Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito, authors of Bright Power, Dark Peace,
forthcoming from Diode Editions, talk about the collaborative process
Brynn and I began our collaboration in 2009, finished a draft of the chapbook manuscript in 2011, and let it languish until the fall of 2012. We began writing poems together because devastated landscapes began appearing in our work, so we decided to write about a ruined city together. From the beginning we knew a girl was wandering through the ruins and the city kept trying to speak to her. Though we didn’t know who the girl was or why she was there, we each saw her as us in some ways. When we began writing these poems we had both been through a couple of moves, break ups, new jobs, and felt a general restlessness in our lives. Part of discovering the mystery of the girl was discovering our own wants and ghosts.
I’d always been interested in collaborative work and the idiosyncrasies of other writers’ collaborative processes. Brynn and I had quite a few ground rules for the project so that we would contribute equally to each poem. We took turns choosing locations in the city, and the person who chose a location also started the poem. If that person wrote in couplets, the next person wrote in couplets, tercets were followed by new tercets, and so on. The person who didn’t choose the location and open the poem was responsible for editing the poem once it was finished. When we would write, I’d leave a sentence unfinished and return to the document file later to find out how it ended. I called into the abyss and the abyss called back with stunning lyricism. On the one hand, it was difficult for both of us to relinquish control and let each poem veer into different directions than we would have taken it alone, but there was such freedom in that powerlessness, too.
It sits rusted and ruined in the south of the city.
You walk through the open hatch
like someone entering the ribcage of a rotted
whale on the beach. Seagulls ate its flukes,
fought over its liver, but these worn ribs carried
a cargo of ammunition through a gunmetal sky.
Wind stirs the engine, rain strikes the wings.
When you jumped from the open hatch
and landed in a bed of hyacinths, they withered.
You took off your dress and covered them.
When you fell you saw threatening seas and chimes
made of sea glass and the wishbones of finches.
Like them you made music when the wind moved
through you, a song about sunlight and the coldest blue.
You’ve posed in these windows, twirled
for the men on the sidewalk. All that’s left
are bolts of chenille and empty bobbins.
Take off the dress and place it in the fire.
Let satin turn to ash and gold to gray
ascension. If you choose to sleep in tulle
with the stray cat he will gift you with mice
and purr between your fingers. If you were
granted a coat of wild fur and an ageless mind,
you could wrestle a wolf in snow, bear a litter
in a den, and lick each pup clean. But yours
is a binding of whalebone and cotton.
You surrender to the needle, the impossible
thread. Once, your honor was a hoop skirt
and petticoats, the bustle men tried to touch
when you rushed past. Now it’s the wax portrait
you nail to the wall, the toss of a thimble into
a sack full of feathers. When you’re lonely again,
Darling Mannequin, you’ll find solace in old fishnets
and chests full of sequins. You’ll knit a dress
of mirrors and the stray cat will follow as you
twirl through the city, a live bird in its mouth.
Brynn Saito is the author of the poetry collection The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press (March, 2013). Her poetry has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared or is forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and Pleiades. She is the recipient of a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellowship and the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Brynn was born and raised in the Central Valley of California and currently lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W. W. Norton, 2012), winner the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (SIU Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the King/Chávez/Parks Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.