Saag Paneer Sutra
How One Indian Entrée Nourished Seven Poets
by Judith Harway
The idea for the renshi struck my friend Lynn over dinner in an Indian restaurant in Houston. It was September, 2003, and after a sweltering day of helping her daughter move into a new apartment, Lynn felt eager to tune out the cycle of complaints she’d heard non-stop for eight hours (the heat is beastly, Texans are unfriendly, public transit stinks…) before weariness erupted into conflict. Feigning complete absorption in the menu, she imagined her daughter’s voice rising like smoke into the general din of the room. “I need time,” she thought. “I need poetry.”
Lynn had flown out to Houston because her daughter, starting graduate school in Asian Studies, had actually asked for her help with this move. Their relationship was fraught and this seemed like a chance to mend fences. The previous years had been hard ones: after her daughter left home, Lynn faced her husband’s chemotherapy, the death of a close friend, and her mother’s debilitating stroke. She knew that her daughter struggled with depression and suspected that she might be suicidal. Lynn found it all but impossible to let go of her only child: instead of cutting the cord, she held on ever tighter, and her daughter made no effort to hide her resentment.
The menu was extensive and confounding. As she studied transliterated names of dishes, Lynn mouthed the unfamiliar words aloud: rasa vada, masala dosa, utappham, biryani. Each possessed its own exotic music, and she began to wonder if this was what drew her daughter to study Urdu poetry. They had spoken so little about anything that mattered in the past four years: Lynn’s litanies of questions met monosyllabic answers, but the menu before her communicated richness and possibility. She closed her eyes, flipped through the pages, and pointed at random as if making a wish: opening her eyes, she announced, “I’ll have saag paneer.”
“Mother, do you even know what that is?”
“No. But I know that I want it,” Lynn said.
Some months later, back home in North Carolina, Lynn described the menu incident to me and our mutual friend Audrey, with whom I was staying. It was such a little thing, to yield control and order dinner at random, she said, and yet it felt as if a magician shuffled and spread a deck before her, saying, “Pick a card, any card…” No matter what she picked, something amazing was sure to be in store. Now her daughter was settled and seemed more optimistic, her mother was dead, her husband’s disease was in remission; it was time to get on with her own creative life.
The night shivered with trills of frog-song from the pond. We sat in the darkness of Audrey’s garden, drinking wine and smoking. Though none of us were smokers, Audrey’s son had left a pack of Marlboros on the patio table and we lit one at a time, passing the tobacco hand to hand, lip to lip, a gesture of intimacy. The conversation turned, as it so often turned, to poetry, and to the maddeningly polite way it stepped aside to make space for daily responsibilities. I had only recently begun to write again after ten years of silence imposed by the demands of child-rearing and teaching. Audrey, at fifty-five, was still working on her first book. Even Lynn, my most prolific friend, felt completely blocked.
Audrey blew a smoke-ring and Lynn laughed: “You must be psychic. How did you know I’m thinking about a circle?” As she explained the idea that occurred to her over saag paneer, that loop of smoke hung in the still, hot air. What we needed, Lynn said, was a sisterhood, a small, supportive group of women whose creative lives linked in essential ways. A renshi circle, she called it.
The renshi is a type of collaborative poetry that riffs on traditional Japanese forms like the renga and renku, but it does not adhere to strictures on length, rhythm, or diction. Rather, it encourages spontaneity by forcing participants to respond to random input, to borrow language or ideas that would not ordinarily occur in their writing. Lynn proposed that we draw together a half dozen women poets and let the renshi evolve online. There would be only two rules: we were to take turns contributing poems in alphabetical order, and each poem had to begin with the last line of the one that came before it.
The seven women who made up our renshi circle were scattered across five states, and ranged from passionate amateurs to widely published poets. Lynn wrote the first piece. Aptly titled Saag Paneer Sutra, it rose like aromatic steam from that dinner she’d shared with her daughter six months before. Poem by poem, our in-boxes filled with rough little gems unearthed from recesses of the imagination we’d never before explored. Though every subject was fair game, most poems asserted themselves as women’s work: the chain of our words linked marriage, childbirth, a grandmother’s voice, the Milky Way, milking the cows, a drowning child, an absent father, traditional quilt patterns, Shakespearean comedy, and haircuts. The challenge of starting with a phrase you had neither created nor chosen was strangely liberating, and the pressure of writing to and for a loving audience forced us to produce.
The renshi remained vibrant for two years and incubated nearly thirty poems, as well as new and deepened friendships, even though a few of us have yet to meet face to face. But nothing lasts forever: as our parents aged and our careers shifted, our emails began to include excuses for why one or another of us had to take a pass on her turn to write. Poetry once again coughed demurely and stepped aside to make way for the bulk of daily responsibilities. I couldn’t say how many of the poems birthed in our circle survive in the digital wilderness today, but the voices of my renshi sisters continue to inspire me. They remind me of my debt to poetry, which can only be fulfilled by writing as Lynn’s Saag Paneer Sutra prescribes:
Just day by day
trying to choose from a menu we don’t always
comprehend, trying to say what we want
then waiting to see if we like it.