As a musical and poetic technique, the call-and-response form first appeared in the Americas during mid- to late-seventeenth century, imported from Africa as part of the slave trade. Used in both spiritual hymns and secular work songs, the back-and-forth interplay of voices fostered a sense of community, promoting active participation from all its members. In these collaborative songs, slaves lost themselves in musical escapism and found temporary comfort in intimate, human connection.
Over the course of several centuries, mainstream American culture has assimilated the practice of call-and-response into its fabric, most obviously in the form of rock 'n roll and popular music. The change of context, though, irrevocably altered both its aesthetic and purpose. And while both poetry and contemporary micro-presses hand-making chapbooks could hardly be called “mainstream,” the alterations call-and-response have undergone evidence themselves in Steven Karl and Veronica Wong's Don't Try This On Your Piano, or am i still standing here with my hair down (Lame House Press, 2012).
The first sentence of “I am always confusing symbolism for othering,” the collection's opening prose poems, calls out: “Nothing else was evident other than this scratching, and estranged you from a strange me.” The second poem of the collection, “I am (always) confusing (symbolism for) othering,” reponds with the line: “Nothing ever evident other than itch.” Both the titles and the opening sentence/line (as well as the other poems in the collection) play with the concept of theme and variation inherent in call-and-response. But far from developing community, these poems “erase the connection” between speakers, estranging one from the other.
Of course, the speakers of this collaborative chapbook don't necessarily lament the estrangement. In fact, the prose poem “The realization of a fantasy renders it less than fantasy” concludes with skeptical sentiments about the process of collaboration:
But maybe the violence is not in the falling apart, but rather in the coming together, like galaxy formation from gravitational collapse or has that been disproven already? See also: what must be given up in order to create.
In this instance, the poem conceptualizes the “formation” and “coming together” of distinctly separate entities as “violence” and expresses anxiety about “what must be given up in order to create” something when working in conjunction with someone else. For, indeed, those who engage in collaborative writing must concede individual aesthetics, content, and form for the sake of communal writing. Does one view collaboration affirmatively through the lens of community formation, or negatively through the lens of violence toward an individual subjectivity?
While Don't Try This appears to champion an autonomous sense of self, the chapbook occasionally questions both the efficacy and possibility of a hermetic subjectivity. In “violence is / any year / in which,” the speakers write: “tomorrow we will burst out of our skin and decide whether metamorphosis is self-destructive”; and earlier in “My Life Has Been Breaking One Egg With Another,” we're told: “Perhaps I do not believe in freedom.” The first passage leaves open the possibility for an affirmative view of collaboration when we “burst out of our skin” and enter the communal realm, while the second passage debates whether or not the concept of “freedom,” or the individual, is even possible.
Certainly, the speakers of Karl and Wong's collection exist in a self-described world of separation and distance where connection is unwanted or out-of-reach; or, in their own words:
Thank you for asking for a photo of me. I have been thinking a lot about what to send you—it seems unfair because in reality, while I've taken quite a few pictures that I'm pretty sure you would like, I want to be sending them to someone else. I've been imagining what it's like to sleep next to you because I've been remembering sleeping next to him, how it was like separation, and distancing. How solitude is like white hydrangeas How I only know his summer wardrobe. I feel sad after I dream your hands pressing against me.
The “separation, and distancing” of two people, coupled with the analogical comparison of “solitude” with the natural beauty of “white hydrangeas,” certainly challenges positive paradigms of collaborative poetry. But, in the end, “the filling up or the emptying out” of one's writing with a collaborator is a question that the collection leaves unresolved.