Speaking Geographies: Collaboration Over Distance

By and | 1 August 2014

This poem was built one line at a time, sent back and forth between the two poets, resulting in a sometimes fractious sense of communal writing as well as a continued tendency to break into singularity even in the final stanza. However, the second last line overcomes these issues, recognising a plurality in ‘our travels’ that permits multiple perspectives, rather than a singular experience, to exist. Despite this development, the poem remains one of the most clearly ‘separated’ pieces, via its broader line spacing than any other piece in the collection, also physically representative of the space being traversed and territory in need of negotiation.


When working with multiple perspectives the question of territory is often raised. Lorraine York in her book Rethinking Women’s Collaborative Writing: Power, Difference and Property1 as well as her article ‘Crowding the Garrett: Women’s Collaborative Writing and the Problematics of Space’2 foregrounds the ways in which ‘the problematics of space do not come to an end in twentieth-century collaborations. Rather, they often take the form of an uneasy negotiation of shared textual space as utopian frontier – a negotiation attended, to be sure, by a whole range of postcolonial complexities.’3 The title poem of the collection, ‘Speaking Geographies’ responds to ideas of territory in a way that complicates assertions around ownership and control, a very postcolonial concern. However, it does not present such a shared space as necessarily utopian.

As the title poem, ‘Speaking Geographies’ introduces many of the collection’s themes, including the sense of territory as contested but not resolved, and impels the double readings many of the poems exhibit. Here the double reading of ‘Speaking Geographies’ explicitly complicates York’s notion of a shared utopian frontier space. Initially the poem appears to create a positive version of space, however this is then overturned. The alliteration linking ‘palmed like playing cards’ and ‘seals stamps, sends me south’ creates a visual and aural patterning between these words that lend the lines a sense of fluidity and belonging. The words ‘match’ each other, and their shared sounds make them run together in a way that creates links between them suggestive of a fluid movement between words, and thus a homogeneous sense of place. However, this is complicated by the way the lines read in terms of their content. Rather than creating a unified sense of place that promotes a feeling of belonging, the lines present a strident lack of control. To be ‘palmed like playing cards’ is to be completely in the control of another. It suggests another has control over representation, as well as the way they treat this as a game. to be presented in the way they choose and as a form of game. Further, the next lines ‘Each breath / seals stamps, sends me south’ continues this sense of powerlessness as the very breath of another ‘seals’ the ‘stamp’ on the other, which causes them to be ‘sent’ ‘south’. While the initial reading of these lines suggests, through the alliteration, a fluid place in which to find a sense of connection and belonging, a second reading allows this to be interrupted. Here the sense of powerlessness is emphasised, suggesting that such a state of fluid unity may only be possible in a space that allows absolutely no control.

The ending of ‘Speaking Geographies’ also exhibits a similar double reading, and a similar disruption of a utopian frontier supposedly reached in collaborative writing. The alliteration and fluidity of the first half of the poem is interrupted in the second with the harsh line ‘Bone-deep / hankering within storyline maps’. Here the choice of the word ‘hankering’ is a deliberate one. Rather than selecting the softer sounding ‘longing’, ‘hankering’ suggests a harsher sense of desire, one that is inelegant and hungry in its pursuit. That ‘hankering’ is then paired with ‘storyline maps’ again points to the postcolonial, territorial tension that is explored in the poem. Rather than presenting a longing, here it is hunger that is foregrounded as the storyline maps are associated with bones rather than nostalgia. Further, the next lines continue in this vein, developing the way in which writing realist fictions means ‘we must / placate these pages, ink our dripping fingers’. Here the doubleness of the ‘we’ suggests both poets, but also the reader. However, rather than opening this as a shared space for the poets and reader to engage, it rather implicates both reader and poets in the desire for territory that is grasping rather than utopic. That pages must be ‘placated’ in order to be written on, and the ink is in fact part of ‘dripping fingers’ suggests the violence and oppression that such writing may entail.

The final lines of the poem, on first reading, do suggest a reversal of this grasping desire for territory and a sense of a utopic space, however again through a double reading this is rejected. The lines ‘we all / go together – / evolving in ever more salvaged directions.’ do seem to suggest a sense of utopia. Here the poets and the reader, through the use of ‘we’, do appear to be creating a utopic space in which the violence of the realist fictions and storyline maps may be ameliorated. However, this is again complicated by a double reading. ‘Salvage’ can suggest a rescue, of saving something that may be lost, but it also has a sense of being stolen. Artefacts deemed ‘salvage’ are usually decreed this by those who claim them, and are not always as innocently acquired as the term may suggest. Rather, theft and appropriation are also a part of ‘salvage’ and this double intention is clear in the final part of the poem. While the idea of a ‘salvaged direction’ may indeed be a way out of the violence of the lines before, it could also be theft that is conveniently ignored, allowing the speakers to claim yet another possession and the territory that goes along with this. It is this double reading in which salvage may be either a sense of being saved, or a sense of being stolen, that resists the sense of utopia York discusses.

There is a further sense in which the utopia of a shared territory that York points to is resisted in the poem ‘Speaking Geographies’, and that is through the performance. York’s examples of the utopic territory inhabited by several poets acknowledges the tensions and contradictions that are often present in this poetry, but she still claims that such work aims for a sense of the utopic. York talks of the way in which:

In this sense, this essay will take very seriously Michel Foucault’s celebrated spatial metaphor for authorship as, paradoxically, ‘the empty space left by the author’s disappearance’ – a space that is, in true Foucauldian style, ‘reapportioned[ed]’ rather than emptied of its cultural currency. The negotiation of cultural space has no more dissipated than has the much-vaunted imperialism of the 1900s. So what happens when twentieth-century collaborators, looking to justify their shared entrances on the page, are drawn to images of claiming territory?4

Here the sense of the empty space that is ‘reapportioned’ is indeed significant. When the poem ‘Speaking Geographies’ is performed each poet takes different lines, one after another and occasionally together. At each performance, though, which poet takes which lines is not usually decided until the last minute, and this gives each reading a different sense as the idea of territory is reapportioned at each event. Further, the actual writing of the poem was similar with one poet writing the first draft, after which the other rewrote the poem, the first rewrote that version and so on until the whole poem had been claimed and reclaimed in a way that reflected the material being developed. While such actions can certainly be seen as utopic in that each poet willingly relinquishes control over the piece the fact the poem is still read by the poets line by line and in a haphazard fashion is designed to disrupt this. Instead of being a joint poem that is read together, each poet claims territory in the lines they speak, and each reading plays out the double meanings of the poem and sense of territory that is disputed and open. This stance reflects and embodies rather than dismisses or silences the violence that such territory, in conquest as in poetry, may have.


As a collection Speaking Geographies also engages with criticism surrounding works by multiple authors. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson advocate examining co-written work using the idea of heterotexts in order to address this. Here the idea of heterotextuality allows Stone and Thompson to avoid the binaries and other limitations that the idea of the solitary author often places on collaborative projects. Rather than trying to prise apart the voices that make up a collaborative project, Stone and Thompson note that:

Poststructuralist theories have effectively altered conceptions of the unitary text, replacing it with less bounded models of textuality. We propose that the paradigm of the unitary author, which has thus far proven to be more resistant to transformation than the idea of the unitary text, should similarly be replaced by a conception of authors as ‘heterotexts’, woven of various strands of influence and agency, absorbing or incorporating differing subjectivities, and speaking in multiple voices.5

The idea of different woven strands is particularly relevant for Speaking Geographies as this collection not only interweaves the voices of two poets, but other texts and voices as well as appropriating each author’s own words. The best examples of this are the paired poems ‘When sent’ and ‘Would you like a tracking number?’

When sent

We fix these words
in paper,
a means to be
spoiled. Stamp imprints
finger journeys from box to office -
cargobay dreaming - linger at the exit.
Each sudden storm is curling
edges, taste of monsoon rivers
at the bottom of a postbox.
We consign to trust
all we see and say,
hope that postmarks won’t obscure
meaning under passport layerings
and resources tendered. Lowest
bidder bears you, in all your
pristine fragments,
home, so I may 
pore over this, our 
second-hand transmission.
Would you like a tracking number?

Mangle your words and tuck
delicate feelings behind scratch marks,
ink runs and bent corners:
the postmark as censure.

Storms make a puddle of your letterbox,
the straight sentences of bills infiltrated:
ads for a new life fuse
delayed missives and cautionary love
letters between damp sheets.

Finger print away – the date’s a stamp and
communication is failing at the point of delivery -
postal worker a fluro absence:
the numbers fell off outside.

And you stole this letter anyway,
producing blackmarket packets:
the briefest of grammar fixes
and a pinch of delicately edged
purloined pronouns.

In ‘When sent’ the multiple voices are explicitly textual. The ‘we’ who fixes words on to paper to make a letter expects these to be manipulated and added to, to be ‘spoiled’ and thus not exclusively the creation of one author. The fact that the author is already prevented from being singular with the use of ‘we’ adds to this, troubling the very fact of an original singular author, as well as an author that could write without the very explicit ‘trace’ of others who ‘spoil’ this mode of communication.

What is added to the transmission of these words is not only other voices, but here is extended to include aspects of the non-human world. The words written come to bear both stamps and fingerprints in their journey, as well as the way ‘Each sudden storm is curling / edges’. Here both human and non-human elements ‘mark’ the words that are being sent, and each brings about its own contribution, making this a version of a heterotext that not only includes multiple interwoven voices, but the marks of various other entities within its very text.

This idea is continued further in the poem as the way letters are transmitted. The poem notes how ‘We consign to trust / all we see and say, / hope that postmarks won’t obscure / meaning under passport layerings’. Here the physical process of sending words is described as one that opens them up to multiple marks and insists on their heterogeneity. The idea of consigning trust in a physical process emphasises the lack of control over how these words are carried, while the different layerings of marks are exposed as so prevalent they may in fact ‘obscure / meaning’. However, as concerned as the speaker appears to be about their words being lost, it is the complete obscuration of them, their utter erasure, rather than having them added to that appears to be the concern. This becomes the focus of the poem in later lines as the letter is described as ‘pristine fragments’ and the speaker ‘may / pore over this, our / second-hand transmission’. Instead of the additions being seen as interrupting or obscuring the words, they are seen as a fundamental part of it. These are indeed ‘pristine’, not in the sense of a purity that is untouched, but a sense of purity that is instead embracing of the wider whole. The most common use of ‘pristine’ is used to describe an idea of wilderness, which it is also commonly known are not as ‘untouched’ as they might initially appear In this sense the double reading of ‘pristine’ in fact contributes to this sense of heterotextuality as the very text itself, in fragments, is pristine in its self as a marked, multiple mode of textual transition. This is emphasised in the final lines which describe it as a ‘second-hand’ transmission. Rather than being a negative value, here the ‘second-hand transmission’ acknowledges the physical reality of travel in which additions, by both human and non-human players, are added, in a way that renders the text an open and changeable entity rather than a closed example of single solitary authorship.

As a response ‘Would you like a tracking number?’ also plays with the idea of marks, but builds on the sense of heterotexts as it appropriates not only outside marks, but also ‘When sent’. Again dealing with the subject of post and the physical transmission of words, here not only does the poem’s title appear to add to the former poem, reading together as ‘When sent would you like a tracking number?’ but it also takes the idea of the physical marks and adds its own.

In ‘Would you like a tracking number?’ the very words are themselves given over to manipulation as the voice addresses the reader, encouraging them to ‘Mangle your words and tuck / delicate feelings behind scratch marks, / ink runs and bent corners’. Here it is the reader who is encouraged to manipulate the words themselves, integrating the physical marks of travel as a necessary part of the transition. Indeed the very postmark is ‘censure’ of a very self-conscious kind.

The hetereotextuality of this space is further emphasised by the next stanza in which storms enter the letterbox and result in ‘the straight sentences of bills infiltrated: / ads for a new life fuse / delayed missives and cautionary love / letters between damp sheets.’ Here the very letters themselves become a melded heterotext that is no longer the ‘straight sentences’ but rather a combination of letters from different genres that occupy different positions (‘delayed’ and ‘cautionary’) but are also becoming one. Theenjambment between ‘love’ and ‘letters’ emphasises this as the very idea of love letters are split and reconstituted across the lines. In this sense the physicality of travel and heterotextuality is rendered in a very definitive way.

The final two stanzas of this poem take the idea of heterotextuality and further complicate it, bringing in both outside texts and troubling the very idea of ‘hetero’ in ‘heterotexts’. Stone and Thompson both recognise the way ‘heterotexts’ appears to foreground the idea of ‘hetero’ relationships, however they wish to use ‘hetero’ to indicate ‘mixed’. ‘Would you like a tracking number?’ takes up this very idea, finally rendering the heterotextual space a potentially queered one.

In order to suggest such a reading, ‘Would you like a tracking number?’ takes as an intertextual angle Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter. In the poem, the accusation of a letter being stolen is deliberately levelled at the reader: ‘And you stole this letter anyway’ making any sense of an original solitary author entirely false as the letter itself is a stolen article. However, this is developed as the poem suggests the letter is in fact being used to provide ‘blackmarket packets: / the briefest of grammar fixes / and a pinch of delicately edged / purloined pronouns.’ Here the idea of a stolen letter appears first an illicit substance, and then transforms into the very idea of a letter itself. Rather than being the physical object one (or more) person/s send to another, here the very singularity of a letter, say ‘s’ is revealed to be the subject. Indeed the very idea of pronouns in English may be significantly transformed with a single letter, ‘he’ becoming ‘she’ for example. The idea of stealing not only a letter, but a form of identification, marks this as a queered heterotext. Not only are the external marks and the idea of purity from ‘When sent’ developed upon, but the very notion of in fact stealing this letter, this form of address, this very identification is foregrounded until the letter, and the very mode it is written in, is no longer certain but rather a mix of so many different texts and voices it is impossible to unravel them.


The processes of assemblage and thematic engagements of ‘Speaking Geographies’ are inherently bound up in representations of transmission and how collaborative works can potentially create new negotiations of space. By moving between a range of unclearly delineated voices, settings and identities, yet articulating clear criticisms of a range of environmental and material concerns, the collaborators seek not to close the distance between their works, but to transform this space into an active territory.

Lack of clear ownership does not result in conflation of writers’ voices, but permits a greater range to develop, filling the sense of ‘absence’ that threatens to generate between each sent postcard or letter with a range of potential respondents. It also encourages multiple voices in a way that creates heterotexts. These interwoven strands involve not only the voices of each poet, but also other texts and the environment in their representations of a textuality that remains open to modification.

The collection’s multiple voices operate within a created, shared space, which is not without its anxieties and issues. Ambiguously gendered figures engage in a form of écriture féminine, while unnamed speakers share and repossess personal memories, and the query of how much of the collection is truly ‘shared’ is not fully answered.

Further, the very idea of territory becomes a contested and open discussion in the poems. Each work foregrounds the ways possession are implicated in even the most seemingly innocent spaces such as poetic collaboration, and argue that even in these spaces issues of power should not be ignored.

Preoccupied with hierarchies of voice and interpretation at the outset, Speaking Geographies is not without its ironies as the two poets aim to generate a poetics of place generated but not constrained by boundaries and borders, that examines what this might mean, and instigates a deliberately unstable poetics.

  1. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
  2. In Stone and Thompson, Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, p 288-307.
  3. Crowding the Garrett’, p 289.
  4. Crowding the Garrett’, p 290.
  5. Contexts and Heterotexts: A Theoretical and Historical Introduction’ in (Eds.) Stone and Johnson, Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, p 19.
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