by Matthew Magill
"The signing...is attaching one's name to an act, and it was interesting to try and combine the idea with signing the poem. And then that also being the act itself."
At the 2021 'The World Transformed', David Longworth used his background in collaborative theatre to create a simple, interactive work of art using round-robin styled poetry. Passing attendees were offered to write a line of poetry at some point along the circle, which then formed into a piece of collective creativity. He explained the importance of collaboration and community when interviewed.
David first explained the inspiration for the project, which he said came from the Donghak Peasant Revolution. In their written demand for land reform, the protesters would, "sign...in a circle and this basically was so that authorities, when they put this up in public, couldn't tell who the ringleader was just by whoever signed their name first".
1a: a written petition, memorial, or protest to which the signatures are affixed in a circle so as not to indicate who signed first
b: a statement signed by several persons
c: something (such as a letter) sent in turn to the members of a group each of whom signs and forwards it sometimes after adding comment
This "historical grounding" was an important highlight when describing the round-robin project to would-be poets at 'The World Transformed', "because [it] has practice in actual historical struggles". The additional benefits of the format meant that notions of hierarchy were dismantled among the protestors, therefore, allowing the issue itself to remain central. This manifested in poetic form through how people chose to add their lines.
"People wrote...in a completely different way: wrote it at a different angle, wrote it in the opposite way to the way the lines have gone. And that...means that it can't even be read smoothly. It requires you to change the angle and change your perspective on it, because of how everyone has contributed their different part and thus changed the overall project by doing so."
This chaotic non-linearity echoes the non-conformity of the Donghak protestors and follows David's intentions for the work of, "not necessarily that I want people to take something away from it...I wanted them to just engage in a creative act." He went on to talk about how the typical perception of poetry, and literature in general, is in the "complete form". That this was a chance to encourage creative freedom in people who would have never picked up a pen otherwise.
To make the act seem less intimidating, David's message to the attendees was, "I'm not trying to get everybody to say something incredibly profound. I actually said, 'If you want to just put nonsense, go ahead." By setting aside the daunting aspect of the 'complete form', and encouraging experimentation without evaluation, he clarified that, "It's not so much really then about signing it with...your identity. It's about signing it...[with] how you choose to express". Really, for a work of poetry, the piece is deliberately, "Not really trying to be poetry...It's not attempting to get caught up in its own eloquence." Check out our Tender Buttons article for more 'poetry of the mundane'.
I asked David if work like this was creating a time-stamp of the moment in which it is conceived. "I think definitely, yeah. It's interesting, because asking people, you could see what's going through their head...what certain sentiments." He spoke about how people more used to the creative act included fragments of their own poetry which then took on new life within the context of the round-robin, or included, "what theorists that they're reading at the moment" like lines from Edward Said.
This lack of prerequisite creates a unique space where lines like, "Buckfast of the riot" and "If it is the future you seek, you must come to it with empty hands" can sit side-by-side with equal weighting. When initially planning the idea over Twitter, David debated how the piece would be presented but, "because it [is] just written down in the notebook, it's very simple and unassuming in that way" which removes the barriers he believed would prevent established or confident writers from being the only ones to occupy its pages. "I'm not gonna get mad, I'm not gonna be like, 'You've ruined my poem'." For other poets who have begun their journey into this medium, have a read of our article on Dr. Rosa Sierra's work.
In asking how he would approach the piece next time, David spoke about including more of his theatre knowledge to emphasize the communally performative nature of the writing. In trying to prepare people more, he said, "A lot of warm-ups can be quote, cringe unquote, but it's, like, the point of it, because it's supposed to make you aware of the fact that you have blocks that stop you from putting yourself out there." In having participants 'warm-up' beforehand, he thought this would allow them to, "Trust themselves more". For inspiration, here is the previous winner of our first poetry competition.
After speaking with David, we agreed that one way to take the work forward is if people reading this article created their own round-robin poetry. If you have felt inspired to create your own piece with a group, please send us an email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include a copy of your piece and some insight into the moment you were trying to capture. We will celebrate some of the highlights in a follow-up article.