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A Secret Third Thing: Rachelle Toarmino and Lucy Wainger

Winter-Spring 2024 || Interviewed by Cory Hutchinson-Reuss

It’s winter-spring. A blue, sunny chill. Sleep and hyacinth. Today I met with a friend with whom I have an ongoing creative collaboration. He’s a dancer and professor; I’m a poet and sometimes hybrid writer. We build verbal and bodily vocabularies together, layers of gestures, words, and silence. We’re energized by the process and therefore return to it, but we often ask, what is this? What exactly are we doing? It has made me curious about friendship and experimentation. Does collaboration thread a field between us? Is it more like a creature who demands you leave the door open, break out the tequila and your childhood sticker collection, abandon or bend your comfortable modes? It’s winter-spring. Matchstick and joy-con. Your own rules and a box of puppies. The serendipity of encountering the work of Rachelle Toarmino and Lucy Wainger. Toarmino is the author of the poetry collection That Ex and the chapbooks Comeback, Feel Royal, and Personal & Generic. Wainger’s debut chapbook In Life There Are Many Things won Black Lawrence’s 2021 Black River Chapbook Competition. Their collaborative poem “Codependent Studies'' can be found in Issue 8, On the Brink of Boundaries. I asked them about the workings of their particular cooperation.



BRINK: How did your collaboration come about? What did the process of making “Codependent Studies” look like? 


LW: The poem was born from a game of exquisite corpse, played in Hoa Nguyen’s poetry seminar during the last semester of our MFA. I’d write a couplet, cover up the first line, and pass the paper to Rachelle; she’d write a couplet responding to the line she could see, cover up the first line of her new couplet, pass it back to me; and so on. There was no time to reach for the perfect word or overly determine the poem’s direction, so my contributions were the detritus my mind could spit out on short notice—my main goal was to entertain Rachelle, or to fuck with her by setting up a difficult or ridiculous line to follow. We ended up with two handwritten drafts, one for each of us. Soon after graduating, we revised them over Zoom. We focused on finding the form, tweaking for sound, and cutting excess material, but we were also thinking about the meatier ideas that emerged from this off-the-cuff collaboration and using those to inform line edits. 


RT: After we finished revising, we realized we wanted the two poems to synthesize somehow, so we decided to write a third and final one. We were originally drawn to adapting the exquisite corpse technique to this latest phase of our friendship—long-distance, digitally mediated—so we tried taking turns texting each other single lines. It didn’t really work—maybe because the element of surprise had been removed, maybe because so much of the original fun was trying to get a reaction (immediate, physical) out of each other—but we gathered the language into a Google Doc anyway and let it cool for a few days. Then we flipped through A Book of Surrealist Games, which is full of experiments I love to use in my writing and teaching (and which I’d recently gotten Lucy for her birthday), to test the language with some new procedures—definitions, Q&As, conditionals, syllogisms. Finally a poem emerged. When we discovered that the poems required one another and needed to be read in a certain order, we chose to present it as a three-part serial poem instead of three independent poems. This also led to the title—“Codependent Studies”—which, for us, is as much about the parts being dependent on one another as it is about two voices enmeshing and becoming one. The title is also, for the record, a reference to an ongoing joke we made during our MFA together, when we’d secretly refer to our weekly Independent Study with Peter Gizzi as “Codependent Study.” 

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BRINK: I’ve been wondering about collaboration as an inherently hybrid process. I’m thinking of the relationship between the two collaborators, their potentially varying ways of approaching the creative process and moving through it, and the possibility of friendship as a form of creative work that’s made in the process. Maybe the relational crossings that happen during collaboration leave some sort of trace on the thing that’s made or vice versa. Does that resonate with your experience?   


RT: That does resonate. Lucy and I make poems very differently, even as I find something incredibly familiar in her poems. My hope is that in “Codependent Studies” there aren’t recognizable traces, though—that our voices and points of view aren’t collaged but alloyed. What Jack Spicer said: “Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence.” Or what Jane Miller said: “the creation of a third participant, the ‘us’” via “[a]nimating one's privacy with another person's magic.”


LW: For me, the process felt similar to writing in form, the way imposed constraint is paradoxically generative. You’re cut off from the options you might normally take on instinct, or out of habit, and so you’re forced to consider others. In this case, Rachelle’s mind was the wall or limit I kept butting up against that sent me bouncing off into some new direction. Unlike a static set of formal rules, her mind was moving too—each choice one of us made shifted the constraints the other then had to deal with. The poem is an artifact of that back-and-forth improvisation; it wouldn’t have been written by either one of us independently (see: title). Neither Lucy nor Rachelle but a secret third thing.


BRINK: That reminds me of Tone, in which Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno write about the desire “to find something like a commons,” a third space to inhabit where they could collaborate. Sometimes this commons was in-person, sometimes epistolary, sometimes digital. What kind of commons did you two create? 


LW: I’m not sure we created a new commons so much as drew on the existing ones where our lives first crossed and then kept crossing. I mean the MFA, and especially Hoa Nguyen’s seminar and our “Codependent Study” reading group: they provided the immediate impetus for the poem but, more significantly, time and space for my brain to acclimate to Rachelle’s brain. And that led not only to this poem but to a lot of other things I was writing at the time—I remember a stretch where the poems I submitted for seminar each week were always related to some conversation I’d had with Rachelle three days earlier. To finish writing and revising “Codependent Studies,” we used Zoom and Google Drive as a virtual kind of commons, but I doubt it could have started in such a space.


RT: I think we also see the commons you identify as a space that isn’t necessarily literal—Google Docs, texts, accordioned notebook paper on which an exquisite corpse gets written, venting and riffing in conversation on the B43—but as a kind of headspace we get each other into. It’s a playspace, and in it we get to abandon life’s usual expectations and preoccupations and simply delight in fucking around and making something up. But like any playspace, there are rules, social contracts, compromises—corresponding, stretching across ourselves to meet each other where we’re at. So I think that’s why it’s third: it’s not my imagination, not Lucy’s imagination, but some ungodly place we make when we’re together.


BRINK: Who are your favorite collaborating teams, literary or otherwise? Do you have any dream collaborations?


LW: I thought about this question for a long time. My only honest answer is a pair of LiveJournal users who, in the year 2011, posted an X-Men: First Class fiction they wrote collaboratively (for the initiated: it was a Charles/Erik zombie apocalypse AU). I was 14 and it was the most beautiful piece of writing I had ever encountered. When I finished reading it I came out of my bedroom and realized I’d missed a funeral that was being held in my apartment. I went back into my bedroom and read it again. Years later, I went lurking on the writers’ various profiles and it seemed they had some sort of falling out; the fic is no longer available online. It had the quality of a hallucination or fever dream, so its disappearance seems appropriate.  I’m not sure I have a dream collaboration; I think I’d have to stumble into one and find myself enmeshed, the way I did with this poem.


RT: It’s hard to pick, or to say definitively what’s collaborative and what’s not. With that said, some of my favorites have been between Bill Berkson and Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch, Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, Sophie Calle’s work in general, Jack Spicer and Russell Fitzgerald, Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett, Lisa Barlow and Wendy’s, and many others. As for dream collaborations of my own, I’d love to work with musicians to write song lyrics or adapt some of my poems for music.


BRINK: Finally, is there a visual image that feels emblematic of the collaborative process to you? 

LW: For me it’s a pair of images. Backstory: I went through a brief theory-reading phase in college, during which time I stumbled upon a pdf of Sex, or the Unbearable, a prose dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. I read a chunk of it, understood very little, and retained none, but have always remembered the images they each chose to clarify—both to each other and to the reader—what exactly they each mean by “sex.” Here’s Edelman’s chosen image, then Berlant’s:

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This interview has been edited for flow and length.


Image Credits: 

Image 1: Mel Gooding, ed., A Book of Surrealist Games (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Redstone Editions, 1995). Image courtesy of Rachelle Toarmino.

Image 2: Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham and London: Duke UP, 2014), 16.

Image 3: Berlant and Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable, 23.  

Image 4: @pinkfr!day. “it b 2 dumbass girls (i’m one of them) telling each other ‘exactly.’” X, March 20, 2023, 8:16 PM. 

Image courtesy of Lucy Wainger.

LUCY WAINGER grew up in New York City. Her debut chapbook In Life There Are Many Things won Black Lawrence’s 2021 Black River Chapbook Competition. She earned her MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst and currently lives in Chicago.

RACHELLE TOARMINO is a poet from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the author of the poetry collection That Ex and the chapbooks Comeback, Feel Royal, and Personal & Generic. She earned her MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is also the founding editor in chief of the literary journal Peach Mag and the founder of Beauty School, a new independent poetry school. She lives in Buffalo.

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