Simone and Jackie are excited to announce the forthcoming publication of their collaborative book, The Under Hum (Black Lawrence Press, 2024)
What happens when two women write self-portraits “lined” by famous writers? The answer lies in the collaborative magic of Simone Muench and Jackie K. White’s The Under Hum, a gorgeous panoply of golden shovels, centos, and tangy tercets to make you love poetry again as a celebration of the thrills and surprises of language. “We are a strange syntax that cannot be mapped,” say the poets. And we were happy getting lost in their "Portrait as Landscape" sonnets, the sublime terrain constantly shifting and blooming with music metaphor, “with mirrors and seasons…stuck between no way and anyhow,” reminding us in the best possible way that “everything human is made up” and, in The Under Hum, we get to take pleasure in the result.
Collaboration means creation. These poems expand from that natural cycle of visionary poetry, that invites more than one poet to get involved with the poems, until language itself becomes a complete process of imagination and meaning. The result is a book that shares a complex world with the reader and proves that true poetry does not leave anyone alone.
The Under Hum is a spectacle of poetic collaboration. From the poets Simone Muench and Jackie K. White comes a collaborative collection of poems in various poetic forms from perspectives and lines from a wide range of authorial references. The book is almost operatic in its show of virtuosities both present and historic.
Muench and White, in the very first poem, “Utterance,” stake out their intent. Within a vignette of environmental devastation and its consequences, with images of choking pollution, the authors are begging for breath, for
“a new language, but one that goes on/
borrowing .. taxing wordage to guard/
The line from which the title of the book is taken is found in the poem, “What We Don’t Say/ on a line by Maxine Kumin”, which states of that phrase,
“no rephrasing the under hum.”
That poem is challenged by a later one, “Recast”, which, with imagery of a B&D corset, states,
“I broke the carnation corsage,
the way you broke my bargaining lips
on the belt buckle gift. A guitar …”
and goes on to say for that “life untuned, …”
“… We can’t recast ruin.
We have to sit in the wound.”
Muench and White create another image, which I think sums up the challenge and the fulfilled promise of The Under Hum:
“… we stream melodies
through barbed wire even vexed breathless
as popped balloons …
… into galloping hymns.”
This book delivers!
Sample Poems from THE UNDER HUM
"Pressed" in Pleiades
"Against Teleology" in The Journal
"Portrait as Landscape: Untranslatable" in Shenandoah
"From a Grimoire" in The Hopkins Review
"Disclosure," "Department of Brokenness," and "Solve for X" in Posit
"Queue" in Ecotone
"Self-Portrait Lined by Anna Akhmatavo" in RHINO
On the Project
Simone & Jackie: When answering the questions for this interview, we responded together except in a few instances where the questions were directed to one of us.
1. Did you discuss the form of the work before starting the project or did it develop organically? Do you write together? Are there strict deadlines? How did the collaboration come about? Have you two collaborated before? I know you are colleagues and friends, but we’d love to know what your Batman origin story is.
S&J: We had a general idea of what we wanted to do at the outset inspired by our previous collaborations with others as well as our extended work on They Said: A Multi-genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing with fellow editors Sally Ashton and Dean Rader, which was published by Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence Press. (Sally Ashton just published a wonderful essay in the February 2020 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle called “Who’s Colluding? The Case for Collaborate Writing” that we’d highly recommend.)
We discussed that we would be experimenting with a variety of forms, thus our working title was Playing the Field: where the field references both the textuality of the page as well as the female body, in addition to traditional poetics, contemporary investigations of the cento, and emerging forms. As we began our work, what did develop organically is that we incorporated forms we hadn’t planned on and kept spinning into new directions, finding pleasure in parameters but also enjoyment in designing new architectures for poems: sonnets, multi-authored centos, single-authored centos, glosas, decimas, and self-portraits.
Do we write together? Yes, in fact, we’re sitting at an Italian restaurant drinking wine, discussing poetics, and typing up this interview. Most times, however, we are writing back and forth via email, and then meeting every two weeks to revise more and discuss issues, inquiries, and potentialities of the poems. There are no strict deadlines, but if one of us has sat on a poem for too long, we’ll give one another a kind nudge. And, because we work together as colleagues, and are subject to the academic calendar, we are often aware of one another’s schedules.
2. Did the form come first or the idea/concept/themes? Did you have an idea for the whole project in advance or did it come from more humble origins? Was there a poem that set everything in motion or an epiphanic moment, a conversation, or something to that effect?
S&J: A few years ago, we were each invited to write a poem for Lewis University’s new president’s inauguration, but thought, “Hey, why don’t we write a collaborative poem,” especially to celebrate our institution’s emphasis on “association.” The resulting poem— our first collaborative poem titled “Adaptations of Grace”—was very well received and, we felt, fairly successful. Mostly, we enjoyed the give-and-take, back-and-forth creating and revising process, and we’ve been able to continue in that vein, in that pleasure.
And then, Jet Fuel Review, where we both serve as faculty advisors, showcased a special section on centos. For our supplementary blog, which is more internal, we invited students and faculty to contribute centos to an informal community post as a way to engage with, and respond to, Jet Fuel Review's cento dossier. As a way to bring more attention to our JFR authors, to participate in this community blog post, and in light of our previous experience with “Adaptations of Grace,” we decided to craft a collaborative cento using poems from recent JFR issues. We were interested in the process of collaborative composition, but, also in providing a more explicit tribute to our contributors.
Given those two recent experiences and having had long careers exploring various kinds of collaborative writing, and then, especially, after working together as editors on They Said, it seemed only natural to continue to collaborate on poems. Once we committed to this specific project, we immediately began to collaboratively craft sonnets and other forms.
Also, the first line of our “erasure” poem is “We confess: we don't own this language.” This acknowledgment becomes the platform of our collaboration since we engage in so many multi-vocalities. Furthermore, the final line of the poem states that “monotony is a hard chair”; and, in our decision to collaborate, we created a way to circumvent the occasional monotony of our individual minds and to be more engaged in collaborative play and experimentation.
3. I know Simone has collaborated with other writers, but have you, Jackie? Did those collaborations have an influence on your current one? Have you learned lessons that have improved how you work with others? Are there pitfalls you look to avoid in advance? Are you collaborating with other writers at the moment?
J: Not technically, and not to the extent that Simone has, but I’ve done translations of, and with, contemporary Latin American poets and I found that it was, in many ways, a collaborative process. I’ve also collaborated with other translators on the same work, first, in graduate school with Professor Frances Aparicio on César Rondón’s History of Salsa, and, more recently, with Socorro Cintrón on Sherezada Vicioso’s Something To Say: Feminist Essays on Caribbean Women Writers. In both cases, I experienced the give-and-take negotiations over word choices, sound choices, repetitions, the ordering of lines, and where they break, much as is done in collaborating on original work. The dynamic pleasure of those collaborations definitely sparked my interest in the kind of project that we are now undertaking.
S: In writing Suture with Dean Rader, which was a collection of collaborative sonnets, I found that the formal elements of the sonnet are conducive to the dialogic nature of collaborative writing. So, even as Jackie and I ventured into other forms, we kept returning to the sonnet. And, sometimes, when revising other poems, we found ourselves saying, “this should be a sonnet!” Though Suture was more recently published, I’ve been writing collaboratively since about 2006. William Allegrezza and I crafted a chapbook called Sonoluminescence (Dusie Press, 2007). Then, I collaborated with Philip Jenks on a full-length collection of epistolary poems titled Disappearing Address (BlazeVox, 2010). Kristy Odelius and I also engaged in a project that arose from Harry Mathews’s book 20 Lines a Day, which in term comes from Stendhal’s quote “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” That 20 lines-a-day became the preparatory material for my “Orange Girl Suite” in Orange Crush (Sarabande, 2010) and for Odelius’ “Dislocation Lessons” in Strange Trades (Shearsman, 2008).
S&J: In terms of lessons, it helps to choose a collaborative partner who is flexible and dependable and whose voice you want to engage with. It’s also beneficial, in the beginning, to set parameters on how much critique is allowed of one another’s work as you move through poems. We decided that we were both open to as much criticism as required because we wanted the needs of the poem to dictate whatever revisions were necessary. It’s not Jackie’s poem or Simone’s poem, it’s a third-bodied poem: a chimeric construction. As Jackie suggests, “writing poems collaboratively is akin to parenting where it often helps to have a shared, disciplinary approach to raising your kids.”
No, we are not currently collaborating with anyone else, but are always open to new possibilities.
4. How do you manage revision?
S&J: We revise as we write, but, then after we have several poems going, we also meet in person to discuss the coherence of a poem, looking more closely at line breaks, at the poem’s overall tension and/or slackness, and discussing confusions, obfuscations, reliance on familiar language, and the overall tenor of the poem. We also revise against “this sounds like a Jackie or Simone poem.” In other words, if one voice seems to dominate, we take a second look. And, as collaborators, we have an uncanny, inexplicable ability to both agree when a poem is finished.
For example, we were initially working on both sonnets and centos, and then Simone sent Jackie a proposed “self-portrait with a line by …,” and while revising the previous work, we began exploring a new direction, connected to but also branching away from the “full” cento. Then we were asked to write a poem for our mentor, Michael Anania, and decided to do a modified-cento of our voices, weaving a line of his with a line or two that one of us had previously composed, and then another of his lines, and debating options and arrangement, playing with varying stanzaic structures through the emails we sent each other and, then, during face-to-face conversations. In the final version of the poem, “Midwest Traveler,” you’ll see we settled on quatrains as that further blurs or melds all three of our voices into a new—and hopefully—single-sounding one.
5. What draws you to collaboration? What advantages does it have over more conventional ways of working? What are the disadvantages?
S&J: There’s both a creative and practical draw. The creative draw is that it pushes us out of our comfort zones and stretches our voices, expanding our range, especially when playing with forms. The practical reason is it drives us to write, and writing makes us happier people. And, of course, it gets us to read and re-read, often revisiting poets that we’ve studied, taught, or even published in Jet Fuel Review. For us, there are no disadvantages so far.
6. Were there any revelations or surprises that came about from editing They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing for Black Lawrence Press?
S&J: Mainly, the revelation was the range of approaches that writers took, which ultimately makes us realize that there are endless innovations that can be explored in terms of the ways language can be shaped. Also, it lets us know that writing is much more social than was previously acknowledged, as we’ve often been told that “writing is a solitary endeavor.” However, humans like to talk to one another and sometimes, even talk over one another, which collaboration embraces. Additionally, collaboration highlights the fluidity of genres, which allows us to explore and explode notions of what a sonnet or cento or glosa can be.
Our poem “Duologue,” for example, came about because we wondered what it would feel like or how well it would work to “sample” each other’s work into a cento—so, more forcefully, perhaps, foregrounding the collaboration of our two voices. Simone selected lines from Jackie’s previously published work and Jackie, from Simone’s. While this building approach necessarily began as a kind of back-and-forth, call-and-response of our alternating voices, through revision we let go of that “scaffolding” and blended our lines more freely. While this may not end up being one of our stronger poems or may not end up in its current version, the experiment again demonstrated for us the pleasurable that collaboration can open writers up to.
Another fun discovery or aspect of our project that lends itself to theorizing about collaborative work and subjectivity resides in our “Self-Portraits” given that there is, of course, no single or identifiable, biographical “self” painted in the “portraiture” of the lines that make up the poem. So, we’ve had a number of rich discussions about personal pronouns, as we often find ourselves shifting from “I” to “we,” and the potentiality exists—hovers or wavers—that the “I’s” are in dialogue and then fused, which is the goal, really, from the outset of our making the poem, though it may not be the goal or argument of the poem itself. In any case, given our attention to the female body as a “field” and to feminist projects we’re both engaged in, generally, we’re intrigued by how we both craft images that speak to and for one another as well as to and for our individual experiences.
7. Simone, did the work you did with found poetry for your book Wolf Centos have any relationship to your interest in collaborative writing, or do you see these as completely different kinds of aesthetic work? Does, for instance, the tension inherent in a cento—the desire by the reader to link back to the original context of the line or phrase—draw you to collaborative writing since it too is in some sense always in tension as, possibly, the reader may desire to know which author originated which line?
S: Yes, my work on Wolf Centos leads directly to our collaborative centos. The desire for conversation and homage is the centrifugal force for me when composing centos; and, our “Cento Suite: Declarations” arises out of this desire to interact with contemporary poets whose work we love. For this series, we began with Meena Alexander’s Atmospheric Embroidery to pay tribute to her as she once told me “It’s the book of poems that's closest to my heart.” Not only did we want to pay her tribute, but we wanted to make more people aware of her beautiful book; and, of course, her title is a wonderful defining principle for the very act of cento creation—after all, centos are often an atmospheric embroidery of lines across genders, geographies, timelines, and aesthetics.
For the reader, there may be a desire to know who wrote what, but as the writers, we are seeking to achieve a third voice that is not recognizable as one person or the other. There have been times when we’ve been revising when we don’t remember who contributed which lines: we recently excised a line that I thought originated from me, and Jackie responded, “I agree that it needs to be cut, but I hate to lose this line of mine.”
8. What most excites you about your new project?
S&J: It allows us to spend more time conversing about the things we love outside of the classroom. In other words, we have an excuse to talk about poetry, and not just poems we’re teaching, but ones we’re constructing together. It’s a bonding experience that extends our collegiality beyond the confines of the university; it deepens our friendship; and it reinforces our identity as poets in that it requires us to foreground our identities as poets instead of professors, advisors, editors. Also, we’re excited by the discoveries we’ve made in terms of poetics: for example, a book about poetry does not necessarily lend itself well to an erasure; and, sometimes a glosa needs to be untethered from its originating source. Ultimately, it’s a collaboration that underscores what initially brought us together as friends, which is being poets whose individual work we admired.
9. What effect has collaboration had on your non-collaborative work?
S&J: Mainly, we’ve learned to make new moves as we’re continually challenged, when collaborating, not to fall into old inclinations and poetic ruts. We always want to surprise and inspire one another. Writing for a specific audience in mind—in this case, your collaborator who knows your work—really asks you to up your game. When crafting poems, you also have to be willing to shift directions because your expectations of where a poem may be going keep getting upended by the lines that your partner weaves in. Collaboration also challenges your interpretive skills; for example, you submit a stanza to your partner that you interpret one way, but your partner interprets it in a completely different way, which is why the poem may keep shifting. To that end, for example, we’ve found ourselves focusing a lot more on the effect that punctuation has on how a line or stanza can be interpreted, often spending a good deal of our revision time changing a comma to a dash, or a dash to a colon, or simply cutting or repositioning the punctuation mark, as we realize we’d each read the drafted lines differently! It also reminds us of the power of play in poetry and how important it is to keep “playing the field.” And we’ll leave it there because Jackie’s happy when a text closes with a frame, and now we’ve done just that.