Reviewed by Scott Woods
As a communal poet experimentalist and an organizer or poetry events for many years, I’ve learned that even when the goal of a public art project is to be open and encompassing of all willing to play, people are still very much who they are individually throughout. How they treat their art as individuals typically bleeds through even in collaborative efforts. In an online open mic there will still be a segment of people who really only want to socialize in the margins, or poets who will argue for just the right moment of stage time. And so it is in collaborative poetry, where personal tics and crutches generally find their way into the work alongside individual voice and technique. It’s not easy to collaborate, even to the tune of one line at a time.
What makes the poems that appear in Electronic Corpse: Poems from a Digital Salon (2014, Svaha Paradox), edited by M. Ayodele Heath, rise above ego tradition is that the end result comes seemingly out of a hive mind; most of the poems don’t sound like five, six or seven authors, but one. When you read poems like “#115: Japanese scientists unveiled a robot that plays the violin” or “#55: They named me something French,” the sense isn’t that five or more random authors are present, but that a lone writer possessing singular vision has taken the reigns. If it were clear which poet had written which lines one might get a sense of which writers tend to send their respective poems in certain directions. Some poets contributed many times over many poems, frequently overlapping. There may be math that could be done to determine how frequently strong personalities infected such pieces. After all, when these lines were posted to Facebook, every contributor was clear and observable in the moment. When a Pushcart Prize winner or a Poetry Slam legend showed up, you noticed. It is not math I recommend anyone commit to, mostly because it chips away at one of the most fascinating developments this collection presents us with. We are occasionally treated to combinations of poets that, here and there, lend themselves to the impression of a unified vision and vocabulary – a meta-author – with, not so much a voice, but a sense of active listening. This is work not possible by mail, or out of the moment that the speed of technology provides.
Of course, creating the possibility of meta-authors (which was not the exercises’ intent) took some fair ground rules, a reliable and consistent call to arms every week. It took prompts that varied in tone and challenge. It took ease of access to the material via technology and the instant gratification that social media often provides. And it took no small measure of luck: as of this writing, Heath’s Facebook page is linked to over 1,100 people. At any point any one of them could have contributed to a poem in utero … some not even poets in their own minds, let alone anyone else’s. That an anthology of this quality even exists with those odds says a lot about the leadership that made this book possible.
Finally, the real payoff of the book is that all throughout is an element of mystery and the excitement that comes with such exercises: When the next line could, literally, be anything from any one of a thousand people, what might it possibly say? What direction will the poem spiral into? Will it actually arrive – accidentally or intentionally – at a theme or some genuine meaning? Will it make sense at all? These are the Easter eggs of such exercises, scattered throughout every single collaborative poem presented here. It is a collection of poetry that seems to have been captured, not created, which brings up all sorts of questions about how poetry intersects the questions of inspiration and technology and how people use them to express themselves. And while the exercises were clearly inspiring to their respective authors, it is the reader that will be inspired in turn, to consider even the very nature of art.
Scott Woods is the author of We Over Here Now (2013, Brick Cave Books). He has been featured multiple times in national press, including multiple appearances on National Public Radio. He MCs the Writers’ Block Poetry Night in Columbus, Ohio . In April of 2006 he became the first poet to ever complete a 24-hour solo poetry reading, a feat he bested with six more annual 24-hour readings without repeating a single poem.