Sometimes We Coincide: A Conversation Between Laura Theobald and Sean Collins
Recently the poet and artist Laura Theobald was asked to design the cover for the first chapbook from a new micro press called Accidental Player. The book was Planchette, written by Philadelphia-based poet Sean Collins. When she read through the text, Theobald was struck by similarities to a publication of her own, the 2015 chapbook The Best Thing Ever. Both texts were composed using the iPhone’s predictive text, which resulted in similarities in phrasing. However, the texts were also distinct from one another, as each of the authors’ own voices seemed to find their way in to the algorithm. Over the course of several weeks, Collins and Theobald carried out a conversation through a shared Google doc, discussing the constraints and possibilities of using predictive text, semi-public grieving, writing from a place of discomfort, and the #MeToo movement in poetry, among other things.
Sean Collins: When Gina Myers showed me the poems from your chapbook The Best Thing Ever and suggested we might take this opportunity, I was really excited. Given the way we both constructed the poems we’re discussing, I wasn’t surprised that there is a kind of uncanny similarity to them, structurally and even tonally. Of course, when I first read yours, I had the briefest feeling of, “Oh, I guess I’m not as clever as I thought because Laura got there first!” I mean, we all have our vanity! But it was just as quickly replaced by this feeling of gratitude, or maybe it was closeness. Because the poems diverge in important ways, as well, and it seems to me there is something both serendipitous and democratic in that significant difference– democratic in the sense that the writing method is available to anyone, but manifests idiosyncratically under the influence of the writer’s personality. Because we independently struck on a very similar mode of writing, I’m very curious about that moment for you. How did you happen to begin writing these poems? Why did you choose the constraint of the iPhone’s predictive text?
Laura Theobald: Thank you, Sean–I really appreciate your candidness about TBTE. I also went through stages when I first saw your manuscript. Like “I’m sure I wasn’t the first to do this” and “I don’t own this” and “I shouldn’t own this.” So, it seems like a good sign that we independently arrived at the same conclusions—maybe in spite of our own egos.
In the end, we managed to strike different tones with the same supply of words. The contrast of your contemplative tone to my sarcasm makes it clear how much of us is in these poems, that the books really rely on how we interpret the same raw data, on our moods. Despite them being almost identical, the books really couldn’t be less alike.
I stumbled on autopredict poetry during a workshop with Lara Glenum. She wanted us to experiment, with performance and other things, and I say this with so much love for Lara: I didn’t want to. I wanted to preserve my little craft. The autopredict poems were my way to kind of tiptoe around the assignment, but actually what happened is that I was made to feel uncomfortable, and I experimented, and I made this little book.
You make your encounter with autopredict poetry very much a part of Planchette, in a way that feels almost essential. The relationship to the occult, mysticism, and spirituality that that frame implies, and that the title implies, draws some really interesting parallels between… digital and analog, I want to say.
I mean, when I think of a planchette, I think of dusty attics, and candlesticks, and boardgames—a planchette is almost the opposite of an iPhone; it’s like the least direct method. Tell me a bit about your thinking around the relationship between the occult and technology. And what do you think of that word “concept”? Are ours conceptual works?
SC: Dusty attics & candlesticks, yes! Though I have to confess that the title, and really the whole framing of the poems in Planchette–as being in a relationship to the occult–was very much a post hoc sort of framing. But it captured a feeling I had while writing the poems, a feeling of mediating or channeling. So I guess the concept came later. During the writing, I was really only concerned with holding open this space that felt generative. I wrote the poems in one sitting, because I sensed that space would close up when I stopped.
Surrealists used the planchette as an automatic writing device, to let their “unconscious” speak through, I guess. Writing on the anniversary of my father’s death, and repeatedly being prompted by the phone to include him, it just seemed to beg the question, who was speaking? I often want to speak less in my poetry, to be surprised, so I really enjoyed teasing out that feeling. The added constraints, which I mention in the after-note, also felt like necessary ways of keeping my hand light, of undermining authorship and trying to be a conduit.
But, I had to make choices, as I’m sure you did, about how and how much to “intervene,” to dictate a direction for a line or poem at a given moment. Reading your poems in The Best Thing Ever, there are these fantastic turns within lines, where the grammar comes undone but the sense continues into the turn. As in this line from “I’m not sure if it was the best thing ever”:
you are the only one who can make it so much fun to play with my friends and relatives of victims were found on a Saturday morning in a statement issued.
That pivot is abrupt– from intimate address to newsroom sensationalism–but it also follows the phone’s own associative logic in a way that can hold those disparate elements together. There’s a great elasticity to your lines, and it seems to be a way of pacing the poems, at times:
by the time I try and make it to the gym with my mom is the most beautiful thing in the morning to all my heart and mind and body works. well done on the phone. the latest update has been a great way to go back in time and money. now I have to go home and watch movies and tv shows that I don't want to see my baby sister. just a little more time with my friends. I live in a row of my friends.
I think these lines (from the same poem) are a good example of how funny your poems often are, and some of that humor I think is in the “timing,” what you achieve through pacing. How did you decide when a line was done, when a poem was done? Also, to jump briefly back to your workshop story and your first encounter with autopredict poetry, I’m also curious about the discomfort you mentioned, and wonder if you’ve been inclined to work from a similar space since writing these poems?
LT: I understand “holding open” the generative space. After I had written the initial batch of poems, the publisher asked if we could add a few more to bulk up the book. It was good I found a publisher pretty quick, and I was able to return to the process and write more poems. I was surprised a bit. And I had forgotten how fun it was.
I understand too your interest in constraints because I was also pretty steadfast. I felt an obligation—I’m not sure to what. The reader, I guess. I didn’t want to present anything that felt false (of course); I didn’t want to “cheat.”
After reading your question, I became curious about my own criteria, and went back to some emails to my editor from 2015:
“To respond to your question about editing, […] I’m really committed to preserving the order of words and to not changing any of the words, but I’m open to taking out lines as a unit, and shortening lines, and taking out words (though taking out single words is what I least like to do out of these). So, not changing words, but deleting words and lines is OK. […]
“It sounded to me at one point […] like you had come around to the idea of the poems being the same length? I think there is a quality to them being constrained in that way that works. So the poems average about 24 lines or so, I guess. So I think that’s a good length to aim for. I have tried to preserve that length here for all of the poems. […] So what I’ve done is taken the spots you’ve identified as weak […] and replaced them with portions of the shorter poems that we didn’t know what to do with.”
I also changed the order of the poems.
It may sound like a lot, but I think everyone was really sensitive to the “needs” of the project. I don’t think a lot, really, was changed. It’s still curious to me, in a good way, that there was this mutual feeling of being beholden to something. I think the effort, for me, is always to get closer to the reader. But I’d be curious to hear what you think.
You quoted some lines from my book, so I wanted to include some from yours, for contrast, and for enjoyment of course:
My dad just called my phone to get a new song. I’m not going anywhere else is a great way of saying that he was in my head. I’m at work today and I’m still not over it. I’m at work today, was the only thing I have to say. [...] Six years and I have no idea what I’m talking about. I have work to do that you are a little bit of. My dad and I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it all in my head. I love the way you want me to believe in the world. The fact that you have no clue who I was in my room is so much better than a week of summer. I have a nice dream of you and your heart is beating so fast I can see it.
Your poems are not without humor, but there is a gentleness to them, and a sweetness and a mournfulness. Part of what makes autopredict poems work is the way they are surprising, as you said—their moments of lucidity. I think you really were not afraid to approach those moments, and make real use of them, whereas I was maybe a little more resistant to moments that felt “too sincere” to me.
On discomfort: I’ve done poetry films that were difficult, that I can’t stand to look at; I’ve decidedly bombed at readings—important ones. Poetry has led me to plenty of uncomfortable situations. But I generally appreciate any interest that anyone has in my poetry, and say yes to everything. I’d rather be mortified than isolated, I guess. “Even the bad times are good.”
SC: There’s something to that feeling of “cheating” that resonates with me. There were no rules when I started writing these poems, but they started to take shape as I kept going. I think that your exchange with your editor reveals something of it for me—the fact that you were fine with deleting a line, but not with moving individual words around. Because somehow that level of fine-tuning would have been a betrayal of the process—one that emphasized emergence and serendipity—whereas removing a line entirely would not (or less so).
As far as constraint, I definitely think that—for better or worse—it gives me access to something I can’t directly approach. In this case, it might be a way to publicly grieve, but to keep something to myself at the same time. I don’t feel bad about that.
At the start of this, we proposed also touching on the ways that larger patterns of abuse, typically perpetrated by men with some degree of social capital, manifest within poetry communities, and how the conversation about that happens, or frequently fails to. I feel like I’m constantly having conversations about that conversation, and like if anything positive comes out of this shit, it’s that it galvanizes people and helps them find each other. This whole poetry thing often feels to me like a way of finding out who my people are and who they aren’t.
So, I was curious about that anthology, and the way it could be seen to place a marker on a certain place and a certain moment in this larger conversation (and ongoing deluge of icky revelations). Do you see it that way? Have you had more communication with the editor/s or other contributors as a result?
LT: Metta Sáma shares that she opted out of the #MeToo moment, and the information that MeToo began with a black woman named Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, and was co-opted by white feminism, where it gained traction. The R Kelly series brings the issue into sharp relief. That these women of color were ignored for so long… There are some larger issues, for sure.
The question about race is one we continue to avoid; and the way we as a country treat those in need—the poor, the sick, our immigrants—evidences the degree to which we are willing to sacrifice each other for personal gain. Kavanaugh at the price of Ford, Trump at the expense of whoever’s pussies he’s grabbed, R Kelly in exchange for all these women of color.
Whether what’s happening nationally influences the behavior we see in our communities, or whether it’s a result, I don’t know, but certainly they are not separate. Poetry feels small in relation to problems like these. Sometimes I like to keep them separate. But then sometimes they coincide and it’s like having something to celebrate.