How to Be More Than One Thing
I’ve been thinking about collaboration as a means of queering. In writing, collaboration queers the traditional artist-as-precious-genius notion by forcing writers to relinquish creative control while still in the midst of creating. It queers the solitary writing process by exposing our artistic vulnerabilities. It queers the commercial author machine by sharing profit and leaving less room for a promotional cult of personality. It can even queer the almighty “I” on any given page.
I’m currently at work on a collaborative poetry project with Carol Guess about a character named NonMom. Like me, and like Carol, NonMom is queer. Love and sex aren’t structured around binary gender for NonMom. She lives without interest in the heteropatriarchal family structure. She rejects easy categories. Sometimes she refuses a stable identity altogether.
So I’ve also been thinking about what it means to claim that term, queer—and not just as a verb, which academics (including myself) love to do. I’m talking about a concrete, women-loving woman (to use my own life) kind of queerness. Around the time that Carol and I began this project, I also began to claim queerness for myself in concrete ways, though I hesitated to use the term at first, because it was not a term I’d claimed in the past. When I’d been in straight relationships, I had written about queerness a little—but only in “persona” poems. I’m embarrassed to say this now, afraid of suggesting to you that I was in the closet or simply oblivious. Those notions don’t capture my life in the slightest.
As Carol (who is a frequent collaborator) has pointed out to me, a collaborative poem is a kind of persona poem. The reader knows the “I” is compromised. If needed, the author can hide—but she can also write a role for herself. I didn’t want to hide in NonMom. I wanted to enter into something big and complicated with the support of another queer writer. I wanted to create some of the most confessional poems I’ve ever written by claiming not just queerness in NonMom’s voice, but also her refusal to keep quiet. She’s outspoken about her desires—and her lack of a desire for children, which is embraced in her very name. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to speak up about such things.
A former colleague once spoke to me about an acquaintance who identified as a lesbian but married a man, had a child, then divorced the man and fell in love with a woman. It was just that she made such a big deal about being a lesbian, my colleague explained, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again. It was the swerve that bothered her, apparently—the shift from one lane to another, or perhaps worse: occupying multiple lanes. The question that needled: How could anyone be more than one thing?
In collaboration, voices can meld, but they can also clash in fruitful ways. I often teach collaborative work from literary journals and anthologies (like They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing). One of my favorite collaborative essays to teach is “Pink” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade. I ask my students why it matters that the essay has two authors. Many admit that they didn’t at first notice there were two authors, while others say they knew because one author calls herself “straight” and speaks of an ex-husband, while another calls herself “a proud gay woman”—though it’s not necessarily clear who is speaking at any given moment in the essay. At this point, someone in class typically reminds everyone that who you’re with doesn’t determine your sexuality. Maybe someone else says sexuality can change. A pregnant pause enters the room. Eventually we conclude that although there are two distinct authors, the lines between their identities and experiences intersect and even blur. After that, my students usually create fantastic collaborative essays that use “I” to challenge the very notion of a stable identity.
On the page I am Rochelle and I am NonMom, who is also Carol, who is also I. We travel a loop through the poem, leaving in the center a wide-open space for being.