One-sided collaborations

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJun 10, 2015 | 14:23

One-sided collaborations

I find myself drawn very frequently to ideas of borrowing, stealing and the give-and-take of poetry. Not too long ago, "The Sideways Door" asked you to borrow lines from poems and songs and remix them into a poem of your own.

Recently, during a writing workshop that I led, I had students read selections of bhakti poetry and choose their favourites. Over the course of two days, these young people wrote a poem in response to their chosen favourite in a variety of ways: they could extend the ideas expressed in the original, argue with the poet, write an exact antithesis of the poem, but line-by-line, follow the pattern of the original, satirise it, or they could respond to the poem in undirected ways.


The results were tremendous in their variety and power. It seemed to me, looking back, that that power came - as anyone would expect - from the original poet's words; but it also came from the very contemporary edge that these young poets brought to once-radical words and ideas that, on the subcontinent, had become a mere sentiment.

Something happens to the poem in the process of talking back or writing back. For one thing, it cannot exist but for the poem that has gone before. And if it is a really, really good poem it makes one wonder how the earlier poem existed without this half to complete it.

As an example, there's Christopher Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love", and the poems that Raleigh and Donne wrote in response. The response poems follow the original quite closely though each of these responses takes quite different approaches in the answering. In Carol Anne Duffy's anthology "Answering Back", poets are invited to pick one famous poem and write their own response to it. The Irish poet, Theo Dorgan, responding to Cavafy's famous "Ithaka", says,

  • Now you are free of home and journeying,
  • rocked on the cusp of tides.
  • Ithaca is before you, Ithaca is behind you.
  • Man is born homeless, and shaped for the sea.
  • You must do what is best.

It is a much bleaker poem than Cavafy's experience-rich one from which we inherit the unshakeable idea of the journey being more important than the destination.

This month, I would like you to pick a poem that has sunk a hook into your mind. You could love it or hate it; it could make you want to take a hammer to it; you might want to imitate it closely just in case the genius of the poet rubs off on you in the process. What it makes you feel is as important as the fact that it makes you want to write a response to it.

Find the nature of that response and make it the heart of your poem. Be aware that your poem is in conversation with a specific poem rather than the complete works of the poet or to a kind of poetry. Your response poem should evoke the original even as it is clearly separate from it. Allow your voice to range freely over, below and around the original poem.

Keep your poem under 20 lines, even if your chosen original is a longer work. Include a link to the poem you have chosen to respond to. If the poem is not available online, please include the original poem in your submission, along with all relevant publication details. Title and send your poems to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by June 20.

Last updated: June 10, 2015 | 14:23
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