"Collaboration is a calling to work with and for others, in the service of something that transcends individual artistic ego and, as such, has to do with love, survival, generosity, and a conversation in which the terms of language are multidimensional."
--Anne Waldman, "Going on Our Nerve: Collaborations Between Poets and Visual Artists"
The lights are dim at the Brick Lot Pub in Sturgeon Bay. It's a Saturday night in early June and the place is packed for Steel Bridge Songfest. We're about to start our set. Although she considers herself more of a bassist than a drummer, Jena G. sits behind our ratty drum kit, brushes and sticks in hand. Bethany Lindemann, normally a vocalist and guitarist, has Jena's reddish-brown beauty of a bass. She's already in the zone, letting a few chords ring out. Though I'm not a singer, I awkwardly hold the microphone. "Let's get weird," I blurt. "Yeah," a few guys in a booth say, lifting their mugs of beer.
When my sister Bethany suggested that I turn some poems from Small Adult Trees/Small Adulteries into songs for Villainess--our art rock side project, I was up for it. I was up for getting strange.
I'm not a songwriter. Or a singer. At best, I'm a mediocre violinist. But I sang through three of the poems from my quirky tree people project, testing out melodies. Right away I realized how much condensing I would have to do to transform the poems into songs. My prose poems were wordy, too much of a mouthful for songs. I realized I'd have to add in some repetition.
"Deciduous leaves, deciduous leaves, deciduous leaves on the small adult tree," I sang in the comfort of my living room. Bethany's driving bass part and vocal harmonies urged me on. Jena cautiously rattled the cymbals, then tapped intuitive, experimental rhythms on the floor tom. The result is a trio of shortish songs that we recorded in Bethany's basement. And then Stephen Spalding added in some eerie electric guitar and worked his magic with mixing. I don't think I have the musical vocabulary to describe how his mix affected the project, but let's just say the effects he applied to the tracks made the composition weirder, stranger, more Small Adult Trees-ish.
Anne Waldman writes of collaboration and strangeness: "Something new, or 'other,' emerges from the combination that would not have come about with a solo act."
And "something new or 'other'" did emerge when Bethany, Jena, and Stephen added their layers. Something strange and other emerged once again after visual artist Erin LaBonte responded with video.
Erin had spent some time with the poem series. After she listened to the audio, she came back with a pocket-sized spiral notebook full of images and concepts scrawled in signature black Sharpie. Erin's experimental video asks viewers to enter a world of giant dandelion puffs, a curious new world where tree-people (or tree-dwellers?) are pregnant, are weaving streamers into branches. A world where leaves are plucked from trees and clenched palms open up to reveal ethereal blossoms. Rather than illustrate the songs, the experimental video responds to both the images and the music, creating a dream-like landscape.
Collaboration allows for strength in numbers. How else could Bethany, Jena, and I have performed odd little tree songs in public? Collaboration also encourages the peculiar; it pushes us to move beyond our artistic comfort zones as we challenge one another to respond to images, phrases, melodies, and mixes. It encourages surprises.
In "Going on Our Nerve," poet Anne Waldman writes, "The genre of collaboration is a social activity...You are not thinking about the concept, the finished product, or making money. So you surprise each other" (132). When collaborating, you have a built-in audience, so sometimes you create to flabbergast, to mystify, to delight your collaborator(s).
We'll be sharing this collaboration during a poetry reading at LaDeDa Books & Beans in Manitowoc, WI on Thursday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Or watch for the video on Vimeo or YouTube soon! Small Adult Trees/Small Adulteries (the poetry chapbook) is available through Dancing Girl Press.
Waldman, Anne. "Going on Our Nerve: Collaborations Between Poets and Visual Artists." Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art. Ed. Tanya Foster & Kristin Prevallet. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002. Print.