notes on collaboration


It is a dicey enterprise, collaboration. Like adding extra ingredients to your much loved recipe for a soup, you are not sure if it will taste good the new way. Why mess with a good thing, something that is working?

Worst case scenario, two minds do not meet. Two separate aesthetics clash and cancel one another.

I am writing today about the best case scenario. When two people toss their lots together, mix and meld and blend it up and the result is a magic cassoulet of beauty. Something bigger than either on their own. This is what I experienced working with the poet and artist Aliki Barnstone on my book-- actually, OUR book-- BIRD LIGHT. When I think of birds, I think of SPECIFIC BIRDS I have known. Aliki's bird images are suggestive, at times almost abstract, they move into the realm of shapes. They shapeshift. they toggle that line between elemental and general. For being non-moving images, they move a lot.

I wasn't sure about this combination, to be honest. How would poems about specific birds and specific bird experiences marry imagery so dance-like, so unmarried to the specific? In most of her pen-and- inks, there is no way to even know what sort of birds they are! In my poems, birds often belong to genus and sub-genus. In some, they are specific down to the feather.

Here is something I learned about collaboration: you toss the dice. Turns out that specific and suggestive get along brilliantly. I look at my (our) book - and see poems floating in a sea of pen strokes, of lines and feeling-lines. Specific and quasi-abstract are a marvelous match. Who would have guessed it?

Answer: Aliki. This whole enterprise was her idea. She read my poems, culled from a lifetime of bird watching and bird adoration, bird curiosity and even bird obsession, and she said, "you know, Elizabeth, I have been drawing birds all my life! Would you like to take a look at my bird images?"

Then one day, via Skype, I did. She brought out her portfolios, and we paged through and I began to see birds a new way. An Aliki way. Look at this image, which is on my dedication page and for me, embodies the feeling of so many of these drawings. it is titled "All Time At Once":

Enter Ron Starbuck, publisher of Saint Julian Press, a publisher of poetry in Texas. Ron saw the big picture vision for a book containing this marriage of birds, the visual and poetic, and brought a third aesthetic into play. He designed the book in such a way that both words and images could co-habitate. And a cover in which two, not one, of Aliki's color works could combine. Brilliant.

As I said above here, I could imagine scenarios in which collaboration sours and the final product suffers for the integration of two disparate visions. But when a collaboration is a fit, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Aliki's images strengthen and empower my poems and I like to think she thinks the same of my poems for her images. Her images are not illustrations of my poems, they are companions.

This is my second collaboration with an artist. A few years ago, my book of poems, WHAT THE TREES SAID, was a collaboration with the photographer Steve Bromberg. That book, a chap, had two of his photographs on its cover, as well.

I have always envied actors, dancers and musicians the group-think and interactive aspect of their art. Writing is solitary. So much of our time is spent alone we can lose perspective on what we are even doing at times. Collaborating with an artist sort of ropes me back into a social sphere. And I really, really love that.


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