We are finishing the week by digging deeper into the process that brought you the featured poem of the Collaborative Voices folio, "A Battle for America," by Sean F. Munro & Henry Goldkamp. Here, Henry Goldkamp gives us an offering, digs into how the two defined collaboration for the purpose of the poem, and shares the surprises they encountered along the way:
Our collaboration was a nice even split, 50-50 both in terms of creative and craft elements. The process lent itself to such an ideal. We passed "opponents" back and forth to one another: Sean would send me twenty "This vs. ______" and I would fill in the "that"; And vice versa for these versus verses, as I would then send twenty more "That vs. _____" back. This started out in a plain word doc, until we realized, over drinks in Parkview Tavern, awash in the racket of infinite flat screens blasting meaningless college sports everywhere, that a tournament bracket would be the perfect form to mirror our hypermasculine, sports-obsessed citizenry.
This back-and-forth drafting continued until we had a big pool to pluck from, about sixty or so. Next was a sudden death elimination round to whittle the options to the thirty-two opponents needed for a tournament bracket. We both sat at a laptop together, taking turns eliminating weaker battles, one by one. This was pretty brutal, as you often witnessed your pal murder what you thought was a real darling. The poem was stronger for it, though, and we trimmed it to nothing but muscle.
I fear that this all sounds very rigid and technical (and it is to a degree). But the style in which we wrote this poem was one of the most insouciant techniques I've ever composed with. We were basically just hanging out! In these proto-stages it was about play more than anything. When Sean sent the first half-battles, most were witty, topical, and/or absurd, all of them blatantly funny. I answered in a similar fashion—the kind of shit shooting we'd do at the bar anyway. After a couple rounds, over the course of a couple weeks, it turned into a kind of play fight, poet against poet. One would take the air out of the other's with an understated subject, or try to one-up him with an image, or diffuse the candor with a kind of rearranged syntax. In other words, the work started getting more poetic. I was always excited to see what kind of curve balls he might throw me; likewise, I was always eager to see how he'd volley back. (Excuse the mixed sports metaphors—I told you there were a lot of TVs in that bar!)
We've never acknowledged this competitive element to one another, but I think it greatly aided the poem (this poem about America no less, where competition is lionized to such a grotesque degree). Competition is not without its benefits, of course: that coarse file with which we sharpen our teeth. Why not use it to sharpen a poem?
Slowly, our opponents evolved: decisions took on a deeper gravity, the humor darkened— shit was getting serious. And why the hell not? This shit is serious! Human lives are at stake every day in this empire's razor mouth! But my favorite thing about America is the paradox of it, how its walls can close in on you, yet you can still be young and wild and free like all those songs on the radio say. As you already know, there is simply nothing like it.
The juxtaposition of opponents after the first round surprised me quite a bit. The initial sixteen battles we basically had total control over. But beyond that, when we took turns picking winners, the poem began breathing on its own. The act of choosing a winner happened rather quickly, a few minutes at most. We again passed the sheet back and forth, filling in our answers one at a time. The result of this inertia was a somewhat cartoonish death-match, but it was soon obvious that our images were actually synecdoche and metonymies, the grey area between those two highfalutin terms. I wouldn't say this was entirely unbeknownst to us beforehand, but seeing them all laid out on the page made the complicated state of this country glare behind the simple tournament form. The stakes felt so much higher.
For example, we didn't particularly want to turn the poem violent, as in the third round of "one 16 year old's AR-15" versus "Christine Blasey Ford's throat," but isn't that a kind of reality? Isn't it safe (admittedly, the absolute worst word in this context) to say that lack of gun control is somehow connected to sexual violence against women in this country? I'm not going on a diatribe here, nor am I stirring up any incendiary conspiracies. I'm not doing anything. It is the poem, of its own accord, pointing out these relationships, their possibility at least.
The biggest surprise though? The fact that "Another tax cut" won the big door prize. No way I would've put my money on that dark horse to take it all. Yet, there is was, its red ink continuously cutting its way across the page. Before we knew it—it trotted up to the winner's podium. In hindsight, it's so damn appropriate and obvious. But when you catch it in the right light, it retains a sense of epiphany: The priority of this country is rich people's money. Fuck!