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Writing Collaboratively: Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg

2011 May 17

Remember this collaborative poetry collection, hand-bound and letterpress printed by Small Fires Press? I don’t know about you, but I was thoroughly fascinated by the book. Aside from the letterpress beauty of it, my fascination was with the collaborative effort of the two poets, Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg. The voice seemed so natural and fused. I wanted to know how their process worked, so I asked them a few questions by email.


How did you get in touch with Small Fires Press for this book? What drew you to letterpress, or vice versa?

We’ve both been a fan of Friedrich’s for a while. He is the best at what he does, and we’re smart enough to recognize this. We published a few collaborative poems in his poetry journal, Matchbook, a teeny literary magazine made of vintage matchbooks, and we knew of his interest in publishing collaborative work. We thought we had a chance, so we asked him.

How do you two know each other? How did your collaboration come about?

Predictably (or not), we met at a poetry conference. We struck up conversation and the connection was immediate. We haven’t stopped talking, in some capacity, since. Poetry is just one manifestation of our bigger conversation.

To answer your question more directly, though, we began collaborating over e-mail during the fall of 2007. Our first method was to have very long [Gmail] chats and then transcribe those into a word document, to be parsed way way down into a poem. So when I say everything is a conversation, I meant that quite literally. The first poems were conversation reductions.

You have done three different collaborations together – why? What works so well about the partnership that keeps you both coming back?

Hmmmm. We like the results? I suppose we wouldn’t seek to publish anything we weren’t proud of, and these poems feel worth it. What we’re able to create as a team excites and teaches us both, so we keep at it.

What is your process of writing collaboratively? Does one person start the poem, and the other finish, is it a collaborative effort throughout, etc?

The process differs each time. Sometimes it is through a paring down of Gmail conversations, but primarily it goes something like: one of us starts a line or couplet, and the other follows that up with another line or couplet, often taking some liberties to tweak what was previously written. It keeps going like this, looking like a game of Battleship, sometimes on a train or in a restaurant, until one of us calls it, until one of us has written what feels like the last line. It feels a little like going through the forest, on our way to Grandmother’s house for the first time and without any directions, while together wearing a single potato sack.

One last question: the voice throughout Feelings Using Wolves seems very natural and sounds like a singular voice throughout – are there moments where you can tell that there are two people writing it, that an outsider wouldn’t see, where one of you had to give or take a little more?

I think we’ve lost the ability to discern who wrote what exactly. I mean, it is one voice. It is neither of our own voices. Our own voices/poems don’t act exactly like this. It is the poem’s singular voice, you know?


2 Responses
  1. timothy permalink
    May 17, 2011

    This is a fantastic interview. My background in theatre means I have and have had loads of conversations about collaboration and what it means, but poetry is so rarely collaborative. It’s something I’ve been wanting to explore much more in my own work. I loved being let into the process of creating a work in tandem with another writer, and not simply pairing a few poems next to one another. Actually fusing conversations into writing is wonderful.

    I especially loved the idea that these collaborative poems have a “singular voice” – that is, that the work they do together acts in differently than their own individual work. I imagine that the creation of that voice took awhile and was difficult at first. Being able to let go of what’s comfortable for you in order to explore something new takes a great amount of courage and I admire Mr. Schomburg and Ms. Frey for doing that!

  2. Wren permalink
    May 18, 2011

    I too, really liked that they started these as Gmail chats, of all things! If only my Gmail chats were that worthwhile…but collaborative writing is something I’d love to try, too. A poet friend of mine has been talking about this, and I’m eager to hear how it works for her.

    It makes sense that the singular voice of a collaboration should be different than the writers’ other work, and very much it’s own. Yet it seems like that’s easy to say, but much harder to accomplish in reality. Which is why this collection rocks my socks off.

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