Speaking Geographies: Collaboration Over Distance

By and | 1 August 2014

When in transit and upon receipt, to whom does a postcard and its contents belong? This is one of the questions at the forefront of Speaking Geographies, a collaborative poetry collection by Siobhan Hodge and Rosalind McFarlane. This collection, composed entirely on postcards, in letters and via email, is focused not only on the act of sending and receiving poetry, but also how these poems can be reinvented and rewritten according the perceptions of the reader. The collection comprises not only of poems that have physically been sent across great distances; it also thematically engages with and challenges notions of symbolic distance, such as the socio-economic and environmental politics of travel and place.

Processes of transmission and interpretation, resulting in the creation of multiple layers of voices and experience, are unpacked in a series of variously structured poems. Played out in a range of international settings, with a particular focus on linguistic and travel-based imagery, the collection appears to be predominantly free verse poetry, but each piece is located within a particular theoretical scope and technical approach, often based on different schemas for layering the poets’ voices.

In Speaking Geographies, both poets examine and problematise ideas of writing in a range of different geographic locations, then rewriting or refiguring each other’s works. Rather than being straightforward ‘travel’ poems, these collaborative poems are focused on the means and repercussions of exchanging poems written in a variety of settings and from a range of points of view. This pervading focus on interpretation offers room for multiple ownerships of voice and experience, as well as building a subtle form of écriture féminine, via the two female poets’ creation of a separate space for critique and discussion of personal experiences as well as broader themes, situations, and ideas.

Central to this project is a fluid concept of poetic identity and authority. Although some pieces can be immediately aligned with one poet in particular, others are much harder to pinpoint, and occasionally pieces have been constructed with intentionally misleading ‘signature’ techniques. Ownership is not affixed, yet the voices of both poets encompass the entire collection, expanding into multiple points of view. This mirrors the process by which the collection has been constructed; sending poems via letters and postcards leaves the work subject to loss and damage, as well as contentious claims of ownership.

In our discussion here, core theoretical issues confronted in this collaboration are highlighted, with particular reference to heterotextuality, issues of territoriality and gender. In addition, illustrative close readings of several main poems will be provided.

Close Readings: Bodies and Space

Speaking Geographies also contains many poems that examine the processes and implications of transferring bodies from one place to another, often depersonalising individual composite body parts, yet consistently articulating clear narrative voices. A pair of linked poems, ‘Crossing in Real Time’ and ‘Crossing the Real’, as well as the collection’s titular poem, ‘Speaking Geographies’, demonstrate some of these central ideas in two very different forms.

Crossing in Real Time’ and ‘Crossing the Real’ are described as ‘response poems’; one collaborator sent the first poem by letter to the second, who echoed its style. The poems are structurally and thematically similar, with slight focal deviations.

The poems are posed as a question and answer, and though ostensibly these mailed-off poems have made the desired connection, both remain structurally disjointed. There is also no consensus on how best to proceed; one speaker asserts a pessimistic outcome, and the questioner has no chance to reply. The central ‘we’ in the first poem poses questions around grammatical stretches and structural manipulations, while the answering ‘we’ is much more restricted. ‘Crossing in Real Time’ is concerned with how the speaker and listener may converse across languages, specifically via grammar, while also making coy references to the Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong. The respondent, replying in ‘Crossing the Real’, maintains the questioner’s preoccupation with being able to communicate, but makes no attempt to reply in the same form, which combines with the stronger sense of pessimism to foreshadow a loss of voice and ability to share these concerns.

Human bodies are less pressured in ‘Crossing in Real Time’ than in ‘Crossing the Real’. The speaker in the form recognises some potential need for adaptation, reflected in the line ‘perhaps we must breathe — this —spine’, breaking up words and preparing to shift ‘arch—well into each in— / bet—wee—n’. The willingness of these contortions is transformed into compulsion in ‘Crossing the Real’, in which the proposed act of breathing is now a ‘lung squeeze’. Willingness and possibilities are swapped for terms of revision and restriction. The optimism of the former poem is countered by heaver, metallic imagery that intrudes upon living bodies, as both speaker and listener are unequivocally ‘steel shanked and pinioned’. Inanimate objects take on human traits, and the speaker anticipates suppression, but observes that this is self-created.

These two poems foreshadow several of the issues that recur throughout the collection: the ability to speak and to listen, and how these transmissions can be interrupted. ‘Speaking Geographies’ represents the next stage of this otherwise pessimistic outlook, generating a space in which narratives can be naturally overlapped so that there is no need for ‘bridging’. Structurally, ‘Speaking Geographies’ is a multi-layered postcard poem, starting out as a postcard poem sent by one collaborator to the other, and then gratuitously reworded by both collaborators back-and-forth. The initial solo status of the piece is signalled in the first eight lines, but is then collapsed into ‘we’ as the shared memory is divided up and transformed into new narratives:

Speaking Geographies

To write you
postcard leaves and a record,
I looked to sea - you
reflected. This place is 
you in mountain song,
now crouched in bricks, then fretworks
palmed like playing cards. Each breath
seals stamps, sends me south.
We are space uninvested. Take
this instead, knitting narratives 
over migratory seas that we may
bind our stories. Bone-deep 
hankering within storyline maps:
to write our realist fictions we must
placate these pages, ink our dripping fingers,
circumnavigate sealed teeth and we all
go together -
evolving in ever more salvaged directions.

The opening speaker then transfers ownership of the poem and its referenced memories to a communal holding, as the rest of the piece is phrased as a plural experience. ‘Speaking Geographies’ leads to ‘uninvesting’ both as a form of literary currency and permitting a broader narrative to take place, shifting from the wholly personal experience of the opening lines to a broader process of transmission and interpretation. In addition, the poem sets up the collection as inherently connected with the highly contested term ‘world literature’, focusing on the processes and implications of dissemination rather than the notion of a ‘centre’ or ‘periphery’, circulating within or for a particular readership, nationality, or cultural identity. The anti-materialist nature of the poem is tied into the notion of salvage and recycling. These moves articulate the rest of the collection’s focus on creating such spaces, built on shared memories and reworked narratives, to extend criticisms and also to generate a sense of mutually beneficial communal ownership, though not without its problems.

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