Making creative collaboration work during the pandemic

by Caroline Pudner, Internal Communications Co-ordinator
Sheffield Hallam University January 2022

Is it possible to collaborate on a creative project when communication is mostly remote?  

We spoke to Carolyn Waudby, a poet and lecturer in journalism here at Hallam, about a creative partnership she’s embarked on during the pandemic – and what it’s revealing about her work.  

What is the collaboration, Carolyn? 

I am working with the Cambridge-based artist engineer Diana Scarborough on film and performance projects using poetry I wrote during the pandemic, in which I took an imaginative journey around our planet. The collaboration is still in progress as I write more poems.  

What are the poems about? 

I write poetry on various themes, but last year during lockdown I began to take inspiration from the planet and climate. I felt the urge to travel, but it wasn’t possible. So, I took a journey in my mind instead. I wanted to write about the extremes in our world but in an indirect rather than didactic way. 

I researched online for the oldest desert, the hottest place, the deepest cave and so on. Reading about these incredible places and hearing personal descriptions from people who have been there, fed into my poems.  

I had an overall title in my mind for the poetry: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. The locations cover those four elements.  

How did the collaboration with Diana come about? 

By a chance encounter! I happened to be at an event in Cambridgeshire where I met Diana. We spoke about our work and Diana was interested in interpreting my poems through multimedia art.  

Diana trained as an engineer and has worked for the likes of NASA, before becoming an artist. Her artwork draws upon science, and she uses multimedia innovatively.  

To start with, I sent Diana my poems. She picked up on a couple of them, which were looking at the planet from space, and that inspired her film interpretation. The first short film is called Epilogue/Prologue.  

Diana Scarborough, multimedia artist

Can you tell us more about the film? 

Of course. Diana featured the words of my poem about the creation of the planet in a diptych film. The poem is repeated twice – in Prologue and Epilogue, but with quite different sound and images. This contrast affects the viewers’ interpretation of the poem. In the first, it evokes a natural landscape before human development, and in the second version it conjures a sense of an urban environment affected by climate change.  

Watch the short Epilogue/Prologue film here 

How did you organise working together and communicating ideas? 

Because we met in person first, we were able to get to know each other and learn what interested us. We’d initially discussed a project around trees, but it didn’t gel with either of us at the time. The planet theme has evolved and works well for me and Diana.  

Since then, we have spoken on Zoom. We try things out, feed back to each other and shape the work organically. I think it’s important to feel right about a working relationship – and that comes from those initial conversations. We discovered early on that we had a lot in common, which helped.  

How has film affected the interpretation of your poems? 

Seeing how my poems are interpreted and conveyed in the film is eye opening. There are two versions of the poem on the film, which already offers us two experiences. Also, when you read a poem, you read it at a certain pace with your natural pauses. When the poem is on film, its pace is fixed. I felt that some words needed to be on screen for longer, so I worked with Diana to make adaptations. At one point, we also wondered if I should narrate the poems.  

Diana then experimented with ways to merge the words and images successfully. There were challenges but we learnt by ‘feeling our way’ through the process. It’s also helped to stretch the boundaries of my work beyond written words on a page. 

What are the main challenges you faced, collaborating during a pandemic? 

The main challenge has been timing and scheduling work together. Like me, Diana has other commitments, so we’re not always working on the same thing at the same time. 

As a creative, you would think that lockdown would make writing easy. But it was hard at the beginning without the range of normal stimuli and freedom of movement. Instead, I had to really get inside my head to find my magic, to go deep into my imagination. I’m happy to say that the ideas have been flowing since then! 

“It’s important that egos aren’t involved too much. Both parties should be equals”

What are you working on now, Carolyn? 

This project is work in progress. I began my journey by finding out about the oldest desert on the planet (it’s the Namibian desert, by the way). I’m now in New Orleans, learning more about hurricanes and the city itself. Diana and I will continue to work on these film poems, and we are considering a longer piece, too. I want to produce a whole collection of poetry of about 40-50 poems, and I have lots of places still left to ‘visit’.  

Do you have any tips for people considering collaboration? 

Definitely. Collaboration helps your creativity, and it can also be fun – so go for it! I think it’s important that egos aren’t involved too much. Both parties should be equals and it needs to be an organic, open process where you can discuss changes and opinions freely and share input. When you’re collaborating, personality is important. You need to know that you’ll be able to work well together.  

I’m always open to new collaborations. And in these isolated times, connecting with others is a positive thing to do. 

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