AN INTERVIEW BY CHARANJEET KAUR WITH AVRIL & SHERNAZ
(from the Muse India literary e-journal September 2011)
Shernaz and Avril's 'Tapestries' have been awarded at Muse India a number of instances and draw a very enthusiastic response in “Your Space”. Both write poetry with a passion and feel for language and emphasise the discipline that poetry demands. In this Conversation with Charanjeet Kaur, they discuss the technical aspects of weaving together independently written poems and the joys of collaborative creative work. A selection of their Tapestries is to be found in the Archives of Muse India.
Charanjeet Kaur: You have called Tapestry “An experimental Genre of Poetry” in a blogspot, Shernaz. Were you familiar with any other forms of collaborative poetry before you embarked on the Tapestry adventure? What has been the response to your writings in this genre?
Shernaz Wadia: No. I had heard that there were groups whose members wrote co-jointly, each contributing one verse of a poem. The only time I collaborated was when I had been asked to add two lines to the UMFPS project - The Eternal United Peace Song.
It is thanks to Avril that I first heard about this particular form and I thought it was a very interesting concept, so we decided to give it a try. As initially we used to weave the poems almost line by line, we decided to call it Tapestry.
Honestly, the general response to this genre has been lukewarm. Except from the ‘Your Space’ fraternity of Muse India. There we have received immense encouragement. In fact, Diwakar Pai has even translated some of our poems into Hindi and posted them on his blog.
I introduced this genre at the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF 2010) last December and one or two participants suggested that I should have held a workshop, as it was a very novel and interesting idea. That’s all. If there are others writing in this form we are not aware of it. I had also written about it on the website boloji.com. Avril had posted an introduction on another on-line poetry web journal – Poetica Magazine. There too the response has been extremely poor. Perhaps a wider platform will give it the boost it needs.
CK: 9+9 lines interwoven into 18 lines. This is how you have been working out together. Tell me what are the roadblocks you both face in 1) conceptualising a common theme, 2) writing poetry according to the specifications prescribed and 3) fusing the two independently written poems into one?
SW: In conceptualising the theme, we keep in mind each other’s cultural and national differences and opt for more general, nature-based or spiritual/humanitarian ones. If I choose an Indian festival or a social theme specific to our country, it would naturally be difficult, if not impossible, for Avril to write on it and vice-versa. One or two of our recent poems have a broad social theme and they too have been well received.
The only specification required is that we limit individual poems to 9 lines and only the one who gives the title uses it in the poem. That’s more of a challenge than a block. Of course, the final blended poem, too, has to be of 18 lines only.
Fusing the two independent poems has sometimes been very difficult, and in one or two instances, impossible and we have had to abandon those poems. Our initial attempts, often, did not yield very good results, as we used to just inter-mingle the lines of the two poems. Over time, with experience, constructive criticism and inputs, (particularly from GSP Rao, the Managing Editor of MI), we have progressed to structuring better poems.
Avril Meallem: Firstly, we don't try to conceptualize a common theme. Sometimes it just happens and at other times each poem is quite different. I have talked about this a bit in question 4. The hardest part I find is having a prescribed title rather than writing a poem from inspiration and then choosing an appropriate title. This has been quite a challenge for me and sometimes it could take many days to come up with a poem from a place of inspiration.
Regarding the 9 lines. Yes, that can be quite difficult at times, as either I find I have more to write and have to compact into 9 lines, and at other times I find myself short of the 9 lines. The other sometimes difficult part is when I am not the title-giver and so cannot use the title words in my poem. This needs greater thought in order to come up with a poem that would fit the given title.
About working on the weaving, I find that having formulated rules helps us to be more contained within its boundaries, and so actually makes the weaving easier and more challenging and enjoyable. It becomes a truly creative process in more than one way, ie not only from a place of inspiration.
GSP Rao (in response to the Conversation): Avril and Shernaz have so far restricted to 9 lines format. Any reason for this? Is it conceivable that two poems of different lengths (say between 5 and 10 lines each) be fused together in a similar manner? What could the challenges be in that case? That way, the rigidity of length could be slightly eased. Ultimately, the fusion is of two streams of thoughts on a common theme.
SW: Actually it would be possible to weave any two poems on a common theme, regardless of the number of lines in each, but we have stuck to a nine line format to ensure uniformity, a certain discipline. We would have to formulate a new rule that would allow the title-giver to write more lines and the other poet fewer. Or the other way round, but it would still be rigidity. Besides, it is more challenging to always express oneself within a limited number of lines. Flexibility would perhaps detract from that. And to us the fun of creativity is in this challenge. Do you agree, Avril? Having said that, there is always room for experimentation and innovation. We could give it a try, using poems we have already written, based on a common theme.
AM: Shernaz and I developed the Tapestry genre based on a very basic form of collaborative poetry writing that a friend of mine here in Jerusalem had introduced me to. This form used 9 lines for each individual poem so we just kept to that format.
I feel that 9 lines is a very workable number. Too many lines would make the Tapestry very long, and less would make it harder to express our thoughts in the individual poems and I agree with Shernaz that part of the fun and creative challenge is to work within a fixed boundary.
CK: How do the cultural and national distances between you both affect your writing – both positively and negatively?
SW: As I said in the previous answer, we keep in mind the cultural/national/religious differences (I prefer it to distances) before giving the title. This is a bit of a constraint but then there is no dearth of common subjects for us to write on. Once, Avril objected to a word or phrase I had used. So, I changed it and have not use it again. In another poem, I explained why I had used a certain term and what it meant in the Indian context and she accepted it. Understanding, co-operation and receptivity, not compromise have been essential to our Tapestry adventure. And I can confidently say that we are both enjoying it immensely.
AM: I don't feel that the national or cultural distances affect our writing in any way at all. We are both spiritually aware and not dogmatic in our thinking; so that I feel is one of the reasons why we are so compatible. Other differences, therefore, become insignificant.
CK: Do you visualise each other’s versions before you embark on your own nine- line poem? After working so consistently with each other you must have gained an insight into the workings of each other’s minds by now. Do the poems come more easily now, after you have worked so closely with each other?
SW: Is it so easy to gain insight into the workings of another’s mind? I doubt it. So often when I begin to write a poem I am not sure what will get written. I start off with a certain idea but when the final version has written itself out it is something quite else. I am familiar with her style of writing, but would not go so far as to envision her version. That would be presumptuous. The fun and excitement is in being surprised by her poem as well as mine. Even if one of us has written and sent off her poem, the other does not open the attachment till she has sent hers. That is a part of the discipline of Tapestry. When you work as a team, trust, honesty and personal integrity are very essential to any project.
No, even now the poems don’t come easily. At times it is days after the title has been given before one of us comes up with a poem. Why the individual poems? Even our versions of the woven Tapestry are very different from each other’s.
AM: No, I don't try and visualise Shernaz's version at all. We do seem to think on a similar wave length, and I felt that from the time I joined Muse India; so, when I met Shernaz in Mumbai, it just felt so right to ask her to join me in collaborative writing. There are many times that we do come up with similar ideas. It is quite amazing as many times one of us has said we had had several ideas and have not been sure which one to follow up, and we end up with much the same one; but on other occasions there has been a totally different take on the subject and that’s when the tapestry writing becomes an amazing creative challenge. Only on two occasions have we managed to come up with a weaving almost immediately. Sometimes it takes many emails back and forth to arrive at a satisfactory Tapestry and at other times just a couple. Writing the individual poems is no different than from when we started, but certainly working out the weaving is definitely easier now that we have worked on so many.
CK: What does creativity mean to both of you? Does the extensive use of the Tapestry form help in making your creative writing more disciplined and structured?
SW: The creative process has been one of continual learning, of pushing my skill and ability a bit further each time; of being true to myself. Particularly, when writing poems, I have not given consideration to whether the form I use is acceptable or not in the present day. I’ve experimented with different forms to gain experience and crawl past my limitations. I write mostly because something inside me wants to get written; because creativity has also meant exploring and expressing the hidden niches of my mind. Often I have wondered at what I have written (be it prose, poetry or short stories) – so this is how I really think and feel! It has opened up hitherto unknown facets of perception, inspires courage and frees my spirit, bringing me closer to myself.
Yes, with the rules we have defined and adhere to, the Tapestry form does help in disciplining and organizing our writing to a point. On the other hand, the fluid rigidity of the Haiku and Tanka forms, in which I dabble from time to time, has helped me with the Tapestry form. To be able to convey an idea in as few words as possible is daunting and exhilarating
AM: I see creativity as connecting to a source beyond thought to bring down something new into the world that never had existed before. It could be anything from a poem to art, to cooking...
For me, when I go to write a poem I need to blank my mind, and then let whatever comes to me to be written . This is how I have penned all my poems which, on most occasions were spontaneous to an emotion whether negative or positive. With this Tapestry work, I have found, on many occasions, that it has taken me quite a long time before any words came to me so it has been quite a challenge, and especially to make it fit into just 9 lines and when not having given the title to write a poem that fits this title but without using its words. When we do the weaving we need to use a lot of thought rather than just inspiration. I really enjoy this aspect as it becomes almost scientific in the way we have to get everything to flow and use all the lines and play around with finding alternative words in many cases. I have a very scientific mind; so for me this experiment has been so gratifying.
I don't think, however, that working with this Tapestry genre has had any effect on my other poetry writing, which still just comes as a flow from beyond my thinking. I never really know what I have written till reading it afterwards!!
CK: So when do we expect to see your work in book form now?
SW: We are working on it and I hope it will be soon.
AM: We are at the stage of going through all of our Tapestries and seeing which ones could benefit from some re-editing. So we don't know how long the whole process till publication will take.
SW: Charanjeet we are immensely grateful to you and Muse Indiafor bringing the Tapestry form to a wider audience through this conversation. I would also like to thank all the contributors to ‘Your Space,’ without whose sustained interest and encouragement we would not have been able to come this far.