Apiary Co-Founder, Lillian Dunn, interviews Arlene Ang and Valerie Fox about their collaborative poetic effort, "Ritornello," which was one of Apiary's winning STUNG contest pieces.
Lillian: Tell me a bit about your individual writing fascinations - what drives your poetic investigations these days?
Arlene: I’m still obsessed with death – how it works, how we react to it, how our way of life relates to it. I’m trying to move toward more experimental poetry without being incomprehensible, but that’s kind of contradictory, isn’t it?
Valerie: I am interested in serial works. And I am trying to finish things I’ve started. I am very interested now in experimenting and developing writing for performance.
My writing is not escapist, but it’s an escape for me, into a world of my own, I guess. Memory interests me too, and forgetfulness. These words and ideas have been coming up a lot lately in what I write.
Lillian: How did you meet, and how did you become collaborators? How have you found a rhythm over the course of the collaboration?
Arlene: I submitted some poems to Drexel Online Journal around eleven years ago and Valerie was the editor there. We started exchanging emails about writing. I was doing the 30-Poems-for-30-Days challenge in an online forum, and so I asked Valerie to join us. After a while, we began collaborating on poems because – for my part at least - it’s easier to write with someone than to write something on your own. Usually we would start a poem each and then swap, making changes and additions to the text. We ping-pong around until the poems get to a stage that we like.
Lillian: How has the collaboration changed your individual writing or writing practices? Why collaborate?
Valerie: It's really fascinating to sort of get inside the head of someone else and figure out how they make art.
Poetry, often, seems about defamiliarizing language--and collaborating sort of jump starts that. Of course, you have to trust the other artist with your work and your words.
Arlene: I love bouncing off ideas with someone and using/internalizing words or concepts that normally wouldn't come to me. It's easy to get stuck writing about the same things over and over again especially when we feel strongly about them. Collaborating with someone else is a way to get out of that box and smell other people's roses and dirty linen.
Valerie: We couldn’t write poems like this, also, if we didn’t share some sensibilities. We both enjoy creating a space that allows for radically different readings, for instance. We know that there’s a “high bar” for that, but we have each other to keep the process moving—and not just moving forward but in a provocative or productive direction.
This seems obvious, too, but collaborating with Arlene has reminded me to take risks and be more fearless in my own writing. Also, it helps me to be more disciplined. I see the steady work paying off (maybe more quickly than when working on individual works). This reminds me to stay focused (and not give up on poems that seem to resist completion).
Lillian: Describe your writing practice - when do you write, where, for how long?
Valerie: I am not consistent, but I love those days when I can write for a few hours in the morning and then for a few hours in the afternoon. Besides writing in my study, I also particularly enjoy writing in transit (on a train or a bus).
Arlene: I try to write first thing in the morning on pieces of scrap paper while lying in bed. The first draft takes around 30-60 minutes, then I type it on the computer and edit away until it feels right -- could be from 15 minutes to two years.
Lillian: What/who is your writing community - who edits, reads, inspires, eggs on?
Valerie: Arlene has edited me. She can edit me any time. I sometimes take her advice, just for luck.
Also, it helps for me to think in terms of an ideal audience (which consists of a few people I know, including those in a workshop I meet up with every month).
Arlene: I used to “test out” my poems through an online writing workshop, but I felt it made me too dependent on other people’s opinions and judgment, so I push myself to go through the editing process on my own. For inspiration and encouragement, I usually go to press1.freeforums.org, a private forum where some friends and I try to write 30 poems for 30 days.
LIllian: What are your day jobs? How do these interact with your writing practice?
Valerie: I teach writing (of various kinds) at a university (Drexel) and am able usually to have off (or partly off) during summer months. Without this, I’d write a lot less. Also, sometimes I try to take my own advice too, that is, advice I give to students.
Arlene: I design and proofread books. The downside is sometimes it’s hard to turn off my inner editor and I end up crossing out every line I write.
Lillian: Could you describe/discuss the making of Ritornello - where did it start, who took it where?
Valerie: We wrote it quite fast, in that “ping-pong” style. We had been working on some longer works (we even have a draft of a novel), and took a break to focus on some short works.
This footnoted mode is one we have tried a few times.
We aim, often, to blend our voices in collaborations. Since we’re thinking about voice so much, it is kind of natural to sometimes use a structure that incorporates different voice so overtly.
With this style, sometimes one person just footnotes a piece, other times we go back and forth, leaving blank parts to fill in. I like Nabokov’s footnote style in Pale Fire, a lot. For me, that’s a model. But I think, Arlene, you really developed this style for our purposes?
Arlene wrote the first draft and came up with that stupendous word/concept of ritornello, which influenced how I responded. (We liked the title so much we thought of using it for our manuscript in progress.)
Arlene: I discovered someone using footnoted poems in an issue of Diagram (thediagram.com) and thought it would be fun to give it try.
Lillian: Current favorite books - what should we read this summer?
Arlene: Poetry-wise, I’d say Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, a sequel of sorts to Autobiography of Red. As for light summer reading, I'm going through all 16 books of F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series – and loving every horrific moment of it.
Lillian: Poetry pet peeves?
Arlene: None really. I don't care much for poetry peppered with archaic words like "thou" and "thee," but I wouldn't say it makes me grind my teeth… since I’m still grinding my teeth at the memory of going through that stage in high school thinking I was the coolest fish on earth until I discovered the style went extinct before I was even born.
Lillian: Advice to young poets?
Arlene: Don't get stuck reading only dead poets. Read contemporary poetry by living, breathing poets.
Valerie: Yes, and read a lot. And when you find a poet you like, really read them inside and out and get to understand what makes their work provocative for you. Don’t neglect to read outside of the genre too (fiction, history, politics—whatever interests you). Reading beyond poetry has a way of energizing your poems.
Lillian: For Valerie - what does it mean to you to be a Philly poet? What are the most exciting new developments you see here?
Lillian, even though I’ve been living in central NJ for a few years and try to get up to New York now and again, Philly still feels like my poetry home base. It’s partly because I teach at Drexel, but also because I have so many good friends here. Somehow it always feels like home.
I am really excited about all of the small presses (and established ones) we have in Philadelphia. I love the small press and book-arts/art book scene here (think Philly Soapbox, Fact-Simile, The Print Club).
People are very open to collaboration around our town, too, and in the region. Besides collaborating with Arlene (who is not based in Philadephia), I have started some collaborative efforts here with visual artists (Jacklynn Niemiec and Jichen Zhu) and choreographer (Leah Stein). It’s a very multi-faceted collaboration involving animation, drawing, dance, words—you can find some details at https://variablespace.wordpress.com. This summer I’m excited to be working with Jacklynn on creating art books based on her art and my words that have been generated by this collaboration.
Lillian: How do you understand geography and poetry to intersect?
Geography and spatial understanding seems to be integral to my recent work, so for me they intersect a lot. They could intersect in so many ways, for different writers and artists, from sense of place (as setting) to sense of spatial interpretation and understanding. I love your question and just thinking about it for me is rather generative. Way-finding interests me—that is definitely an intersection of geography and language (in my work).
Not to mention, collaborating with Arlene (across the globe in Italy) is an endeavor that somehow creates connection over space (and with a kind of time delay factored in).
Arlene: For me, PiratePad (piratepad.net) illustrates best how geography and poetry intersect. I've collaborated in real time with poets/writers from different continents through this free online “pad”. It's pretty cool because you can see the words as they are typed (using different colors). When you start editing together in real time, you can see your words and theirs crisscross across the page, erasing or changing what’s been written. The Internet has been a bridge to everyone everywhere.
Lillian: How do you think poetry will change in the next 50 years?
Arlene: I have a feeling it will get shorter and shorter, as in SMS or Twitter poetry. Maybe go more visual with Instagram.
Valerie: I think there will continue to be this blending of dramatic, narrative, and lyrical poetry that we are seeing. By that I mean prose poetry, performative works, blended genre works. It is truly exciting to be in this “anything goes” kind of place for writing