Roundup: Conversations and Collaborations Among Writers

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on conversations and collaborations among writers.

Much has been professed about the nature of writers – that they are solitary creatures, or instead, ones that require community to fuel their work. Of course, there isn’t a definitive answer, and many writers are both. So let’s not generalize. As the great Mark Twain once put it, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Please enjoy these posts about writers connecting with other writers:

  • In this post, Alicia Jo Rabins explores the advantages of writers forming a creative partnership in Torah study, a “form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning,” where it’s common to work in pairs.

DSC_1400Continue Reading

Wordsworth at Passover

Alicia Jo Rabins Blog Final.jpg

Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

One of the fantastic things about the Torah as a literary work is how it combines impossibly broad swaths of narrative (the world is created, a flood destroys it, etc.) with precise details (Rachel, having stolen her father’s idols and hidden them in a camel saddle, sits on the saddle, pretending she has her period and can’t get up, as her father tears apart the tent looking for his idols).

seder 1.jpg
Giambattista Tiepolo, Rachel Hides the Idols, 1726.
For observant Jews, these details are more than merely literary delights; they have real- life ramifications. As I type this, Jews across the world are preparing to replace our beloved bagels, pita, Cheerios, and chocolate chip cookies with matzah for eight days as a result of the commandments to avoid leavening on Passover. And why? All as the result of one of those details: the children of Israel had to leave Egypt so fast they didn’t have time to let their dough rise. They ran through the parted sea with the dough on their backs, baking in the sun, and ate it on the other side: voila, matzah.
seder 2.jpg
Now, when you take a step back, the idea of eating a giant cracker to memorialize a key event in a people’s cultural-spiritual history is kind of funny. But ritual often looks a little funny from a distance. This one seems particularly illogical, though: the original matzah was the result of extreme haste, an absolute lack of preparation, and the point of eating matzah year after year is to re-enact that hasty departure from Egypt*… So is the best way to re-enact that panic and desperation really by munching on mass-produced matzah? In fact, one could ask that question of the entire seder ritual. Seder means order: how can a step-by-step ritualized meal, planned centuries in advance, enable us to access the experience of people undergoing an utterly unexpected, radical transformation?

Continue Reading

Spiritual Twins, Poetry Chavrutas

Alicia Jo Rabins Blog Final.jpg

Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

There’s nothing like those years when you don’t yet have what you are working for. There’s a lot of freedom because there’s so much possibility. You need friends who are working for something, too…Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with. — Anna Deveare Smith, Letters to a Young Artist

Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend. — Pirkei Avot (the Mishna)
We think of writers as solitary laborers of the mind. Yes, there are communities and trends and movements and friendships, but ultimately we imagine a writer hunched over a desk, alone.
This assumption interests me, because along with my life as a poet, I’ve been involved for years in another form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning–that is, Torah study.
In Torah study, the accepted basic unit of study is the pair. You rarely sit down to study without your partner, or chavruta, from the Aramaic word for “friend” (if you know Hebrew, you’ll recognize the cognate chaver in there).
“Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend.” A teacher or mentor is someone with whom you resonate deeply, who is further along the path, and can therefore help you access your own potential. A chavruta (also pronounced chavrusa), on the other hand, is a peer: the relationship is built not on directional respect, but on the equality that provides for a good fight. Anna Deveare Smith’s “spiritual twin.”

Continue Reading

Real Risk: Writing as a Performance Art

Alicia Jo Rabins Blog Final.jpgGuest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

A palace must have passages….a poem must have transitions.
–Samuel Johnson (via Barbara Guest)
In making poems, we cross from the known to the unknown. We destroy the drywall of the consciousness-room we’ve been living in, look at the sky beyond, and then build a new room, taking into account what we’ve seen.
A poem has transitions, as Samuel Johnson says above; writing a poem is a transition. A poem is a transition made visible.
Occasionally this process is brief and painless, but often it’s slow and messy, full of dead ends, trial and error, and, of course, no guarantee of a decent product at the end. (Not unlike dating, I might add.) Writing isn’t usually seen as a live performance art, but in this sense, perhaps it is.

Barbara Guest writes about this process beautifully in her essay “Invisible Architecture”:

Reaching out to develop the poem there are interruptions, some apparently for no reason–something else is happening, the poet has no control–the poem begins to quiver, to hesitate, to become insubstantial, the desire of poetry to elevate itself, to become stronger…The poem is fragile. It needs to reach through the armed vehicle of the poem,

to loosen the armed hand

Not only do we perform the poem, but the poem performs itself through us! (Or, in the image above, through T.S. Eliot.)

Continue Reading

Cleveland and the Art of Living

Alicia Jo Rabins Blog OK.jpg“The Full Cleveland and the Salon of the Refused”: Part II

Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

Read Part I here.


Julie Patton, an artist, writer, visionary and teacher with roots in Cleveland, asked this question (about Cleveland the place, not Cleveland the suit from last week) in a talk she gave to thirty young New York artists recently. Julie spoke about the art space she created in Cleveland called the Salon des Refusés. It occupies a house she bought for dirt-cheap, decades ago, along with the empty lot next door that she made into a garden. Julie doesn’t particularly believe in ownership, so she had no interest in renting out the house, and instead created a gallery and unusual artists’ residency. At the Salon des Refusés, she says, “We practice the art of living.”
The original Salon des Refusés, for which Cleveland’s is named, was an 1863 exhibition in Paris. The show was literally a salon of the refused, an exhibition of rejects, made up of paintings rejected from the official Paris Salon. Although guerilla salons had been mounted for years, this was actually an official exhibition sponsored by Napoleon to deal with the outcry from rejected artists, since it was pretty much impossible to have a career without being selected for Salon exhibition.
The original Salon des Refusés included some now-famous paintings, like Edouard Manet’s controversial “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”:
Why controversial? Well, the obvious: a nude woman sitting with clothed men. But also the dissolution of place, a traditional painterly landscape that fades into abstraction in the background, and separates into visible brushstrokes in the foreground. In addition, some think the setting itself is a scandalously liminal place: the Bois de Boulogne, a large park on the outskirts of Paris, famous for its prostitution. And, apparently, still famous as a place for prostitution and illicit sex after dark in present-day Paris. A little dissolution, some brushstrokes, at the edges of a great city.

Continue Reading

The Full Cleveland and the Salon of the Refused

Today we welcome back Alicia Jo Rabins, our second guest blogger from the Winter 2009-10 Ploughshares. Thanks to all who read and commented on our first Get Behind the Plough with Peter B. Hyland. We encourage you to use this space to ask questions and continue conversations.

Alicia Jo Rabins Blog OK.jpg“The Full Cleveland and the Salon of the Refused”: Part I
Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins


I’ve had a city-crush on Cleveland for a while. I should say up front, I barely know the place; I just have this feeling we would get along. When the bands I play with tour through Cleveland, we stay in cheap hotels in the business district downtown. The streets are empty and you can feel the bustle that still echoes from the 1950s: dated gorgeousness bouncing off the brick edifices.

“Cleveland” sounds to me like “possibility.” No uncharted territory exists on the surface of our planet, but there is an unexplored frontier of vacancy and fragmented space in cities that have been passed over, left behind, or otherwise warped by history.

Clev map.JPGI like to think of cities as people. Cleveland feels like a painter friend who happens to be quite beautiful, but is too down-to-earth to make a big deal out of it. You know if they dressed up, they’d be gorgeous, but they never do: they just put on an old sweatshirt and go make their paintings in a weird reclaimed studio in an abandoned building. The real instead of the ideal.


Yahoo! recently rated Cleveland the most miserable city in America. “There has been a net migration out of the Cleveland metro area of 71,000 people over the past five years. Population for the city itself has been on a steady decline and is now less than half of what it was 50 years ago.” Half of what it once was: a partial Cleveland.

The Full Cleveland was described to me by an older gentleman, the proprietor of a hat store in downtown Cleveland, when I toured through there in 2006. The hat store looked like it was from the ’50s and was the only mom-and-pop business remaining on the block. When I expressed admiration of his classy hat selection, the owner told me with a combination of pride and pity at my ignorance that Cleveland was known as a very stylish city, and even had its own look, the epitome of snappy dressing.


There it is: the Full Cleveland, a leisure suit with white shoes and a white belt. As Wikipedia somewhat snidely notes, “By 1978, most retailers were all but giving their inventory away.” It’s hard even to find a picture of the Full Cleveland nowadays, hence the blurry images. What happened to those suits? And what is a country that all but gives its cities away?

Next week, Alicia talks with Julie Patton, a Cleveland-raised artist and writer, about how art survives in the city. This is her first post for Get Behind the Plough, and her second for The Ploughshares Blog.

Alicia Jo Rabins, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

AJRstairs(2).jpgAlicia Jo Rabins, Brooklyn-based poet and musician, received her MFA from Warren Wilson. Her poems have appeared in the Boston Review, 6 x 6, and Horse Poems (Knopf). As a musician she tours internationally; her art-pop song cycle about Biblical women, Girls in Trouble, was released in October 2009. (Check out her interview at Largehearted Boy.)

Rabins’ poems “How You Came to Be” and “Writing About Writing About Writing” were published in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Ploughshares, guest edited by Tony Hoagland. (Hoagland closed his February 12 visit to Emerson College by reading “How You Came to Be.”) View the Winter 2009-10 issue.

An excerpt from “Writing About Writing About Writing”:

A mermaid crawls out of my mouth to meet you in this poem,
my teacher who calls me teacher and therefore is my teacher,
who shows me how to knot a net to make the moon rise
during night watch on calm seas while the other sailors sleep.

After the jump, Rabins shares how this poem came to be.

Continue Reading

Two Ways of Sailing with Words, by Alicia Jo Rabins

Alicia Jo Rabens.jpgAs both a poet and a songwriter, I’m constantly journeying between two distinct ways of making art out of words.

Working simultaneously in multiple disciplines has its challenges, but for me, poetry and songwriting are inextricably linked, and they feed each other. I work on poems backstage, and write songs at poetry residencies; I like to invite poets to read at rock shows or house concerts I set up. Both songs and poems, after all, are born from the same mysterious galaxy (blood), and then completed through craft and revision (sweat and tears).

Still, I experience the act of working with words quite differently in the two forms. By the way, I’m talking here about poems that live primarily on the page, not spoken word.

Continue Reading