Unless stated otherwise, all poetry on Swimming in Lines of Haiku is Copyright Kirsten Cliff and may not be reprinted in any form without written permission from the author. kirsten(DOT)cliff(AT)gmail(DOT)com

Monday, September 30, 2013

NZPS Feature Article for September: Collaborative Poetry

Inspiration through Collaboration
by Kirsten Cliff

I never thought I'd need a prompt to get me writing. I always seemed to have new ideas, and could easily draw from what was happening around me. Then some dark days arrived – cancer, mostly – and it seemed that the act of writing got harder. I was writing less. Maybe that was okay? But being generally uninspired in my play with words did not feel good. So when a haiku friend (who'd also survived cancer) asked if I wanted to write with her, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my writing world.

Cara Holman and I started writing rengay together: a modern form of linked haiku verse. I found that writing to the prompt of her haiku lead me to write poetry that I wouldn't have penned otherwise. On really hard days – when the chemotherapy was stripping me bare – collaborating was what helped me get out of bed in the morning. Why? Because I knew that the next link in the poem would be waiting in my email inbox.

I quickly became excited about writing again. I was inspired in a way I hadn't been before. My writing was taken in new directions. It was still my writing voice, but it was brought to life through the links of my poetry with Cara's. I got instant feedback on my work, often in the form of her next haiku verse. This was highly positive as it meant I had inspired my writing partner, too. We were on a roll.

The Scent of Pine
Cara Holman & Kirsten Cliff

evening sky
the moon cradled
in the ginkgo's branches

the scratch of pencil
on paper

hushed dawn
bird tracks
in the snow

fallen fence post
counting out pills
for the day

a hawk scatters
the flock of starlings

cloud cover
the scent of pine
from the wood pile

Our first two rengay, “The Scent of Pine” and “Turning a Corner”, were quickly accepted for publication, appearing in the on-line journal A Hundred Gourds (June 2013). Over the course of that year we wrote 13 rengay together, including four on our joint experiences of cancer, and all were well received by editors. Every time we completed a rengay, we'd start another. It was addictive. And so much fun!

Then I got the itch to try a tanka sequence and asked another writing friend, Margaret Dornaus, if she'd like to work with me. We quickly found a subject we could both get stuck into: our overseas travels. We took inspiration from photos of our journeys abroad, and wrote our first sequence of tanka linked by that travel bug. Margaret and I have since written together several times and I find her feedback invaluable. I'm learning all the time in this world of poetry and she is one of my teachers.

So the positives of collaboration continued, and the desire to do more never waned. After each project I'd feel the need for a break – it was time to return to my own writing. But these 'breaks' never lasted long. My hunger for this new type of inspiration would rapidly grow, and before I knew it I'd be emailing a friend with a new idea for a rengay or tanka sequence. I soon grew bolder and began asking others to write with me. I've now written with six different people.

Lost & Found
Margaret Dornaus & Kirsten Cliff

crossing the river
into this new year, alone
I stop
to look at every turn
before I carry on

first dream of the year
diagnosing her pain
as leukaemia . . .
could I find the strength
to do it over again

on the bench
at the foot of her bed
a clutch of tissues . . .
abandoned like the words
she can no longer recall

I hear her say
she's lost the will to live . . .
the waves
keep on cresting
keep on breaking

winter fog—
the lighthouse steps
we climb
to see whatever
we might see

all day long
the peacock's cry
once again
I fail to listen
to my intuition

Part of a tanka sequence published in LYNX (March 2013)

Experimentation was part of the joy. Cara and I played with the rengay form creating what we called 'rengay sequences': four rengay linked together. This developed from that drive to keep writing with one another, and wanting to explore all avenues of a particular theme. Now I'm breaking new ground with Seánan Forbes: we are writing tanka sequences using repeating lines. This occurred the first time naturally when I was so inspired by Seánan's starting tanka verse that I wanted to use one of her lines in my linking tanka. It can be quite a challenge to use your writing partner's first line as your third line, for example, but, once again, I can't seem to say no!

A very different experience was my first time writing face-to-face, and as part of a group, at the June 2012 Haiku Festival Aotearoa in Tauranga. It was a session filled with laughter, and where I realised I wasn't too good at writing haiku under pressure! Sandra Simpson lead ten of us in writing a junicho: a longer and stricter form of Japanese linked haiku verse. It was also a 'competitive' write, which meant that we all contributed verses for each new spot, and Sandra choose the one that linked best. Although this began in real-time, it was completed on-line, which gave me more space to become inspired by the preceding verse. The experience of working face-to-face in a group setting is one I would definitely repeat, though. After all, it is how linked verses were traditionally written in Japan.

I've since gone on to create collaborative haiga (putting haiku with a photographic image) with two of my haiku friends. I was also part of Ruth Arnison's 'Poems in the Waiting Room' fundraiser, which saw the haiku of North Island poets paired with South Island artists. In this collaboration I was a silent partner, but was excited by the artists' interpretations of my haiku. I look forward to future collaborations with other people outside the world of haiku, as well as those within it.

First published in a fine line, The Magazine of the New Zealand Poetry Society (September 2013); reprinted at NorthWrite

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