Lytton Smith & Adam O. Davis
Distantly Working Together: On Collaboration
In approaching the Treaty we approached the painting of the Treaty, notoriously unfinished (presumably because one half of the subject didn't show), and sought to finish it through some transatlantic participation, quid pro quo, one back scratched and so the other back now owed a scratching.
Was it, I wonder, me, who didn't show? If memory serves, we were writing the first poem in this manuscript in a monotone cube of a hotel room on a Christmas eve, both in the U.K. at the same time though not in the same hotel, meant to be converging from points British and American.
The absent subject was the British delegation at the Treaty of Paris, refusing to pose for Benjamin West’s painting, leaving a few of our founding fathers standing nebulously close to what looked like a rolling beige fog: What is collaboration without misunderstanding?
Some of our best moments likely came from a missing of the mark (blame the Atlantic). Hearing Marconi, inevident in Chelmsford (England, not Massachusetts), site from where the first transatlantic broadcast cabled a mysterious path Two Emma Toc, Writtle testing across an Atlantic used to freighting a darker cargo: we were writing towards each other’s mishearing, half-apprehensions, writing into frequent static.
So we played a game of telephone without telephones, not even tin can and string ones, letting language unspool along with our sense of self or nationality (bowlers, Stetsons, Earl Grey, chicory) until we arrived at a shared voice—a vivsected vocality that spoke to our countries’ curious dissociation, the confusion between Frankenstein and his monster.
And then arrived revision—a revisionist history, really—undertaken with Afternoon Teas at Boston hotels a stone’s throw from the throwing overboard of the same tea earlier in history: by the time each poem was written, no one of us knew whose it was (unless Isabella’s, that ghost in the machine, static in the broadcast, irrepressible even when we went to press).
Authorship’s a tricky relationship: who can say who knows best when the two involved kept losing track of what was whose? Our lines of self blurred steadily throughout the revision, just as the tea met harbor-water and became a better tonic, leaf and salt.
A collaboration over a shared history—national, personal, domestic (in Manhattan prewars and Mojave adobes and riverside pubs)—lost its way in digital type gliding off a screen’s metaphor for the page, and in losing its way found the taste of salt-leaf in the flotsam bobbing where the borders are unsure.