By and | 1 August 2014

Are we then not all, whether like it or not, always already collaborators? But collaboration also implies actions that do not necessarily partake, at least by intention, in positive pluralism: consider Dada, the Situationist International or the anarcho ‘philosophical drinkers’ of the Sydney Push. Indeed, at the heart of the practice of collaboration is a paradox, in which both libertarian egoism and uninhibited egolessness—like the dream of a unitary-collective subject—collide.

This ‘impure genius’ of collaboration evokes and at the same abolishes consensus. For collaboration also implies a kind adversary (singular or collective) and a condition of adversity. Intersubjectivities rarely co-operate in the trivial sense, poetry thrives, in fact, upon constraint, difficulty, appropriation, a conflict of purposeful and involuntary actions. Even translation, that most supposedly ‘passive’ forms of collaborative work, is driven by an in-built impossibility of ‘communication,’ at the same time as it promises the basis of a certain translinguistic ‘community.’ This implied intersubjectivity is always an ambiguous one, hinged as it is upon the status (always contingent) of the friend/enemy with whom one is engaged so to speak (‘hearing,’ as Joris says, the word collaborator in its French meaning of a treasonable collaborateur or in the Italianate pun traduttore, traditore). Steven Fowler’s long-running ‘Enemies’ project in London, represented in this issue of Cordite Poetry Review, addresses precisely this.

But literary history abounds in such collaborative ambivalence or, as Joyce wrote, ‘ambi-violence,’ the Ern Malley ‘hoax’ being a classic example: two disgruntled anti-modernists (Harold Stewart and James McAulay) producing, in the space of an afternoon in a Victorian army barracks (it was war-time in many senses of the word) collaborated to produce, by way of collage, pastiche, subterfuge, a mock collection of quintessentially ‘modernist’ poems by a non-existent, dead, Australian poet, with the intention of discrediting one local literary editor, Max Harris of the Angry Penguins, and Modernism in general.

The alternative view contends that these two hoaxers, freed of the usual constraints of aesthetic judgements etc., and driven perhaps by unconscious impulses they themselves were unaware of or unequipped to grasp, unwittingly produced works of poetic genius. Their ‘collaboration’ sparked further collaboration. First with the wider literary cabal in which they were involved, then with Max Harris, the duped editor who published the poems and hailed them the work of the greatest Australian poet, and then with an unwitting (and thereafter increasingly witting) reading public. Then with a reactionary political-judicial system devoted to the cause of anti-obscenity (Max Harris was eventually prosecuted on that charge).

The ‘Ern Malley’ poems, however, took on quite a life of their own, despite all efforts of their erstwhile creators, and in doing so initiated a series of important further collaborative processes, notable among them the artist Sidney Nolan’s Ern Malley series and more recently a series of poetic cross-collaborations with the poets John Ashbery, John Kinsella and John Tranter, all poets known for their interest in collaborative practices (Ashbery as the arch-collageist author of ‘Europe,’ Kinsella as the serial collaborator with numerous poets from Dorothy Hewett to Keston Sutherland to Pam Brown, Tranter as author of Different Hands, the outcome of a ‘collaboration’ with a computer programmes, ghosting Biggles, Radclyffe Hall and Louisa Alcott). Their legacy is at work, too, in the type of anti-institution represented by such collaborative writers as Ken Bolton & John Jenkins, whose Poems of Relative Unlikelihood and The Gutman Variation redirect the censorious intent of Stewart, McAulay et al back at the hoaxers and the authoritarian mindset that gave rise to them, and which continues today in the form of militant anthologisation and constitutional preambles that speak for ‘one’ Australia, ‘one’ culture, ‘one’ poetics at the expense of all others.

That the ‘Ern Malley’ poems appear in full in the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry has opened a whole new area of collaborative poetics in the cultural expropriation if the ‘illegitimate’ or ‘bastard’ form as a cultural foundation to a body of ‘national literature.’ And here, in this edition, if nothing else, we hoped to show that the ‘author’ is nothing if not problematic, split into two or other multiples, his/her origin cut away, or reduced to an endless copy of a copy that isn’t so much an implied plagiarism but a relentless, irreducible ‘feedback.’

The following collaborations, translations, and artworks differ wildly in interpretation and form. All of them in some way, actively wrestle with the question of authorship, poetry, and the tradition: from the ‘Reading of the US constitution’, a marvellous exercise in textual constraint and collaboration by Paul Griffiths; to the playful collaboration between the Latvian-Russian language poet, Sergej Timofejev, and translator, Anne Marie Jackson; to the T.R.E.E. collaboration (audio-poetic) of Carol Watts who was struck by the creaking recordings of the sound artist Will Montgomery; to the witty and ironic pairing of Barry Schwabsky and Vincent Katz; to the collaborator’s collaborator in the form of Rachel Zolf; to the perambulating portrait of the poets by Laurie Duggan; and even the essays, including one ‘philosophical prose poem’ by Andrew Haas, which offers a unique collaboration between Keats and ontology—all are works which question and experiment and (hopefully) beguile.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: