Neither the One Nor the Other

a collaboration by:
Frances Presley and Elizabeth James

Working Notes

I. Frances Presley:
a)  Collaborative writing

There is relatively little discussion of writer to writer collaboration in poetry and poetics.  There’s no entry for it in the last edition of the Princeton Encyclopaedia, although there is one for Japanese linked verse.  Yet we all know of writer to writer collaborations, especially in more experimental writing.  In Britain examples spring to mind by poets such as Lawrence Upton and Bob Cobbing, Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie, and Harry Gilonis and Tony Baker.

One of the main antecedents for this type of collaboration are the dadaist and surrealist collective games, which were a way of defeating logic and rising above personal subjectivity.   I would, however, be uncomfortable if collaboration was considered entirely as a game, as that can seem like another straitjacket.  There was some element of that in a discussion on the British & Irish poets list a few years ago, with Peter Riley asserting that collaborative verse is inevitably humorous or light verse.(1) 

b)  Some aspects of method

·        One of the main influences on my decision to do a collaboration was hearing Leslie Scalapino talk about a collaboration of single line responses.  I became aware of a desire to avoid individual set pieces, in which each poem is distinct from the other.  I liked the idea of a rapid intersecting of voices, although, in the end, single lines seemed like too constricting a form, and our entries varied in length, increasing as the collaboration progressed and we became more confident in it, as you do in a correspondence.  

·        This was a simultaneous collaboration, where one work does not take precedence over another.

·        Unlike the Exquisite Corpse game, we did see each other’s work and acted both as readers and writers, as well as rereaders and rewriters.  We were free to respond or not to respond to each other’s contributions.

c)      The Medium

The medium that we used was email.  My previous major collaboration, Automatic Cross Stitch, was with the artist Irma Irsara, and one of the reasons for its success was the fact that we live very close to each other.  This geographical proximity was essential for my involvement in the abstract art and mixed media of Irma’s work.  The exchange of texts is easier, yet communication is a key factor in any collaboration, and phone and post aren’t always adequate, especially for a simultaneous collaboration.  So, to return to Leslie Scalapino, I was interested when she explained that hers was a fax collaboration. While I was thinking about a fax collaboration, which did not work out in the end, and not just because of my limited access to a fax machine, I began to use email.  An e-motion, as Ric Caddel has said.  And from there to e mute, which brings me on to why I called this introduction “collaboration in the feminine”.

d)      Collaboration in the feminine

I took this title from a collection of texts from the Canadian journal of women’s writing, Tessera.  In doing so I wanted to acknowledge another recent influence and precursor to this work: feminist discourse and ecriture feminine.  The term collaboration as used in Tessera is applied mainly to the editorial collaboration on the journal rather than to collaborative texts.  Nevertheless collaboration is seen as fundamental to their project.  As Barbara Godard explains: collaboration is a process which foregrounds the exchange of the signifier and the instability of all language practice.  Or, to quote Lorraine Weir, “In setting aside the illusions of closure, completion, stasis, perfection—the ideals of a patriarchal society…we enter the possibility of the open text, the so-called ‘fragment,’ the writing which exists not to valorize its author/ity (Foucault) but to be activated in the process of reading/making/collaborating.”(2)

e) Recent collaborative texts by women poets

Another surprise in looking at these issues was how few examples there seemed to be of recent collaborative texts by women poets, and even rarer is any analysis of them.  An exception is Ann Vickery’s paper: “Travelogues of errant desire: tracing an erotic politic in feminist collaborations.”(3)  She focuses on two examples from North America: Marlatt and Warland’s Double Negative (4), and Harryman and Hejinian’s The Wide Road.

The only British example, though a very important one, that came to my mind, was Mulford and Riley’s No Fee, although it isn’t that recent (5). I haven’t analysed it closely, but it’s wonderfully inventive and experimental, while remaining suitably downbeat and British. I’m not sure how No Fee was written, but it’s worth noting that although the poems are anonymous, they are also clearly differentiated on the page.  I think that the first half of the book is mainly Riley and the second is Mulford.  In spite of further research I haven’t discovered any more recent examples in the UK, or, at least, none that have been published.  I don’t want to over emphasise the American influence however, and one of the main source texts in our collaboration, and in Harryman and Hejinian’s, is by Angela Carter (6).

f) Questioning of identity

The questioning of identity in collaboration is something that Vickery examines.  Collaboration, to quote Vickery, is a practice defined around a crossing-over of authority, which makes the questioning of identity explicit, particularly in the kind of collaboration Elizabeth and I have chosen.  “As a liminal space of encounter, collaboration suggests that the subject may always be incorporated into some sort of identification with the other.  This formation of intersubjectivity is perhaps best realised as a process of desire, with the text as a site of ongoing affirmation as well as argument.”  Or to quote Carey Caplan and Ellen Rose: “ ‘She’ and ‘I’ metamorphose into ‘we’, hypothetical, invisible, yet nonetheless articulate.  ‘We’ emerges from the space between our individual, different voices, its meaning elusive, dispersed, always deferred, never unitary.”

            This movement between the individual and some kind of identification was certainly part of our experience in this type of collaboration.  As the surrealists also knew, it is a way of going beyond the individual subject. There were inevitably, given our cultural similarities, convergence of language and subject matter, as well as strange coincidences.  There were also differences and underlying arguments. Well, quite overt arguments really.

This seems like a good place to stop to writing as this I.  If I/we went on to write about some of the poetic devices and themes of this collaboration it would be better done by both of us, as an antiphon. 

(An earlier version of this text was given as a talk at the Sub Voicive colloquium in 1999)

Postscript: Since writing my talk, there has been a collaborative performance between two experimental British women poets: Caroline Bergvall and Dell Olsen, in partnership with the composer Ian White. It was a one evening only, improvised event, and does not exist in published form. According to Bergvall, it was conducted in a spirit of non-ownership, and was a response to time-limitations which became the structuring device for the whole piece.



Neither the One Nor the Other
The full version was published as Form Books no. 10 (London:Harry Gilonis, 1999)

Normally, women only exchange remarks to do with children, food, or perhaps their appearance and sexual exploits.  These are not exchangeable objects. Yet to speak well of oneself and others, it helps to be able to communicate about the realities of the world, to be able to exchange something.

                                                                        Luce Irigaray

The goose is standing on my balcony accusing me of neglect

Here is a park, an ark and golden eggs

Reversionary factors marked the nest

Personally I don’t get the benefit of that fecal decal
twitching regularly in damn braces & killer pain
still plump for morning after pillow flight & a gander at the papers

Re-ver-ver-verting to typist

Reverberations of the fine feather nest enhancers
always to have to end with a free floating eiderdown

dare we settle / snow in april / derry dancers

Verdigris trials plump her keys

claims Elsie’s old man, for love or money

She was severe and variable in her strokes

Just keep on apologising for my slides

and the recognition of her breast stroke
one foot/ a plastic bowl



a butterfly net
turning after 25
metres again, love

It’s not a race, Beginners II, it’s not
a family even

to recapitulate at Glassonbury
the song thrush
it … rolls
turning my hand
‘a rondo’ he said
what are these other episodes
these other subjects?

yes, wawy
martens, swallows and swifts

        lakeside in urbe
refrain to egg
thrift, wallow & the shy parting
curves of crest and speckled bib

oeuvres r us


ups and ups
always the second syllable

bim-bo bim-bo bim-bo
and he said it’s
sal-vo sal-vo sal-vo


applause & heavy rain save their appearances
I volley, though my nerve is broken –
there is no spondee in English poetry


Pa    pa    pa    mime all plaudits
and reign savours volition
bite into the sprinkling of powder

a/men a/men a/men
underlined impatiently (he said)

(these are your words)


it was those wide melodic leaps
she was scurrying rapidly
up and down the scales


eye-slash-lash scrape her swelled lid
nights after a taxing form filled dishabilly


ventures testing riotous finances
poetry day is worse than thought for the day

no upper-body strength
no upper-arm strength
no body-on-the-floor strength
no over-the-body strength
no under-the-body strength

she says that he says it’s a dance about falling


really needing that time for herself but had to blame it on
no permit without Kermit
and he says Yes but still my point
still       my        point


Ulli Freer was at VI
reading a sequence called dense
which includes the line
‘there is no ego in collaboration’
it seemed egoistic to ask him about it

I also liked the line
‘can’t see the wood yet feel for the tree’
can’t see the word

my elliptical Os
you have to see the word
I mean the wood

and so we could-
fall for the trews
and creep to free

or prefer
singing together
of mount abora a a a

o labor –
it spurts, falutin
ab ovo
a mon avis




We need to approach the pastoral with care and remember that it’s not a
convenient utpoa


we need
we need to approach
we need to approach the past
to approach the past we need we need
to approach the pastoral
we need to approach the pastoral in a car
o approach the pastoral with care
we read to poach the pastor
to cart toward aporia
approach the waste and pare the weed to the core
to catch a parsnip

and remember that it’s not
and remember that it’s not a convent
and remember that it’s not a con

ut poesia pastoralis

her oaks are tiny things in plastic tubes
like premature infants
sun catches their leaf shadow

the trees join heaven and earth
and the world below
on Blakean linear terms

I feel for their sinewed trunks
a muscular infold
cannot identify this tree

in the forms she remembers
from Nellie Nature

stock cubes / mach ants / chest hair

vend art / hew low / Lakes

fort sinus / Amis Larkin / tide history

for her : read-only : Neat-she


All the mythic versions of woman . . .
are consolatory nonsense (Angela Carter: Sadeian Woman)

spiced parsnip   passive hole   lead detail
pound each   cut yew   broads
flat business   Hughes Morgan   post millennial
:  his entire (net) tribe of collectibles lodged here

(In terms of the travelogue, this is the (my) road to Norfolk.)


next morning I brought up the Sadeian Woman
and it quite put me off my sex

ni l’un ni l’autre I do & I don’t

his black weight on her calipered body
she said it was a girl’s view but there must have been something
wrong in the phenomenon


The Sadeian Woman was Carter’s vindication of the rights
she could have written a better book
given more time

everything was showing
as if showing was everything

the chemise-en-scène
her apparent

a bone structure
in repair


“original floor covering of tapestry embroidered by two of the princesses
4 ladies made a replica of it, which is identical but the colours are fresher of course Osbourne House, a real family home but some of the rooms were too opulent for my taste.”

(post card from my mother)


everything was folded
as if
skirting the word in lime green
her wainscot
wave partition
parted painted wagon
wains    coat



Cottage my foot.

Queen Victoria had him brought to Osborne House, perhaps because filming would not be
Permitted at Balmoral.

Short breaks are available.

A converted outbuilding the other side of the car port from the landlord’s bungalow.

If the weather was bad I would read The Marginalization of Poetry.

‘Mrs Brown’ was taken by him to visit the poor in their own homes, laughing happily.

Gratton Dale was full of bullfinches and goldfinches, and it had snowed on top of the mud.

He also acted like an unpleasant bully.

The females can be seen to have shorter sentences.nder his hairy blanket

Hearing the bells at midnight we went to stand among the locals outside the Duke of York.

In exchange for Labour the cottar shall get access to the coterie.

What might you have.



The palace to boot.ctoria’s tyranny and Brown’s paranoia. I had forgotten her reassuring banality.

It’s nice to have options at a bus stop.

A controversial 135 feet high tent was raised over two acres of the town’s holiday centre.

When I had flu I read The Marginalization of Poetry.

‘Mrs Brown’ was taken by him to her predictable, if politically sound, crockery.

We were somewhere on the Quantocks in the red river.

She also acted like an unpleasant bully. Peel was forced to resign.

The male has a longer memory.

I couldn’t help thinking that Cinderella was a touch more traditional than

Angela Carter’s


Hearing bagpipes at midnight we joined the studio celebrities.

It was not the widow’s choice, who she should remarry.

What might we have.



Finding it extremely hard to open up this poem again.

Finding it extremely hard to open up

      b         i                           m       u

o                  t                   d                   t

       r      e                                i      c

or bitten by blanket stitch
which is an orbiting style

running up against
all that joined up thinking
in the social exclusion unit


tumulus  umbrage  dilates
cabled  bearing  borage

A little difference / making a great deal / different / interest rates / fall by half / of one
Per cent / over / all over again

Can you credit / The Millenium / “our anniversary” / your birthday, her / last ever PEP /
We herd / Fortunes in floristry / flow / owing

Seam non-compliance will attract penalties
Food in your freezer
. Insure.

the word is less stable than you think
the women were all dressed in black tie
as Olive made a dash towards the subvocal
I like her line of suspension points

I struggle with my breath


Try the melismatic:


I str – u – u – u – u – gle

or ED:

I Struggle with my Breath

My mother could not catch her breath
I struggle to speak on their anniversary


Dum dum dum dum b-dum dum dum dum

sing then, at
least sign

t tss      t tss      t tss      t tss
oh mother we love you get up


1.  The British and Irish poets discussion list is at

2.      Collaboration in the feminine: writings on women and culture from Tessera, edited by Barbara Godard.  Toronto, Canada: Second Story, 1994.

3.  “Travelogues of errant desire: tracing an erotic politic in feminist collaborations” by Ann Vickery.  Presented as a paper at Assembling Alternatives conference, University of New Hampshire, 1996.

4.  Two women in a birth, by Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland.  Toronto: Guernica, 1994.  (Includes “Double negative”).

5.      No Fee: a line or two for free, by Denise Riley and Wendy Mulford.  Cambridge: Street Editions, 1979.

6.  The Sadeian woman, by Angela Carter.  London: Virago, 1979.


II. Frances Presley and Elizabeth James:

Neither One Nor The Other was conducted by e-mail, during the financial year 1998-9.  The epigraph is taken from Irigaray’s essay “The Culture of Difference” (1987) in je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, translated by Alison Martin (Routledge, 1993). Among the poets’ interests and occasions were: the music of Hildegard of Bingen (“those wide melodic leaps”)—her Ordo Virtutum was performed at the Royal Albert Hall on the 8th of September; Merce Cunningham (“a dance without falling””)—his company performed at the Barbican on the 8th of October; William Blake (his “linear terms”), especially “The sea of time and space” (The Arlington Court picture), 1821; Louise Bourgeois (“his black weight on her calipered body…,” “everything was showing…”)—her exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in December; Mrs Brown, a film about Queen Victoria’s relationship with a Scottish gillie.  Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman was published by Virago in 1979; the 1998-9 pantomime at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith was based on her version of the Cinderella story.  The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History is by Bob Perelman (published by Princeton University Press, 1996). Other poets quoted or alluded to include Olive (“made a dash towards the subvocal”) Custance (English 1890s), Frank O’Hara, and our esteemed contemporary Ulli Freer.  “VI” a.k.a. Vertical Images, Vegetal Irradiance, etc., is an experimental poetry and music venue in London (Neither the One nor the Other was launched with a reading at VI, 15th April 1999.

(a performance out-take probably, though part of a text)

We met in 1980—correct me if I'm wrong—in Devon on a writing

course run by two sisters, a poet and a novelist, New Zealanders, then

living one in England one in France. They chatted together, catching up

on family news, and with the students among whom a coterie developed,

especially other ex-pats and world travellers. They made a favourite of

one young man, very blond, and handsome by anybody’s standards, who knew

people they knew in the literary scene back home. He had a job for a

while in a Covent Garden food shop, the Dairy, was it? or the soup


       on Dartmoor     serious or depressed     as well you might

       work like no-one else’s there     this is a memory of a photo

roots we picked to get there

and the routes we left

     save time


     our age, now

I buy a lot     by anybody’s standards     better than I could make at


                                                            —Elizabeth James

Yes, I’m sure you’re right about meeting in 1980, although I may have disputed this in the past.  I went to two or three of those writing courses from ’78-80, and I sometimes blur them.  That was before they became very expensive and highly regimented.  Who was running them was also less important in those days—it was more of a space to write—, and it was rather accidental that I ended up with the New Zealanders.  I often found that with tutor couples I would like one and not the other.  If it were a male/ female pairing it would be the woman who would make more effort socially, especially if they were married.  The same was true of the sisters, however, who exhibited something of the male/ female divide.  The elder of the two, the poet, was rather aloof, and yet flirtatious with the young man you describe.  I certainly felt excluded by her preoccupation with him.  The younger one, the novelist, was warm and open and colluding.  She seemed to be the happier of the two sisters, and now I remember that they had grown up in a family of independent women with freedom to roam.  It’s in the older sister’s poetry, riding down the coast.

            on Dartmoor     on the tor          darker than I remember

            more windswept than I remember         facing different ways

            the same way   

I was writing about the past

the recent past              a complete divide

70s/80s            an unresolved frontier

            I imagine which way we are facing now

            looking out

            starting to speak

            our own replacement

—Frances Presley

23 November 1998

Bio: Elizabeth James’s poetry and sound radio collaborations with Jane Draycott have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, LBC (London) and internationally via Engaged magazine.

Recent text collaborations with Peter Manson, and with Ian D. Smith, are to be published (see also “between 2 moons,” a phone text message sequence: ). A hypertext of a live moo collaboration with mIEKAL aND is at [NB: sic]. She works at the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and is pursuing graduate studies in book history. Her own occasional press is frame publications.

Bio: Frances Presley’s publications include: Linocut (London: Oasis, 1997); Private writings (Maquette: Sheepwash, 1998); Neither the one nor the other, with Elizabeth James (London; Form Books, 1999); Automatic cross stitch, with images by Irma Irsara (London: The Other Press, 2000); and Somerset letters, forthcoming from Oasis.  She has written about innovative British women poets in various conference papers, reviews and articles.  She lives in London.  Her own occasional press is The Other Press.


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