An Interview with Timothy Liu and Hansa Bergwall
In December 2011, Field Press published in limited-edition 100 hand-woven copies of The Thames & Hudson Project, a poetry chapbook co-authored by Timothy Liu and Hansa Bergwall.
Can you please say a few words about your meeting, and how you came to collaborate on The Thames & Hudson Project?
TL: We met at a Wilde Boys event to celebrate the publication of Leland Hickman's Tiresias: The Collected Poems. It was a sweltering July day in Williamsburg, and the loft had no A/C. I got there early and plopped myself down. When Hansa walked in, I recognized him from an earlier WB event back in April as well as from a reading at the KGB Bar the April before that. I remember saying a silent prayer to myself: "Please let him sit next to me." And that was how we met. Four days later, we had our first java at the French Roast which turned into a four-hour dinner. The rest, as they say, is history. Later in the Fall, we went to a Psychic Book Fair at the New York Theosophical Society and consulted a psychic among other practitioners. When we walked out, we stopped at the Royalton Bar and spontaneously wrote our first collaboration there.
HB: What went into that first poem were pieces of conversation from the day, images from the psychic fair, confessions we hadn't yet made. The process created a space for us to speak about the fears, yearnings, monsters and visions crawling underneath the floorboards. Sharing that part of ourselves brought us much closer together. The creative work became an important piece of what we shared.
I am curious about the chapbook's title, for its self-reflexivity and attention to geographical spaces not explicitly mentioned in the book. Could you say a few words about its development?
HB: "Hudson" is usually what people think they hear when I say my name to them for the first time. It's become a kind of joking nickname with my friends, and I started signing my emails with it. Tim responded by taking the homophonic moniker "Thames" which twisted the nickname with new meaning. All of a sudden we were two rivers both flowing into two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It's the process of how this whole chapbook was written, responding to each other in ways that changes what came before and adding layers of new meaning and space.
TL: Hansa has introduced me to many new ways of thinking that have become quite consequential in the past couple of years. One day, I was reading a book I checked out from the library called The Quest for the Shaman: Shapeshifters, Sorcerers, and Spirit Healers in Ancient Europe when I found myself staring at the image embossed on its cover: two dolphins swimming in a yin and yang pattern, the logo for Thames & Hudson Publishers. Dolphins of course are comfortable travelling between two worlds and are kindred spirits to both poets and shamans. So in adopting the name The Thames & Hudson Project, we are also making a secret nod and wink to deeper connections.
The chapbook opens with a "manifesto," wherein you consider the nature of intimacy vs. distance, the erotic vs. the sexual, and the "triune divinity" of the I, You and composite We. Could you say a few words about this opening text, and why it felt necessary for you to declare rather than introduce your project?
TL: The manifesto was an afterthought. In the Spring of 2011, I was invited to participate in a gay lecture series at CUNY curated by Tim Trace Peterson who asked each participant to write a manifesto for the work to be presented. Since the Thames & Hudson Project was very much on my mind, I decided to meditate on our project. When Hansa and I started to assemble our chapbook during the summer just prior to our respective iminent weddings, his in Massachusetts and mine in New York, I asked him if he would expand on the manifesto at the prodding of our publisher at Fields Press, J. Mae Barizo. She had heard me read from the project at Bennington College in June and felt that the structure of Manifesto / Collaborations / Epistolary Poems was ideal for the shape our chapbook would eventually take.
HB: I hated the initial draft of the manifesto when I first read it. The prose form of writing forced me to face many of the charged, transgressive and erotic threads the collaborations explore. It felt uncomfortable and taboo to approach these topics through the rational side of the mind without the creative protection of poetry. But once I gathered the courage to reflect more honestly on the project, I found I had a lot to contribute to the manifesto.
Could you explain your collaboration method, that is, how the actual writing of the chapbook occurred? Did you compose each of the poems together, or did you each write individual poems that were then placed side by side?
HB: The book is in two sections. The titled poems in the second section are either by Timothy or me. Many of these poems respond to each other's work. The untitled poems in the first section were composed while passing a notepad or an email chain back and forth every line or two. When we write together like this, it feels like play even if the tone of the work is dark. There is always a tug-of-war or epic rap battle; we are trying to twist, change and push the language to new places that were at first unintended. I never know when we start out, how the poem will take shape.
TL: Which is such an apt metaphor for our relationship, every time we meet and over time. I suppose this would be true for anyone, but when you share an uncanny affinity that crosses over into other worlds and ecstatic realms, well, you start to appreciate how art can be placed in the service of life rather than the other way around. While we've worked hard writing and rewriting the poems and assembling the manuscript, the poems are but a small part of everything else we share. I want to add that for the second section, we chose each other's favorite poems. Our publisher also encouraged us to not attribute who wrote what, to let our distinct voices dissolve and blur.
Do you see this chapbook as in dialogue with the many historical and contemporary poetry collaborations that we have? If so, how?
TL: I don't think we were actively engaged with any other historical or contemporary collaborative texts. Sure there are precedents like Jane Miller and Olga Broumas writing Black Holes, Black Stockings, but ours was simply a labor of love, something we wrote for each other over the course of an entire year. The chapbook itself is really just the tip of an iceberg, a project we are currently and leisurely engaged in. In fact, we had to weigh the possible consequences of going public with this project. Did we even want an outside audience perusing the thing? The privacy (and freedom) inherent in our relationship came first. Ultimately, we felt comfortable with sharing this project, thought of it as a kind of celebration, that while the art was inspired by the life, the life itself was safeguarded. We both value the notion of homo ludens, or "man at play."
HB: The psychological writings of Carl Jung and James Hillman are very much in our poems. They weren't poets, but they both investigated the same threads of dream, soulfulness, and spirit that we were very much concerned with in these collaborations. We talked a lot about these themes and these authors between writing and rewriting.
To Hansa: as a younger poet, could you describe the experience of working so intimately with an established poet such as Timothy?
HB: If I'd approached the process as "collaborating with a more established poet," I never could have done it. I would have been intimidated and self-conscious. We started the project on a whim, and it took on a driving force of its own because we enjoyed it. We had around fifteen finished pieces before Tim broached the topic of publishing. Only then did the issue of Tim's eight books and my zero come up. It's still an unresolved issue. I can't tell you whether if was helpful or harmful to my career to have my first publication as a collaboration with a more established writer. I'm not sure the community that follows poetry sees me more or less seriously as a poet because of it. Since the book has come out, I've come across both reactions. All I can say is that I went forward with The Thames and Hudson Project because I love the collaborations and I stand behind them as poems.
TL: At various moments, we weighed the options of delaying publication or not publishing at all. Indeed, we never actively sought publication, but when the opportunity presented itself, we ultimately found it impossible to resist. As in art, so in life.
[PLEASE INDULGE THIS]
Please indulge this.
Because the nettles only sting
when alive. Because
dead things are so easily
severed by a blade of grass.
Honeybees would rather die
than eat the last of the honey.
I try to find you amongst
the ruined combs—the spring
day that can't help but burst
from carefully wrapped gifts.
There is no last of the honey,
only more to unwrap. Only
bodies underfoot to preserve
a kiss in wax—winter gone—
tongues cut apart by grass
where royal dandelions
hoard the sugar of the field.
But where is the lion's mouth?
Where is the hero who lays
down for my pleasure?
UNDER YOUR WINDOW, 3 A.M.
How your tongue learned such dances
won't deter me, for you have
such a beautiful middle finger.
The ice bats hanging from your pajama
bottoms will scare children
but not me.
in your ear can't muffle
The crow on your shoulder
can't drown me out
with the cracking of its metatarsals.
If you throw shoes,
I will find Imelda Marcos
new Jimmy Choos.
If you throw pi,
I will find you the most
infinitesimal turn of the circle.
Go ahead and puff up your spikes,
I am trained in the art
of slicing fugu.
If you still insist I am a pig,
I will find you
Turn up your nose!
Inhale the scent of this
handkerchief soaked in myrtle, rose.
The blind slugs that slither
over your heart tremble
knowing my song is salt.
Do as you will.
I am here
to serenade you.
UNSLEEPING, 5:36 A.M.
Neither high-flying kite nor
the hand that holds it. Neither
parent nor grandparent, glass
of cold milk nor cookies straight
out of the oven. We are double
columns crowned with guttering
flames amidst the comings
and goings. It took my entire life
to find you inside this garden
without walls, my body leaning
into yours more like paradise
than bedding down anyone else
within reach. Rapt and raptor,
we are the fruit of twin trees—
order and chaos, the forbidden
and the blessed—forms of time
unable to contain eternity's
drunken spark that leapt out of
the void and set the heavens in
motion, cooking up whatever's
not on the menu even if it means
burning down the kitchen in order
to let the winter stars back in—
the Southern Cross sailing across
a sky swathed in rosy light—
raptors circling above a cradle
made out of mud and twigs,
winged chorus of ecstasy and fear
singing the one song we know
by heart: Don't go back to sleep.
While the first printing of The Thames & Hudson Project sold out in the first two months, a second printing is now available and can be purchased at www.fieldspress.com for $10 postpaid.