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TALKING BOOKS

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Rachna Singh, Editor The Wise Owl talks to Jonaki Ray about her book Firefly Memories

Talking Books

With Jonaki Ray

Rachna Singh, Editor The Wise Owl talks to Jonaki Ray about her book ‘Firefly Memories’. Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and graduated with Master’s degrees in Chemistry and Computer Science. After a brief stint as a software engineer, she returned to her first love, writing. She is now a poet, writer, and editor based in New Delhi, India.

Awards and nominations for her work include the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award, the 2018 Pushcart Prize nomination(Zoetic  (Zoetic Press, USA), and the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Single Prize nomination (Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, UK). She was the winner of the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest, ESL category, and has been shortlisted in many other contests, including the 2021 Live Canon Pamphlet Competition, the 2020 Verve Poetry Press Open Submission Call, and the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications including POETRY, Poetry Wales, The Rumpus, the Best Indian Poetry 2018 anthology, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, among others.

 

She is the author of Firefly Memories (Copper Coin, India) and Lessons in Bending (Sundress Publications, USA).

Hi Jonaki. Thank you for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl about your recently released collection of poetry. Let me start by complimenting you on your thought-provoking collection of poems.

 

 

RS: Firefly Memories, is a beautiful collection of poetry embracing a number of themes and poetic structures. For the benefit of our readers and poetry lovers, please tell us what made you gravitate towards poetry. Also tell us a little about how you began your journey as a poet?

 

JR: Thank you for your kind words about my book! I started writing when I was in college, mostly a few short pieces for the student magazine. After a gap of some years, I picked it up again to jot down my memories, and like most people, process the emotional upheavals that were happening in my life and around me. I also write fiction, and in fact, was a part of a couple of writing groups. I’d share both my fiction and poetry in those groups, and I realized that poetry for some reason came more naturally to me. That started my journey as a poet, and though I still write fiction, I’ve focused on writing poetry.

 

 

RS: Can you share some insights into your creative process? How do you find inspiration for your poetry?

 

JR: There is no set process. I usually write either about something historical or inspired by an event or image that I see around me. I always write longhand first, and then work on it and revise online. Some of my poems, therefore, have taken a long time to see the light of the day—one poem, for instance, got published four years after I first wrote it!

 

RS: Your poetry collection spans personal experiences as well as themes like immigration, domestic violence etc. Talk to us a little about the recurring themes in your poetry, and why you find them compelling?

 

JR: I write about those I consider voiceless, and those are usually people who are deemed powerless—either children or women, or immigrants, refugees, or those who are considered non-citizens. I find myself writing about these themes because I feel that as a poet it is important both to witness and testify about what is happening around us. A lot of those themes are common in our personal lives as well, and in fact, poetry is a very powerful way of processing what is happening in our lives and speaking up when needed. Writing about these themes is my way of tilting at the windmill of injustices that happen within and without, and staying silent is not an option for any artist, in my opinion!

 

 

RS: Your collection is part memoir and partly inspired by events, exhibitions & paintings. Our readers would be curious to know (as I am) how you approach the balance between personal experience and imagination in your poetry?

 

JR: This is a good question! I think every artist always leaves an imprint of themselves in their work, and we all start with what is known, and that is usually our own lives. I, however, realized that there is often a commonality in all our experiences, though individually we may have differences. So, for instance, I collaborated with a painter, Nathalie, who created a series of paintings about her father who had passed away recently. When I saw the painting, I could immediately identify with the grief and loss that she experienced even though she is from a different country and culture. That was because my father was also ageing. That common bond inspired me to write a poem about her father (and mine) called, Verdigris. I’d say rather than balance between personal experiences and imagination, it is a hybrid of those.

 

 

RS: Indian culture and heritage often serves as a rich source of inspiration for poets and writers. Your poetry is fragrant with the essence of Indian culture. How does your Indian identity influence your poetry, both thematically and structurally?

 

JR: All my writing has its roots in India, and even my poems that are based on my travels are based on the fact that I am visiting another country for a short time, or have studied in a country and therefore have the experience of an immigrant. I have also started writing a lot of ecopoetry and that is based on the environment around us, and of course, the issues that we are facing due to deforestation and unplanned development in India. While these are concerns that are faced all over the world, I try to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ through writing in a way that is easily accessible to everyone, while remaining grounded to what is ‘home’.

 

 

RS: Are there any poets, Indian or otherwise, who have influenced or inspired your writing style or perspective on poetry?

 

JR: There are many—and not just poets. I also read a lot of fiction! I am a fan of classical writers—therefore, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens remain my inspirations.

 

 

RS: Do you think poetry contributes to social and cultural discourse in India? Does your collection add to existing narratives or trigger a fresh narrative?

 

JR: I am hoping it triggers a fresh narrative, especially because I’ve used words from other languages, such as Bengali, Bhojpuri, and Hindi, in my writing! I think poetry remains relevant, and while the publishing part might be a challenge, there is a rich tradition of poetry in India, and hopefully, it will continue.

 

 

RS: Being a poet is not without its challenges. Please share with our readers the challenges you've faced as a poet, either in your creative process or in getting your work recognized and appreciated?

 

JR: I learnt rather early not to have too many expectations. Most of my work has been published in literary journals, and the process by its very nature consists of many rejections. For any poem to be accepted, for instance, I might have had a dozen (if not more) rejections. Poetry, especially is rather subjective, and coming from a science background, I initially felt that is was doubly hard for my writing to be recognized (or understood). Over time though, I’ve realized that my diverse background is a strength, and now I focus on the stories that I want to share, rather than whether they get any recognition.

 

RS: You are an award-winning poet who has been longlisted and shortlisted for various literary prizes. What advice would you give to aspiring poets on how to hone their creativity and poetic craft, particularly young women, who are looking to pursue a career in poetry?

 

JR: Keep reading and writing—that is the only way to get better!

 

 

Thank you Jonaki for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. Here is wishing you the best in all your literary and creative pursuits.

About Jonaki Ray
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Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and graduated with Master’s degrees in Chemistry and Computer Science. After a brief stint as a software engineer, she returned to her first love, writing. She is now a poet, writer, and editor based in New Delhi, India.

Awards and nominations for her work include the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award, the 2018 Pushcart Prize nomination(Zoetic  (Zoetic Press, USA), and the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Single Prize nomination (Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, UK). She was the winner of the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest, ESL category, and has been shortlisted in many other contests, including the 2021 Live Canon Pamphlet Competition, the 2020 Verve Poetry Press Open Submission Call, and the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications including POETRY, Poetry Wales, The Rumpus, the Best Indian Poetry 2018 anthology, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, among others. She is the author of Firefly Memories (Copper Coin, India) and Lessons in Bending (Sundress Publications, USA).

About Dr Rachna Singh
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A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She has authored Phoenix in Flames, a book about eight ordinary women from different walks of life who become extraordinary on account of their fortitude & grit. She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than a decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano. Nurturing literature & art is her passion and to make that happen she has founded The Wise Owl, a literary & art magazine that provides a free platform for upcoming poets, writers & artists. 

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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 (https://www.thecherita.com/)   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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