Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stitching Don Together

Don Skiles is an old friend, 26 years' worth. About a year before I met Don he had written a brief review of my first chapbook, Bagatelles, for the American Book Review. Not only was I pleased to have received a positive review, I felt that Don really understood what I was aiming at with my writing.

About a month after the review came out I was talking on the phone to Paul Fericano, a Bay Area writer I had published a couple of years earlier in my magazine, Zone. "I saw that nice review my friend Don Skiles did of your book," Paul said.

"He's your friend?" I said. "I have to meet him."

When I went to San Francisco the following summer I hooked up with Don at a cafe in the newly gentrifying Mission district. We hit it off and have been fast friends ever since. We see each other a couple of days every year or two, but we talk on the phone a lot. We never run out of things to talk about, and our enthusiasms, be they literary, culinary or musical often overlap. Every time I'm in San Francisco I have one or two memorable meals with Don and his wife Marian.

Don is a fiction writer, and several months ago I invited him to send me some unfinished work for a collaborative piece to submit to qaartsiluni, an online literary magazine. I had become fond of a method I first attempted for the collaborations I did with Holly Anderson for the same journal. Each writer would give an unfinished piece to the other, and the other writer would take it from there, total license, no veto power for the first writer. For me the greatest challenge is to get to a new piece that could not have been written by either of us alone, but one where I had respected the original writer's voice and intent while still making it something I could call my own.

When qarrtsiluni announced their "Economy" issue I decided to ask Don to participate with me. This time I decided to do a one-way collaboration. I asked Don to give me one or more unfinished or abandoned pieces that could fit into a very open-ended definition of "economy," as the editors encouraged creative license.

I believe Don gave me four pieces. I lived with them for a while, trying to decide what to do. No one piece was yielding a solution. Then, while I was taking a walk, the answer came to me: I'd use two of the pieces as raw material. As I started thinking about the pieces Don had sent me I saw a link between two of them. From there I shuffled things around, cut here, expanded there, tinkered with phrasing and rhythm and added some new material that I based on what I knew about Don's own background. Both of us were happy with the result, as were the editors.

One feature I like about qarrtsiluni is that they feature audio of writers reading their pieces. Since the narrator of our collaboration was much more Don than me, I deferred to Don for the reading.

Read and listen to "A 92-Degree Day."


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