Lahore based poet Afshan Shafi, after her recent success with the launch of her ‘Quiet Women’ – a poetic collaboration with female visual and graphic artists from around the world – is set to launch an online literary magazine come April. Aided by journalist Amar Alam, who has studied English at Boston University and served as an editor at a national newspaper and at Libas International Magazine, is her partner in the exciting new venture called ‘Pandemonium publications.’ To mark the countdown to the launch of Pandemonium, the pair is releasing a chapbook titled ‘Trigger’, inspired by an innovative new writing workshop they conducted in which a diverse range of participants took part in surrealist ‘automatic writing’ exercises. Afshan and Amar sat down with ABC to talk about Pandemonium and Trigger.
ABC: Pandemonium publications is launching its online presence soon Take us through the inspiration behind the venture, and how it came into being.
Amar Alam: The inspiration came from our own lives. This has been the most difficult thing we’ve ever done and I think the reason for that is that it’s so deeply personal. We’re both writers with BA’s in English literature, trying to find our place and our people in a city where there is no cohesive unified publishing industry. There are so many people doing groundbreaking new things in literature (in all languages) but there is no cohesion. And for a real literary industry to emerge, creators, editors and publishers have to come together and work together. So we’re trying to create that sort of platform and be a unifying force. It’s a labour of love for us and we’re trying to create an inclusive, collaborative safe space for writers and artists. It’s voluntary and everyone is welcome to participate! And we have projects planned for every step of the creative process. From idea to first draft to publishing. We are now accepting submissions at [email protected]
ABC: You mention that before the launch of the magazine, Pandemonium will be putting out a chapbook composed of writings from a workshop you conducted. What was the composition of this workshop? How was it organised, the writers selected and what methods did you use to conduct the workshop?
Afshan Shafi: We sent out an open call for submissions on social media a couple of months before we started. We received responses from O level students as well as people who were curious about the process of writing itself. Most of our participants were not strictly writers and were employed in disparate fields like psychiatry, law as well as music and the visual arts, between the ages of 14 and 38. Each workshop was centered around either a literary technique or movement for example mimesis or echo poetry. We held a three hour workshop each weekend for around six months ending in February 2019. It was so exciting to see how all these people of widely divergent ages and professional backgrounds came together and really gave themselves over to the artistic process.
Amar Alam: As much as we romanticise the idea of the writer in seclusion – Hemingway drinking himself through writer’s block and Virginia Woolf locked away in a room of her own with nothing but her demons and a typewriter – writers need to engage with the world and each other. We need feedback from an objective intelligent audience. We need to argue and fight and connect, intellectually and emotionally, because all these disconnected experiences we have in life and the everyday clash of perspectives percolates and comes together in the unconscious. That’s where all poetry comes from. So we needed to have a writers’ workshop. But not everyone had work to share. And as writers who are accustomed to baring our souls to the world, we were both aware that we all carry untold stories inside us. So we crafted a series of exercises, starting with surrealist techniques (like automatism and echo poetry) to bring out the dreamlike symbolism and then rhetorical devices like ethopoiea and ekphrasis to give them the elegance and coherence of the craft. We ended the workshop with modern edgy, sometimes invented forms, like expletive poetry and phantasmagoria. Those were the three main stages of the workshop. And that progression is documented in the chapbook.
Because the participants got to experience the inner worlds of people they would not necessarily interact with and they got to release things that most people hide from the world, that vulnerability wasn’t easy for everyone but most people felt quite relieved by the process. It was easier because we were all vulnerable together and we were helping each other turn our pain into beauty. Sometimes we would read out the automatics in the workshop and realise that this bizarre collective unconscious synchronicity was happening and we were using the same symbols and metaphors. I tear up just thinking about it!
ABC: Explain how the ‘automatic writing’ would work in a workshop setting. How does one bring out subconscious agency in a controlled setting? We’re sure must have been a lot going on during the workshop given how intense and immensely personal the writing process is. Any interesting anecdotes or stories to share that stood out?
Afshan Shafi: Automatic writing is a technique which, historically, was heavily used by the surrealists to unlock the symbolism of the unconscious. We would begin each session with around ten minutes of writing down whatever came into our minds, without any kind of conscious censorship. In automatism, every image, every observation must be written down as it emerges in the mind. We would then read out each of our writings to the group. As expected, what came out was usually writing that exposed personal vulnerabilities. It was a new experience for most and some participants would flare up or feel wounded and judged. With time, most people realised that being creative meant to continuously toe that tightrope between exposure and craft. There is so much power in talking about things that matter to us as a community, or just as people.
ABC: Was the name ‘Pandemonium’ inspired by the surrealist brand of writing you have included in the chapbook, or is there some other reason for choosing this name?
Afshan Shafi: Our whole process was a personal and collective brand of pandemonium! High emotion, the pursuit of beauty and truth , fractured egos… an important kind of pandemonium ensued for all of us in those months.
Amar Alam: We all have masks we wear in social settings, and sometimes the inner demons are quite triggering, to the person who carries them as well as the people they are revealed to. That’s why the chapbook is called trigger. Because we had to resist the notion that the pain, discomfort and insecurity of trying to understand oneself could be dealt with by repressing it all again and leaving the workshop. Talking and writing about it is the first step to healing but it is just the start of the journey and not the cure. The word pandemonium was coined by Milton in Paradise Lost. It’s literally the home of the demons!
ABC: Coming to the magazine itself, what does Pandemonium plan to be? Is it going to be a serious literary venture with reviews and recognised writers and poets? Or is it going to be more experimental and for a younger, dynamic base? Will it bring forth an opportunity for new writers?
Afshan Shafi: It’s definitely going to be a platform for people who want to question the status quo a bit. We’re aiming to showcase a mix of recognised and novice writers and artists without homage to any kind of clique. It’s going to be a truly egalitarian entity, where the only important factor will be the quality of the work. We aim to guide younger writers and to encourage the finer aspects of their practice. There is so much untapped potential in the country, we want to provide a conduit for it to the world at large.
ABC: Finally, and this may be a bit premature, but are there any plans in place to bring Pandemonium forward as a print publication as well, or this strictly an online venture? If so, are the current challenges in the publishing industry behind the caution?
Amar Alam: We are a literary venture and not a journalistic one. That’s an important distinction. And as such we won’t be serialising anything. Trigger is one of a kind. It’s a proceeding of our first workshop, which was the flint that started the fire. And we do want to keep print alive, so it was important for us to start with a print proceeding. While we will have new content on the website all the time, from a combination of submissions, commissions and our physical and digital workshops. We will also be putting out independent chapbooks and possibly other types of collections in the future. Anthologies have to have a flow, so they will be theme based and independent, rather than like a topical weekly or monthly magazine. Trigger is something that drove us to do all this. We didn’t approach the workshop as a content factory but the work and the raw intensity of people baring their souls to each other was simply crying out to be immortalised.