Speaking Geographies: Collaboration Over Distance

By and | 1 August 2014

Central to Speaking Geographies is a sense that each referenced space – a bridge, airport, city, country, or other, imagined place –does not owe the transient speakers anything. The collection’s varied settings and natural imagery are treated with considerably more respect than human presences, which are ambiguously layered, acted upon, and divided into component parts. Conversely, images of destruction or forcible adaptation of nature and animals are denounced. Speaking Geographies features several animal-orientated poems, as well as frequent references to horses in many other pieces. The collaboration challenges links between travel and exploitation of the natural world, including destruction of habitat to make way for international airports, such as Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, built on reclaimed land at the expense of the indigenous dolphin population, as well as more general historical and contemporary uses of animals as trading goods or transportation.

Collaborative Writing and Écriture Féminine

Critical of exploitative human activities, Speaking Geographies also subtly engages with perceptions of gendered speech. Speaking Geographies engages with the commodification of individual voices, settings, and figures, and also reflects on proprietary issues historically associated with collaborative writing and linked with women’s writing in particular. Holly Laird articulates one of the strongest issues with aligning collaborative writing with identity. She writes:

Despite contemporary demystification, a particular authorial life behind a work has long been an almost necessary adjunct both to a sympathetic reception and to the work’s survival as an object of commentary. Not only has the author been perceived as originator and authenticator, but she or he has also been perceived as validating a work, offering an individual human point of attachment for readers, enhancing even its aesthetic value. Co-authored works disrupt this scheme, and in their announcement of a pre-existing relationship, they thwart such attachment.1

To counter such concerns, Speaking Geographies is full of specific memories and experiences, shared and distributed amongst multiple nameless speakers. However, the collaborators also engage with Laird’s criticism of this concern, in which she asserts that collaborators’ self-representations ought to be the primary focus of criticism, rather than the ‘true’ lives lived, challenging the supposition that ‘lives were not multiple, concocted in part by the people inside them and the social structures circumscribing them’.2 For this reason, Speaking Geographies does not assign ownership of features or memories, nor identify where one speaker’s perception begins and another’s takes over, nor where these have been reworded, shared, or left entirely untouched from their original presentation. Subtle markers can be identified, but do not detract from the collection’s overarching focus on traversing boundaries and creating a shared space for layers of transmission.

Collaboration can risk collapsing or losing a sense of identity, due to the poets’ decision not to attribute each piece with its original source. The combining of memory with fiction, overwritten by the other poet, flirts with the possibility of pushing one speaker’s writing into passive amorphousness. There is a link here with ficto-critical thinking, since the project looks at collapsing and rescaling boundaries via a performative, multi-focal engagement with different speaking voices and implied listeners, settings, environmental and social issues. However, these boundaries are not necessarily stripped away. For example, a dedicated reader may be able to piece together the identities of the authors of particular poems and sections, though this is not necessary for understanding the collection’s themes and aims. The self-awareness and blending of thematic and technical boundaries associated with ficto-criticism is applied throughout Speaking Geographies to emphasise the collection’s focus on blurring the personal and the political, and implications of ownership.

The decision to not denote specific poems with a particular originary poet is in response to Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson’s observation that analysis of collaborative writers tends to direct attention towards the lives of these literary couples, not their texts.3 Stone and Thompson highlight the prevalence of organising collaborative works into ‘separate oeuvres, or ‘solo’ performances’ since often the first impulse when addressing a collaborative work is to ‘bring it under the unitary sign of the proprietary author’.4 On face value, to write in collaboration is to raise issues of copyright conventions and legal definitions of proprietorship and appropriation, as well as the Romantic ideologies of individual creation and the need to defend intellectual property.5

These ideas have been invaluable in assessing and promoting feminist texts, particularly those written by early women authors. However, Speaking Geographies is focused on not only articulating subtly feminist voices, but also those of an intensely anti-materialistic and environmentalist nature, promoting respectful negotiations of boundaries not only when travelling between different countries, languages, and cultural practices, but also when addressing personal memories and experiences. The collection is also focused on how communication over distance can create new, shared spaces, in which multiple interpretations and points of access can be generated. Rather than painstakingly formulating new boundaries and barriers between the multiple speakers, the importance of individual ownership is downplayed in favour of a communal and egalitarian space of ownership and interpretation, but this is not without issues and anxieties.

The layering of voices and lack of defined ownership in Speaking Geographies is not intended to render the collaboration ‘invisible’. Historically, women writing in English and in collaboration have been rendered ‘doubly invisible’, according to Bette London, since not only were collaborations often not acknowledged, but women’s writing tended to be marginalised in publication.6 London notes that it can be easy to see collaboration as a form of writing that enforces passive stereotypes of female writers.7 At the same time however, collaborative writing has great potential for expressing codified, personal writings, as well as entirely open, accessibly representations of experiences not limited to one particular intended recipient. When a poem is sent and received in Speaking Geographies, it is subjected to multiple processes of reinterpretation and transmission, which are acknowledged in the authors’ decision not to assign ownership to only one writer. However, the ‘sent’ poems and ‘unsent’ poems alike contain markers linked with one particular poet’s stylistic preferences. The reader does not know which pieces are truly collaborative. As a result, even within the mutual shared space of the collection there are still isolated units, codified as mutual, which are the personal property of one writer.

Even though the layered voices throughout Speaking Geographies are largely genderless, the collection still functions as a form of écriture féminine; not only are the two poets women, but we also engage with and celebrate a form of female subjectivity and create a space in which both poets can negotiate their work. We are cautious of early incarnations of écriture féminine and their potential to fall into essentialist terms, but certainly do not shy away from its potential to generate a shared space fit for collaborative critique as well as celebration.8 Subtly feminist ideas can also be identified in the collection’s overarching focus on a need for freedom of movement and transmission of voices, without censorship, to facilitate a broader discussion and sharing of the personal, rather than its relegation to silence. The multiple, unassigned voices throughout the collection do not focus on issues of anonymity and repression, but create a multi-layered system of the personal and critical, shared in order to facilitate connections over geographical and ideological distances. By declining to assign a primary proprietor, the collaborators step outside the standard systems of intellectual property and reject the commodification of actions and services associated with travelling and the writing of travel narratives as a way of ‘owning’ the lands, cultures and languages encountered. In this way, Speaking Geographies has more in common with Helene Cixous’s ‘Sorties’, in which she reflects on the importance of writing and reading as a way for the oppressed to not only escape to a world elsewhere, ‘to leave the real, colonial space’, but also to discover others similarly linked, transforming reading from an act of escapism to one of political activism.9

Speaking Geographies is a discussion of personal and more general concerns, enacted over distance, as the two female poets and their ambiguously gendered speakers generate a poetics compiled of sometimes dubiously shared experiences, interpretations, adaptations, and contrasts between voice and silence. This is enhanced by the physical transference of one poem to another place. Even if a poem is lost, silencing the unrecorded and unrecoverable piece and its writer, this still offers an opportunity to the intended recipient to speculate about its contents, filling the silence with what could have been exchanged, but now only stems from her point of view. Speculative poems written to reflect on lost poems ensure that these works have not been entirely silenced. In addition, the means by which the collection has been substantially formed are not silent: the decision to send long poems and discussions via series of postcards, for example, has made these pieces extremely easy to access (and may have confused several postal workers).

Even though both collaborators in Speaking Geographies readily invoke bodily images, the genders of the speakers and body parts are frequently left ambiguous. However, some subtle references to female or feminised bodies and voices can be identified throughout the body of work, problematically linked to broader issues of bodily commodification and external control traditionally exerted over women’s narratives and bodies. In addition, the decision to not assign ownership over particular poems occasionally results in artificial contributions to the mutual, shared space, when a non-collaborative poem has been slipped into the collection. Consequently, the project’s multiple voices cannot be described as entirely harmonious, nor the mutual space for transmission entirely without conflict, signalling a need for further engagement with the criticisms and issues raised throughout the collection about materialistic drives, senses of isolation, and fear of inappropriate transmission.

Close Readings: Ownership

One section of Speaking Geographies, titled ‘Capturing’, focuses on the influence of the absence or presence of a gendered figure on transmission of a poem and its voices, aided by accompaniment of a photograph used as an original basis for each piece. These ‘image’ poems examine particular memories from a rather more possessive standpoint than that seen elsewhere in the collection, putting pressure on the communal space ideally generated in other poems. The speakers show awareness of the other, listening figures, but their selection of descriptions and structures tend to reiterate more personal content, suggesting that any alteration to these poems could be aligned with ‘theft’ rather than ‘salvage’. The firmer sense of ‘you’ and ‘I’ invites proprietary awareness, however the ‘absent’ figure, also positioned as the listener and sometimes the photographer, is an ironically consistent concern.

In one image poem, titled ‘Harbour City at Night’, the photographic setting is a deserted shopping centre, still lit up but otherwise empty aside from the speaker and listener. The speaker reflects:

Harbour City at Night

Late down the harbour side 
city doors are open, though
passage slips from polite 
opening hours. Abstract-negative-
marble. Indoor street 
gingerly peels an 
unbitten jugular. Cameras strung
in panes throw upside
down mug shots. We keep walking,
I point you homeward, rink
all cold patience after-hours 
the shops remain, no eyes 
but an urge to run
is fiercely reined. You send me
forward, insistent permissive 
compression point a dialectic 
slurry. I decline. Arrested shift. 
No persuading me to 
take that step, you offer 
to hold my bag. 
Second pins strap to sequence, 
head leans in. Lateral yield
along remembered track. Pathos 
seeps into familiar floor, made
new under bare sole. Sheepish
toeing of lines between 
slab and stair, escalator 
gridlocks pad. Bare footed follower.
Security guard blinks down 
building card, we nod on
like a Shire in harness. I’m 
home and you’re here, but the 
lights do not go out.

The poem’s lack of consistent rhythm and technique suggests instability as well as uncertainty, operating outside the collaborative process yet still under the scrutiny of the listener. The communal orientation of the collection has undermined the speaker’s sense of personal autonomy, but has not completely prevented expression of a particular memory. Tactile reflections increase the sense of personal experience, but the speaker is also linked with images of equine subservience, namely the harnessed draft horse and gesture of yielding along a set track. The speaker wavers between singular and plural references, also noting the listener’s high degree of influence over her actions. Though not a hostile poem, the shared space of ‘Harbour City at Night’ is less harmonious than those in other poems, internalising and outwardly recognising criticism of the collection’s ideal project.

Conversely, ‘Swimming at High Tide’ is perhaps the most fully recognised écriture féminine poem in the collection, despite its aversion to gendered imagery. Notions of ‘writing together’ are linked with exceptionally romantic, natural imagery, genderless body parts forming physical links in response to an urgent drive for connection. Despite this insistent push for connection and communal writing, there is a persistent return to more independent imagery, signalling that the poem and collection as a whole will endeavour to make such connections and generate shared spaces, but at the same time cannot entirely be removed from personal identifying markers:

Swimming at High Tide

This is no longer a geography of infinity
but pairs of arms outstretched into the Tsing Yi Bridge.
Water on waters and this fluid travel
a parallel existence. I've arrived in Hong Kong without you,
your flight one delay too many.

We are siphoning rafts to keep
together. Sitting in silence,
tide pushes heads homeward
and each wave beckons hands,
to dip below the surface. I wait.

This is no longer a grammar of infinity
but tongues are tied to the bridge between:
moon landings and moon jellyfish a reflection
and names are a plagiarism that matters. 
You arrive tomorrow, and I'm glad.

Fish skim hands and we take no count,
let the movement trace our distance.
The sky overhead heaves clouds
like bile, rain sags onto shoulders
and we must carry our own maps.

Take guidance from the stars, wait,
trace wrinkles in documentary evidence, scribble
I feed you pieces, spelt in sunlight
I dream in Braille, sounds of cities
remembering our travels
the stamped return of weather cycles.
  1. Holly Laird, Women Coauthors, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, p 2.
  2. Laird, p 4.
  3. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson, eds. Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, p 4.
  4. Stone and Thompson, p 4, p 12.
  5. Stone and Thompson, p 12-13.
  6. Bette London, Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999, p 9.
  7. London, p 28.
  8. Pam Morris notes that Cixous’s advocacy of écriture féminine, in particular, has been criticised as utopian and ahistorical, since by urging a woman to ‘write herself’, Cixous encourage a return to libidinal drives of the body and a form of biologism or essentialism: Pam Morris, Literature and Feminism: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p 124.
  9. Quoted in Betsy Erkkila, The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p 5.
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