Was a Panther?

I’ve always been a reluctant collaborator but the “always” at the beginning of this sentence is the emphatic word: I keep coming back for more. It’s not exactly grudging but it is hesitant. There is certainly an egoist element that whispers to me, quite sinisterly and naturally with a non-British accent, “Don’t share, Richard: sharing is for LOSERS!” Blame it on growing up with three other brothers: I do. Another, more plaintive, a Gollum voice, is if anything insidiously more persuasive: “Me does everything else in Me’s life with various varieties of Someone Else, why can’t little Me keep his Precious Poetree for just little Me?” Does anyone else get these voices by the way – I’m beginning to think I need to know…

But poetry is always a kind of collaboration. As a poet you are using the expectations and, to different degrees of self-consciousness, the literature and other phenomena of the past and present, to make ‘your’ poems: you are collaborating with the strange structures of language which discipline you, channel you, force you into a give and take. You are also encouraging a reader to collaborate with you by bringing their voice (internal or external) into the auditorium of the page and the great freedom is that they can never read the poem in the way you can, they must be free to improvise the poem in the reading of it, they must ‘possess’ it as well as, for the moments of reading at least, be possessed by it. It, not you: “you” have already started to disappear.

One of my earliest collaborations in poetry was back in the mid-1990s with Leona Medlin, a fellow poet in the workshop we share. We took some already translated Rilke poems and began to work our damage. Why Rilke? – it’s only the zoo poems in Neue Gedichte I like, and that is only slightly. You can’t really go wrong with a panther. As for the rest of Rilke – angels, advice, transcendence, sacred-y classical references – I think poetry may have had enough of those for the time being (though of course each to their own… and I actually do mean that!). Then we mutated them so much between us that they became not Rilke, not Medlin, not Price. I found I liked that synthetic product – PriMedRil I suppose you could call it (normally used in industrial contexts – I think they have just banned it for personal use) and we soon found that the editors of the magazine Object Permanence liked them too, snapping them up before we’d done human trials. I found that collaboration wasn’t nearly as bad as sharing. It was more like mixing the ingredients in the fume cupboard together. In its solid form it was probably going to snarl the world’s oceans in years to come but you could make unisex day-glo clip-on ear-rings with it that didn’t hurt for the first twenty-five minutes and in a certain light made its readers look gorgeous. I’ve lost the texts of those now – I hope a national library somewhere has kept copies of the magazines – and my next collaboration wasn’t with a fellow poet at all, but with an artist. Some of the lessons I learnt with Leona and Rilke though were brought to bear on that project (I just can’t shake this didactism), but that’s another story for another time…

Richard Price’s Rays is published by Carcanet. Recently he collaborated with Luke Kennard for a likestarlings piece, here. He is the Head of Modern British Collections at the British Library. His official website is www.hydrohotel.net.