Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019).
Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have previously appeared in Poetry, Rattle, Threepenny Review, and TriQuarterly, as well as in other journals and little magazines.
Kristina Marie Darling: You recently finished a collaborative manuscript, and we’re thrilled to feature this excerpt at Tupelo Quarterly. I’d love to hear more about your process. Could you tell us about the nuts and bolts of your collaboration?
Amit Majmudar: First of all, Kristina, thanks so much for providing me and Jane this space to share about our collaborative project—it’s quite unreal, since I think Jane and I are both kind of bewildered by how quickly this project came together. This all started in mid-September 2019 when Jane randomly tweeted a painting, Mikhail Nesterov’s Angel on the Holy Sepulchre,with a comment on how sleep-deprived the angel looked. Uncharacteristically I responded to the tweet with a flippant writing prompt—“Write a poem with the title ‘The Sleep-Deprived Seraph’—that even I didn’t take seriously… until it occurred to me, later that evening, to go ahead and write a poem with that title and send it to her as a joke…and then Jane responded with one of her own with the same title, and the whole book occurred to me in a single flash. I floated the proposal that very night, and she was game. We went off on a tear from there. We alternated who came up with that day’s poem-title. Every morning I would either send a poem title or receive a poem title in my inbox. And then came the joyful work of extemporization. We did this thirty times each and had this 60-poem manuscript done in 30 days (fewer, actually; we worked slightly ahead of schedule). I was regularly delighted and surprised by Jane’s poems—and, odd as this may sound, by what I was writing, too. I entered a state of flow that allowed me, creatively, to access images and ideas I wouldn’t have done otherwise—what more can one ask from a collaboration? As soon as we finished the project, I asked Jane if she’d be willing to fire titles back and forth again at some time in the future—I am eager, from a purely selfish perspective, to mirror-write again.
Jane Zwart: I want to echo Amit’s thanks to you, Kristina, and the other folks at TQ. And I want to thank Amit. I would never have hazarded a project like this apart from his generosity. In fact, I never would have sent him a poem in reply to his version of “The Sleep-Deprived Seraph” except that in that first e-mail, he nudged me, told me to take my turn. And I did, but because I’ve read and loved so much of Amit’s work–his poetry and his prose–I was almost as terrified as I was thrilled to be writing poems back and forth with him. And the more so, maybe, because we don’t really know each other well… I interviewed Amit at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in 2018, so I know his work well, but that’s the only time we’ve met in person. And we have relatively few of the obvious markers of identity in common–gender, profession, race, hometown... But that’s something we both suspect, I think, of making the conversation between our poems spark in unforeseen, and maybe purer, ways than they might have otherwise.
KMD: As the conversation unfolded, did you find that constraint was generative or liberating? How so?
JZ: Before starting this mirroring, I was sure that I couldn’t write poetry on command. After all, every poem I had written to that point had taken shape around an image or a series of words... around beginnings that had demanded my attention. I only wrote poems that already insisted on being written, poems that I knew I had some unmistakeable germ going for them already. Over the course of this month, though, I learned to raise poems not from seeds but instead to fill the space reserved for them. And the titles that Amit and I took turns sending each other worked to define that shape; they were constraints in that sense…. The titles I found most generative as constraints were neither too loose-fitting (bagginess isn’t liberating) nor too corset-like. However, the far more important space I wrote to fill was the space that I knew Amit was reserving for each poem, and the constraint of knowing someone was waiting for the words, ready to receive them, was a little bit magic. A certain amount of urgency is freeing–especially where there is also a certain amount of trust.
AM: I definitely felt it to be liberating. I am always looking for emptinesses to fill. For a couple of decades now, I have grown so used to writing with no audience waiting for my poems that it was energizing to know that there was someone, if only one person, out there waiting to read what I was writing.
KMD: In a recent interview in Best American Poetry, Julie Marie Wade & Denise Duhamel describe collaboration as disrupting the social order by fostering collective or shared consciousness. Similarly, many writers enjoy the way collaboration challenges the notion that we can assert ownership over language. Do you see collaboration as politically charged? How so?
AM: Not so much on my end, at least. I edited a poetry anthology after the 2016 election, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now (Knopf, 2017), and that was a politically charged book. The Sleep-Deprived Seraph, for me at least, is happily free-floating, serendipitous, gamesome, ethereal/earthy, aleatory, and quite detached from the latest social media dustup-du-jour…. We were extemporizing on crickets and harmonicas, after all. How about you, Jane? Did you have some fiery activist agenda in all this that I didn’t know about?
JZ: Not an agenda, no. But, retrospectively, I can see how collaboration–whatever subjects it takes on–works against a culture of competition. And it depends on attentiveness, on really listening, and (as I said earlier) on trust, all of which strike me as counter-cultural. But maybe the reason those practices are counter-cultural is because they run counter to the grain of human nature... or at least against the self-centeredness that is part of human nature. Still, I will say that right now it feels especially easy to come up with examples of our failing to honor the other person’s consciousness, and collaborative creative work does seem like one way to practice that kind of regard for each other.
KMD: On a different note, what advice do you have for writers who are interested in trying their hand at collaboration?
JZ: I am a true amateur at collaborative writing, so I feel underqualified to give advice on this front... I guess I’d advise the usual hard-to-balance attitudes: openness to changing and steady self-knowledge, daring to rely on your instincts and checking your instincts against what you know to be wise... Really, though, I’ve never tried my hand at anything like this before. I’ve never even participated in a writing workshop. What I can say is that I would not have gambled on this unfamiliar way of making art with a writer whose work meant less to me than Amit’s does. To be clear, though, it’s not that our poems are similar; mostly, they aren’t–Amit’s more of a formalist than I am, for one thing. So I didn’t trust this experiment because of that kind of commonality. But what we love language for doing and being–that’s similar, and I think that’s probably a must. If a hard-to-measure must.
AM: Same here; I’m very solitary in general, and as a writer, even more so. But the more I’ve studied collaboration through the ages, the more I realize that it’s a major driver of human creativity. There’s so much focus on Shakespeare’s authorship question that people forget what there’s a widespread scholarly consensus about: That he collaborated very regularly on his plays. In fact the play most popular during his lifetime, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, was a collaboration between him and George Wilkins; Shakespeare was responsible for about half the play. Dumas had Auguste Macquet on The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. I suspect cliques or schools or communities of poets collaborate in a loose sense, bouncing ideas and theories and poems off each other. Great poetry just as often emerges from clusters of closely networked poets as it does from one-offs like Hopkins or Dickinson; and competition isn’t always a bad thing, if you can direct your admiration away from envy, and use it to improve your own work. My only advice to writers thinking about collaboration is to see if it’s for you. I’ll try everything once! I liked collaborating with Jane so much that I’m right now collaborating on a mythological novel with my wife.
KMD: The poet Myung Mi Kim once said that part of collaboration is listening and allowing room for the other to speak. In your estimation, what makes a good collaborator?
AM: The mysterious mutual permeability of soul and soul! The question is, what makes that possible? An absence of envy, absence of selfishness or spotlight-seeking, a joy in seeing the other succeed because it’s all about the success of the work itself–their success is your success, too. A summing of forces toward one goal rather than forces directed in parallel. I guess many of the same qualities go into a good marriage. In this case, a “marriage of true minds.”
JZ: Yes, exactly this.
KMD: What’s next for you both? What can readers look forward to?
JZ: I have other poems forthcoming in journals and little magazines–some of them in Plume, Rhino, Mississippi Review, and Chautauqua. And I’ve got a manuscript going the rounds at some first book contests. Not a terribly hefty answer, but Amit will make up for it with his…
AM: I have two books coming out, a novel in India and a poetry collection in America (I have started publishing parallel bodies of work on the two continents, without overlap). Penguin Random House India will publish Soar, a tragicomic novel about two British Indian Army soldiers deployed to the Western Front during WWI, in January 2020. Alfred A. Knopf will publish What He Did in Solitary, my next poetry collection, in August 2020.