Thursday, November 5, 2009

Collaboration: my faithful Judith

There is nothing like being interviewed to get you thinking. Last week I was pleased to be gently questioned and (yikes!) sketched by Sarah Atlee, an artist who has taken up a fascinating project on people and their occupations. "OCCUPIED" it’s called.

I talked about writing and, in particular, poetry. Toward the end of the hour I realized I hadn't said anything about a major part of my writing life: my long-time writing partner and good friend, Judith Tate O’Brien. Judith and I met in a UCO poetry class in 1992. We’ve met regularly since then to share work, critique, and encourage each other.

When asked what this relationship has meant to me, I stammered and stuttered as I realized how hard it is to express something that,though now routine, is still so extraordinary. Judith has a poet’s heart and eye, thus she can see when a poem has gone cloyingly sweet as a Twinkie or mundane and flat as a baloney sandwich. I found myself saying with tears in my throat that Judith really believes in me as a poet the way no one else does. I felt like a wimpy kid saying that, but that’s what came out. And it was true. A few days later I thought of something else and it also has to do with belief.

I was at my book club discussing a popular but very troublesome book (The Help) and the subject arose: can an author write authentically in the voice of the opposite sex, or, as in this case, another race? Obviously, not always. This is an old topic; one that still rises up like the ghost of Nat Turner or Emma Bovary. Some still hold that the distances are just too great.

This question is one that Judith and I have revisited as we struggle at times to write in the voice or close perspective of another. Over time we have come to share a deep belief in the Imagination, the ability of mind/ spirit to take you places you ought not, given your singular life, to be able to go. And yet somehow something happens that lets you transcend the limited self. If it were not for Imagination, we’d really be stuck in our own footprints and hooked forever to a narrow shadow.

I offer you this poem of Judith’s from her ByLine Award book, Mythic Places:

The Migrants

Cattle egrets steady as circus riders
balance on the backs of grazing Guernseys.
The birds flew all the way from Africa
to edit this menu of tick and fly.

An acre away, a boy from Mexico
stoops over long rows of leafy green.
At each row's end, he straightens and bends
backwards to unlock his spine.

At dusk, the egrets will tuck their heads
into cool caves beneath their wings
while royal blue herons lift
from rivers with clutches of fish
flashing in their throats.

Tonight a lettuce-picker will groan in sleep
while a woman clicking gold
bracelets will leave untouched
the crisp lettuce her aspic rests on.

So, if someone asked me today about a writing partner, I’d say find one who shares your basic beliefs about creativity and how it works. Then work. Stay occupied in the workshop of the Imagination. Open all kinds of windows and doors. If someone warns against writing in an opposite, strange, unknown voice, agree to disagree. Read, write, dream, and when the occasion arises, give over to sketching artists. To collaborate is to have faith that it might be interesting if we end up in someone else’s picture of the world. Imagine.