prolonged presence, sharing alternately poetically formed texts and so becoming part of them on the base of their own suffering.

In the future, I imagine a person may try to write A Morphology / Genealogy of Collaborative Poetry. It asks for a scientifically well-informed writer who feels like fusing together: 1.) The fact that our senses recognize what's going on 'outside of us', 2.) How do we perceive those parts of nature? 3.) Perception as an act of interpretation, depending on experiences. 4.) Since this is so, we can't take anything in that hasn't a base inside of us in one way or another. 5.) How do we reflect signals from outside, how do we react on all kinds of messages, including those from the arts, music and poetry, performed, written or spoken? This undertaking needs someone at home at Max Plank's quantum physics / quantum leaps as much as one familiar with Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty theory and the philosophy behind it.

With the perception of a single poet's voice we feel we're already at the center of a secret. But what are we letting ourselves into when two or more poets try to create a collaborative work? A final conclusive answer isn't at hand, the subject is too multi-faceted. A highly condensed text like a symbiotic poem, is probably hiding its genesis.

Writers creating collaborative works are challenged with a special task. They read the text of a partner, perceiving it first as a script to be read somehow like a graphic, but then pushed to analyze those lines with the perspective to find a link to it. The technique, we learned from writing renga is to start out from what the partner said and go on in a special way of shifting / leaping. Here is the secret of linked lines: on what does the writer react and into which direction does he / she wants to shift the text. With the conventional renga, the Japanese have set up certain rules they wish to be seen followed. In symbiotic works of western writers, the partners feel more and more that the goal creating poetry in partnership includes finding one's own new way of linkage.

The Japanese are used to see their renga sessions lead by a renga master, who determines which of the participants' verses are the right link for the right situation depending on rules set up traditionally. The writers of collaborative works in the West look back on their own poetical developments and adapt what they learned from renga. For linked structures, content and form, Americans developed a face of their own. Collaborative works, shortly before the millennium, seem to find their distinctive place in contemporary western literature.

In a certain complicated sense 'the linking of unexplored eras' throughout collaborations stimulates the reader intensely. Probably they feel activated becoming part of a linking process. We're faced with the possible discrepancies of two or more personalities artistically acting. This frees special energies, tensions, potencies and secrets a single author can't mediate. In good collaborations there is a mechanism of involvement created, fascinating to those whose minds are open to the realms of the unexpected if not the unknown. The last ten years showed us an acceleration of detachment from foreign dependencies in form and content. The public begins to recognize that we're looking at about one hundred writers out to find their own way composing symbiotic works as part of an intense engagement in this field. In a first broad overview, this anthology marks the steps already done and points in directions where collaborative works may accumulate their influence into other fields of poetry.

Interestingly, in the West, strong poetically motivated leaps appeared first in the beginning of the 20th century with Stéphane Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, the Dada movement and the explosion of Surrealism throughout Europe. Based on spiritual, political and economical conditions, the time must have been ripe for such developments. They spread rapidly between painters, sculptors, musicians and poets simultaneously. The word in everybody's mouth was "collage", and not only important to a single artist's work, but also soon seen as a means for group work. Collage as a technique to combine things usually thought of as not related. So the Asian concept of Zen, excellently presented in English by Suzuki and Alan Watts, the oneness of all things caught attention.

Though the message was clear, it took long to get it over to the minds of Americans. Only writers and artist who, at that early time used to live or travel in Europe like Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda and some others picked it up and saw the potential powers waiting in it. Again, the broader understanding of what had happened in all of the arts took long to make deeper roots in the consciousness throughout America. Somehow in a second wave, during the 60s writers looked back and it was only then that translations of the already famous European poets began to sell a little better and gained influence. Right into this situation, Americans enjoyed the discovery of the Japanese literary forms of tanka, renga, haiku and haibun.


The poems indexed here are kasen renga, tan renga, book renga, net renga, pyramid renga, collaboratively written tanka with or without prose, text and free verse, sijo and text, ghazal and text, prose with and without verse composed alternately and prose or poetry including graphics or / and music. The examples chosen or printed out for this anthology are selected from earlier publications in magazines and books. We are thankful to all the poets for collaborating getting this project on its path.

In this comprehensive article I wish to mention the overwhelmingly strong efforts in the fields of collaborative work made by women in the US and Canada. Often it depended on their initiative to start a collaborative poem. It seems adequate to sort out writers like Alexis Rotella, who has written about 200 collaborations with many different partners published in magazines and in five books of her own, one in 1988, including graphics. There is Marlene Mountain with her encouraging strong work exploring new contents and forms, often integrated with artwork, as Dorothy Howard's magazines Raw Nervz and Mirrors hold proof of. And there is Francine Porad with 120 published works in magazines and in her own books, done with almost every other writer we know open to collaborate. Anne Mckay published four renga books of her own, together with works in magazines, we count forty renga. Early renga have been initiated by Lorraine Ellis Harr, L.A.Davidson and Elizabeth Searle Lamb. Jane Reichhold published Narrow Road to Renga, containing thirty-six renga written with one or more partners, eleven solo renga and 2 articles about writing renga in English. Another early effort to spread the message about renga was Jane Reichhold's book Round Renga Round , including articles and twenty renga each written by her with different partners. Elizabeth St Jacques, Silva Ley (Netherlands) and Janice M. Bostok (Australia) with partners of the same value opened new themes, new aspects to renga. What we're looking at here are eleven or more women leading a line of publications related to linked verse.

A publication in the USA, the magazine LYNX, AHA Books, editors Jane and Werner Reichhold, P.O.Box 1250, Gualala, CA 95445, or, offers space to all varieties of collaborative work. On the web site of AHA Books, registered till today you can find more than seven hundred collaborations between writers using alternately text or verse, including the renga form. Besides this, since long and with broad participation, the poetry magazine Lynx publishes sijo and ghazal, solo or alternately written, both with comments and critics from domestic and foreign writers, a wide section of 'participation renga' and book reviews, reflecting the Japanese-European-American poetry scene with the latest publications of translations.

Here, AHA Books offers a first far reaching anthology of poets concerned with different kinds of collaborations. The steps marked through many writers offering a variety of works are an international resource for all people interested in this remarkable development and are pointing in new directions where symbiotic collaborative poetry may influence English language literature as a whole.

In search for the missing link...

Copyright © Werner Reichhold 1999.

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