& Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Ross and I started this project in the summer of 2011 and we’d trade three to four poems a season as we tended to our respective gardens: his fruit and veggie garden in Bloomington, Indiana and my giant perennial flower garden in my former home in western NY. I (almost) always start my poems long hand. If the draft wasn’t too messy, I’d send it as a letter (via USPS) to Ross. If it was, I’d copy it out by hand (and along the way make edits/revisions in that way) and THEN type that draft out and send it to Ross. You have to understand that in addition to being one of my dearest friends, he just happens to be one of my favorite writers,and he always made me want to bring my ‘A’ game to the table.
After almost a year of writing to each other, together we boarded a train bound for the Millay Colony for the Arts in the Berkshires in upstate New York. There, we met with several other writer friends (who were also working on independent projects), and revised and finished this series of epistolary poems. Our collaborative chapbook, Lace & Pyrite (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014) is how we made sense and record of a full year from our respective gardens.
A little more about what we mean we say we “revised and finished this series”:
Ross Gay: I absolutely ask different questions of a collaborative poem I’m revising than one created solo — because I don't know how to revise Aimee's poem, her lines or language. I might have questions, but the delight is that I'm engaging and creating with someone who, hopefully, makes poems differently than I do, and thinks about poems differently than I do, and relates to things like metaphor and simile and diction and sound and form etc. differently than I do. That's the fun of collaboration—that you very clearly enter into this thing that is bigger than you are, or is out of your control. You have to submit a bit, or join. Which I think is a lot of the fun, and the point.
I definitely would revise my own lines over the course of the writing based on some of the language that Aimee was making—usually it would be some kind of music or something that I would be trying to meet. And I think a few times we would ask each other questions about what we had written, wondering about lines or words or whatever.
Aimee: I never tried to revise Ross' lines—any questions or "Are you sure about this line?" moments came only after a substantial draft (several months' worth of writing back and forth) was established. I loved that Ross said he'd try to "meet" my music, as that feels similar to what I did with his lines but I'd also add that I'd sometimes change up or push against one of his lines or images, like they were magnets in a way--sometimes our magnetic fields would line up and part of the fun was figuring out when that did or didn't happen. In other words, sometimes my lines wanted to smush up against his, and other times my lines would want to go in a totally new direction, sonically and with its images.
Ross: As for what I was aiming for in a collaborative poem’s final form? I don't think I was aiming for anything, beyond the thing that came. We knew we wanted to write a collaborative epistolary poem about our gardens, and that was that. So the poem—like the poem poem—showed itself to us over the course of its making. The basic form—epistolary—was there from the start.
Aimee: I think there is an alphabet and language of the outdoors that helps me develop my own language in observance of human relationships that never ceases to delight and astonish me. In other words, I believe poetry about and from the natural world can make you feel like you’ve traveled, can give you a rush of understanding of less familiar landscapes, and a thunderstorm in your heart or brain. It can make you hear music all day even if the world around you seems music-less. When you pair this kind of writing about the outdoors with revisions with a friend who makes you dig deeper (pun intended) and who has a similar capacity for finding delight in his garden—a little something like an entire chapbook can happen. I’m happy to say that this summer, we’ll join forces again and will be working on more collaborative poem-ish projects involving trees.
This poem appears in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.
< draft >
< draft >
The full bloom, not just half-waft, whiff or hint,
but the full lilac gust, honeysuckle gale, full burst
of rose bush or jasmine
like hands the length of your body; full
drag and flash of the apple’s giddy show,
crinoline or crepe (words the meaning of which
I don’t even know!), blowsing
like a dancer’s skirt—my dead friend,
while a glaze of ice made all the bones of my garden shine,
arrived—blend of incense and body
and the ratty wool overcoat—not one ounce
of sorrow or rage, sweet only
with forgiveness and love—
and stayed put.
< REVISION >
I still marvel at all the people who first mapped the summer sky—
the pretty patterns from chalk and string they pulled
across the fresh-swept floor. Every monster wishes their teeth
gleamed louder than Vega, summer’s brightest star. Every night
has its own delights: waxwing, paper moth, firefly larvae.
I would drink the red and blue stars if I thought my thin throat
could handle it. Even at the darkest hour, my garden throws
furtive dots of pale light to guide my steps: the bubble of fresh
egg-froth on a frog’s back, the secret bloom of moonflowers
when the children have been tucked into their tiny beds.
O teasel bur and grasshopper— how you catch in the hem of my skirt
like a summer cough. It’s exhausting, this desire. But I would never
trade it for any shiny marble. Would you? I love the silence
of sweat in these the slow days of summer. All the mysterious sounds
in the trees—like a sack of watches—while I tend to tomato plants
who have only thought to give four fruits this entire month.
< draft >
looking from my chilly kitchen
over the garden ice-slicked and shining:
crumpled tufts of asparagus fronds
slumbering beneath the cherry tree;
the knuckled grape vine gripping
its rickety fence like a fighter
between rounds. Strange,
then, when the full summer bloom—
not just half-waft, whiff or hint—
but the giddy lilac gust, honeysuckle gale,
gaudy burst whole of rugosa rose
sticker-thick and grabby;
the drag and flash of the apple’s giddy show,
crinoline or crepe (words the meaning of which
I don’t even know!), blowsing like a dancer’s skirt;
when ruckus and sweet and plain good like this
my dead friend came to me,
some fragrant winter flower now,
his blend of incense and body
and wool overcoat frayed at the sleeves,
while a glaze of ice made all the bones of my garden shine.