Writing a collaborative poem

I had a wonderful time reading with Louisa Adjoa Parker at Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon, on August 3rd for The Enemies Project South West Poetry Tour.

Partners in Poetry! Josephine Corcoran and Louisa Adjoa Parker.

You can read more about The Enemies Project here.  It’s a project that started in 2011, dreamed up by poet and artist Stephen Fowler, which facilitates new collaborative creative works.   So far events and tours have been organised in 21 countries and over 600 poets have taken part.

For the South West Tour, August 1 – 7, Stephen, and co-curator Camilla Nelson,  toured with a team of core poets, and invited poets with a south west connection, to five different venues.  There was also a callout for participants.  Details of the venues on this poster:

South West Poetry Tour 2016-page-001

I’ve made a few notes about the process of writing a collaborative poem as I’d never done this before and I don’t think Louisa had, either.

Once Steven had invited me to take part, and I’d said I’d be able to attend the Dartington stop of the tour, my starting point was finding another poet to work with and I was thrilled that Louisa Adjoa Parker agreed to be my partner. We’d never met but had been in touch via social media, and Louisa had sent work to And Other Poems.  We’re  both South West poets: Louisa currently lives in Dorset and I live in west Wiltshire, and we both have friends in and near Dartington – an important consideration when you’re in need of a friendly place to stay away from home!  I was able to stay with my lovely friend Emily and it was a brilliant opportunity to catch up with her. Incredibly, although she and Louisa didn’t know each other, it turned out they’d both spent some of their teenage years in Totnes and had several friends in common.  So we all got on well together and were able to share a delicious picnic in the grounds of Schumacher College, Dartington, before the readings began.

Schumacher College


Once we’d agreed to work together, Louisa and I communicated via email and Skype.  It wasn’t practical, for time and cost reasons, to meet in the flesh, although this would have been beneficial (obviously!). We were given one month to write our piece which might sound like plenty of time but, of course, we had to fit our writing in between our day jobs, family commitments, and other writing commitments (and our lives, you know, the stuff that goes on when poetry isn’t happening, or, frequently, when it is).

Our first task was deciding what we wanted to write about.  Stephen Fowler and Camilla Nelson had told us that we had five minutes to perform our piece and it had to be new writing, written specifically for the Enemies Project.  Other than these restrictions, we were free to write whatever we wanted.

eu referendumIt was less than one month after the EU Referendum in the UK so we decided to make our starting point some of the language and ideas used in slogans by the Vote Leave campaign, namely ‘Take back control’ and ‘Breaking Point’.  Once we’d made this decision, we wrote independently and shared our early drafts with each other via email.  Then we ‘met’ several times on Skype so that we could read our work aloud and give each other feedback and encouragement.  I found this really helpful: hearing the poem aloud and performing it in front of another person highlighted jarring moments and clumsy lines in my piece.  I ditched whole sections of my poem (it would have been far too long, in any case). We were also able to time our work and began to establish a way to blend our separate pieces together.  In retrospect, this is something we could have worked on more carefully and I’d certainly want to think about this for another collaboration.

However, a shared, restricted vocabulary was our means of knitting our poems together.  There are echoes and reverberations of ideas in each other’s pieces and, we hope, this was interesting for the audience.  One of our aims was to allow an exploration of the ideas behind ‘Taking back control’ and ‘Breaking Point’ from different vantage spots.

Remaining within our time limit and agreed restrictions was both challenging and exhilarating. We were forced to make severe edits and to be brutal about which lines and phrases were working and which weren’t earning their place.  We had to work fast, knowing that our collaborator was waiting for the next draft, and we had to share work in its newest, rawest form.  That’s pretty scary!

Once our piece had been through several (many!) edits and rewrites,and we’d performed and timed it over Skype, we met for real at Emily’s house a few hours before we were due to read and performed it several times behind a closed door.  We felt shy and nervous about our new work (well, I certainly did).  It was so good to meet in real life at last, although, by this time, we felt we knew each other quite well.

At six o’clock, we gathered at Schumacher College and met some of the other poets who were performing – twenty poets in all.  We’d both met Alasdair Paterson before, and I knew Annabel Banks from social media, but otherwise the poets were new to us. (My friend Emily who is more on the ball than me, pointed out Tony Lopez).  The readings took place in a smallish hall, seating about fifty, with further seating provided by cushions on the floor at the front.  Everyone was friendly and there was an expectant, excited atmosphere with everyone waiting to see what poetic endeavours had been produced.

The Enemies Project
Post-performance poets at Schumacher College

Every poem performed was interesting and different.  Pieces that stood out for me included a conversation/slam between the sun and a microbead – ideas of ecology, nature, eco-vandalism and eco-activism all meshed together with humour; a piece based around a computer error message – an error message as poetry script which was very funny, topical and immediate, and sparked lots of ideas for new writing; a piece about wild swimming – site specific, immersed in the local area, beautiful, mesmeric, seascape poetry; a piece about travelling on the same road from different directions – meandering in the most gentle and thoughtful sense, with often moving and uplifting insights about travelling, arriving (or not) and taking detours.

I’d love to take part in an event like this again and I’d love to work with Louisa again.  If we were to do anything differently, I’d want us to think more about sound and word play, as well as ideas.  I loved the way that many poets used their voices as instruments and created meaning from sound.

I feel grateful to Steven and Camilla for organising this tour and for curating so many different poets.  It was intoxicating to take part, to be given permission to take risks with our writing, to try something new.  It was wonderful to work with Louisa.  It was fascinating and inspiring to see so many new pieces performed for the first time.


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