Dancer Mothers // Poet Daughters: A Conversation, Part 2
Below is the second of a two-part conversation between Rosenthal and Witte about their subject matter and creative process.
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Valerie: Sarah, speaking of ways in which writing the chapbook brought about shifts in our mindset and approach to our work, the process of writing collaborative sonnets, by its very nature, required us to let go of our own intentionality and allow the poem to change course, as we each would take the poem in a different direction with every new line; did you find it freeing to surrender this sense of control, frustrating not to have it, or both? How did this process connect with and support the ideas explored by Forti and Rainer?
Sarah: Val, before I get to your questions, I feel called to respond to some of the ideas you’ve shared in relation to Forti’s work. You describe the way Forti’s combination of gesture and speech seamlessly blurs their boundaries, “in the process creating something entirely new.” Rainer has also very often combined words and gestures, but instead of creating a seamless effect, her approach deliberately foregrounds the incongruity of these two modes of physical expression happening simultaneously. Forti’s incorporation of speech seems an integrative move, whereas Rainer’s creates a jagged collage. And both create, as you put it, something entirely new.
It’s thrilling to learn how liberatory your serendipitous involvement with Forti’s life and work is proving to be, allowing you to radically reconfigure your relationship to dance and entertain the idea of exploring or inventing cross-disciplinary forms. Like Forti, Rainer did not have a traditional dance background, and although this played out very differently for the two, both in terms of their capacities and interests as dancers and in terms of their dance poetics, there’s some common ground there. Rainer studied ballet as a child but in her teens and early 20s was reading, writing, attending lots of art events, and hanging out with artists. She didn’t return to dance until her 20s, when she studied with Graham and Cunningham; she also studied Haitian dance and ballet. She was an incredibly dedicated student and much more into mastering technique than Forti, but I think it’s fair to say that given her late start combined with her passion for the form and a penchant for cutting-edge art and culture, she was probably destined to take a nontraditional tack with dance, and in particular a tack that explicitly resisted virtuosity. One of many ways this manifests is that her challenging dance “Trio A” can be danced by non-dancers (if they work their asses off to learn it, that is). It’s way more “dancerly” than some of Forti’s stuff, but there’s still this strong interest in an anti-professional approach to the form.
And like you, I find that approach enormously liberating. It’s led me to start studying contemporary dance again, more willing than ever to both push my limits and look like a fool.
As to whether I felt frustrated or freed by the necessity of surrendering control in our collaborative poem-making process: While I liked the idea, when we first got started I felt disoriented when I encountered each new line of yours, which sometimes took a direction so unlike one I would have chosen. On top of that, many of the lines weren’t “yours” or “mine” to start with, since we were lifting them from texts. The procedure we agreed on promised a way to enact the idea that language is an open field of play––a dance stage, perhaps––not a grid of parceled lots. But it’s one thing to plan a project and another to execute it.
My initial discomfort revealed implicit assumptions I had somehow developed about how even a so-called “experimental” poem could unfold. I saw that I might require more coherence than I had thought I did, or rather that my idea of coherence in a poem might not be the same as someone else’s.
One of my responses to this discomfort was to notice that I really didn’t know the person on the other end of the collaboration very well. I thought, Why not just have a dialogue about how we each see these lines interacting, and in the process, get to know each other better? We ran the risk of thereby limiting the multivalence of the poems but I sensed we could do it in a way that made it clear that our own readings aren’t the readings of the work. I figured readers would either welcome the opportunity to have us “show our hand” in a fairly atypical way, or they’d skip over the close-reading parts of the dialogue.
The other response was to embrace my discomfort as a portal to greater flexibility. And as we kept creating together, I found myself getting into the contact improv of it––I began to see each line you sent as an intriguing challenge, an opening. In my responses I sometimes took a more studied approach, sometimes a more intuitive one. And then let go, not knowing where your next line would take the poem. That said, as we kept working, I also felt like we somehow started swinging with each other more, in the mysterious way we animals do.
Exploring the interconnections between our experience of collaboration and Forti and Rainer’s work could fill many pages. For example, I’d want to look at the way each of these artists balances collaboration and creative control, the similarities and differences in those respective balancing acts, and how each compares and contrasts with the approach taken by their peers (for example, other early members of Judson Dance Theater). Rainer openly acknowledges her need to remain at the helm of a performance piece. These days the people who dance her pieces are highly skilled dancers who are choreographers in their own right, and they do contribute material and in-the-moment choices according to rules Rainer develops, but it’s not egalitarian. For perhaps the same reason, she uses chance operations (which Rainer and Forti learned from Cage and Cunningham) in more circumscribed ways than some. I respect that. She’s not a fan of the free-for-all, and she doesn’t care if peers and mentors in her world believe that totally egalitarian and/or chance-based collaborations are the way to go. One of her closest colleagues over the decades is Steve Paxton, who invented contact improvisation. Rainer uses that approach in her work too, but limits it.
Could you speak to your own feelings of relative comfort or ease with our collaboration, and what you have learned about Forti’s relationship to collaboration and creative process?
Valerie: Participating in a collaboration is always an adventure—you never know what obstacles you may encounter, what the route will be or where it will take you. Which for me, at least, is part of the fun. As I think you know, I’m generally pretty open to collaboration; I appreciate how it inevitably forces us out of our comfort zone, as well as the obvious potential for surprise—what better way to achieve that than to have another artist to create with, someone with a different set of experiences, perspectives, and aesthetics contributing to a work that would have been impossible to create on our own.
For the sonnets we’ve generated, I’ve enjoyed the sense of surprise that comes from each of us contributing alternating lines. I agree with you that we were able to “swing together” more as we got in the rhythm of following each other’s seemingly random lines with ours, which in our own minds perhaps had a surety about them—of course this must be the next line!
I admit to being less sure about adding the letter component than you. I wondered if incorporating our discussion of writing the sonnets might seem self-indulgent. Would it be interesting/relevant to readers to see our processing of the work? My initial letters were both tentative and fragmented because it is not a form I am particularly comfortable in and I was carrying over a lot of my experimental poetry tendencies, which didn’t necessarily serve the project as a whole. As we continued with our correspondence, the letters became more substantial, more grounded in research and critique. Reading them now, I can see how they evolved, much like a relationship would, like how our connection and understanding of each other deepened throughout the course of the project. In the end, I am grateful for having included the correspondence—it certainly added another dimension to the project; and whereas before I rarely worked in prose, I’m writing essays with you now, and I can see how the letters served as a bridge from poetry to essays. One thing is for certain: This has been an adventure!
It seems appropriate and telling that the two artists we’ve been working with also were frequent collaborators—with each other, other dancers/choreographers, sound and conceptual artists, and others. Perhaps this is one reason we have been drawn to them—we recognize in Rainer and Forti a similarly open approach to working with others, the value they both seem to place on projects that extend beyond the more traditional model of a self-interested art career in order to impact and interact with the larger community.
Forti’s passion for collaboration seems indisputable. At least in some cases, she seems to approach it with an unusual degree of intimacy—after all, her three husbands were also her artistic collaborators before and during their marriages, and she set aside her own artistic aspirations during her marriage to Robert Whitman, becoming a member of his performance group and participating in many of his Happenings. More broadly, Rainer and dancer Steve Paxton cited her Dance Constructions as a key influence, one which helped prompt them to form Judson Dance Theater. So her openness to working with others begat other collaborative projects, and those surely led to others, and so on.
Of course, dance is an inherently collaborative art form. Though dancers including Forti and Rainer produce solo pieces, many works involve multiple performers. These two figures were so often introducing artists to each other, participating in various schools and collectives. I like that. It shows just how powerful supporting other artists can be, how a sense of shared artistic goals can strengthen the work and fuel creativity. Writing is, by contrast, a somewhat solitary practice—but it doesn’t have to be, and studying these dancers, recognizing them as models of how to engage with other artists in compelling ways, has certainly been a source of inspiration—one that I’m sure I’ll carry with me beyond this project.
photo of Simone Forti by Danny Lepkoff at Mad Brook Farm circa 1990, provided by Simone Forti
Sarah Rosenthal is the author of several books and chapbooks including The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow(The Operating System, 2019; a collaboration with Valerie Witte) Lizard (Chax, 2016), and Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Poets of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces have appeared in numerous journals and are anthologized in Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (Black Radish, 2013), Building is a Process / Light is an Element: essays and excursions for Myung Mi Kim (P-Queue, 2008), and Bay Poetics (Faux, 2006). She has done grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, Ragdale, New York Mills, Hambidge, and This Will Take Time, and has been a Headlands Center Affiliate Artist. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Life & Professional Coach, develops curricula for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, and serves on the California Book Awards jury. More at sarahrosenthal.net.
Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015) and three chapbooks, most recently The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019), a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. Artist books and an installation based on her manuscripts “Flood Diary” and “A Rupture in the Interiors,” created in collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke, have been exhibited in Berkeley and Chicago. She has been a recipient of residencies from Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and La Porte Peinte in Noyers, France. She is a founding member of the Bay Area Correspondence School, and for eight years, she helped produce many innovative books by women as a member of Kelsey Street Press. In her daytime hours, she edits education books in Portland, OR. Read more at valeriewitte.com.
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