Two Types of Collaborative Poetry: Creating Resonance
by Neal Whitman
Collaborative poetry has a compelling history that goes back to the Renaissance, when poetry was often a joint project rather than an individual one. In France, many professional poets formed what were known as “virtuoso circles,” where they would collaborate with their contemporaries and engage with their predecessors in order to refine and enhance their own expertise, and produce anthologies. In Japan during that period, renga developed as a popular pastime in which two or more poets supplied alternating sections of a poem.
The purpose of this article is to encourage writers to try and editors to welcome two specific forms of collaborative poetry writing that have been rewarding in my life as a poet.
The first, haiga, is a Japanese form that dates back to the seventeenth century. It combines a haiku poem with a visual image, such as a watercolor landscape or a sumi-e black ink painting. One person could create a solo haiga, but for those of us, such as myself, who can write a haiku poem but cannot illustrate, there is a need for an artistic collaborator. The second form, tapestry, is a more contemporary form. It was developed in English by Avril Meallem in Israel and later enhanced when she partnered with Shernaz Wadia in India. It includes elements and influences from all over the world. Both forms have the potential to live up to their Latin derivation: co means “with” and laborare means “to work.” Collaboration allows workers to unite their individual skills and talents to create resonance in one piece of work. In the examples of haiga and tapestry that I will offer, you will see that collaborators can live near or far.
In Close Proximity: My wife, Elaine, and I love to collaborate on haiga. In a haiga workshop that we team-taught (ah, another aspect of collaboration), we introduced ourselves as “collaborators” and as I explained to our participants,
No, we are not in cahoots, performing acts of treason. What we offer is our work together – a labor of love. The wonderful writer, Elizabeth Hartwick once said that when a husband and wife collaborate as writers, they are engaged in a very private act of love. Her husband, Robert Lowell, may have gone too far in using her private letters in his poems. Not to worry – we promise not to stretch the limits of “too much information.”
From a Distance: In November of 2013, in email correspondence with Avril Meallem regarding Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, she invited me to try out tapestry poetry with her. She lives in Jerusalem and I live in Pacific Grove, California, – a distance of 7,400 miles. Avril developed the tapestry form via email with a poet in India, Shernaz Wadia. They became acquainted with each other’s poetry in the “Your Space” section of the literary e-journal Muse India. When they met in Mumbai in 2010, they decided to work together using a form that they now call tapestry poetry. They offer examples on their website and in their wonderful book, Tapestry Poetry: A Fusion of Two Minds. Readers interested in the book or in a workshop can contact Avril, who also welcomes tapestry poems from other pairs of collaborators.
Are you buckled in? Let’s take a ride. Let’s hit the road and check out two forms of collaboration: haiga and tapestry poetry.
Since now we are combining haiku and a visual image (in my case, with photography), we first need to be clear about what haiku is and is not. Ah, I can read minds. You are thinking, “Time to skim. I already know all about haiku.” Haiku poets get this all the time. We are approached by a friend who says, “Hey, look. I wrote a haiku.” Before opening the folded note, I already know what is there: a three-line poem with a 5/7/5 syllable count. Now I need a megaphone:
A 5/7/5 syllable count is not wrong, but haiku does not need those 17 syllables to be right.
In fact, this syllable count is based on a misunderstanding of Japanese. In the early twentieth century when poets in the U.S. and Europe “discovered” this centuries-old form of poetry, they thought that the Japanese poets were counting syllables. But, they were counting onji – “sound units.” It turns out that 17 syllables in English is a longer poem than 17 sound units in Japanese.
Also, keep in mind that Japanese haiku is written in a single vertical line. Its essence – what makes a haiku a haiku – is not its 17 onji. What makes the poem a haiku is the juxtaposition of two images. One image might go one-third down the vertical line. Then there is a pause, and then the second image is the final two-thirds of the vertical line. Or, the first image might be two-thirds, followed by a pause, and then the second image in the final third.
Now, here is a mind-bender that has to do with that pause which separates the two images. In English, we would use a punctuation mark, and this is what we did when we reformatted the single vertical line into three lines to make haiku look more like our poetry. But in Japanese, the pause used to separate the two images is made with a kureji – a “cutting word.” For example, in English we use a comma for a short pause. The equivalent kureji is the word ya.
Now, here is the key point when it comes to counting sound units versus syllables: Japanese count kureji in their sound unit count! Get it? A haiku in English with 17 syllables with punctuation is a longer poem than a Japanese haiku. So, let’s return to this key point: what makes a haiku a haiku is not the sound unit or syllable count: it is two images separated by a pause.
In fact, the rule of haiku is that one image does not repeat or re-state the other. Rather, they resonate! The juxtaposition of the two images creates a feeling in the reader. Haiku poets do not tell us or explain a feeling. They show us two images and we experience a feeling. Furthermore, these two images should be concrete: things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.
And here is the magic of haiku: Whatever the feeling might be, there is an “a-ha” moment – the haiku evokes an “Oh…I see!” response. A true haiku captures one single moment in time and brings the reader there. The specific feeling haiku inspires in a reader may or may not be the same feeling the poet had intended – after all, no two people read the same poem, eh? But, there are two general feelings that ought to be shared: oooh or aaah. We get an oooh feeling when haiku shocks or jolts us. Here is one of my oooh haiku poems:
rising moon –
a dog barking
Modern Haiku, Fall 2010
We get an aaah feeling when haiku is meant to convey awe, and the experience is sublime. Here is one of mine:
Modern Haiku, Winter-Spring 2010
Two images. Hold that thought. Just as the essence of haiku is the juxtaposition of two images that resonate, the essence of haiga is to combine haiku with a visual image that does not repeat, but instead resonates. That is what Elaine and I aim for in our collaborative haiga. But which comes first? Haiku or photograph? Haiga partners try it each way and, for Elaine and me, each is a satisfying experience. If you look at the word, haiga, the ga means painting. It follows the hai, which means amusing. This does not mean that haiga are meant to be funny, but rather are aimed to entertain. In our collaboration, Elaine’s photograph usually comes first. “So,” we asked ourselves, “why not begin with the haiku and then combine it with its visual mate?”
That is what we did when one autumn day, Elaine and I walked through the Farmers Market hosted by our small town of Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula along California’s central coast. I went with my little haiku notebook, jotting down sights, sounds, and smells. I picked up and touched fruit and vegetables. I took in the atmosphere and invited myself to emotionally experience the autumn season. Here is what I wrote when we returned home and I sat in my poetry room.
appleful for home
swinging a tote in each hand
Fall Farmers Market
Getting Something Read, Autumn 2009
Though we had walked to and from the Farmers Market, if I had driven up and down Forest Avenue that afternoon, you would have sighted my little white hatchback with the personalized auto plate, PG POET, in a customized frame inscribed, “Poetic License.” So, as you can see, I took poetic license and made up the word “appleful” to help convey the concrete experience that I hoped would create in the reader an aaah feeling. It was then, and only then, that Elaine looked for a picture that would resonate with the written word.
She composed a still life on our dining room table, using apples from the Farmers Market. In addition to my haiku, she was inspired by the walk taken in 1819 by John Keats who in writing his ode, “To Autumn,” performed a ritual that always prepared him to write: he bathed, dressed in his best clothes, and put out a tray of sliced apples with a glass of good red wine. Elaine flashed an image of a tabletop ready for someone about to settle into a personal activity at home. Here is her photograph with my haiku as its caption.
appleful for home
swinging a tote in each hand
Fall Farmers Market
Most of our haiga begin with Elaine’s photographs. Here is one of those haiga that will appear in a 2014 anthology edited by Robert Epstein, The Sacred in Contemporary Haiku
her Hopi flutes stacked
in the sunflower can
As described earlier, tapestry poetry is a form of collaborative poetry developed by Avril Meallem in Israel and Shernaz Wadia in India. Here is the basic protocol as Avril explained it to me:
- Poet A writes a nine-line poem, but sends only the title to Poet B.
- Only Poet A has the option of using words in the title in the poem to avoid repetition.
- Poet B writes a nine-line poem inspired by the title.
- Poets A and B now read each other’s poems.
- Then Poet B weaves all 18 lines into one poem.
- Poet A offers edits and the two poets exchange drafts until both are satisfied.
- The majority of words of the original two poems should be kept, but grammatical changes are allowed (e.g.,singular to plural and verb tenses). Also, adjectives and adverbs can be replaced with others more befitting the tapestry, but retaining the original flavor.
For our first tapestry poem, I suggested the title, “And the Sleeping Mountain Rises.” Although as a general rule the title is not changed, in the final version we agreed that “The Sleeping Mountain” was better suited. Here are the two 9-line poems and the final poem.
And the Sleeping Mountain Rises – Avril
Caressed by the rays of the ascending sun
in gold, reds and yellows,
appear above the mist of dawn that
cloaks all else in mystery.
An ethereal picture, as if they were
detached from the world below.
Yet, with the warmth of the morning,
all will be revealed.
And Sleeping Mountain Rises – Neal
Below the wolf moon
I lay awake cold
A loose boulder rolls down the hillside
There is a splash and then sleep.
At first light my dream leaves me wild
I wash my face and brush my hair
In the aspen grove I hear a lost anthem
A rose opens in the shadows
and the sleeping mountain rises.
The Sleeping Mountain –
Tapestry by Avril Meallem and Neal Whitman
I sleep, cloaked in mystery
and detached from the world.
At first light a loose boulder
rolls down the hillside.
There is a splash –
my dream leaves me wild.
I lie awake, cold
below the wolf moon.
Then, with the warmth of the morning,
I wash my face and brush my hair.
In the aspen grove I hear a lost anthem.
I watch the rays of the ascending sun
caress the snow-capped peaks
like an ethereal painting,
whilst, in the shadows
red and yellow roses open.
Then all is revealed
as the mist of dawn rises
above the sleeping mountain.
For our second tapestry poem, Avril chose the title, “Shifting Sands.” Here are our two 9-line poems and the final poem:
Shifting Sands – Avril
Do I know where I will be tomorrow?
Do I know where my life is leading me?
So many questions with no answers –
only an awareness of the fragility of life.
A sudden twist and all plans
disintegrate in confusion, but
a new perspective then opens up before me.
Like shifting sands in the desert,
I am blown by the wind of God.
Shifting Sands – Neal
Let go of destinations.
Follow a compass, not a map.
Hang out with a nomad.
Don’t stop at false borders.
Stop at every oasis.
Lower your gaze.
The evening brings relief.
Step away from the campfire with care.
Love the sand wherever it is.
Shifting Sands –
Tapestry by Avril Meallem and Neal Whitman
I cannot let go of destinations
and follow a compass instead of a map.
The evening brings its relief,
but I know not where my life is leading me –
so many questions with no answers.
If I could hang out with a nomad,
a new perspective would then open up before me.
There would be no more sudden twists
where plans disintegrate
and I lower my gaze in confusion.
I would love the shifting sands
wherever I am in the desert,
aware of the fragility of life and
not knowing where I will be tomorrow.
No longer will I stop at false borders.
I will rest at every oasis.
Dare to step away from the campfire
and allow myself to be blown by the wind of God.
As a newcomer to tapestry poetry, I found it an eye-opening experience to discover how each poem went into new and unexpected directions in the three or four rounds of editing. Although my own poetry is normally a private labor of love for me, this collaborative process showed me how I could benefit from the eyes and ears of a second poet.
My experience collaborating with Elaine on haiga and with Avril on tapestry poems allows me to practice equanimity. This is a welcome challenge for me as this virtue does not come easily. The benefit of collaboration to me is obvious: discovery of unexpected resonance between images that I would not have seen working alone. Collaboration is growth-producing. I hope that this article encourages more poets to try out some form of collaboration, and that editors will be more open to collaborative work that is submitted.