Life Skills, Ryan Mihaly & Karolina Zapal

Life Skills: A Conversation on Collaboration

Ryan: What do you like about collaboration that you can’t normally get out of writing a poem alone?

Karolina: You get a starting point, an initial phrase or word you have to react to, something that might jumpstart your creative mind. I think you can collaborate in the same way with a book. When you read poetry, for example, a line or a phrase might jump out at you and you’ll want to try writing from it. I see collaborating with another writer as the same thing.

Something else I love about collaborating is that it opens up room for different types of exercises that I would not necessarily try on my own, like passing a notebook back-and-forth, or typing one line at a time and then passing it, or writing for 30 seconds to a minute at a time and then letting the other person write a response for the same amount of time.  

Karolina: What is one practice you rely on when writing alone, and how does that practice transform when you’re collaborating?

Ryan: When I’m writing a poem on my own, I entertain almost anything that comes to my head, even if I kind of don’t like it. I try to shape something out of it. Sometimes in collaboration there’s the feeling of having to hold back; you have to try to write something that’s leading or something that your collaborator can grab hold of and work with. So you have to provide a little bit of a lead for the other poet, so that you can work with them properly.

Karolina: It seems to me like you’re saying collaboration can be a type of censorship, and I wonder if it opens up your work in some way instead of closing it off?

Ryan: I wouldn’t say it’s censorship as much it is a curation of thoughts. The goal is to give something to your collaborator that they can work with. Sometimes when you write on your own, it’s like you have inside jokes with yourself; you know your own private language. That doesn’t mean the language won’t work with the other poet. You just have to shape it in a certain way. It doesn’t feel like censorship because a new imaginative poem is still being written.

Karolina: So you’re saying that in collaboration, you’re creating a new private language that hopefully extends beyond your collaborator and reaches a wider audience?

Ryan: Something like that. I don’t want a poem to read too much like an inside joke because then it’s closed off. But when we collaborate, for example, I feel like we’re inventing the rules as we write. We’re inventing a collaborative language in the process. I would never use the exact words that my collaborator ends up writing, and that’s exciting. It keeps the poem moving.

Karolina: We’re fusing into one poet, and a reader has to learn to read our collaborative language just like they have to learn the language and style of any other poet.

Ryan: I think so. But somehow our style doesn’t exactly stay the same from poem to poem. I think collaborative writing opens up space for more experimentation than I would normally expect to do on my own. It’s far more surprising to work with another brain.

Ryan: What is your strategy for editing a poem that we have collaboratively written?

Karolina: I would say it’s similar to how I would edit my own poems, which is look at the line or a piece of writing and see what fits, what resonates, what doesn’t. The key to editing when you are collaborating is to save every draft because one person might edit or delete something that the other person wants to keep, and so we might revert back to an older version. But generally we liked how the other person edited the poem.

Ryan: What has surprised you the most in writing collaboratively?

Karolina: What has surprised me is the flexibility. I’m surprised by my ability to put aside my own thoughts or plans for the poem because every time I write a line I almost immediately think of the next one. But in collaboration, I need to pass it to whomever I’m collaborating with, in this case Ryan, and he writes a line that I don’t expect. So I have to find it within myself to be flexible and adaptable, to find room in a poem for the other person’s thoughts to come through. Then, together, we have to mold it into something that is different from whatever either one of us set out to do at the beginning. This is very similar to just hanging out with friends in general because plans tend to change. Maybe I don’t get to do what I planned to do, and I have to be OK with that. So collaboration teaches me writing skills and life skills.

Karolina: What has been your favorite project or single poem that we have written together?

Ryan: I really enjoy working on our collaborative novel. It’s a much bigger project, much more systematically constructed than a single poem. Though there is one poem we wrote where it seems like we completed each other‘s thoughts, but also somehow lead the poem astray with every new line. I thought that was interesting because it seemed like our brains were dancing in sync.

But the novel is a much bigger project, where we are each responsible for certain characters and certain chapters, and we have a little bit more freedom because we can write on our own for stretches at a time. But whatever we’ve written in those chapters affects the writing of the other person’s chapters. Sometimes those chapters are earlier in the novel’s timeline, sometimes they’re later, so the process of the unknown is still there; it’s just in a much larger format.

Ryan: Can you speak a bit about the collaborative novel?

Karolina: We started out wanting to write a novel of ideas. We only had a vague sense of what those ideas were: music, language, translation, and travel. We also wanted to create a vivid picture of the place where we’ve been living the last 4 months — Štúrovo, Slovakia. Our plot really developed when we discovered the Polish poet Halina Poświatowska. Her book has been sitting on our shelf for a couple months. We found it at a flea market in Krakow. We discovered she went to Smith College in Northampton, which is near where Ryan also went to school. We started translating her poems and even visited her museum in Czestochowa. We wanted to bring her character to life, because she seemed like such an energetic and bright young mind who passed way too early.

At the time I was also developing a different character who ended up fusing with Halina’s narrative. Lots of other strains came out from our initial brainstorming sessions. I ended up writing a short piece for the novel about a woman whose baby died right after birth. Ryan wrote a piece for the novel about a night bus driver who was also religious.

While it can be hard to keep our narratives straight while collaborating, and to have a perfect sense of the novel structure, it is exciting and fun to write a semi-chronological narrative with someone else. Who doesn’t love a challenge? In a way it is also helpful to write with someone else, to tackle this big project together, because you don’t have to rely on only yourself to write the whole book. Writing a novel can be daunting, but writing it with someone else is a little less daunting.

Ryan: What has the process of translating Halina Poświatowska’s poems collaboratively been like?

Karolina: Translating as a collaborative team has been fruitful and rewarding. Because I am a native Polish speaker, I tend to to do the first literal translation of the text, then we sculpt the poem together and bring it back to its poetic glory. Personally I love our translation process because I always have someone to ask when I am indecisive about choosing a certain word. It’s like always having an editor in the room with you while you write. And because of our different language abilities, we are able to split the work in an efficient way.

Halina is a brilliant poet who died in her early 30s from a heart condition. She wrote many poems about her experiences in Poland, the United States, in college, and in hospitals. She really liked to write about cats and fur. She offers the world a unique perspective as a 20th-century traveler an independent woman. We have come across several difficulties understanding the context behind her poems. Since we cannot ask her what she meant, we simply have to guess based on how we read the poem today. When we translate, we try not to nail down any single reading of the poem, especially when we perceive that she wanted to keep it open.

Ryan: Shall we end on a brand new, spontaneously created collaborative poem?

I feel like we’re inventing the rules as we write.
We’re inventing the rules for future editors.
We write in one week, Ryan writes a grain of empty yellow desks, and grammar.
Karolina keeps Poland in rhythmic fashion, everyone is spectating.

Oftentimes we just take a misused metaphor
or a little less than we wish to self: never or not necessarily try to shape something out loud.
For example, Karolina writes a poem open to change
the minute we trusted each other without really chaperoning.
Sometimes a ball goes missing or an invisible bridge between us

We write something that’s leading or pre-planned poem.
“Syllabi” of the novel,
a confrontation of nouns.

But whatever we’ve written on the messages chalked out access to, say, God.

We started out wanting to nail down this street at least.
We wanted to guess based on my lips, that’s it.
We wanted to guess based on my own, like a great downward gesture.
My eyes take this as sport.
Of course, there is one loud clang, followed by whom?
And we would salute them and applaud them properly.
It’s far more difficult task.
Personally, I am a much larger format.

Karolina Zapal is an itinerant poet, essayist, translator, and author of Polalka (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018). Her second book, Notes for Mid-birth, is forthcoming from Inside the Castle in late 2019. She is collaborating with the poet CA Conrad on translating their book, The Book of Frank, into Polish. Her work is forthcoming from Posit and 3:AM Magazine and has appeared in FlockThe Manhattanville ReviewBone BouquetFoglifterWitness, Bombay Gin, and others. She served as the Anselm Hollo Fellow at Naropa University from 2015-2017. She’s an editor with The Birds We Piled Loosely Press. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, she wonders about lost cities and impenetrable borders.

Ryan Mihaly is a poet and musician. He recently graduated from the MFA program at Naropa University where he was an Anne Waldman/Anselm Hollo fellow. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from: 3:AM Magazine, DIAGRAM, Opossum, Asymptote, The Massachusetts Review blog, and in Ilan Stavans’ anthology On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language. Recent musical activity includes performances with Thurston Moore, Anne Waldman, Gabrielle Civil, and Janice Lowe.