Collaboration: Ian Gibbins reviews ‘construct a world’ by Francesca Sasnaitis & Alex R Chapman

construct a world by Francesca Sasnaitis & Alex R Chapman RATAS editions, Melbourne, 2014

construct a worldFolk wisdom tells us that writing is a lonely business. The stereotype is familiar: the fraught author, locked away in a dimly-lit room, staring at a blank page, fretfully waiting for an inspirational Muse, while feet shuffle among growing piles of crumpled paper. Alternatively, our singleton writer is found immersed in a cathartic environment of terrifying beauty and struggles to get the rush of words on paper before they are lost for ever. However silly the stereotypes may sound, the underlying condition is inarguable: published works of poetry (and fiction) are almost universally written by a single author.

When we venture into the world of non-fiction writing, multiple authorship is widespread, even the norm. Most areas of modern scientific research are carried out by teams of specialists, all of whom can contribute to authorship of the final publication detailing their data and their interpretations. While one author usually takes overview of the writing process, and will generate the first draft, other collaborators contribute sections of the manuscript, and, as a rule, all will have a say in the form and content of the final publication.

The critical point in such collaborations is that the language used necessarily is relatively standardised. Consequently, an individual’s own writing style is subsumed into the formalism of the report. Comparable processes occur in the production of government policy, company annual reports, advertising campaigns, and so on, all of which tend to have a distinctive “house” style that may or may not reflect the creative input of the various authors.

Collaborative writing is not limited to scientific papers and government reports. Screenplays for movies or television series often feature a raft of writers. Songs are famously written by teams, usually duos, but everyone in a band may contribute to a piece, and be credited for their parts. So what about poetry?

As pointed out by Francesca Sasnaitis and Alex Chapman on the back of their 2014 chapbook, construct a world, collaborative poetry writing takes its cue from the Dadaists, and, even more, the Surrealists, with their Exquisite Corpse games. During these games, players wrote a sequence of phrases without knowledge of previous contributions. The final work had an inevitable element of chance and unpredictability that, hopefully, added a new layer of potential meaning or interpretation.

In their own collaborative work, Sasnaitis and Chapman have merged Exquisite Corpse-like game play with explicit chance elements. While on holiday in France, they ‘independently wrote poems on mutually agreed themes’, cut them into strips, mixed the lines at random, and assembled them into this suite of seven new poems.

At its best, the technique works beautifully, juxtaposing images that complement and support each other:

the hue of French rosé hosts a different stratum
the crackle of pine-cones spitting seeds
swift as the departure of homing pigeons

apricot, cream, peach, the lilac of fragrance
the blue dart of diving swallows
the warmth of a fire

– ‘colour of clouds’

escapes her now
submission to procedures
bound together by brush-strokes
gleaned from publications
beyond grace …

– ‘love and bondage in the south of France-

To a large extent, the interest and new forms generated by chance operations on pre-existing material depend  upon the nature of the source. In a couple of the pieces here, it seems to me that the lines have been constructed somewhat self-consciously to facilitate their subsequent mixing. As a result, some parts of the poems fall into an ill-defined gap between the obvious mechanistic feel of much process-driven writing and the unexpected juxtaposition of sounds and images when true randomness prevails.

Overall, construct a world is a highly readable outcome of an intriguing collaborative process. If others are inspired to take up the challenge of collaborative creative writing, no matter what the mechanism, then so much the better.

– Ian Gibbins


Ian Gibbins is now a poet and electronic musician, having recently retired after working as a neuroscientist nearly 35 years, 20 of which also as Professor of Anatomy at Flinders University. His poems, often with music or videos, have been widely published in print and on-line. He has three collections of poetry: Urban Biology (2012), The Microscope Project: How Things Work  (with Catherine Truman and Deb Jones, 2014) and Floribunda (with Judy Morris, 2015). For more info, see

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