On the Importance of Thoughtful, Diverse Collaboration

Posted on Fri, Mar 7 2014 1:00 pm by Cole Sarar


My name is Cole Sarar, and I am the winner of a 2013 Minnesota Emerging Writers' Grant. I’m here to sell you on the idea of thoughtful collaboration.

There are a lot of reasons to collaborate on a writing project. As writers, what we want more than anything is to have an audience, and collaborating can cross-pollinate your audience with that of another writer. This may be the basest and most self-serving reason for collaboration, but if that’s what it takes, I endorse using it as your motivation. Some of my friends won’t go to a reading or spoken word performance if I’m not performing there—I’m sure you have those friends and family members, too. If I can hook even one or two of your entourage on what I’m doing, that contributes to the growth of my audience.

Slightly less base: a writer can learn some tricks from her collaborators. Let’s say my friend Kyra can set a scene physically and emotionally in her work in a way that I have never known how—my paying attention will key me into the way her brain works naturally. Or maybe Ruth is a great host, and I can take some of what I see her do to make my basic banter a little less awkward. Great!

The next level in thoughtful collaboration is thinking about who you are collaborating with and making some active choices, either as an organizer or as a participant. Both cross-pollination and learning tricks are great reasons to collaborate with folks whose work you are not intimately involved with. Yes, we want to work with people we know and like, but if my friends are your friends, there’s no reason to put out flyers for a reading we could be doing in our living rooms. The same goes for learning tricks. Yes, you can learn endless amounts from just one person, but the breadth and depth you can learn from collaborating with people whose work you are not entirely well-versed in is unrivaled.

We’ll start simply: if you are a page poet, go to a couple of slams. You might be thrown by the shouting intensity of the performers, the way the poets are indelicate and manipulative—but then see the way the audience buys in, reacts, and takes to heart lines which they do not have the chance to read two or three times, or mull over the references and line breaks. Grab a comic book to inform your novel writing, study the language of sculpture for your creative nonfiction work, whatever it takes, just get out of your comfort zone, and invite those artists to try out or react to the places you find safe. This is the beginning.

Now the next step is to think about collaboration ethically. If you’re a straight, white dude who has been asked to perform with a docket of straight white men and one token POC or woman, talk to the organizer and suggest some diversity, for your good and for the audience’s. Unconsciously, humans have a tendency to stick to our own and promote that which is familiar. To stay on the forefront of where we are going as a human race, we must seek out underrepresented voices and listen to them for their own sakes and ours. As writers, to write what is true and new and wonderful, we must fight for new frontiers and new perspectives, for spaces for old stories to be told in new ways. That means sharing your audiences with other writers and championing for diverse voices, even when that means taking a back seat yourself, or going to otherwise unusual lengths to ensure that diversity.

VIDA is a grassroots organization that has been studying the representation of women in literature and in criticism. They specifically do counts of publications—how many male reviewers are there? How many books written by women are being reviewed? Your favorite lit mag—where does it rate on this most basic of ethical enumerations? There are cultural reasons why there are more submissions by men, and also by white people. If the people making choices are white men, they lean towards publishing and reviewing familiar, self-affirming voices. That’s okay, because as conscious human beings, they can recognize these leanings and seek out perspectives that are not familiar, cadences and themes that might not intimate to their experiences.

One of my top three lit mags, Paper Darts, recently wrote on their intentions to be conscious and proactive when looking at race and sexuality in their publishing, and asked publicly to be held accountable for this. This is what we should be aiming for, as writers, performers, collaborators, editors and organizers. This is not to say we silence men or white folks, we just spend a greater part of our time listening.


Cole Sarar will soon be looking for diverse collaborators on her Ring Ring Poetry project for the Emerging Writers' Grant. She is the founder of the Minnesota Microphone blog and calendar, and the founder of Punch Out Poetry Slam. She was a contestant in Literary Death Match Twin Cities, where she "captivated with a series of work that left the audience's collective jaw hanging." She is a winner of the 2012 VERVE grant, and was a winner of the 2010 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant in Poetry.