Writing Collaborative Poetry


I begin by describing a proto-poem and how it comes into being. What we have come to call a proto-poem is a largely unconsciously-driven, written flow of mental associations to the memory of an event that has emotional significance.

For me, Seth’s proto-poem begins as an inchoate, dream-like, stream of consciousness taken from lived experience. It consists of narrative sentences, phrases, fragments of ideas, line breaks, stanza breaks, that at first sight appear to take the form of a poem. Proto-poems are not first drafts, as in writing scholarly papers and essays, that are guided by conscious, rational, lineal, sequential processes that shape where the essay is going.

Instead, the proto-poems look like one of many forms of poems, but they are not. Perhaps they exist somewhere in the aesthetic space between fantasy, imagination, free association, narrative, and poem. Seth calls many of his photo-poems “doodles,” word-images filled with potential to evoke mindful images. When completed these proto-poems are sent to me to begin the transformation into a draft of a poem.

Some of Seth’s proto-poems immediately resonate with me, my life experiences, my emotions, even my bodily sensations. I can practically walk into the scene the proto-poem conjures.The “River of Snow” proto-poem, for example, quickly evoked my identification with it and set in motion my development of a poem.  At other times, the proto-poems may fall flat, not “speak to” or arouse identification in me. I then put it aside, but I have almost always returned to them, sometimes many times, and invariably there is a moment of recognition, and from it, a poem emerges. 

Uncanny river experiences

Let me now apply this collaborative process to considering the River of Snow. In my 45 years living in Oklahoma, and traveling often to work in rural communities, I have seen cottonwoods line streambeds and riverbeds in rainy and parched-dry seasons. I have stood in virtual snowstorms of fluffy white cottonwood seeds. However, I have never tubed in a river – though I could immediately imagine and feel myself doing so. I also have not experienced or imagined myself floating in or paddling up a river that was “supposed to be” flowing downward. Likewise, I could not sense myself paddling against the current coming upriver when it should have been downstream.

As I immersed myself in the proto-poem, I soon became confused, disoriented, then terrified by the eerie, surreal world I had entered and from which I could not exit – it was uncanny. I briefly remembered how, only moments earlier, everything felt ordinary, “normal.” I had been at ease, serene, enjoying the company and largely familiar surroundings.  Then suddenly, as I later reflected on the experience of Seth’s proto-poem, I felt as if I were living inside a scene from the early part of the film Psycho, or Jaws, horror movies and novels, in which the mood of calm well-being instantly changed into one of sheer terror and horror. Assurance of life changed into high anxiety of imminent danger, light to darkness.

After multiple readings, experiencing the proto-poem as much “from the inside” as was possible for an outsider-reader, I felt that the poem virtually “wrote itself” or “wrote me” rather than I was the poet writing it. I am still uncertain whether I lived the poem, or it lived me. My sense of inner coherence, flow, both of myself and of the poem, abided with me through some rearrangements, multiple and increasingly smaller editing. At some point I felt that at least a complete first draft was ready for me to send to Seth.

I do not remember specifically with respect to “River of Snow,” how many times, if at all, we sent further revisions and small editing back and forth until we sensed that the poem was now “right,” and that we should tinker with it no further. On many occasions in our collaborative poetry writing, Seth felt that the “first draft” I sent him needed no further editing or revision. With each poem, however, we both felt that at a certain moment, the poem was “right.”

Let me conclude with a brief reflection back on the emergence of the poem from Seth’s proto-poem: from the outset, the proto-poem was very visual, visceral, and sensory. Although I read the proto-poem and developed the poem as an outsider, external to the day of tubing, the story arc immediately drew me in. For me, the sudden turn and pivotal point in the proto-poem was not an external event, but an inner, shared realization that “The world should not be like this,” that reality became unreality, as if I were inside a tube in the river.

River of snow: The poem

River of Snow, read by Howard Stein 2022-12-08

A hot, dry day – Missouri summer,
Time to try tubing on the Lamine River, tributary to the Missouri;
I have missed it for years.
Buy the tubes, inflate them, and into the trunk they go.
I look forward to a fun-shared and intimate time for the two of us.
A little used boat ramp, almost forgotten to time, shows the way.
Park the car, tubes in the water, let’s go.
Start to paddle upstream in a usually slow, flowing river;
Then float back down, effortlessly and with glee – what tubing is all about.
The river is now covered with white snow from cottonwoods that line the bank;
A beautiful scene on a hot day, but we are cool in the water, as water bugs jump about.
Here, lazy, languid passage of time, Nature in no race to reach some finishing line.
After an hour paddling upstream, time to enjoy coasting downstream;
But wait! – the Lamine, now motionles in this direction, unable to carry us downstream.
With a start, we realize our tubes are moving ever-so-slowly upstream;
Far downstream, the Missouri floods, forcing the giant river to back up into tributaries.
An eerie sight, a disconcerting sensation – 
We are left to paddle up the downstream, our vision still filled with a river of snow, while life turns upside down.
Home again, tubes deflated, showered, now time to cook out; 
Tasty hamburgers and hot dogs, scrumptious baked beans,
But a sense that something has gone awry dogs us;
Fond memories of an imaginary river trip, punctured by reality,
Which feels no obligation to fulfil our dreams,
But instead, deflates our expectation that a river always flows in a single direction – 
Sometimes it flows both ways,
Knows where it needs to go without our assistance or will.

Written by Howard Stein and Seth Allcorn, forthcoming in Whiteboardings: Creating Collaborative Poetry in a Third Space

Human and a resource?

Both Seth and I are long-familiar with the concept of “human resources,” its widespread use in organizations, and its institutionalization as positions with administrative units. As I read it, Seth’s proto-poem of associations about what the term evoked for him, increased in emotional intensity and in my intellectual awareness of the compass of “soul murder” and human suffering in countless workplaces. An emotional crescendo in the proto-poem conveys the ear-splitting pain of employees.

Over two decades ago, Seth wrote a book titled Death of the Spirit in the American Workplace (2002), and around the same time I wrote Nothing Personal, Just Business: A Guided Journey into Organizational Darkness (2001). Both books describe and attempt to understand the lived experience of downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering.

In his proto-poem, Seth portrayed the term human resources as a euphemism and smokescreen for dehumanization, emotional abuse, executive brutality, and objectification.  This portrayal is light years away from the rational, humane, personal aura organization leaders officially convey.  My task of converting it into a poem grew increasingly more heartfelt and emotional as the unbearable accumulation of words, phrases, and questions, in Seth’s proto-poem took on new meaning. Seth’s stream-of-conscious associations immersed me simultaneously in Seth’s lived, experiential world as health sciences center executive, in the world of “human resources” within many departments that are managed indirectly by the Department of Human Resources, and in the readers’ own experiences and emotions from working within their organizations.

I let my own unconscious and conscious processes, imagination, and experience as a poet guide me in shaping the proto-poem into a poem. Seth’s associations and “tuning fork” from his life experience resonated strongly with the “turning fork” of my life experience that was often-degrading, similar to the experiences of other people I knew and worked with. For both of us, the Department of Human Resources employees were people who were charged with implementing – “executing” – the will and directives of corporate upper management – downsizing the organization.

Human resources: The poem

Human Resources, read by Howard Stein 2022-12-08

Most companies have
Departments of
Human Resources, HR   – 
What could that possibly mean? 
What is a human resource?
Could a person be both
Human and resource?
Iron ore, coke, limestone
In the form of workers,
Employees for hire, labor, 
To use up and discard – 
Like organizational blast furnaces
That keep the molten steel
And dump the slag.

And what of:
Company members
What kind of code language is this?
It is it but one step away from:
Surplus labor
Organizational fat
Reassigned and redeployed
Union workers
“They” or “Them”
Others, not management
Leaden weight of words: you become
What we call you.
Where did shared humanity go?
Did it ever really exist?

Mercy is over here, over there . . .
Surely somewhere.
No! Labels are branding irons;
No cattle can escape them.
Names simplify life, cleanse our minds
Of the messy details of who we all are.
You have become a personnel problem, 
A training cost, a labor cost
To be minimized if not avoided.
Madness overwhelms reason:
You are an it, no longer a who.

Fog sets in for the rest of us
Who still work here,
As you carry your box of possessions to your car
On the way to the unemployment line,
After the swift ambush called downsizing – 	 
Disappeared – did you ever work here?

Did we even wish you “Good Luck,”
As you pulled out of our 
Parking lot for the last time?

-Written by Howard Stein and Seth Allcorn, forthcoming in Whiteboardings: Creating Collaborative Poetry in a Third Space

Plinking*: From bottles and cans to Vietnam

Seth’s proto-poem of “Plinking” seized me upon my first reading. It intensified as I further entered into Seth’s world in rereading it, in transforming it (or it transforming me) into a draft, and in revising it. Both Seth and I sensed the “rightness” and immediacy of the poem (which we edited back and forth), while being simultaneously baffled – to this day – how I could possibly “participate” in the sport of plinking and the deafening cannonade aboard a US Navy destroyer firing at the coast of Vietnam, which I had never personally experienced.

With each reading of the proto-poem and its transformation into an emergent poem, I felt I was not merely imagining or fantasizing about the story arc, but living and re-living it. In my youth I certainly had heard about fellow teenagers driving out into the countryside with rifles and cans and bottles, lining them up, and shooting at them.

My college and graduate school years were steeped in the Vietnam War. It seeped into every facet of my daily life. However, I never was physically there to experience it directly. Even my years of telephone conversations, and later Skype visits, with Seth, which included his telling me stories about his years in the Navy during the war (some of which we used in our books together), could never be the same as having been there. So, how could I “know” both scenarios, and the sudden, startling change of scene, so uncannily that I could bring them to life in a poem? I cannot answer the question.

In re-reading the proto-poem and writing the poem, I felt the people, places, events, and the range of emotions associated with them, “get under my skin” and penetrate into my “core” and soul. I became at once an actor on a stage, observer, news reporter, photographer, and witness. The events in “Plinking” occurred simultaneously outside and inside me. I was both “observing ego” and “participating observer.”  Both reading the proto-poem and writing the poem were concurrent physical (bodily), emotional, intellectual, and spiritual events.

As I developed the actual poem, I not only often returned to Seth’s proto-poem, but I also reached inside to the “proto-poem-in-me,” as well as, of course, outside to the external reality of men’s play and warfare. All the formal and technical aspects of the poem, “Plinking,” followed from this eerie yet “authentic” process of bringing Seth’s proto-poem to life.

*Plinking is simply shooting at informal targets such as tins, bottles, twigs, or other small targets you may think of. The word plinking derives from the word “plink,” which is the sound made when a bullet strikes a metallic object. The muzzle blast is often broken down into two components: an auditory component and a non-auditory component. The auditory component is the loud “Bang!” sound of the gunshot, and is important because it can cause significant hearing loss to surrounding personnel and also give away the gun’s position. The non-auditory component is the infrasonic compression wave, and can cause concussive damage to nearby items. Blast overpressure is generated from the firing of weapons and may cause brain injury.  

Plinking: The poem

Plinking, read by Howard Stein 2022-12-08

An invitation to meet a friend,
Time out for lunch and to do a little plinking.*
Nothing as good as a Cobb salad on a sunny day.
A short drive to the gun range,
Set up cans and plastic bottles
From a box in the car trunk.
They stand atop a railroad tie, 
Partially buried by its own weight
In the ground over the years.

Time to get the guns and ammo out – carefully.
My twenty-two-caliber target pistol compares poorly 
To my friend’s 357 and monster 44 magnum.   
The target pistol is fun 
But not very effective at twenty feet.
The 357 is much better, 
But I have never fired a 44 magnum.
What a surprise!
A slow trigger pull, the gun discharges.
The grip is round; the recoil buries the hammer into 
The muscle between my index finger and thumb.  
Simultaneously, I feel the muzzle blast on my feet.  
One shot was enough – 
It hits the railroad tie with such force 
That it knocks down 
All the cans and bottles.

But what about a bigger gun – 
Say, a five-inch naval gun on an old destroyer?
A ninety-pound round that looks like a bullet – 
A brass shell casing, locked in embrace with a projectile.
The barrel is pointed across a bay, 
Over a log fort military base  
At some distant, unseen target.  
This is the Vietnam gun line, “fire support.”

Down the beach a few kilometers.
Sits a native fishing village.
Men and boys operate their row boats 
And tend their nets
To provide food for their families.
Barely above them,
The muzzle blast is deafening. 
Its compression wave causes water 
To ripple out from the ship  
A hundred feet or more.
Just beyond, an old fisherman works his nets 
As he and his ancestors 
Have always done.   

What else would you expect?
After all, this is Nam. .  .  .

The sky screams orange at this
Juxtaposition of apocalypse and mundane
(or is apocalypse now mundane?).
Do the fishermen from the old village
Somehow know they will prevail
Over this deafening war, and the next?

Written by Howard Stein and Seth Allcorn, forthcoming in Whiteboardings: Creating Collaborative Poetry in a Third Space

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