Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Thoughts on Collaboration or Coauthorship 8: Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey's three books

[All posts in this strand may be accessed via links on the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:

Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey have co-authored three books so far.

Maybe that’s not quite correct. They have indeed collaborated on three books, but the first of them was, in fact, the kind of cross-media work I intend not to cover in my essay on literary collaboration. Halsey has a long history of producing collaged images (often with textual elements included) and his book Marginalien is his most consistent showing of this area of his work. Here’s something that gives an idea of its style.  

The note on the back of this handsome book You’re Thinking Tracts or Nations (produced by Halsey’s West House Books) informs us that for Corcoran’s 40th birthday Halsey presented his friend with 14 ‘pictures’. Over the next 4 years (nothing speedy here!) Corcoran responded to them, producing, at first, ekphrastic responses that follow the images, but as the sequence goes on, Corcoran extends his range, involving imaginative leaps away from the ‘pictures’ into new areas. There is a sense throughout that Halsey’s images (which do combine archaic figuration with language and partial or fake hieroglyphics) evoke a primitive or alternative reality of ritual and fertility:

We wear animal heads inventing fields 
good good all around the fat time… (p. 24)

Of course, it is our political realities that are being negotiated. References to Arctic exploration mix with criticisms of the then Home Secretary Jack Straw. (The poems are dated 1997-2001.)

On the final page Corcoran addresses Halsey directly:

Alan, here are fourteen versions
of your thinking tracts or nations,
bright in deep border country
fourteen visions of your gift. (p. 48)

‘Versions’ and ‘visions’ is well put, since Corcoran has not slavishly reproduced the images in words (I am aware that that is impossible: ekphrasis must involve interpretation). They are ‘visions’ in the dual sense that they are visual, and also visionary in their construction of a magical (but not necessarily benign) reality. Somehow he brings to the surface a kind of primitive tribalism in modern life.

It’s an enjoyable book (which I have found instructive in the kinds of ‘squinting’ or ‘flashcarding’ ekphrasis that I practice, as I explain here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2017/01/robert-sheppard-talk-for-open-eye.html

But in terms of my (rather slowly-developing) essay, it’s closer to my working with Trev Eales than a true ‘co-authorship’. But remember: ‘In the literary field collaboration has become the term most commonly used to refer to coauthorship’. (Laird 2000: fn 1, p. 269) ‘Collaboration’ covers both cases.

A Horse That Runs (2015) is clearly a case of co-authorship. The book alternates 12 line stanzas by each poet (they are not attributed, but the poets address one another now and then, and this gives the game, for there is an element of ‘game’, away). The book’s subtitle is ‘To and Fro with Wallace Stevens’, which both describes the method of alternating dialogic composition and identifies its poetic focus, the life and works of the great American modernist (or was he, not Yeats, the last of the Romantics? Or was he a superannuated Symboliste stranded amongst the bonds and life insurance policies?). There is a narrative thread, involving Snowbird, a horse that ‘runs in dreams … his route pulsing over the Trent’ (n.p.) which reappears at various points, including at the poem’s end.

The Horse than Runs is also hilariously funny, with surreal visions and versions of Wallace Stevens, who is remote enough to seem even more rarefied than he was in his own time, if you insert him in ‘our’ reality:

Tap here for the metapoem. Departing Grand Central
we understand why Stevens never came to England
but, Kelvin, picture him in Harrogate dumbfounded by
the buns and starched aprons in Betty’s Tea Rooms. (np)

There is a clear sense of literary re-valuation going on too. Stevens perhaps, despite the casual racism, despite the hidebound existence, in his poems, and his poetics even, has more to offer than Pound. Such a view would have been heresy during British Poetry Revival days, and I suspect both Corcoran and Halsey once followed the Poundian line more closely; as did we all, I think. Anyway, here’s a question (both Pound and Stevens had their economics):

Who would you put your money on? Mr Pound or Mr Stevens?
your real, unmetaphorical money, your food, home and children. (np)

I don’t want to put too much uniformity of content or attitude upon the piece. One of the frequent traits of this kind of to and fro -ing coauthorship is (in my experience of practice but also of reading) is its diverse responsiveness. Betsy Warland and Daphne Martlett refer to ‘you my co-writer and co-reader’ when reflecting upon their collaboration, and that sense of co-reading is essential to the progress of such co-authored pieces. Each poet reads the other with care (but then possibly does his or her own thing in response. It’s not about continuing a narrative or argument; it eschews linearity.) Of course there are also stylistic traits that separate the poets: in this case, Kelvin has a smoother line, with less enjambment, whereas Alan favours enjambment and irregularity. (Look below at the hanging ‘and’ at the end of Halsey’s penultimate quoted verse.) Indeed, you get the feeling that two voices are in dialogue, although they are attempting to approximate a single discourse (as a reading experience for the reader, I mean). They are not achieving (neither should they) the ‘third voice’ of some theories of collaboration. (I have co-authored a poem in Twitters for a Lark with Kelvin. ( See here: https://euoia.weebly.com/ ) He produced a characteristic text and my job was to approximate his style and diction and lineation in the interests of ‘unity’. That doesn’t (have to) happen here.)

Alan Halsey brings the book to a kind of ‘rested totality’ (Zukofsky’s term) by pitching the world of things against the transformative objects and objectives of the imagination (a very Stevens thing to do) and to locate it in the immediate environment (not Key Point or wherever as in Stevens, but ‘Nether Edge’ in Sheffield), though even the ‘house’ is (suitably) a little neo-Platonic in its ontological status. The mythic but physically present horse (another Stevens ‘trick’) is also brought ‘home’. The poem ends (after about 30 pages):

There’s no end but whatever the state of things and 

whether the storm breaks or loses identity
the horse eventually comes home and the house
by which I mean this or any other house is not only
precisely where it was but where we imagined.

What other word could it end with, balanced with the other sense that the house is ‘precisely where it was’?  

Most recently, our co-navigators (travel is implied by the title of this new book) have co-authored Winterreisen. Newton-le-Willows: Knives Forks and Spoons, 2019. I have reviewed this book for Alan Baker’s excellent online journal Litter HERE

Please now read that review (since it is the continuation of the thoughts in this post.) It begins:

'This collaborative text is a co-authored dialogue. The indicative, but informal Ks or As before each verse or section, tell us who is speaking. However, Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey don’t adopt the practice of their former co-authored volume, A Horse That Runs (2015), where they address one another. Nor is there an attempt to fabricate a ‘third voice’, which is apparently the aim of some literary collaborators; they have no need to...'