‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.’ – Orson Welles
First and foremost, my collaborations are a record of friendships. They are testament to my refusal of being alone in the creative act – as I would not want to be alone in the world – and to my decision to mediate sociality through the artistic impulse of other humans whose brilliance leaves me feeling more at home in that world. If my daily life is primarily defined by individuals who have decided to make their time on this planet one of creativity, ingenuity, intelligence and humour, and who have talents far surpassing my own, my experience of life can only be one that is defined by constant growth and learning and, hopefully, understanding — towards nothing more than more art unto expiry.
These five collaborations are no more or less representative of my overall collaborative output than any other five I could’ve chosen. Rather, I choose them, as I do my collaborators, because of a sense of who these people are and the creative and social energy they have exchanged with me. I write this in fact on a tour of the Scottish islands, writing new collaborations every day, to be read in the evenings, to small audiences on Orkney and Shetland. The collaborative process is ever in flux for me now, and so these five works also seem new to me, as though they were written this morning too.
Yet the work with Tom Jenks, ‘1000 proverbs’, was built over a year period or more – and readied by rapidly batted back and forth email – for publication as a separate book with Knives Forks and Spoons Press. Too, ‘40 feet’, is a poem where David Berridge and I tried to embrace the failure of encapsulation, writing 40 poems that were about themselves, over a 40 day period. ‘Samurai’, with Andrew Spragg, is new … begun this year and currently growing poem by poem as we both research a randomly chosen topic and warp it through our shared poetics. ‘La dominate’ was written and rendered artistically by Ariadne Radi Cor in Venice – both of us part of a collaborative project with a university there – as part of a project called Crossing Voices, one expertly curated by Alessandro Mistrorigo and James Wilkes. And ‘Oil’, with William Letford, was written for reading, for this current tour, and read in Aberdeen, Scotland on 15 July, 2014, after an exchange of stanzas lasting a few weeks. Our processes produce the content, and that’s where the joy is, in making sure a process is the thing of it all.
To date I’ve engaged in over 100 collaborations with writers, poets, artists, photographers, illustrators, designers, sculptors, and filmmakers from around the world. It’s why I founded the Enemies project (www.weareenemies.com), which has curated over 40 events, tours, and exhibitions with over 300 artists. Its goal is to pioneer collaboration and innovative as immensely generative and valuable turns of the poets practise.
The Enemies project is a record of potentiality too, of what the aberrant and ambiguous use of language can be when responding, warping and enveloping another, equally abundant, artistic medium. It is my view that poetry lends itself to collaboration as language does conversation, and it is in poetry we are renovating the living space of communication, and this in itself is a collaborative act. The poet comes up against something other than themselves in the writing of every poem; and in the shaping of every fragment of language there is a response taking place.
The motivation behind my taking on so many collaborations was initially a source of uncertainty for me. I’ve come to realise this reluctance is intensely important. At heart, I believe in the transformative power of poetry less than many of my peers. That isn’t to say that poetry cannot be transformative at all – of course I ascribe it such potential to be immensely transformative – but I refuse it the power to go beyond my own personal subjectivity. I refuse the idea that poetry is improving in and of itself. There is a tension here, maybe even a paradox. Poetry is both nothing and everything. Yet I do believe, somehow and without articulation, in the Brodskyite notion of poetry being the most important artform because of its relationship to the profundity of language, because of its engagement with what fundamentally constitutes all other creativity and discussion. It is impossible for me to escape the feeling that this relationship is wholly individuated, and so, concurrently, poetry is nothing, a game for the initiated, the distraction of a select.
I suppose, then, that my collaborations are about stripping away a glib assumption that poetry is profound, to get to its private meaning, which I do believe is closed and personal though very much present. Here is the second paradox: by maintaining a creative practice often reliant on another person, and an act of exposure toward them, I am able to gain fresh and invaluable access to my own poetry and its process. Brazilian philosopher Paulo Friere’s notion that communication builds community in the creative, organisational act which is the antagonistic opposite of manipulation, and a natural development of unity, ties into the idea that my collaborations might be founded on a central turn – a paradox of dismissiveness and legitimacy about the poetical act and the nature of poetry’s power. For me then, this issue is confusion as well as a testament, a symbol of community and accord, a record I cannot fathom rereading. Exactly how it should be – lost in the margins.
Artists who are powerful alone, and need not collaborate, seem to create easily, uninterested in the protection of their inspiration. If my collaborations are held together by poetry, it is as a tacky kind of glue – Uhu, say, in the yellow tubes – good for adhesion, barely keeping pace with the photography, art, illustration, musical composition, and design of so many gifted others. Consider these humble works ahead of my rather miniaturised bulwark against being solitary, a sandcastle before a tsunami, that might provide you with the smallest apertures of pleasant distraction. If my work sits alongside, or inside, work of a quality such as I hope you will find beyond this page, it can only be elevated. Enemies in art and life, those who make up the community I’m in, and who will not allow me to be complacent, is what collaboration means to me. I hope, for you, it might take on a unique meaning, one I cannot possibly fathom from my privileged vantage.