Like calling a familiar number only to hear that it has been disconnected, the epilogue to Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s Telephone: Essays in Two Voices—out last week, and selected by Hanif Abdurraqib as the winner of the 2020 CSU Poetry Center Essay Collection Competition—records the startling isolation brought on by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting imposed social distances. Throughout the collaboration, Miller and Wade forego identifying their individual voices in favor of bringing forth a collective lyric voice that muses on subjects as varied as cameras and cars, exercise and sex. In the epilogue, however, their communal authorship is abruptly cut off. Writing as individuals in “The In-Between: Letters from Isolation,” they bear witness to the experience of being alone, together. In one of these emails, Wade considers the word soffit—an architectural term for the space between kitchen cabinets and the ceiling—and notes how her cat prefers to curl into this space. She writes, “She was being a soffit, bridging a gap. I want to be a soffit too, to place myself in the in-between and fill a longing, ease a grief . . . I hope this letter might be a kind of soffit, too, closing the long distance between us, an envelope in your inbox that flickers as if to say Open me! I’ve arrived.”
This epilogue makes explicit the epistolary nature of Miller and Wade’s collaborative writing process. Telephone’s eleven essays emerged through an email correspondence the two writers exchanged over the course of four years, an associative, improvisational game of call-and-response that played out in their inboxes. Together, they write from a place of uncertainty, riffing off each other in sound and image and following each other’s lead wherever it takes them. This back-and-forth communication yielded flashes of compressed prose that they later stitched together during the editing process, transforming email threads into essays. The final lyric essays demonstrate formal risks. Some are collaged or enumerated, others are arranged in lists or alphabetically, but they all depend structurally on the meaning made in spaces, silences, and gaps.
The book’s title essay, “Telephone,” instructs readers to attune themselves to the book’s rhythms of silences and utterances. It calls readers to listen closely—sometimes even through direct address, asking, “Are you listening?”—and to eavesdrop on the conversations that unfold as two voices share the line. It’s a coming-of-age essay, as Miller and Wade write in a call-and-response pattern that follows a throughline of telecommunications from early memories of telephones in their family homes to attempts as young adults to connect with their parents by calling home. At the same time, it traces the development of the telephone from Alexander Graham Bell’s invention to the Verizon man who asks, “Can you hear me now?” As a result, the essay offers a history of the telephone that is at once personal and cultural, a synthesis that is representative of the essays in this collection.
“Cars” also follows this call-and-response pattern, and consists of linked episodic fragments in which particular vehicles serve as vessels for personal narratives of love and intimacy. In the essay’s first section, the speaker writes that she longed to receive a vintage yellow Volkswagen bug for her sixteenth birthday. Then, in just three highly compressed paragraphs, she relays how the television shows she watched as a child shaped her imagination about dating (wherein most of the action takes place in cars) and marriage (in which she imagines marrying a man and setting off on their honeymoon in a pale blue convertible) and contrasts this with her lived experiences (in which she rides in a nondescript rental car with her wife to and from their wedding and she is so “happy and relieved and exhausted” that she “couldn’t tell you what make or model it was”). In response, the speaker of the next section writes, “I learned to drive stick shift in a yellow VW bug. It’s true.” The speaker then describes driving this yellow bug to the Wyoming oil fields one summer, where she shared a house with her boyfriend and four other boys and experienced a fallopian miscarriage. The yellow bug serves as a link between these two sections and the two speakers’ experiences.
Other essays break from this structured call-and-response pattern—which is, in effect, a braid of two personal narratives—and it becomes more challenging for readers to distinguish between the two speakers. These polyphonic pieces take the genre of lyric essay to its limits. Miller and Wade’s insistence on writing in a shared voice compels readers to hold open the space between author and speaker, the sort of interpretive distance that’s usually reserved for reading poetry. “Heat Index,” for example, is structured in 32 titled sections—each a paragraph long, and as polished and compressed as a prose poem—which are arranged alphabetically from Alcohol to Workout. In between, entries cover subjects as various as masala chai and hell, and several section titles, such as Can’t Take The and In, evince wordplay, beckoning the reader to play along by filling in the blanks.
In “Bridges: A Catalog,” the essay’s first section, titled (A), concerns abridged books. They write, “Besides, I’d always wondered about the excised parts; hadn’t they been necessary? Weren’t they bridges leading from one thought to the next? Without them, weren’t we in danger of falling?” The danger of falling is what gives Telephone its energy. Together, Miller and Wade take associative leaps across the gaps. The shared spaces between their two voices becoming like the synaptic clefts where communication sparks between neurons.
Miller and Wade met at Western Washington University almost twenty years ago, when Wade enrolled in Miller’s graduate seminar on the lyric essay. I first witnessed them in conversation several years ago when I myself was a graduate student at WWU. At the time, Miller and Wade had just started collaborating together. The interview that follows was an opportunity to experience Miller and Wade’s collaborative writing process firsthand. I’d email a question and wait for their responses, messages in my inbox that announced, “Open me! I’ve arrived.”
Kaitlyn Teer: In your Authors’ Note, you explain why you decided not to identify your individual voices in the book’s essays, writing, “We have chosen not to label the speaker in each section so that our individual voices surrender into a more collective, and communal authorship.” I’m fascinated by the shared voice that emerges throughout the collection—it strikes me that it is as much a product of listening as it is of speaking. What does it mean to you to surrender your voice to the collaborative process? How has writing together expanded your sense of voice?
Brenda Miller: “Surrender” is the key word, in both our collaborative writing and for the reader! Since the writing is so dependent on one another’s presence, we need to let go of our egos and understand that the words are “owned” by both of us—or maybe not owned but held. That said, there have been a few pieces that didn’t quite gel, and in those cases we “took back” our own sections to create our own essays out of them. And once, with a piece called “Pain Songs,” we ended up doing a duet! In this case, we each created our own complete piece out of the collaboration, bylined with our individual names, but were able to get them published side-by-side in River Teeth.
Maybe that was a natural evolution, as we dove deep into a shared consciousness for several years, then gradually started coming back to our individual selves during the pandemic year. One of the last pieces we wrote together, “The In-Between: Letters From Isolation,” comes from a correspondence we had from our various states of quarantine, and it’s clear who is writing to whom. It became the epilogue to Telephone, a kind of “pulling aside the curtain;” the reader sees our individual selves coming into focus, but still in relationship to one another.
Up to that point, the reader needs to surrender to not knowing and to see the words, images, stories as part of a larger dimension. But I think it also becomes kind of playful, too, as the reader might try to guess who wrote what and will track certain clues along the way. My mother, for example, is completely engaged in ferreting out my sections!
Julie Marie Wade: I have some friends who are obsessed with that, too, Brenda, triumphantly writing to tell me that they figured out a certain section was written by me—or inquiring to be sure it really was! The strangest part, though, is that when I look back over these essays, written mostly between 2015 and 2018 (read: not that long ago), I find that I sometimes have trouble remembering what I wrote. Perhaps this is because the sections don’t feel like mine. And even when I can discern what I have written, the project still feels implicitly pluraled. I have no impulse to lay claim.
Brenda’s voice has always invited me to the page as a writer. Writing with her hasn’t just taught me more about singing, though—the lyric impulse we share as poets at heart (indeed!)—it has taught me more about harmonizing. I remember in elementary school that I “tried out” for Vocal Ensemble and didn’t get in the first time. Our music teacher, Mrs. Cooper, gently explained that I “sang with gusto,” but had trouble hearing the music underneath the lyrics. It’s possible she meant I was drowning the music out.
I think with collaboration, I’ve made a written return to the experience of singing with someone else, bringing our voices together in the same song, and learning how not to drown each other out. Maybe the writer who is writing in any given moment makes the lyrics, but the other writer, by their felt presence and by what she has offered before, makes the music that accompanies those lines. I am learning how to listen more closely, more keenly, to all the notes and all the rests, then trying to make (or let) my lyrics match them.
KT: There’s a sense of playfulness to this collection, even when following the lyric impulse leads you toward subjects as intense and overwhelming as desire. It seems fitting that your first collaborative essay, the titular “Telephone,” emerged from the game of telephone. For the essays that followed, how did the rules of the game change as you played?
JMW: In [“Heat Index,”] we chose the section markers before we began writing the essay—all kinds of words and phrases associated with heat, including “Boiling Point,” “Can’t Take The,” “Geothermal,” “Miami,” and many more—and placed them on the page as a list of invitations. Then, we wrote into these entries at will, Brenda and I each choosing the word or phrase that was calling to us at the moment. Gradually, the essay fleshed out, the entries accumulated, and at the end, we alphabetized the section markers to bring a certain kind of recognizable order to a compilation that feels more improvisational than choreographed. (This also means that the author of each entry does not toggle back and forth in the classic give-and-take structure. One of us might have written three entries in a row, say.)
And one of my favorite essays in the collection, “Cars,” originally included a question we had written to our collaborator at the end of each section. These questions were an explicit acknowledgment of the kind of intimate correspondence we were building across this essay. It felt very epistolary to me. In revision, we removed these questions and decided to let the sections of the essay harmonize in a more implicit way. What remains, though, is a repetition or variation on the last line of the previous section at the start of each new section, much the way the last line of the preceding sonnet morphs into the first line of the next sonnet in a crown.
BM: “Cars” is also one of my favorites in the collection, precisely because of the way our questions spurred one another along, much like the kind of meandering conversation one might have on a road trip, lulled by the passing scenery, intimately held in a protected space for a certain amount of time. Our questions became more metaphysical as we went along, and by waking to a question from Julie, I was able to respond immediately with a provisional answer that spurred more questions.
I love, too, the essays that are in list forms, such as an index or catalog, as these further complicate the pattern of our voices. And by using a more “impersonal” form, I think our voices become even more communal and inclusive of the wider world, bringing in voices of poets and other writers, facts from research, etc.
KT: So many of the associative leaps between sections are propelled by a careful attention to cultural artifacts—the Yellow Pages, the Game of Life, a Canon Sure Shot, a red diary, an atlas—as much as by wordplay, repetition, sound, and image. What did you discover through giving these everyday objects your attention? And, how did research contribute to your collaborations?
JMW: As I recall, it was Brenda who noticed that the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction was accepting submissions for a theme issue on “Childhood.” Her idea was for us to make a virtual visit to the “National Toy Hall of Fame” in Rochester, New York, and then to write in response to various toys that had played a role in our own childhoods.
I loved this invitation so much—the close examination of objects from the past in relation to their larger history in the culture. That’s one of the reasons that “Toys” is such a special essay to me. I didn’t know such a place or such a roster of toys even existed, but once Brenda brought it to my attention, I dropped down my favorite kind of research rabbit hole—one where personal and social histories persistently overlap! And with every new fact I gleaned from that virtual tour, I found memories from childhood boomeranging back to me at record speed, including one of my own favorite sections to write—“Cardboard Box.”
I want to stay close to those luminous particulars, the objects that connect me more intimately to my reader—and to my collaborator! Brenda is one of the first writers who showed me how I might approach objects in nonfictive prose, and research has only enhanced that process. Getting closer to these objects again, even when I no longer have access to them in my daily life—looking at pictures of mood rings, for instance, until I could almost feel my old mood ring on my finger again, remember the deep green tinge it left when I slipped it off and left it on the lip of the tub—puts me in mind of another favorite quote and a kind of credo of what I’m aspiring to as a writer. In Adrienne Rich’s words, I’m trying to capture and preserve “the thing itself and not the myth.”
BM: I’m always telling my students (and myself) to look closely at what is right in front of you. Every object tells a story, or links to a story, or reflects back to you some part of your psyche. Learning to look closely, and to allow that observation to open a door to story or speculation, is probably the most important skill a writer can learn. Another great example of this stance is Dinah Lenney’s Object Parade, where each chapter is spurred by a singular object.
Curiosity is another key skill to nurture, and whenever Julie and I began venturing down an associative path, questions naturally arose for us to follow. These days, it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to research interesting facts and stories on the Internet, so whenever an idle question arose (such as “where does that word ‘proof’ come from in alcohol ratings?”) I could find it and see if it provided fodder to metaphor or story. Especially in the essays that were in index or catalog form, the research voice seemed apropos, but even in our very first essay, “Telephone,” Julie started right in with history, which created a multi-layered approach right from the beginning.
KT: “Luminous particulars”—I love that, Julie! The final essay in the collection, “Works-in-Progress”—written as drafts in eight sections, each titled from first to final draft—offers glimpses of your writing lives, from your earliest memories of writing to moments of significance in which you’ve turned to language to bear witness. What can you tell me about the process of assembling this collection into its final form? And, what has co-writing this collection meant to you? What will you carry forward into your writing life?
JMW: Brenda and I sometimes joke about all the Virgos she has in her life. (I’m one of them!) As a Virgo, I like to plan everything very carefully, but of course planning too carefully is anathema to some of the magic that arises spontaneously in the process of collaboration. Brenda, on the other hand, is a Pisces, the opposite sign of mine. I think Brenda has taught me to trust the process, to “go with the flow,” in ways that aren’t always intuitive to my Virgo nature. While I know consciously that the lyric essay is a form of writing that arises from uncertainty, I try to be very certain about all my uncertainties at all times! Writing with Brenda has helped me “let go” and embrace the “what will be will be” of the great lyric experiment, the great collaborative experiment, and I believe my newer, independently written essays are more innovative and wide-ranging as a result.
BM: I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. And gratitude, perhaps, is what will keep all of us going in this strange new world we inhabit. That, and trust, intimacy, connection—words that come up again and again when we recall our collaboration. In a time when isolation and divisiveness can feel paramount, collaboration can be one way we find a way back to ourselves and each other.
This piece was originally published on October 11, 2021.