Christopher Citro and Dustin Nightingale were kind enough to take some time to discuss their collaborative writing process with us. Whilst both are poets in their own right (having been published in numerous journals), we were intrigued by how they went about composing their combined poems, especially as they reside 1500 miles apart.
How did you start collaborating with each other?Citro & Nightingale
We first wrote together for an assignment in a prose poetry class while graduate students at Indiana University. We made six poems one evening sitting across Dustin’s coffee table in his apartment next door to the fire department—sirens wailing intermittently—and it seemed to go well. Years later we submitted a few to literary journals and they were accepted, so we decided to continue the experiment, this time via email since we’d moved to New York and North Dakota.
Could you tell us a little bit about the actual process of authoring a piece with two writers?Citro & Nightingale
Each person starts two poems at a time, and we send them back and forth in batches of four, making large or small additions to each poem as we wish. When one of us feels moved to add a title, he does. When one of us thinks the poem is done, he indicates this and the other can agree or continue to add to or revise it.
While we generally stick to adding new material to the end of each draft, we decided at the get-go that each of us can to go back and change anything at any time. We treat the drafts as if they are our own poems, with complete freedom to cut lines, words, whole sections if we think it’s best. If the other person feels the removed bit was nifty enough to keep, he can try to rework it in.
All these changes happen without debate, with only the poem and the act of writing as our guide. Sometimes things can get quite drastic. If one of us notices a poem is just coming out dead in the water, he hacks it to pieces and we start fresh from the remains.
Do you always agree on the direction of the piece?Citro & Nightingale
We don’t have preconceived ideas of where our collaborative poems will go. Each one is a journey without a map, and we never discuss poems-in-progress. Often we surprise one another with the turns our new additions present, and that’s one of the joys of this collaboration. We like to trouble, delight, and inspire one another. It breaks us out of our individual writing habits and opens up fresh possibilities.
After years of writing collaboratively, we have found that one of the reasons it seems to work for us is that we share a sense of the internal shape of a poem. When to create tension, when to leap, when to release, when to run on, when to call it a day and lick our wounds. When to introduce a 14th century church or a woodchuck or a cry for help.
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