Call and Response: Two Questions with Alicia Elkort and Jenn Givhan
Alicia Elkort and Jenn Givhan’s poems “One by One” and “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing” appear in AGNI 86.
Aanchal Narang for AGNI: I would love to hear about the process of co-writing poems. What does that look like? What inspired you to co-write these two pieces specifically?
Another thing that struck me was the mirror-like structure of “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing.” I’m curious about what drew you to this structure. How did you pick the order of the words as the mirror structure was developed?
We have been giving each other feedback on poems since we first met in an online poetry class, seven years ago. When the idea of co-writing came up, it seemed like a natural conclusion. Our distinct themes and language offered an opportunity to create a fresh voice united by our similar understanding of life and beauty.
Some poems were written much like a call and response with one poet responding to the outline of a poem by the other poet. For instance, in “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing,” Alicia responded to the despair and decay of Jenn’s images by recognizing beauty in the decay. The form as mirror image demonstrates that, in every image or experience, there is another way to see. Jenn’s line “I am the broken swing set near collapsed” is mirrored by “I am broken wounds filling with gold.” In Jenn’s line “I am a knob of roots waiting for someone to pull,” pulling is an action of removal or being uprooted, taken. The “I” is passive. Alicia mirrors this with “I am a knob on a door to a celestine attic,” which reads as an invitation. Pulling the knob on the door would reveal heaven. From a metaphysical point of view, great challenges can be a doorway into greater self-compassion and awareness. And yet the poem as a whole encapsulates the human experience, how we live with joy and despair, sometimes in the same moment.
Other poems written together developed in a more organic manner, emailing one line at a time back and forth (we live in different cities) and editing as we progressed until we had arrived at the end—a completed poem. “One by One” was written in this manner, but the final poem does not equate to one line for each poet because, as the poem found its bearing, we removed entire lines or rearranged the order and edited out words to create the forward momentum and crux.
All of the poems written together were given time to settle; then edits would be made.
In other poems we’ve written, themes that are more reflective of one of us or the other would stand out, and still the poems are relevant for both of us. The synergy between poets can work like a real time cut-up tool, discovering new expressions, word choices. On a deeper level, writing together demonstrates how narratives can coalesce.
Aanchal Narang is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (4/2018)