The Art of Collaboration

When Vela started a year ago, pretty much the only rule that the six participating writers established was that the writing should somehow be about, or simply inspired by, travel. Style, structure, and voice were all left up to each of us. It was meant to be a venue where we could write what we wanted in a style that came naturally to us; the writing didn’t have to fit any particular parameters. What was important was that we supported each other’s work (trusting each of us would provide a piece of quality writing), and that we contributed. Eventually, over time, our accumulated pieces might represent a collective Vela voice, but one that was dynamic and shaped by each writer’s participation. The result is, in my opinion, is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Vela is one of those beautiful collaborative creatures, an entity that is starting to take on a life of its own as many hands—as opposed to one pair of controlling hands—reach in to hold it up.

When we decided to invite in guest writers, starting last month with Laura Sewell Matter’s “The Long Run,” we didn’t feel that this would threaten the identity that was starting to become Vela, but rather that it would open it up. In the spirit of collaboration, more voices could only enhance this project; it could only get better. So when this month’s guest writer, Monica Berlin, suggested she join forces with friend and poet Beth Marzoni, I could only imagine good things coming from this pairing. The very idea of the collaboration itself seemed at the heart of Vela.

I first came across Monica Berlin’s lyric essays about four years ago when I was managing editor of the literary journal Passages North. We were reading for our biennial nonfiction contest, and I remember when a friend of mine walked into the office holding Monica’s submission.

“I’ve found a good one,” she said. “I think it might be a winner.” And so Monica’s essay was sent off to the judge, and a few weeks later no one was surprised when “The Eigthteenth Week” was awarded first place.

When we decided to invite writers we knew or admired to contribute to Vela, I had recently come across one of Monica’s essays in TriQuarterly, and I couldn’t get the sullen, pulsing voice of the essay’s narrator out of my head. In that essay she begins every line with a “Because…” that occurs in response to an unvoiced question: “Because grown-ups dressing in costume always seem like sadder versions of the selves they could’ve been,” “Because we’ll never be somewhere anyone can stay, or stay long enough.”

When Monica cordially accepted the Vela invitation, she told me she and Beth had “been driving together along the Mississippi River on the Great River Road for about a year—taking these trips and writing in the car. Before the river, we’ve been working on several series of things—poems, mostly, but some short lyric prose—since 2009.”

After listening to some of Beth’s poems on The Knox Writer’s House site, I immediately loved the idea of two writers, two distinct voices, merging together on these long drives–along this river, along this road. “Four in the morning and I’m fresh out of excuses,” Beth’s poem “Homing” begins. “Boxes to unpack, to-do lists to cross through. Out of milk, too, my father’s remedy that he’d warm in a saucepan, his eyes slipping against sleep.”  “Homing” continues on, the poem itself a series of lists. It presents the narrator’s obsession of place and memory, circling themes of heaven and home, of time and distance. At the poem’s core I found the same sort of yearning present in Monica’s essays.

The result of Monica and Beth’s collaboration, “[That river seemed the only way now],” is a piece that brings the reader across the country—from the “hole in the skyline” of New York City to the shore in Minneapolis to a “burned-out mill turned museum.” The essay is like a pilgrimage that takes the reader over river after river, over the same river many times. It takes us “from screened porches, from cluttered desks, from the slanting shades of dusk in a room where we used to sit. From islands—across lakes, across straights, across oceans, across sounds.” In this piece, all journeys seem to blend into one, mimicking a long slow river encircling the earth, and all places referenced merge into the piece’s refrain: always there.

The piece itself is an effort of joined forces: it makes an alliance of poetry and prose. It’s a lyric essay that works like a collage, weaving into its tapestry various quotes and voices; the authors call upon many texts and artists, from Rand McNally road atlases to the murals of Mark Rothko, quoting the artist as saying: “You are in it—the mural.”

Reading these words, I started to feel like I was in the essay, present at one of the many places referenced by the authors. Reading, I started to get the discomforting feeling of being there and not being there at the same time, much as a weary traveler feels when located in hotel room after hotel room, searching for the specific in a place. Together, essayist and poet bring alive the emotion of traveling—of moving and of stopping, of familiar and unfamiliar, and the near impossibility of joining here with there.

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