John F. Buckley and Martin Ott began their ongoing games of poetic volleyball in the spring of 2009. Since then, their collaborations have been accepted into more than seventy journals and anthologies and gathered into two full-length collections on Brooklyn Arts Press, Poets’ Guide to America (2012) and Yankee Broadcast Network (2014). They are now writing poems for a third manuscript, American Wonder, about superheroes and supervillains.
Erin Keating speaks with John and Martin below.
The Roanoke Review staff was fascinated by the fact that you two are a writing team. What made you decide to go into collaboration?
The short answer: I once served; Martin volleyed, sending it back. And so forth.
The long answer: Martin and I became friends as undergraduates at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. We both respected each other as budding fiction writers, although Martin tackled his various projects with far more confidence and aplomb than I ever managed in those days. During the next couple of decades of our periodically hanging out, drinking beers, playing cards, and shooting the shit, while I had almost entirely given up on writing creatively, I knew that Martin had kept forging ahead with new short stories, novels, and screenplays. But it took until I pretty suddenly turned into a rabidly budding poet at the tender age of thirty-nine — an anecdote for a different time — that I Googled Martin for kicks and discovered he wrote poetry, too. In an email with the subject line “Holy Fuck!,” I wrote, “You've published in over fifty publications? You've been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize? You've published a chapbook? Once again — holy fuck. I had no idea of any of this. Be my poetry guru.” All of this blew my mind.
After Martin sent me some of his poems, I continued giving him a hard time for apparently having hidden part of his creative identity from his most wonderful and cherished friends, eventually sending him a couple of lines I’d cobbled together and asking him to add to it. He added two more lines, emailed the fragment back to me, and let me know that it was once again my turn. We kept volleying it back and forth, two lines at a time, until we ended up with the first draft of “Chiron in Los Angeles.” The whole process had been a lot of fun for both of us, exhilarating and challenging and as close to dancing as I can typically manage. So Martin kicked us off on a second poem, “Bee Lust in Manhattan.” Eventually, collaborating became a favorite habit.
How do you go about starting creative projects together?
We decide on the topic or thesis of a book first and then begin writing individual poems. We originally envisioned that our first three collaborative poetry collections would be a trilogy about America. Both of us enjoy the ability to bounce ideas and lines off one another while we dissect American culture.
Individual poems usually start with a concept or title thrown out by one of us, sometimes with the first few lines. Occasionally, we brainstorm concepts beforehand and pick the best one. Other times, we surprise the other by just beginning the poem. We alternate – usually a stanza at a time – which can be as little as two lines.
We write entirely by email – never once have we been in the same room. John tends to begin the first lines of poems more often than I do and I end them more frequently. I cannot always tell which lines are mine in the poems that appear in our books (after some time has passed). I think this shows we have built a collective voice that is different than either one of ours separately.
Sometimes, one of us may veto an idea. Occasionally, we abandon a poem if we lose interest or the draft doesn’t work. I am still amazed by this process after eight years of working together. Our pace has slowed with our other creative projects but I don’t envision an end to this – it feels like a part of my creative DNA and John’s creative brilliance influences my other writing project as well.
In your commentary for “Mister Magnificent Feeds His Family” you said “we had very distinct, quite different visions of Mister Magnificent. But as usual, we were able to weave together something that depicted both of our perspectives.” Could you tell us more about how you weave together your ideas when they differ so drastically?
When one of us has left a line unfinished, out of either not wanting to take too greedy of a turn or — perhaps sometimes more mischievously — wanting to give the other guy a micro-cliffhanger, a smidgeon of a challenge, some of it’s about seeing the formal and semantic opportunities in the ragged edge.
Most of it comes down to respecting equilibrium in the physics of trust as our little interpersonal top keeps spinning. By now, we’ve been friends for about twenty-five years. And both of us have been married and remarried, always to women we’ve taken seriously. So we have plenty of experience at maintaining, screwing up, and fixing substantial relationships, like the one we share. We have to assume that each of us is acting earnestly to share the responsibility of creating a worthwhile poem, of preserving its original intent. That would be the centripetal force, the impulse to cohere and keep consistent. But we also have to give the other guy space to play and explore on his own, to let him feel centrifugal force pulling in a new, strange direction as the poem rotates and grows. However we pull it off, and neither of us really knows exactly how, we work together to keep the shared inward and individual outward forces in balance. Yeah, I think the main criterion is trust.
In “Mister Magnificent Feeds His Family” you create a super hero who faces struggles of the average American man. What made you decide to discuss this kind of unsung hero?
John and I are always trying to push the envelope of our subject matter by flipping expectation on its head. Super heroes are dominant in our TV shows and movies, but there is a lack of realism that we are trying hard to capture in this poem and throughout our superhero manuscript-in-progress American Wonder. Heroes have debts, vices, difficult relationships, and are not infallible. So do villains.
You study American history and culture in your 2012 collection Poets’ Guide to America; how do you feel the trope of the super hero fits into American society?
Umberto Eco wrote a 1972 essay called “The Myth of Superman” in which he examines the paradox of Superman’s identity. On the one hand, Superman is very much of the moment, implicated in linear historical time, reflecting society as it exists during the temporal parameters of a given issue, television episode, or movie. On the other, Superman is quasi-divine, archetypal, an inhabitant in circular, unending mythical time. And, of course, other superheroes share this dual mythohistorical citizenship.
It seems the United States similarly resonates on both levels. Across the last several centuries, we see its ethos change and grow as the country itself evolves, as events daily unfold, as it accumulates and owns new achievements and atrocities. But the elements of eternal myth appear, too. The USA has a famous origin story. It has claimed to have archenemies. It struggles to be its best self (while often lapsing into its worst) on a journey toward maturity and mastery, which it certainly hasn’t completed and may (must?) never complete.
Can you tell us about any current projects you are working on?
John is at work on a couple of different books of poetry. I am working on a manuscript of news-inspired poems, a speculative novel, and developing a TV pilot with a showrunner based on one of the many strange jobs I have held over the years.
What inspires you to write?
Writing is a large part of my life – I can’t imagine not writing. Nearly every week, rain or shine, I create new work, engage with other writer friends in social media, read and discuss writing that affects me, submit my work and sometimes receive feedback for editing. I don’t get too excited about successes or failures. I love everything about the creative process. Perhaps, I am just addicted to writing.
Being part of a community inspires me to write. There’s the community of poems and stories that have already happened, that have entered the world in contingently final forms. I read them not nearly as often or as many as I think I should, but I read them, and I try to hear what the voices of others have to offer me in terms of developing awareness, wisdom, and empathy. I participate in local reading series, especially ones with open mics, which offer an array of disparate perspectives. I like to hear works perhaps in progress, words in flux. And I like surrounding myself with fellow poets and other writers during my daily affairs, because then I have people with whom to drink beer and eat ice cream. (Shout out to our local summer social director, Marlin Jenkins!) I’m very fortunate to have met the creators I’ve met in Southern California, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere. They are the buckets and ropes that free my sometimes dark waters from the lonely well of ego.