7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book

Marvin Bell, István László Geher, Ksenia Golubovich, Simone Inguanez, Christopher Merrill, Tomaž Šalamun, and Dean Young, 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book
Publisher: Trinity University Press
2009, 96 pages, hardcover, $14.95

although it is often said that "anything goes" in poetry, such a declaration of freedom usually refers to the form or content of a poem, not the act of writing itself. The stereotypical image of the lone poet writing in isolation is rarely challenged or even considered worth challenging. Poets generally seem comfortable with the idea of their art form being an expression of a private, individual consciousness, so collaborations between writers of poems--unlike songwriters, for instance--are few and far between.

However, in October 2007, Christopher Merrill, acclaimed poet and director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, decided to test the waters of poetic collaboration. Taking his cues from the occasional historical experiments in collective poetry such as the classical Japanese renga tradition and the automatic writing of the French Surrealists of the 1920s and 30s in which poets would contribute spontaneous lines to a poem of multiple authorship, Merrill invited six poets to join him in Iowa City for four days of collaborative writing. For his experiment, Merrill chose poets of varying backgrounds, ethnicities, and styles: Americans Marvin Bell and Dean Young, Russian poet and fiction writer Ksenia Golubovich, Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, one of Hungary's best-known poets, István László Geher, and from Malta, Simone Inguanez. The book that took shape from this encounter, 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book, is proof of poetry's ability to continually break the boundaries and definitions of what inspires and makes a poem, while also hinting at how poetry might evolve from its accepted place as a strictly isolated act.

The springboard for writing their series of poems, Merrill explains in the introduction, "was the definition of the word union, about which we wrote for thirty minutes, with the loosest formal imperative--fifteen lines, in any meter." The group took turns reading their rough drafts aloud, "not without some trepidation," and soon "were borrowing from one another's poems--words, phrases, images--to incorporate in our own poems in the next round of writing." This pressure-cooker procedure obviously creates a sense of stressful immediacy, but as Dean Young contends, this only added to the excitement of the experiment: "We are used to being surrounded by others full of anxiety, but how splendid to be around others full of anxiety about writing poems!" Although under pressure to produce results quickly, the writers unanimously describe a feeling of freedom resulting from the process. As Ksenia Golubovich remarks, "It was truly a common possession, or--in an adolescent sense--the exciting possibility of stealing. You could take words from another person's mind and tongue under the very eyes of their owners. A thrill of theft met with a vague moment of self-sacrifice. What I am now is you."

Although this collective "oneness" is reflected in the book as a whole, the initial poems from day one of the experiment feel self-conscious and hesitant. The pressure to come up with something witty or expressly "poetic" seems to override the idea of a communal creation at first. As a result, the first day's poems feel bogged down with rhetorical questioning ("What kind of worm will now appear?/ No idea. Will he understand the word/ union?"), abstractions ("Whatever lives, there is no place for desire"), and the occasional bad pun ("waiting for thyme to bloom"). However, in spite of these weaker moments, a seed of the collective creation that will come in the remaining days emerges. One reoccurring theme from the first day is silence and the act of stripping away preconceptions of language, as illustrated in Golubovich's final contribution of the day:

Silence stores a forgotten voice
within itself,
at its very bottom. Or voices
(like outer space) store music.
Strip bare the moon and sun
and stones--
all those silent, misused things
to find in them a worm--
that lonely voice, to bring
its thin pink skin
to Heaven.
You toil and toil,
we hear it deeper now.
In the depths of its pit. Inexpressible.
I see the bubbles and know where to dig.

Golubovich's borrowed image of the worm from an earlier (and weaker) poem by Šalamun suggests the power of the communal poetic transformation that occurs repeatedly in the ongoing experiment, and the final image of digging below the surface of reality alludes to the kind of imagery that will follow in the days ahead. Eventually, the poets move away from poems about writing--there being little else to describe or comment on in a room of working writers--and instead begin to explore the internal landscape of daydream. The resulting poems become much more surreal and striking in tone, as seen in Dean Young's poem from day two, "In the Beginning Was Broken":

When did it start? Before the glue
on the crystal, before the man spent
half a life blackening out a name and still
not finished, rust on the iron bridges
that cross from fog to fog. Probably mother
had something to do with it before
she herself was the farewell bride,
crushing a champagne flute, before
the orchids simmered to cinders.
Sleep, sky, between my lips, there's no
proper goodbye. On earth first you must
survive the ants then fill your mouth
with dusks. You must hold yourself
together and apart from the question Why
did it even start? It just did.

As the experiment continues, the personal, "I" centered poems of the first day fall away, and another, more narrative voice and form takes over. The poets break even further from easy associations, leaping into images that border on the mythic, not necessarily the myth of any given culture, but a kind of myth that is spontaneously created in the collective engagement with the subconscious. Through the act of borrowing words and phrases from one another over the course of days, once bizarre and disassociated images of ants, worms, giraffes, glaciers, mushrooms, leopards, rivers, and grapes begin to reveal a meaning unto themselves based on past poems as they reoccur in new ones. By the end of the book, the disparate voices heard in the beginning morph into a polyphonic expression of union, the communal creation reminding readers of the origins of poetry in the oral tradition, where borrowing lines and stealing images was not only accepted, but encouraged as part of the poetic process itself.

7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book is not a perfect book, and it shouldn't be. The occasional stumbles in form and flaws in imagery are to be expected in a work of eighty poems written in four days. In fact, it is the very act of seeing a failed image in one poem find success in a later one that gives the book life and makes it unpredictable and fun to read. Ultimately, the poetic conversation that manages to take its participants out of their individual habits of form and style in order to create a collective work of art justifies its weaker moments by inspiring poets and readers alike to rethink their definitions of poetry and remember the larger goal of poetic expression in general: to find the collective's place in the singular and the individual's place in the whole.

-Ryan Bayless

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