Rosaly Roffman Interviews, Part 2: On Collaboration

Both in teaching and in poetry, collaboration is a central theme in my life. I think everything is connected.

My friend and colleague Mike Sell said this to me, and it's true. We had gone out for lunch as a farewell to me (I was moving away from Indiana, PA). He's a very dynamic person with a degree in performance arts who is involved in a lot of collaborative projects himself. He and I worked together at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and brought in many interesting guests like Theodora Skipitares, puppeteer and (earlier) Bruno Bettelheim. Anyway, we were sitting at the table discussing my work. Suddenly Mike jumped up and said, "You think everything is connected." He made the comment almost accusingly, but with love. I was not insulted; I decided he was right. I do think everything is connected, or can be.

Since I was a young child I've always felt "if you make things, you make things the best way you know how." Words. Color. Collage. M.C. Richards once said, "All creativity comes from the same place." People get locked into disciplines. You get famous for doing one thing—making pots or being a painter—but you can do more than one thing. I used to have students dance their names or sing their poems. Now multidisciplinary artists are no longer considered far out or avant garde; there is poetry in grapefruits and music in toilets flushing (Yoko Ono and friends did pieces like that)—the far-out is normal.

In poetry, you have to be willing to walk in someone else's land. If you can't do that, you'll have difficulty. One of my first collaborations involved a piece I wrote at the Edward Albee (Montauk Point) writing colony using Vincent van Gogh's letters (from The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh) to his brother Theo. I created replies as a surrogate Theo, responding to Vincent's moving letters—sort of holding-your-hand letters—imagining a response when there was no response. I hadn't seen any of Theo's letters, which had not been reproduced anywhere at that time. The piece worked as I read against my own taped voice of Vincent's letters—so it was two parts and like a chant if you can see what I mean. The piece stopped after a prescribed amount of time or when I read something twice. I read randomly so there was a kind of automatic harmony that was never the same twice. Moe Seager played a recording of it on his radio show and we performed it at Hartwood Acres joined by an actress.

We often work with a choreographer and dance company. Often it's Holly Boda-Sutton at IUP. The three of us once produced a piece on Love as a Way in the Universe—and one on newspaper clippings, and another on wrapping and folding called Furoshiki.

So many of my collaborations have happened across different art forms. I've worked with composers, dance companies, and even whales. One of my favorite collaborations was called Fission of Form. The organizers brought together a group of sculptors, a group of poets, and a group of painters. First, the poets chose sculptures and had three months to write a poem based on their sculpture. Then the poets had a reading and passed on their poems to the painters. The painters, in turn, had three months to create paintings from the poems. They had not seen the sculptures.

Fission of Form was one of the best examples I know of collaboration and trust in the collaborative process. We didn't know or talk to each other. The result was an astounding exhibit at Panza Gallery in Millvale. Then all the pieces were included in a book. Besides you [Ziggy Edwards] and me, many others from the Squirrel Hill Workshop contributed poems: Anita Byerly, Christine Doreian Michaels, Joanne Samraney, Arlene Weiner, and Shirley Stevens.

Here's my poem from Fission of Form—it comes from a sculpture called Presence by Terri Perpich.

To Live With Presence

I have tried to live with the god on my table
but—only half his head turns towards me
Sometimes I carry him from room to room
he, still looking over my arm at some sea...

                    Half headed man I can't tell if you are awake
                    or asleep or a woman or what my body
                    would become had you dangerous arms for holding

How to set him bodiless down is the question
so he doesn't melt or chip yet sits in the light
that comes through the glass of the table
I don't know what I know but I know him

                   and when I am away from you I see what you see
                    After it's all over I ask what will be left of my own head
                   and search the swamp daily for light clay to make you whole

Maybe then he will speak to all
but now I still bend to talk to the he if he is the he
too full of wonder to give a name to the face
full of waking and fading on brick and glass

                I listen for words and vatic music and want
                to be lost in the rhythm of curls and half-lit eyes
                I long to find ginger or mandrake or the right healing

All his life he has been a nub of love
reluctant to be pushed across the sea
language with no words at the center
and every day I ask him to talk to me

Collaboration is going on all the time. You're working with something, not against it. And it doesn't have to be a formal contract. Art/Poetry is the only place where you can create a new world and make your own rules. It's not going to stop the war and it's not a cure, but it can be healing sometimes. You can do something no one else can do.

Poets enjoy collaborating with each other on poetry. Four originally five) members of the Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop formed the Tea Time Ladies. We'll have to do an entire piece about them sometime. Joanne, Christine, Anita, and Georgeanne Rettberg collaborated on what a newspaper article about the Tea Time Ladies described as "word weaving"—they wove words together from each of their poems. They performed at several readings and their work was really fascinating and successful. That same newspaper article called the Tea Time Ladies a "literary performance ensemble."

In 2009 Autumn House Press published a book of 75 writing exercises for teachers and writers to do in The Working Poet. I was pleased to contribute one I did in every class involving mythology (having founded a myth and folklore center at IUP): It proposed translating or letting a natural object tell its story—here—I picked up a whelk in Florida and tried to translate the markings on the whelk—the alphabet of the whelk. Every object has its own story—and the writer can unlock it—so there's collaboration with objects in your life and unlocking those mysteries; a person can use them as writing exercises. I was pleased when the teachers and people using these exercises wrote their own versions—their own translations—and collected them from students. Later on in 2013, the teachers enthusiastically compiled a book based on these exercises called The Poetic Experience (also published by Autumn House).

Through the years I've seen our workshop members revisit themes over and over in poems that become series. For example, Pam O'Brien has been working on a series of poems based on the parables of Jesus. Nancy James has a whole collection of haibun and renga, combined with her artwork, that she's going to produce in a book soon. People often come back to writing about something that's moved them. Cats. historical figures. Grandmothers. Jobs. Flowers.

In a way, these are collaborations among your past, present, and future selves. You discover your own attitude about your subject and how it evolves as you create from that provocation over time. I often wonder about things like, "What's the real beginning or end of an art piece?"

And there are even more Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop examples of being inspired by other poets, or films, or other art forms—like your poem, Ziggy, about Wonder Woman.

This interview we're doing is collaboration!

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