The Genius of Collaboration

If collaboration is executed in a fashion which renders the individual contributions indistinguishable, it is a radical confrontation of the conventional egocentrism of the western literary tradition, wherein the individual is considered the only legitimate source of genius. Not even in the most progressive western literary subcultures (such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for example) is collaboration seriously practiced. Even here, the myth of individual genius is perpetuated in the process of attempting to subvert it, probably because Nature, the perceived source of Romantic genius, has simply been replaced by Culture, in Postmodernism that is. The fundamental means of production has remained essentially the same. The raw material is just different. Even when we read Ashbery’s poetry, we are foremost aware that we are reading Ashbery’s poetry. We don’t tend to read it as a collective expression with no clearly accountable ego behind it. We read it as Ashbery.

I yearn to see more collaboration where the constituent selves of the contributors dissolve into a collective utterance, and where they make an art of it, so collaboration is more than merely an occasional side-project that’s done, if ever, solely for amusement, because it’s not taken seriously, because it doesn’t get published. Though we see precisely this kind of collaboration in music, where artists work together more often than not, the literary apparatus (as well as in the visual arts) fortifies a different strain of western belief, the same that enables CEOs to earn grotesquely disproportionate salaries, for example. Collaboration models a responsible use of resources (sharing, in other words), an antidote to the excesses of pride and entitlement, and, most importantly, the pleasures of playing together.

My own experience with literary collaboration has been transformative. At first, I was a bit anxious about “losing control” of the work, and being held accountable for the work of others, in a sense, having my identity merged with those of others. But once I did it, it was absolutely exhilarating, addictive, in fact. Others in my Band of Poets have expressed similar sentiments. We have been startled by the words that have echoed back to us across continents and centuries. We have felt members of a tribe again, calling and responding across the valleys of our lives. In the end, collaboration has seemed to me a fundamental expression of democracy. I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t happened more in American letters. In this regard, we’re still stuck back in the early 18th Century. We haven’t yet recognize everything that was happening in Lyrical Ballads. Of course, the rigidity of the current Capitalist system, including its copyright laws and its institutional rules for career advancement, contributes to the problem, but, thankfully, true artists don’t take those things terribly seriously.

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