Compass Lines: the art of collaboration
Christodoulos Makris and Karl Whitney explain a writers’ exchange project aiming to establish links between the North and South of Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain
Christodoulos Makris: collaborative writing has demonstrated to me how it can expand outlooks and subtly shift approaches to composition. Coming upon a sensibility outside of our own with which we have no choice but to negotiate is liberating, a way of releasing ourselves from certainties
Compass Lines is a writers’ exchange project aiming to establish links between writers and communities in the North and South of Ireland, while additionally examining relationships between the East and West of these islands, through workshops, public discussions, and the commissioning of new collaborative writing.
The first Compass Lines public event, with writers Philip Terry and Karl Whitney, takes place this week at the Irish Writers Centre, on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7.30pm.
Relative to the artist as curator, the poet or writer as curator is an underexplored area. Here, too, writing lags a number of years behind painting. The process of devising and realising an exhibition, a live event or a series of enterprises reflects the way we operate in our modern, information-heavy environment. Writing is also the management of data – with meaning or poetry residing in the ways this data is arranged. “All writing is in fact cut-ups,” according to William Burroughs. How we manipulate information can say more about the world and in fact ourselves than what is expressed in a confessional poem, say, or in autobiography.
My experience in collaborative writing has demonstrated to me how it can expand outlooks and subtly shift approaches to composition. Coming upon a sensibility outside of our own with which we have no choice but to negotiate is liberating, a way of releasing ourselves from certainties. The process itself is where the potency lies: it gives rise to spaces and directions that would otherwise not have existed – and genuine bonds between collaborators that are often longlasting.
Making the project Compass Lines happen has relied on a process of constant collaboration. In late 2014 I was approached by the Irish Writers Centre to devise a cluster of events linking writers and audiences in the north and south of Ireland. Following a series of discussions with the centre and with other writers and editors I developed a curatorial statement that fused the interests and objectives of the centre with my own.
Compass Lines began as an attempt to link north and south – but I quickly recognised we had to reflect the fact that in modern Ireland things are far from binary. Beginning with a structure dictating that the pairs of writers involved should have connections one to the north and one to the south, I was interested in exploring relationships to place through writers contaminated by other territories and dimensions, and who retain an innovative streak in their work. I was particularly interested in writers who do not fit into neat categories, and whose practice or interests are not quite mainstream.
Like writing and editing, curatorial work is about creating juxtapositions to produce something more than the sum of the parts, with risk an integral part of the process. Beyond observation and experience, it almost always comes down to identifying a combination of elements with common attributes but which are also different enough to give rise to strange currents and energies. For the first iteration of Compass Lines, for example, while on the surface Philip Terry and Karl Whitney work in separate genres, their common interest in Oulipo and related writing strategies held fascinating possibilities. Their resulting collaborative piece, available as a pamphlet exclusively with entry to the public discussion at the Irish Writers Centre on Wednesday evening, demonstrates this.
Christodoulos Makris is the curator of Compass Lines. His most recent book, The Architecture of Chance (Wurm Press, 2015), was chosen as a poetry book of the year by RTÉ Arena and 3:AM Magazine. He is the poetry editor of gorse.
Last August I was sitting in my windowless office trying to write something, when an email arrived. Looking for any excuse to take a break, I downed tools and read it. It was from Christodoulos, asking if I’d be interested in taking part in a collaboration with Philip. I said yes without hesitation.
I had never collaborated on a piece of writing before. I had always seen writing as for the most part a solitary profession. But I thought that collaboration might open up new possibilities. I had no idea what the finished work might be like, and I was interested in finding out.
Philip began by suggesting the form the collaboration might take. In the past he’s translated work by members of Oulipo – a French literary group dedicated to investigating the uses of constraint in writing that included Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec amongst their number. (I’ve also long been interested in Oulipo.) These constraints could be complex and mathematically derived, but, drawing from his work with the group, Perec also utilised simpler ones.
One of these simpler constraints consisted of using the words “I remember” as a writing prompt – each line would begin with those words, prompting personal memories, but also more general ones (“I remember the fashion for duffel coats”). Perec had taken the “I remember” form from the American poet Joe Brainard.
Philip suggested we try something similar, but instead of beginning each line with “I remember”, we’d begin with one of six words: Days, Nights, Afternoons, Mornings, Hours and Moments. These would occur in a mathematically derived sequence that was devised by Philip, based on the sestina form, a favourite of Oulipo.
All that done, we got to work on the actual writing of the piece in early January. It went like this: I’d get an email from Philip with a few lines from him (the Nights section, to begin with) then I’d fill in my section and return the amended document to him. Then he’d do his part and return it to me. And so on. Sometimes, due to other commitments, there were a few days between emails. At other times we got through a few sections in a morning (Fridays were particularly good for this).
Ultimately, I found the process very satisfying. The collaborative nature of the writing meant that references and images ricocheted from one writer to the other. David Bowie, public transport, music, James Joyce: all passed backwards and forwards, and transformed somehow from personal memories to something else. I found, as the writing progressed, that I could incorporate not just my own memories, but, freed by our use of the second person, “you”, could bring in other perspectives – from historical figures or fictional characters. Meanwhile, the non-linear nature of the writing meant that I could skip freely between places and times – Paris in 2011, Dublin in 1904 or 2013, New York and New Jersey in 2006 – without breaking stride, and without having to explain why.
Karl Whitney is a writer of non-fiction whose first book, Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin was published by Penguin in 2014
Philip Terry is the director of the Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Essex. He has published many books of poetry and fiction, and edited the story collection Ovid Metamorphosed. His novel tapestry was shortlisted for the 2013 Goldsmith’s Prize. Dante’s Inferno, which relocates Dante’s action to current day Essex, was published in 2014, as well as a translation of Georges Perec’s I Remember.
Compass Lines #1: Karl Whitney & Philip Terry, takes place on Wednesday, March 2nd, at Irish Writers Centre, Dublin, 7.30pm. Entry via Eventbrite €8/€6 or on the door €10/€8. Includes a complimentary glass of wine.
Writing about place: a writing workshop with Karl Whitney, Tuesday, March 1st, 6pm-8pm, Malahide public library. Places limited - registration through Malahide library (01-8704430/1, firstname.lastname@example.org)
On Tuesday, March 1st, Philip Terry will deliver a workshop on Poetry and Oulipo for students at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies, Mater Dei Institute