Writing renga requires an art of partnership rarely needed for creative efforts. In some aspects, two strangers doing a renga together takes the comic-tragic proportions of a blind date.
Whereas the success or failure of a date can regress into the twisting path of memory, a renga, when published, holds up to everyone's discerning eye what has happened between the lines of two persons meeting eighteen times over a longer period of time.
Even without Freudian training, the open, poet-hearted person can recognize the currents of emotion flowing across the rock-like words in a stream of sparkling dialogue. For a person who has written renga, it is easy to mark the lines of ebb and flow - when interested waned or, better still, caught fire from fire causing images to appear unbidden, without search or desperate grabbing on the dark banister of the remembered.
Each kasen renga, especially done as these are -by mail over a period of several months - uses timeless images that cast into a mold some of that slurry called the now-moment.
Since, as living creatures, the writers themselves are in a constant state of flux, no author is ever exactly the same person writing a renga with the same partner.
Also, one can never be totally oneself while writing a renga. Each link can only develop out of the previous link and any other theme or idea one has just evolved is abruptly switched or turned away from, there is no line of reasoning to follow or be guided by.
As in a maze, one must decide at the end of each lane whether to go left or right. With each link the partner writes a universe of choices, pushes a revolving door where nearly everything seems possible - and much of it feels untried.
In this way renga writing is helpful for the craftsman who has mired down in ruts of well-worn images or who seeks poetical material in only certain areas of daily life.
By having to carefully consider the partner's link, each writer is forced to enter new realms of experience and fantasy. In here new ideas and images emerge to enliven and enrich the completed poem.
Though solo renga have been and are still being written, even the best ones can feel smooth, slick, or too controlled. It nearly takes a split personality to create the jarring reality of two or more persons trying to hold hands while walking single-file.
And different hands have different shapes in writing renga also. Some feel good like a lover's touch or familiar like a brother's or sister's or the unearthly hand of soul mate. Others have the firm-timid grasp of teacher-student or hesitant-groping of teenagers in the tunnel of love or - when both are strong poets in their own right - the touch becomes polite Indian thumb wrestling.
The roles change, the kaleidoscope of personalities shifts with the slant of a different pen and though one may prefer to act the part of one type of poet, the words of a near-stranger can nudge one into pretending one is really someone else.
With English renga writing so new there are almost no opportunities to study and appreciate the subtle changes an author makes while switching partners.
In the autumn of 1989, as the result of the editing of Narrow Road to Renga, I was aware of the need to see these variables under a slightly more controlled situation so the reader could have first, a body of well-written haiku exemplifying the best in various methods of renga writing and second, be able to follow the changes in an author's patterns as each changes partners and third, to see in which ways each person stays true to his/her own personal way of writing and viewing the world.
Four persons - other writers - were chosen for the experiment because of special qualities of each one. Suezan Aikins, an artist who lives on a lonely point of Nova Scotia jutting into the ocean, fills her links with one person fully integrated into seasons and nature.
Francine Porad, lives on an island in the middle of Seattle, Washington (it's possible), where her life, as well as her artwork is filled with persons, people, and abstract images which are so close to her paintings. Nature alone rarely appears in any of her works.
Brent Partridge is at home in the land of fantasy, the real realm on the other side of ourselves which is mirrored in our natural world. Whatever is written in the partner's link, Brent takes it on a flying leap into the space the rest of us all too seldom venture.
Werner Reichhold is close and yet mostly off in the kingdoms under the sea and above the earth, here and there on the flying carpet of literature and legends.
The formal plan was that each of the five of us would start a Kasen renga (a formal 36-link poem somewhat following the traditional Japanese plan devised by Basho) in a twosome with each other. With a bit of calculation, who began with whom, we spaced out the hokku (first and beginning link) and introductions were begun. None of the other writers had previously done a renga together; I had done at least one renga with each of them.
Each couple decided their own rules and tolerances, agreeing on how close to stick to the kasen renga rules regarding the use of moon and flower verses. Each writer was responsible for his/her desecration or indiscretions. There was no overall renga master and the individual renga were not critiqued by the other writers. If questions arose, the hokku writer had the last word.
As printed here, the renga are given the divergent forms agreed upon by the partners, as far as typesetting allowed, instead of forcing all to work within one form. Thus the reader can study and compare the various possible ways of visualizing a renga.
After the experiment had started, it became evident that if all these partnerships had formed willingly, certain authors would not have chosen to continue doing a renga with a person of such divergent methods of seeing and writing. After compelling sensitive persons to perform such a private act as renga writing with persons not of their choosing, I felt they should be given the opportunity to also present renga done with someone by whom they felt complimented or who augmented their own style.
Near the conclusion, it was decided that each writer could add to the required renga, one which they had written with a a writer of their choice.
Thus, to the original five writers were added:
Charles B. Dickson, the winner of numerous awards for poetry and haiku, who had been initiated into renga by Suezan Aikins.
Francine Porad chose the renga, from the many she has done, titled "Touch of a Hand" written with Ruby Spriggs. Ruby Spriggs is the new editor of Haiku Canada Newsletter and Francine Porad has published Brussels Sprout for the last three years; it is a delight to read a renga from two poets who work so smoothly together.
Brent Partridge, deep in his involvement in his 100 verse solo renga The Wizard's Rook, now published as a book, submitted "Walking and Writing", a kasen solo renga.
Werner Reichhold chose the renga done with Ken-ichi Sato of Sakata, Japan for several reasons. Though "Spinning Meditation" was Ken-ichi Sato's first finished renga, he brings the Japanese sensitivity and interrelatedness with nature/human nature that we Westerners so admire to give this work the appearance of having been written by an old master. The fact that English is a second language for both of these men adds a different ring to the significance of words.
Wanting to demonstrate a renga done with more than one person, I've asked Lequita Vance and Paul O. Williams, both longtime renga and haiku writers, to permit the use of "Toward Summer" a kasen renga recently finished by the three of us. Here the reader can follow the switches in the order of who follows whom to keep the renga exciting and variable.
For readers not acquainted with renga, let me briefly add that the genre originated in Japan in the 1100's as an diversion and result of tanka (waka) writing. In contrast to western poetry forms, renga is a give and take, a dialogue between poets in which there is no connective narrative or realistic time sequence. The relationship between the stanzas is built on a system of various methods of linking either ideas, images, words, feelings, or concepts. The reader can, after simply enjoying the flow of the language, study the different methods of linking. Though it seems without structure, kasen renga all have 36 links, require the image of the moon in links #5, 14, and 29; flowers are to be used in #17 and 35. Depending on the level of achievement and partners' agreed upon rules, some renga follow strict mentions of the seasons, love verses at specific stanzas, while limiting the use of particular nouns. None of these authors count syllables to have 5-7-5, 7-7, 5-7-5; but they prefer to use short-long-short lines, with and without the closure.
Reading renga is much like watching a stream flowing by that is sprinkled with autumn leaves. Each leaf is different, it sinks or rises, goes stem up or sideways, but all are reacting to the approach of winter, the curving bank of the brook, going around the stepping stones skillfully laid across for the reader's passage. Enjoy the adventure; no two are alike.
Copyright © Jane Reichhold 1989.
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