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Image by Vijayalakshmi Nidugondi
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Vidya Venkatramani, poet talks to Geethanjali Rajan about her book 'Unexpected Gift' written in collaboration with Sonam Chhoki

Authors: Sonam Chhoki, Bhutan and Geethanjali Rajan, India

Publisher: Editions des petits nuages, Ottawa, Canada (Nov 2021)

Language: English

Format: e-book, kindle 

Genre: collaborative haikai poetry

Talking Books

With Geethanjali Rajan

Vidya Venkatramani, a poet, talks to Geethanjali Rajan about her book Unexpected Gift written in collaboration with Sonam Chhoki, a poet from Bhutan.


Geethanjali Rajan needs no introduction in the world of haikai. She is one of the pioneers of haikai style in India. Geethanjali is an editor at Café Haiku and editor of haiku at cattails journal. She is a Japanese and English teacher residing in Chennai. This is an exploration of the rengay book “Unexpected Gift” which Geethanjali has written with Sonam Chhoki, Bhutan.

VV: Tell us about your Rengay writing experiences.

GR: Haiku is now primarily written as an individualist activity and not as collaborative poems. However, in the 17th century, when Basho and his disciples wrote, it was as linked verse or the ‘haikai no renga’. In this context, a poet had to be able to write haiku in response to someone else’s poem.

Writing collaborative haikai forms is not about your skill of writing alone, it is about reading, responding, linking and shifting from the previous poem in the rengay. This has been a very educative and enjoyable experience for me as it also involves conversations around the poem, the images, the season, the context.

I met Sonam Chhoki at a conference in Mumbai that was arranged by the poet Raamesh Gowri Raghavan. Shobhana Kumar, Sonam and I spent a lot of time talking about haiku and the cultural and socio- political milieu that we were in. Let’s just say that we hit it off. But later, when we continued that conversation through email, Sonam led both Shobhana and me to start writing linked verse as an experiment that soon became the norm.

Writing rengay has been an educative and wonderful experience. It is an exercise in close reading, responding. There are many things that we learn to hone in on – intuitive responses, tuning in to seasons, layers, metaphors – it is all quite magical if we continue the writing for a period of time and I have been writing with Sonam for nearly a decade. The spin off from rengay is also the friendships that it can foster across countries and continents.


VV: How did the idea for the book “Unexpected Gift “come about?

GR: Sonam Chhoki and I had been writing collaborative haikai poetry (rengay and its variations) through an email correspondence for about 7 years. It wasn’t done with the idea of a book or publishing. It was more of a dialogue through poetry. In fact, to us, the conversations around each verse are as important as the verse itself. Through haiku and haibun or tanka, countless exchanges take place between us. When we had written 50 or 60 poems together, Sonam suggested that we probably have enough poems for a book. That set me thinking as well. She had mooted the idea and I latched onto it. Sonam had already published a book of haikai collaborations, Mapping Absences, with Mike Montreuil. Then we started the process of selecting and arranging the poems, looking at themes. When we put together the manuscript and sent it to Mike at Editions des petits nuages in Ottawa, he liked the whole manuscript, along with the cover and illustrations by Dhaatri Vengunad. It all came together.  Not too many publishers take on rengay and to find someone who was already a practitioner, was a blessing.


VV: Going through the book, I find that you were able to match each other’s mood and tone. How did you achieve this despite the distances and not being able to have face-to-face discussions?

GR: Yes, we don’t have any face-to-face discussions but we’ve had many email interactions. It’s almost like the letter-writing days! As for matching the mood and tone, writing collaborative rengay is about responses after a close reading. I would say we managed it thanks to the process of ‘slow cooking’. We weren’t in a hurry. We took our time to enjoy the whole process of writing together. The process was more important than the focus on the finished product while we were writing. The idea of the book came later.


VV: What cultural similarities and differences do you see with your collaborator Sonam Chhoki?

GR: Sonam Chhoki comes from Bhutan and her poetry is strongly grounded in the culture and geography of the land. She writes very evocative verse based on the ethos and the seasons of beautiful Bhutan. I fall back onto my own upbringing and life in the South of India, particularly Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where as you know, the traditions and seasons of the peninsula meld into festivals and celebrations. When we collaborated, we focused on our own roots while responding to the other’s images of seasons and song.

The differences I see are the Buddhist traditions and the clear change of seasons in Bhutan whereas, where I live, festivals and the agricultural year are all timed to a tropical climate. That makes for an interesting contrast in writing and also, helps with the link and shift of ideas and images that are so important in rengay. The diversity is what makes rengay even more interesting, is what I believe.


VV: Which personal quality in your collaborator has helped you shape the book?

GR: Sonam is an astute poet and her imagery is really one that can be called intrinsically ‘haikai’. On a personal level, she doesn’t intrude on the styles of the people she writes with. There is plenty of space, respect and a curiosity about the imagery in the collaborators’ verse. This leads to conversations and also, a trusting environment to write in. Of course, she is an eagle-eyed editor as well! In the final stages, that really helped to shape and hone the manuscript.


VV: I love the haibun “A sense of beginning”. Can you share the back story of this haibun with our readers?

GR: We don’t discuss what we want to write about beforehand or while we are writing. It is an organic process. When I sent in a spring equinox verse, Sonam wrote very evocative prose about the Spring rituals in Bhutan. This in turn led me to my experience of the ‘niraputhari’ harvest rituals that signify the advent of the harvest season in agrarian Kerala, where I spent a bit of my childhood. The whole haibun ends with a happy beginning – Spring, first harvest, hope for the future. That led to the title. The beauty of the collaboration is perhaps that neither of us have been in the other’s land but yet, the poem comes together cohesively and coherently.


VV: Do you have any more Rengay books in the pipeline?

GR: There are plenty of collaborative rengay that we have written together over the last decade. There’s one book that’s forthcoming. It’s called Fragments of conversation and it has haibun, tanka, haiku and tanka prose collaborations that Sonam and I have penned together. There are many more that the three of us have written together – Shobhana, Sonam and I. I feel that these things happen in its own rhythm. When it’s time, another manuscript may emerge.

VV: Thank you. Geethanjali, for talking to The Wise Owl about your book of collaborative haikai forms.

GR: Thank you, Vidya for your insightful questions. My gratitude to The Wise Owl team for this opportunity.

About Geethanjali Rajan
Image by Sixteen Miles Out
Geethanjali Rajan discovered haiku in 2003. Her English language haiku and haibun have been published in online and print journals and anthologised in several books. Geethanjali edits haiku at cattails, the journal of Japanese short forms of poetry. She is also a part of the editorial team at Café Haiku. She has conducted over 50 workshops in English and Japanese in colleges, schools, and other fora, spreading the joy of haiku in India. She has been on the panel of judges in the South Asia Online Haiku Contest for The Japan Foundation (Japanese haiku). She contributes articles (in Japanese and English) on Indian haiku and culture for Tsurezure, the newsletter of the Haiku International Association (HIA), Japan.

She is the author of longing for sun longing for rain (Red River, 2023). Her e-book of collaborative verse with Sonam Chhoki (Bhutan), Unexpected Gift, was published by Éditions des petits nuages, Canada in 2021.

About Vidya S Venkatramani
Image by Sergey Zolkin

Vidya S Venkatramani lives in Chennai and has been writing haiku for the past eight years. Her haiku, haibun and senyru have appeared in international journals. Her work has also been included in anthologies like Naad-Anunaad, Red River book of Haibun, Late Blooming Cherries and The Wonder Code. She facilitates workshops in leadership skills for corporates.

Talking Books

Anmol Sandhu talks to Sonia Chauhan about her book This Maze of Mirrors

Hi Joanna. Thanks for talking to The Wise Owl


RS: Your collection of Cherita ‘river lanterns’ has been released recently. Our readers would be eager to know (as I am) what inspired you to write this beautiful collection of 90 virgin Cherita. 


JA:  I have been published in Ai Li’s Cherita journals for a while and love writing in this form.  I mentioned in my email correspondence to Ai Li that I aspired to have my own Cherita collection published.  She offered to edit my selection of poems from a large selection that I sent her.  I would say my inspiration came from reading Ai Li’s own collections of her Cherita verse, they are so beautiful. 


When I began writing these, I was mindful to really show me as not only a writer but as the person beneath and how the Cherita form bends to the art of storytelling.  It took me some time to write these and I am delighted with the narrative that Ai Li made with her choices for my book.  When another person chooses, they can distance themselves from your work and look critically at what you have sent.  It was a real honour for me to entrust the creator of the Cherita with my work.



RS: Your book is a collection of Cherita verse. Cherita is a genre of recent origin (1997). Tell us what attracted you to this genre of poetry. Were there any creative influences in your life that encouraged you to adopt this genre as your own.


JA:  I am attracted to this genre of poetry as I hold a deep reverence for Ai Li’s poetry and the short form poetry forms as a collective.  I was excited to see that Ai Li had developed this new genre.  She published my short form verse in the 1990s in her journal Still and I was sad when this was no longer in print.  I enjoyed the challenge of learning how to write this new form and find it really resonates with me as a writer.


I discovered her new form of Cherita and was hooked by these story gems.  I really admire the way that the Cherita journals are produced and enjoy reading the work within these.  As a writer it is important to keep on working at your craft and I love it when I get to enjoy the work of a fellow poet in the same genre. 


RS: River Lanterns has been edited and published by ai li, the creator of Cherita as a genre. How was the experience of connecting with the doyen of Cherita and having her select your Cherita?


JA:  As I mentioned earlier Ai Li had published my work in the 90s, then through offering Cherita to her for publication, the connection was reborn.  I have always enjoyed reading Ai Li’s poetry and I have found her to be a gracious supporter of my Cherita.  Sending my work to the creator of the genre I think really made me conscious that I had to elevate my writing to meet the standards to have enough quality Cherita for my own individual collection.  The experience is something that I will treasure as I now have a collection published other people can enjoy and will hopefully encourage them to do the same.


RS: Cherita is said to be a unique form of storytelling…storytelling in 6 lines. M Kei says that Cherita verse ‘combine the evocative power of tanka with the narrative of a personal story, like the vignettes we glimpse as we sit in a café and watch the world go by.’ Do you agree ? For the benefit of the readers would you please elaborate on this.


JA:  Yes, I think M Kei’s insight is correct.  Cherita to me contain the voice/song/whispers around the campfire as the stories unfold.  They can be written about such a wide range of experiences, focused through the lens of the individual. I love the power of tanka, and I see Cherita as a close cousin, both forms use beautiful language to sing a fragment of the world that we live in.


RS: I feel what differentiates Cherita from narrative storytelling, is that it tells a story about life & our spiritual journey. This is very true of your Cherita:


have you
found it yet

the fun arcade

where wishes
are the alchemy
of breath


What are your thoughts on this?


JA:  Yes, I feel a real connection with Cherita and my spiritual side.  This is an element that attracts me to using this form.  It allows me to explore and highlight aspects that may not be accepted in other types of verse.  The Cherita can be used as a blank canvas for me to embed my perspective of my inner and outer world through stories. 


RS: What are the themes or stories you have touched upon in your various Cherita verse?


JA:  Where to begin…  The Cherita in this collection provides a map of my highs and lows.  They reveal how I see the world and feel about it.  I enjoy adding elements of fairytales, myths, rich imagery, and aspects of the natural world.  The importance of love, loss, friendship, connections, truth etc. all are within.  The Cherita captures a moment of beauty, in time, often of universal things that happen to all of us but told from the narrator’s perspective.    Often there is a vein of spirituality running through the verse.



RS: There are some cherita terbalik also in your collection. For the benefit of our readers please tell us how this form is different from Cherita and why we need a different syllable arrangement for this form of poetic storytelling


JA:  The Cherita terbalik also tells a story but ‘terbalik’ is the Malay word for upside down or reversal (   It is a different arrangement of the original Cherita stanza format.  By using another variation of the Cherita format it enables the writer to alter the flow of the story that they are telling, such as the example from my collection below:


the ruby shoes

the glass slipper

the fairy dust


as a child

I imagined all


in my cupboard


To me this verse is stronger with the terbalik arrangement.  Writing Cherita I make a judgement as to which stanza suits the flow of the story.


RS: Do you also write in other genres like haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun on a regular basis?  Which is your favorite genre among all these genres (we know your fondness for Cherita of course)


JA:  Yes, I also write in other genres such as haiku, senryu, tanka, Haibun and other short form verse.  I began writing contemporary poetry first and then I discovered haiku when I was looking for poetry journals to read and subscribe to.   I fell in love with haiku and feel that they are the guardians of nature and our world.  I find short form poetry very special; these dewdrops of tiny forms really capture a sense of the world around us. 


I see the bonds between these genres as strings from the same bow –


the heart harp


wind and rainfall

skeins from sky


this humming

of a melody

our soul bonds


Selecting a favourite is like asking a parent to choose a child.  They all hold a place in my heart.  I began with haiku and then progressed to tanka – aspects of the heart.  These are the two that led me into this world of short form poetry and were my entry point for exploring and discovering other genres.  I wouldn’t like to be without any one of them as they each offer a different way to express aspects of the world and my own life journey. 


RS: What advice would you give budding poets of Cherita verse?


JA:  The advice I would give to writers of any verse is to READ, READ, READ.  Study the form, work on your craft, support the journals that publish them – if you want to write them, then surely you will enjoy reading them. Write, keep on writing and honing, learning the form, find your own style/voice, make connections in the writing world – even if online and listen and appreciate editorial advice – they have a vast range of experience, and this is how you grow as a writer.  The short form poetry world is a beautiful, supportive place.  When you buy a journal that publishes Cherita verse or another genre, be open to learning and see how well other writers use the form.  Try and buy the collections of writers that you admire, this keeps our writers’ world vibrant and alive.


Thank you, Joanna, for taking time out to talk to The Wise owl about your beautiful book. We wish you the best and hope you make this unique storytelling genre rich with your verse.


Thank you so much for asking me to talk to you. 

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