It was just over a year ago, during a summer writer’s workshop in Oregon and long before I was involved with this special edition, that the ideas and aspirations that have come to shape this experiment in poetic collaboration were first triggered in my mind. On that afternoon, I was basking in some climate-controlled amphitheatre and bracing myself for a return to the heat outside. Possibly, this is more of an analogue for my mindset, that week, than I intended it to be, by which I mean to say that this specific environment presented a moment of relief because it was almost inconceivably full of poetry: of thinking about it, talking about, of feeling its presence swell to an unprecedented level. Finally, and like I’d always hoped they might, poems had eclipsed daily tedium; it didn’t feel particularly bold to believe in them this much because they had, in so many days, outsized everything else. They were bigger than things like work and cleaning and cooking and shopping and drying my hair and the manifold other aspects of my experience that I cannot find art in, despite a desire to.
Admittedly, this type of blissfully hermetic thinking has little place in the daily workings of the world, which is, I suppose, why it doesn’t often occur there. But on this day, it felt good and right to dwell in that headspace, believing in the profundity of poems, all the while fearing that they would begin shrinking, again, the moment I left. The poet, Matthew Dickman, had just given a lecture on collaboration, and a writer in the audience asked him if he believed that alliances between poets and other artists—musicians, for example—could be productive insofar as collaborations such as these might render poetry more approachable for those not already reading it and, at the very least, they would carry poems into different circles. A reasonable question, in and of itself, given that poets are often reminded of the fact that comparatively nobody is reading them, that those few who are happen also to be poets. (Whether this perceived truism is accurate or not—whether it matters—I can’t be sure. I have no interest in rehashing the already well-argued debates about why poetry is or isn’t widely enough read, except to say that the takeaway from encounters such as these seems, to me, to be that conventional wisdom holds poetry as anathema to broad and varied consumption. Something about it is difficult, inaccessible.)
After the question time concluded and we all filed out into the late afternoon light, I remember feeling dejected. I’d previously been successful in quashing the incursions of the outside world but had now been forced to remember that this week, like all moments of untrammelled creativity, was finite. Poems were not so big, after all; outside of here, they didn’t govern the structures of our days nor were these discussions, in their service, of particular interest to most people. This place, and everything it contained, was definitely not the world. Rather, it was a moment away from the world, and I could either mourn the fact that I couldn’t keep it, or replicate it, or make any sense of it—or I could allow it to set me alight for a minute. Exactly like a poem: an instant in and out of life, permitting a brief opportunity for something else. In the end, I went back to the quadrangle and drank beer with my workshop group and we talked until the lawn sprinklers hissed on and the night turned black. In the end, that place was not a place, not really. Communities are breathing collaborations and this was what it was all about; being together there was the thing, it was fuel and it moved us.
In the early pages of his exploration of poetics, The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes:
"To be interested in poetry is not so much to be interested in a thing like sodium or statuary. Poetry occurs between primaries, the page and the mind, the world and the word. More than a thing, it is a transference of energy between poles. Poetry’s task, if it has one (we must be suspicious of any claim of task), IS to mitigate but to mitigate by way of accelerant…"
There is a tendency to desire or to labour towards clearly defined meanings. But life is not this way and neither are poems, a fact that becomes ever more pronounced in a project such as this, where we have recruited many artists with no allegiance to poetry to interact with poems, directly. What they have produced is not only a spectacular body of work, in its own right, but also something that confronts the notion that the perceived insularity of the poem limits its access to those from other contexts. As Young notes, perhaps all we can ask poetry to be is a provocation, a moment of ignition that stimulates new ideas and ways of thinking. This is all I ever hoped this project could be, one that seeks to dismantle the tyranny of meaning which suggests poems are in possession of one definitive reading, and instead celebrates the embodied process of merely experiencing a poem: understanding, misunderstanding, feeling something or, perhaps, feeling nothing; which is not an indication of failure, it is just as vivid, just as true, just as concrete an elicitation as any other we can generate.
While I wasn’t sure that this would, or could, be achieved, I did know what I wanted to avoid: at all costs I wanted to resist the intimation that the poems weren’t enough, a transaction that saw to the dilution of the original works and sought to reproduce them in a more palatable or simplified manner. This did not happen; what we have instead are fourteen extraordinary pieces of work that speak to both the process of collaboration and to the original poems that were their spark.
This issue has ended up as a collaboration on numerous fronts. One that grew from the cooperation of those Brow individuals working on it, as well as between the two publications and the artists who may never have met but who have spoken to and through one another’s work. It feels apropos then that it was under the “Umami” theme that this project in collaboration was undertaken; a concept that speaks to the hybrid, the indefinable, but whose alchemical properties also evoke the distillation of something already present, and to the amplification of that essence.
Molly Lukin & Mikaila Hanman Siegersma
WITH THANKS TO
Sam Cooney, Simon Collinson, Kent MacCarter & Luke Davies