We invited Issue 1 contributors Juliet Cook & Robert Cole to talk about their collaborative writing process in an email interview. Check out the q&a below and read their poem Egg Sack Suspension Cord from our first issue here.
Q. “Egg Sack Suspension Cord” is full of intense and visceral images. What inspired some of the language within this piece? (In particular, I’m curious about the egg sack phrasing/repetition in the second stanza … and the hints to sea monsters in the first stanza.)
Robert Cole: From my point of view, the word usage in this poem (and the repetition of egg sack) encourages the reader to confront anxiety or discomfort – externally created or otherwise. To “commit to registry” this completely vague, mysterious, potentially evil “thing”. It’s difficult to say what inspired the language in this poem, though. Juliet may have more to say about this poem.
Juliet Cook: I seem to have a lot of egg stuff and sea life stuff working its way into various poems with weird relationship connotations and sometimes vaginal connotations. Not appealing sexual connotations (not usually); more like the birthing of creepy goop that pops itself out even if I try to keep it in – like semi-aborted mutant fetuses that will still come to life in their own grotesque ways, semi-sinking then semi-jumping back up in a contorted mode and dangling over the edge.
Robert Cole: Nearly all the writing I did for this book was done very late at night. I remember mold started growing in my apartment’s A/C vent and fleas took over my carpet. I sprayed bleach into the A/C vent, sprayed the carpet with flea killer, and continued to write. The taste of the flea spray would stick in my mouth for days and the mold gave me a sinus infection. I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly at the time. One night it seemed like a good tactic to cover my feet in shaving cream and pace around the apartment. All these fleas jumped into the foam (fleas are attracted to the motion and heat generated by feet along with the color white). After an hour or so I’d wash my feet off and do it again. It wasn’t an efficient approach.
I did and thought about a lot of strange things while writing this book. I started making my own scented paper. I created a cipher, started studying sigils, the occult, symbology, geometry, algebra, the Pagan origins of Christianity, Sumerian history. For a short time I became obsessed with building lamps from scratch. I was also eating a ton of potatoes. I don’t know, it was just a very weird time. All of this odd stuff I was doing inspired me to keep thinking of new language to employ and approach this manuscript in a new way.
Q. How did you and Robert first meet? What inspired you to start collaborating? And how is the collaborative process different from writing individually?
Juliet: We met on facebook. In my recollection, I was posting some bloody Saint images when Robert emailed me and asked if I might be interested in attempting some poetry collaboration. We sent each other a couple individual poems (I think I sent him a new one I’d just finished called “Saint Lucy Eyes”) to get an idea if we thought our styles might vibe well together. We both were interested enough in each other’s work to give collaboration a try and see what happened, and it ended up creating a fast and vibrant fusion mix.
The collaborative process is different from individual writing because it allows an individual writer’s repetitive thematic and schematics to merge and fuse with someone else’s and thus create a different theme and end result for both.
Robert: I began talking to Juliet online. I remember reading something by her in an issue of Caketrain alongside Tan Lin and a few other people. I remember identifying with something she wrote and I just had an idea to approach her about collaborating. I remember thinking that Juliet had a sort of understanding about the archaic and her poems read like a secret keeping a secret. I like writing that does that. The collaborative process became very easy from the start. It was combination of good timing and motivated creative intention. For a few months, Juliet and I (complete strangers otherwise) began to send each other lines of writing that eventually became our manuscript. It didn’t take long. Collaborative writing was completely new to me, and Juliet too I think, but the circumstances and mindsets we had at the time made it happen.
Q: Can you explain how you two start each collaborative piece? Does one person send the other a prompt or the first line of a poem? Do you brainstorm themes or ideas ahead of time that you’d like to write about?
Juliet: Robert and I didn’t brainstorm themes or ideas beforehand; we mostly shared lines and fused them together. Some of the lines had already existed, then led towards creating new lines. As we continued our process, the newly created lines began to fuse out faster.
Robert: We approached the process in the most fair and intuitive way we knew how. This meant we both write 5 or 6 lines, send it to each other, and see what we both come up with. Once each of us has created our own interpretation/poem, we’ll then combine our renditions into one piece of writing that hits home for us both. Creating a theme or framework thankfully occurred on its own. We were able to simply go back and read the general sentiments or voice of these poems to create a direction for the manuscript to follow.
Q: Can you talk about your collaborative chapbook MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM (forthcoming with Hyacinth Girl Press)? When will this be available for purchase? How did you two decide on things like the order of the poems, title of the chapbook, and what pieces to include?
Robert: Juliet can answer this one.
Juliet: MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM is likely to be published in late fall of this year. We recently acquired a cover artist (Christen Baer, who designed the cover art for my first full-length poetry book, “Horrific Confection”, close to six years ago, so I’m excited to be working with her again and looking forward to seeing the uniquely odd art she creates for this cover).
I think we included all of our completed collaborative poems into the chapbook; plus after submitting the chapbook, we wrote a few more, which were stylistically similar enough that we might end up inserting those within the chapbook as well – including “Egg Sack Suspension Cord”.
I think I’m pretty good at formatting the order of poems in a chapbook, so I handled that part and sent it to Robert for his approval before we submitted it.
For the title, we each chose a bunch of favored words that appeared in several of the collaborative poems – and fused various words together in different ways – until we ended up with a fusion mix that we both adored.
Q: Do you think the voice that is created when you two collaborate is distinctly different than your individual voices in poetry? Or do you find that your individual voices are so similar that your meshed voice in the collaborative poems is more of an extension of your individual voice?
Robert: This is a great question and it’s very hard to answer. I believe these poems contain an equal distribution of both our styles. Juliet can be easily seen in this stanza and my writing may be seen here, but really it’s just an attempt at giving up intellectual property for the sake of attempting to put together an authentically collaborative project. Juliet and I have individual voices that are constantly evolving. What I mean to say is that I think the answer is yes to both questions. In some poems I get such a strange feeling reading them again because it’s me but it’s also not me. I like it. I like how this collection of poems makes me see my writing from the outside. There’s this kind of interesting disconnect and epiphany that comes from collaborating with another artist/writer
Juliet: I don’t think our individual voices are very similar to each others’, but in my experience, collaborating with someone who has a very similar style leads to less enjoyable and less potentially successful collaboration, because 1) if I’m working with someone who has a very similar style/voice/word choice as mine, then what’s the point of collaborating? I might as well just be working on more of my own individual poems and 2) The enjoyable fusion mix of my word choices/Rob’s word choices, my stylistics/Rob’s stylistics, my thematic/Rob’s thematic lead to utterly odd content that includes parts of both of us but is also something new and different for both of us and thus excitingly unique.
Q: What is your submission process like? Do you find journals to fit your poems, or do you write each poem with a specific journal in mind? Do you submit competitively, hoping that your best pieces get into the best magazines, zines, and journals? Or is it more like playing matchmaker with your friends?
Robert: With the collaborative pieces, I let Juliet take the reigns. She has a much more organized approach to the submission process and is much better at communicating with editors. I tend to lose track of where my simultaneous submissions have gone, what needs to be edited prior to submission, etc, but Juliet has a system that really helps manage submitting a lot. With my own writing, I tend to submit once a month or so and have recently kind of taken a break. I think Juliet’s experience in the literary world is extensive so I am happy she is more than willing to take care of submitting our work. I’d probably get overwhelmed.
I do think that poets should be less occupied with where to submit or how many submissions they have pending and more concerned about whether or not they are enjoying the writing they create. If a writer is constantly thinking about a target audience or magazine, everything being written will stay stuck in a confined framework that is constantly under pressure to be something special. This can ruin everything.
Juliet: I agree with Robert that writers should be “concerned about whether or not they are enjoying the writing they create.”
I don’t recall ever having written a single poem with a specific journal in mind while writing. Even with magazines I’m a fan of that are accepting submissions for a certain themed issue, I will try to find pre-existing poems of mine that might happen to fit that theme in their own way. To me personally, writing with a really specific theme in mind (unless it’s a theme I created or feel really strongly drawn to) strikes me as rather fake and the last thing I want my poems to contain is emotional fakery.
I do have times of submitting my poetry a lot, because I want it to potentially exist for others; not just me. I want my work to be out there/available/readable and plus there are so many different and uniquely interesting sources to submit to. BUT the submission process should not outweigh the reading/writing/revising/creatively thinking and expressing oneself process. Sometimes I feel as if some poets spend so much time and energy trying to get their work published all over the place that they don’t even have time to read all the sources were their work is published. Let’s say half of the people who are frequently submitting and getting published are not reading many of the other poems within the magazines where they get published – well then what’s the point of being published? Just so you can add another credit to your resume? I mean what if the majority of poets were submitting, getting published, but not taking the time to read any other poetry? In my opinion, if you have a genuine passion for poetry, then that involves focusing a lot on your own poetry but also partaking of lots of other poetry too.
As for competitive submitting, I do have a bit of a competitive streak with myself, in terms of staying active and productive. I do like to be published regularly in a variety of different sources, but not for the sake of competition – more for the sake of keeping my voice alive and putting it out there. Not out there ANYWHERE though. I don’t just randomly submit my work all over the place. I investigate literary magazines in order to find out which ones are of interest to me. I’m not particularly focused on whether they’re big name or small name, so much as on their style and if that style strikes me as an interesting potential fit for my poetry style and aesthetics. I’m not opposed to the idea of submitting to new magazines (I submitted to the very first issue of Pretty Owl for example), but sometimes I’m a bit more hesitant about that – because there’s a substantial number of magazines that excitedly start themselves up and then suddenly dive down or fold or downright disappear within a few years and that does not appeal to me.
I’m not interested in playing matchmaker with my poet friends. However, I have been reading, writing, and submitting poetry for many years now, so throughout those years, I have become aware of many poets and I have become friends with some of those poets – and some of my poet friends edit literary magazines, as do I – and I’m not going to stop submitting poetry to their lit mag just because we’re friends. Especially since in most cases, the reason I became good friends with certain poet/editors is because they liked some of my poetry and chose to publish it and THEN we got to know each other better and became friends. Occasionally, I feel a bit worried that people might think I’m being published by someone or publishing someone BECAUSE we’re friends, but that is not the case. With me as a publisher (and although I can’t speak for anyone else, I imagine this is also the case with my poet/publisher friends), I’m not going to publish someone just because I know them and I’m not going to NOT publish someone just because I know them. It all boils down to the poetry.
In regards to editing my own online literary magazine (Thirteen Myna Birds) and my own small print press (Blood Pudding Press), I’m not MORE prone or LESS prone to publish poetry by poet friends versus poetry by people I don’t know at all. The only slight variation there is that I’m a little more prone to SOLICIT work from poets I already know that I like – but that doesn’t mean I set aside the submissions of poets I’m unfamiliar with for any extended time period. All in all, it boils down to whether or not I like the poetry.
Q: In an age of emails and text messages, blog posts and tweets, what separates a poem from a random blurp of text?
Juliet: Some of my poems contain a few lines that rather quickly dashed out of me, but that’s a few lines – not the whole poem. For me, what separates poems from any quick dash offs of words is that I spend a substantial amount of mental energy and focus on the content and its stylistics and its aim.
Robert: I don’t know what separates a good poem from a random blurb or text message or even a clever meme. I think a good poem should be an attempt to expound upon an engaging or clever series of words in order to create something more substantial or potentially thought provoking. Poetry is all about exploring language to me, but the big difference between poetry and blogs or text messages is honesty and maybe a sense of mysticism or novelty. Although some writers may disagree with me, I think poetry is a pretty solitary task, too. I think it should be that way. The digital age encourages us to share everything with one another – where we’re eating, photos of our trip to the lake, etc… but when reading or writing poetry, the person is usually in a quiet place, often alone, and this is an important thing to do sometimes: Be alone. Poetry teaches us how to be alone. Text messaging and emails do not.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in a peculiar multitude of literary publications, most recently including Arsenic Lobster, Diode, ILK Journal, Menacing Hedge, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Tarpaulin Sky Press. She is the author of more than thirteen published poetry chapbooks, most recently including FONDANT PIG ANGST (Slash Pine Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), POST-STROKE (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 5), Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press), and POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press). A new collaborative poetry chapbook created by Juliet Cook and Robert Cole, MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press later in 2014. Cook’s first full-length poetry book, “Horrific Confection”, was published by BlazeVOX. In addition to her own writing, Cook is the editor/publisher of Blood Pudding Press (print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (online). You can find out more atwww.JulietCook.weebly.com.
Robert Cole’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Skidrow Penthouse, Menacing Hedge, THIS Literary Magazine, Thirteen Myna Birds, Pretty Owl Poetry, Sein und Werden and elsewhere. His collaborative chapbook with Juliet Cook will be published later this year by Hyacinth Girl Press. He currently lives and works in Oklahoma City.