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The Tidepool and the Sea

The Tide Pool and the Sea
By Robert Miltner

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean. -Ryunosuke Satoro


Writing is a solitary act. William Wordsworth saw it that way, calling the making of a poem “emotion recollected in tranquility,” a way of revisiting the moment to make meaning of what transpired in our lives; such reflection requires us to be away from the busy world. But writers are also social creatures, needing connection with others in order to more fully experience the world about which they write. For writers and other artists, engaging in collaborative projects initiates a conversation that can lead to crossing the border between the solitary and the social life into a shared space where new ideas are possible.


The word collaboration is derived from the Latin, collaborare, with its root “labor” and a prefix conveying “with” something, and means to work with another person. Collaborations are seen in rock bands, sports teams and leagues, farming cooperatives, business or domestic partnerships, anywhere, really, where people are working in concert with one another. In academia, collaboration is predominant in the sciences, as seen by how many co-authors are listed in scientific journals, while in the arts, a simple perusal of any literary journal or anthology shows the table of contents as a list of singular authors. While exceptions can be found (Lennon and McCartney in songwriting, Gilbert & George among painters, for example), it is not as common for writers and artists to work together.


In the arts, John Dewey’s experiential education model was the basis for Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933-1957 outside of Ashville, North Carolina. Students and faculty lived together in dorms and co-designed courses of study, taught by a virtual Who’s Who of influential Postmodern (a term coined by poet Charles Olsen when he was rector there) of artists and intellectuals. Final class projects for students, sometimes creative works, were often performed in collaboration, so that the project might have music by John Cage, choreography by Merce Cunningham, stage decoration by Willem de Kooning, set design by Buckminster Fuller, be photographed by Aaron Siskind, and the text of the creative project read by poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, or Ed Dorn, the latter two who taught classes at Kent State University in the early 1970’s. As a poet at Kent State, I feel under the influence of a collaborationist tradition.


My first cooperative experiences were with guitar players and drummers when I was in high school, cobbling together cover bands where I experienced how we brought out the best in each other by playing together. Strumming rhythm was fun, taking a solo was exciting, the whole band finding and staying in the groove was exhilarating. But because my talent as a guitarist was limited, I was soon drawn to the song lyrics, particularly those by Bob Dylan, and so it was that I discovered, as a failed lyricist, that I could write lyric poetry.


Writing is a lone act with pen or keyboard, done in locations that allow the ear to hear the lines read aloud. And as much as I enjoy the quiet, the timelessness of composing and revising, I miss the stimulating interaction with others. To stretch my craftsmanship, I have taken classes in other “sister” arts, adding hand drumming to guitar playing and learning to bring my body into the making of music. A pottery class taught me that shaping and glazing are visually pleasing, but a bowl must be able to hold something to be useful as well. Jewelry making impressed upon me the necessity of fine detail so that metal and stone fuse into a single entity. And a basic class on 2 D composition helped me understand the relationship between foreground and background, the nuance of gray scale, the exciting tensions that surface when the color wheel is spinning. As I crossed the boundary between visual and verbal arts, I expanded and enriched my vocabulary for understanding art, making me bilingual as I acquiring a second language. What I wanted now was to have conversations.


My need to communicate with other artistic led me, in the late 1990’s, to cooperative projects developed by the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland. A poem of mine was choreographed and danced on stage. I found myself paired with printmaker Wendy Collin Sorin from Zygote Press, resulting in her making a print based on one of my poems, and later, in my writing poems based on her lithographs. We then worked cooperatively in a project with a paper artist and a letterpress artist, producing the hand-made, limited edition book Ghost of a Chance. Poet Edward Hirsch says that "works of art initiate and provoke other works of art; the process is a source of art itself"; the collaborative process of producing the book was a conversation, a communication of ideas and images. Wendy expressed this in an email to me, saying that “the magic of this collaboration thing, something apart yet very close in feeling to the rush I feel when I do my own work, alone,” yet the process of engagement is larger and more provocative when dialogue is initiated and expanded into a shared conversation about art and how it enriches all of us.


As a teacher, I knew it was essential for student writers to engage in the collaborative process, to also enter into larger conversations about art. I began connecting my poetry classes with art and music classes, shared projects in which artists visualized the poems while the poets gave voice to the painting and prints, and where poets read their poems, foregrounded against the background of a studio jazz ensemble. At one of the opening receptions for a gallery show when the prints and poems were on display, one of the poets was telling the printmaker that her poem was based on a painting from a previous show. The printmaker was suddenly animated, excited, as he explained that the source painting was his, from another class. These students were experiencing, in one electrifying moment, the unexpected ways that collaboration can connect and expand their singular art in unimagined ways.


Brian Newberg, the theater director at my campus, Kent State University at Stark, invited me, this past academic year, to participate in what became the most meaningful collaborative educational project I have experienced. Together we developed and co-taught a year-long class, Devising Theater, in which sixteen theater and creative writing students generated and produced the spring play, Voices From Hurt Street, a collage of scenes and spoken word pieces that addressed bullying and domestic violence. Drawing from their own experiences, or researched events, the theater and writing students connected with the Domestic Violence Project and other community organizations, music students, local actors, as well as faculty and Kent Stark students who participated by providing displays and posters across the campus. The extended cooperation engaged all of us in a joint effort in which the art of writing for theater was used to promote social awareness, campus and community connections, and the personal and artistic growth of the student ensemble. This experience corroborated—strengthened and affirmed—my belief in the power of collaboration in the arts when the class was cross-listed for credit in English, theater, women’s studies, and LGBT studies.


The poet Richard Hague says that, “until we write about significant events, we haven’t fully experienced them.” In creative nonfiction, one of the core principles is that we write in order to better know the meaning of our experiences, as action and reflection work together to enrich our understanding of who we are. It is why we make art, why I write. Collaboration lifts me, lifts us from the grounded limitations of ourselves, of individual moments, to the infinite universe of possibilities.

Writers and artists are drawn to collaboration when the common project is mutually inspiring and offers an enriching symbiosis of actions and reactions [and is] a form of dialogue [through which writers and artists] explore the commonalities of the creative process in lieu of the differences of the artistic product. Collaboration therefore takes the verbal and visual artist into new, shared territory, each having crossed a boundary to get there, and each giving and taking both from the shared work and from the conversation which collaboration allows.

from “Where the Visual Meets the Verbal: Collaboration as Conversation,” Robert Miltner, Enculturation 3:2.

About the author

Robert Miltner is Associate Professor of English at Kent State University at Stark where he teaches creative writing and literature; he is also a member of the Poetry faculty of, and is the Kent State University Campus Coordinator for, the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing Consortium Program. His collection of prose poems, Hotel Utopia, won the New Rivers Press book prize and was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry, and he is the author of fifteen chapbooks and limited editions, including Against the Simple (Wick chapbook award) and Eurydice Rising (Red Berry Editions award).