Poetry Collaboration: Jessy Randall and Daniel M. Shapiro

Interview with EIL Poets Jessy Randall and Daniel M. Shapiro:

Kathleen Kirk (Poetry Editor at Escape Into Life): The two of you just came out with a book of collaborations, called Interruptions (Pecan Grove Press, 2011, available here). Can you tell us what you did, how you collaborated, and how you came up with this idea?

Daniel M. Shapiro: It might help to know about our past (which, until this very moment, has been considered dark and mysterious). Jessy and I have been friends since 1982, I believe. We met in the gifted program at Twelve Corners Middle School in Rochester, NY. (I’m sure I was the last guy picked for the gifted team; the teacher probably let out a big sigh and said, “All right.”) The first time I talked to Jessy, I made her cry. (Later, I found out that practically anything will make her cry, so I didn’t feel so bad.) Since then, we have always been honest with each other, sometimes to the point of irritation, hysteria, or cheap laughs. Therefore, it made perfect sense for us to write together. Because we no longer live close to each other, we collaborate through two types of e-mails: A.) a line or lines of poetry; and B.) comments about the poetry. Comments fall somewhere between “No way!” and “Done.” I am 100 percent certain that collaborating was Jessy’s idea, even though she will tell you otherwise. I am sure of this because about nine years ago, I started writing poetry again for the first time since, well, probably the 1980s. Without the crutch of parachute pants and/or skinny ties, I didn’t have much confidence and wasn’t sure I wanted to share my poems with Jessy, who had written consistently since she was 5 or whatever. (Remember: We have always been honest with each other.) Well, she ended up liking my poems, and her biggest compliment was asking me to write something with her.

Jessy Randall: Well, as usual I must come in and correct Dan on several points. We met in the fall of 1981 when I moved to a new school. I, not Dan, was the last person picked for the Extended Studies program. I was the only girl in our section; my suspicion is that they realized they didn’t have enough girls and threw me in to compensate. I have no memory of the crying incident but I don’t doubt it. I started writing when I was nine and my hamster died, inspiring an extremely sad poem written in unrhymed tabbed-in quadruplets. Fortunately for us all, it remains unpublished. I didn’t ask Dan to collaborate as a compliment to him but rather as a survival mechanism for myself. We started collaborating in 2002, soon after my first child was born. Parenthood threatened to make a deranged yet boring drudge out of me (love-soaked, sure, but drudge, such a drudge) and the collaborations, in hindsight, were a major force for good.

KK: What problems did you run into during the composition or revision process, if any? And what joys? Was it easier or harder than working alone?

Daniel Shapiro: I don’t feel like we ran into any major problems, really. Most of the time, the question was whether or not something would be a collaboration. For example, if I were to send Jessy a line about 1920s jazz musicians or Jean Gabin films, she would write back and say, “This should be a solo poem, you fool.” If she were to send me something about Dr. Who or Martha’s Vineyard, I would do the same to her. We have had virtually no problems critiquing each other and occasionally have cut entire stanzas from poems. The only complication I’ve run into sometimes has been shifting between my solo world and our collaborative world. We have thrown out a few collaborations that are identifiably one of us more than the other.

Jessy Randall: Well, first of all, when you talk about Doctor Who you must always spell out Doctor. Clearly you are not enough of a nerd. But to answer the question, I think that in the beginning there were problems with us being too careful and polite with each other’s work, and the earliest collaborations weren’t the best. Soon enough we learned to slash and cut and drive the poems together without worrying we’d hurt each other’s feelings.

KK: Did you publish pieces individually in journals before book publication? Which journals were open to this collaborative spirit? And what about finding the right book publisher for your collaborative project?

Daniel Shapiro: Yes, we did have a number of pieces published in journals, from now-defunct places like Death Metal Poetry to more established ones, such as Many Mountains Moving and McSweeney’s. Occasionally, an editor will suggest that he/she can tell there’s a push/pull in a poem because it’s a collaboration, and the editor likes that about the poem. My favorite collaborations are the ones in which I don’t know who wrote what. So much of what we do is like a competition, where one of us dares the other to do better. I like how weeks (or even days) after the competition, I can read a poem that doesn’t have clear divisions in it (unless the divisions are intentional). I will let Jessy comment on finding the right book publisher for the project, assuming she is willing…

Jessy Randall: Sure! Along with submitting the manuscript to a couple of no-fee small presses we admired, we got a “micro-grant” from the Pikes Peak Arts Council for $200 and spent it on contest submission fees. The contests were a big bust. One of the no-fee small presses, Pecan Grove in San Antonio, Texas, rejected the manuscript, but luckily for us the rejection got lost in the mail. When I contacted the Press to offer to replace the 80-page submitted version of the manuscript with a shorter, 60-page version, Palmer Hall, the editor there, agreed to read the new version despite his rejection of the old one, and liked the new one enough to publish it. We were elated. Only then did Dan tell me that Pecan Grove had been his favorite option from the very beginning. Elation continued. Small dances were danced solo in kitchens.

KK: Anything else you’d like our readers to know about how or why to work with another writer on a collaboration?

Daniel Shapiro: The best thing by far about collaborating is that you have someone to check up on you immediately. Bad ideas are given the chance to die and be forgotten. When you work by yourself, you’re more likely to be sure you’ve written the best thing humankind has ever seen, send it out immediately, get a rejection letter immediately, and hate humankind for being wrong. When you write with someone else, you are much less prone to ego-driven haste, victim mentality, and other negative things. The main things to worry about are not turning the poems into inside jokes or tag-team bravado.

Jessy Randall: What I would say about collaborating is that it’s very different from workshop/critiquing kind of stuff, and it probably isn’t going to work with someone you don’t know well. For a poem to be a true collaboration I think neither person can have a plan at the beginning. If you have a plan, write your own poem. If you like the idea of trying to write planless, it might work.

KK: Who gets the last word?

Daniel Shapiro: I would like the last word, but I want it to be a one-word reaction to something Jessy says. I will promise to choose a good word…

Jessy Randall: Argh, pressure. Well, I guess I’ll say that although I’m pretty sure I would like it if Dan and I lived in the same town, especially since he’s married to my best friend from college, the truth is that if we lived in the same place we probably never would have written all these poems together, because we would have just hung out, instead. Do you agree?

Daniel Shapiro: Indubitably.

Now that you know you love them both, be sure to visit each poet’s solo feature here at Escape Into Life:

Jessy Randall

Daniel M. Shapiro

Jessy Randall also has a poem here in Labors of Love.

And visit artist Erna Reiken in the EIL Store or in Lives of the Artists here!