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ai Li

Creator of cherita, Gembun & Dua

The Wise Owl talks to ai li, creator of Cherita, Gembun and Dua, three unique storytelling short form genres. She is also the editor of the cherita, founding editor and publisher of still, moving into breath and dew-on-line. She is also a Fellow of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain [FRPS], and an evidential spiritualist medium who trained at The Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and The College of Psychic Studies, London. ai li’s poems have been widely published in the UK, USA, and Japan

The Interview : ai li (Part I)

(Neena Singh, Guest Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with ai li )

 

The Wise Owl talks to ai li, creator of Cherita, Gembun and Dua, three unique storytelling short form genres. She is also the editor of the cherita, founding editor and publisher of still, moving into breath and dew-on-line. She is also a Fellow of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain [FRPS], and an evidential spiritualist medium who trained at The Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and The College of Psychic Studies, London. Ai li’s poems have been widely published in the UK, USA, and Japan.

She lives quietly and mindfully in London and writes in a Rousseau inspired dream yard watched over by three old stone buddhas, a resident pair of hedge sparrows, and a chorus of blackbirds, robins, green finches, dunnocks, gold finches, chaffinches, blue tits, coal tits, long tail tits and a goldcrest.

 

Thank you ai li for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to interact with you.

 

AL: Namaste Neena.

Meera Naam ai li.
Lovely to meet you at long last albeit virtually.

 

NS: You are a prolific poet and creator of several genres of poetry. Our readers would be keen to know what attracted you to poetry. What were the creative influences in your life that inspired you to become a poet?

 

AL: Before I answer this question Neena, do I know this person you have just been describing?

 

Now it’s my turn to thank you Neena and The Wise Owl for very kindly inviting me for this tete-a-tete. I’ve scribbled some notes in anticipation of what you may be asking me and I hope it’s okay to refer to them as my dyslexia can rear its mischievous head, if I don’t.

 

Now to answer your question :

 

Poetry fell into my life like an autumn leaf.

I didn’t go looking for it.

 

I naturally have a very retentive visual memory of people, places, and of objects anyway, and this probably paved my way into the realms of poetry making me the Wordsmith, Storyteller and Word Healer I am today.

 

Certainly,

 

One - Early Hollywood motion pictures played a large part. They were magnificent tableaux vivant with their stories, sets, costumes, lighting, lyrics and songs that were melodious, coherent and memorable.

 

And secondly the Monsoon :
 

We were cooped up indoors from the daily relentless rain and ensuing floods often from October to March in my grandmother’s old house, and my maternal aunts and uncles encouraged us wee ones to combat boredom and ennui by making collages and crafts. They also made us listen to music on my grandmother’s old radiogram and captivated us all with stories galore.


Third one - small town blues.

 

Growing up in a small town encouraged me to daydream, to create a magic flying carpet of my own.

 

And Four - a household of mixed faiths – Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims.

 

The coming together to share food, the ups and downs of life and stories – there was always laughter, joy and tears.

 

And lastly, leaving home at a young age, not quite 16.

 

Learning to fend for myself and having to grow up quickly.

 

Being on my own in a place where I wasn’t fluent in its lingo encouraged me to be unafraid to try out new ideas and food.

 

It also taught me about existential loneliness which resides in all my writing.

 

So, all five factors played major nurturing roles in my early life and so it’s probably safe and correct to say that they were all complicit in being tiger mums to me turning out as a poet.

 

NS: You have created 22 original linked forms akin to Renga, three of which are the cherita, gembun and dua. As this edition is a Cherita special, a genre created by you, our readers would be curious to know how and why you created this genre.

 

AL: Thank you.

 

The Cherita was my humble way of paying homage to my ancestors and loved ones who are sadly no longer with us, and of giving my belated thanks. Their storytelling and the way they lived their lives imbued mine with the richness of their memories.

 

I am of Straits Chinese or Peranakan extraction. The women were called Nyonyas and the men Babas. The Straits Chinese were the descendants of Han Chinese men who settled in the Malay archipelago and married Javanese, Sumatran and Malay wives.

 

My family were immigrants from China to Malaya and they braved the oceans in sailing junks, braving new worlds that were full of danger and of life’s uncertainties.

 

They brought along with them their stories of the old kingdom. This tradition of oral storytelling was embraced by many immigrants in their newly adopted homelands, sewn into the very fabric of their longings and their dreams of a new life, free from revolutions, famine and pestilence. It was their way of honouring their past and of remembering their ancestors and loved ones.

 

As to how, well . . .

 

The late 1990s was an electrifying time for me when I was energised to create these unique linked forms, one after the other, and which included Cherita and Gembun. Dua came much later. This was also the period when I first started to edit and publish still which showcased Haiku, Tanka and short poems. My 22 unique forms can be found with their guidelines and examples on my personal website www.aili.co.uk for anyone who may be interested in writing them.

 

It was also the period when I received firstly my Associateship, and then within 6 months of that, my Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. I hit the ground running so to speak. Time and Tide wait for no one.

 

I created the Lunenga on 27 May 1997.

It has 21 verses of 1-2-3 line stanzas with a gap between each stanza of 6 lines.

One link had to include the moon.

 

So technically speaking, Cherita was born within the Lunenga itself and under la luna.

 

Larry Kimmel, my dear friend and kindred spirit who’s also a fine Cherita and Tanka poet told me in his own words:

 

‘And that’s when I told you how this verse within your longer Lunenga sequence helped me to write a small poem that had kept eluding me in free verse;

 

And that I thought that six-line verse could be a form unto itself.  Or maybe you thought that.  I’m not sure.  But I do know you thought it was an interesting idea and I do remember with certainty, that you said you’d think about it and give it a “smashing name.”

 

I remember, too, how I’d asked you before we began that first collaboration what were the rules of the Lunenga, and you said: “It’s like sex, Larry, there are no rules.”’

 

The rest is now Cherita history.

 

More detailed info can be found on the cherita website under the ORIGINS heading.

 

Thank you Neena.

 

NS: I was reading about your concept of ‘one breath poetry’ and your belief that drafting tends to loss of potency of the verse. Could you please elaborate on this concept.

 

AL: I’ll try.


For me, writing in one breath is akin to prayer.

 

I write and have always written all my poems in a semi-altered state of consciousness. Without a doubt, this must have come from my meditation.

 

Producing a Cherita or any other short form poem, for me, has always felt like manna from heaven.

 

I’m old school and wedded to pen and paper, and when these gifts of words appear, there’s a rush to get them down on paper pronto before they vanish. And vanish they do on occasions when I am too slow to record them accordingly. I only come back to these poems in my writing journals when I need them again for publication or otherwise. They remain how they have been written in one breath, untouched and unaltered.

 

I’ve often been told that there are poets out there who spend hours, even weeks trying to get a poem ‘right’ and this concept of writing just floors me. With respect to them, we are not writing the Ramayana here, for heaven’s sake. The more minimal the poem, the stronger its true essence if written in one breath, in my opinion. Once the poem has been messed around the circuit so to speak, its true essence and AHA moment will be irretrievably lost.

 

As for its authenticity, that has also gone AWOL in the poetry swamp.

 

I am not advocating that everyone should write in one breath but if you are bold enough to attempt this way of writing minimal poetry, the rewards will surprise you. That I can assure you.

 

You will be opening yourself up for spirit or muse to come in freely with gifts of words that will descend as scented blossoms.

 

I have prepared 8 one breath Cherita from my book dream sequence [published May 2023] which I would love to read and share with your readers now if I may. These pieces will hopefully give them an idea of what I have intimated above.

 

I will read them twice as they are so minimal.

[Click link to read ai li’s cheita]

 

NS: You have been teaching Cherita and other related forms. Your Hampstead U3A class produced 7 fine poets. What would be your advice to upcoming poets of Cherita and related genres?

 

AL: For starters, discard the straight jacket of rules that police thought and most importantly read, read, read as many good Cherita or other short form poems, as you possibly can.

 

Keep your eyes and ears open for stories wherever you may be if you find it difficult to rely on your imagination or memories to tell a story.

 

If your wish is to be a bona fide Cherita storyteller, then write about what you know and not about what you don’t. When I have my editor hat on, it is often very obvious to me when a poem is not kosher in sentiment.

 

Try not to repeat an opening line or subject matter. Unless each version of a Cherita is totally different in content to the next, it can be boring for an editor to read the same opening line or subject matter again and again.

 

When I was editing and publishing still in the 90s, I once received a submission of 30 Haiku, each of which started with the word butterfly. I don’t think I need to finish this sorry tale for you Neena.

 

There is also a tendency for poets to only wish to read their own published pieces. This will only narrow their writing skills. One has to read widely, not just one’s own poems, and one can learn hugely from the varied ways of writing Cherita, Gembun and Dua. My own personal books of poetry reflect the versatility and flexibility that is inherent in the DNA of the Cherita, Gembun and Dua genres.

 

Think of writing Cherita, Gembun and Dua as different disciplines of writing. I think of them as a workout or a spa day for my brain cells and I enjoy switching genres in any one sitting.

 

I would also advise reading your poems out loud when you have written them. If the words don’t flow or a word jars, then start again.

 

I began by reading every submitted poem to me out loud but these days I can hear them in my mind as I read them. It came with practice.

 

The rest is hard graft. Pure and Simple.

 

My advice is purely for the purposes of publication. If you are writing Cherita for a private daily journal, then obviously you don’t need to be quite as stringent.

 

I have prepared another 8 one breath Cherita from my book nothingness [published November 2022] which I would love to read and share with your readers now if I may. I hope these Cherita will also give them an idea of what I have intimated above.

 

I will read them twice as they are so minimal.

[Click link to read ai li’s Cherita]

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