Japanese Renku Group Visits San Francisco

      by Ebba Story and Michael Dylan Welch

 

First published in Woodnotes #14, Autumn 1992, page 21. Below this report, please note the postscript, written in 2009, which amplifies how this report reveals the context in which Garry Gay invented the rengay form and in which Garry and I wrote the first rengay together. For more information about rengay, please visit the Rengay page.

 

At 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, 8 August 1992, approximately 35 poets convened at Nichi Bei Kai, a Japanese cultural center in San Francisco for Renku North America, a gathering intended to further the development and understanding of the renku form. Several of the visitors from the Jigensha Renku Group, who had traveled from Japan for their month-long tour of the U.S., presented talks on the art, history, and values of Japanese renku. Professor Shinku Fukuda, a scholar of Japanese literature and Bashō expert, spoke on the origins of the renku and haiku forms in Japan. He stressed that renku, like life, is the meeting of heaven, earth, and people, and that participation, in harmony with others, brings happiness. Ai Yazaki, a writer, gave examples from the subtly written correspondences between Heian court men and women that helped establish the precedence and rules for renku interplay. She emphasized the need for each partner to be sensitively aware of leaving an opening for the other to respond. Ichiyo Shimizu, a Japanese newspaper editor, expressed the value of using imagination, playfulness, humor, and new vocabulary to enliven the renku tradition and bring it into the 21st century as an international literary form, drawing people together in sympathetic understanding. Kris and Tadashi Kondo, organizers of the tour, spoke of their personal experiences in writing renku and the meaning it had added to their lives. The presentations ended with the reading of three renku, written mostly in English, translated by Kikoko Tokutomi and Tadashi Kondo. The first renku was “Shifting Cloud,” read by Pat Shelley, June Hopper Hymas, and Patricia Moran Machmiller, who generously also gave everyone a short booklet containing three renku by the three women. The second renku, “Windswept Walk,” was read by Michael Dylan Welch and Kimberly Cortner. It contained renku links by 36 different writers, each adding a link in turn. This renku was recently published in Frogpond (Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring–Summer 1992, pages 40–45). The third renku, “Late Summer Journey,” was read by Tadashi Kondo, Lequita Vance, and Hiromi Fujii. This renku was written in Carmel on the first stop of the Renku North America tour. The evening ended with a meal together at a nearby Japanese restaurant.

        The talks, readings, and discussions on Saturday were in preparation for the next day’s event in Foster City, California where many of the same poets gathered to write renku together under the direction of the Japanese guests. The group met at a lovely recreation center building complete with a swimming pool and tennis court (used by a few in attendance). Dividing into three groups of about a dozen writers each, the poets began writing at about 1:30 p.m. led by Kris Kondo, Tadashi Kondo, and Kiyoko Tokutomi as renku masters and translators. Only Mrs. Tokutomi’s group finished a complete 36-link renku; the other two groups stopped at 18 links as the sky turned color and the sun set over the lagoon outside. The day concluded at nearly 10:00 p.m. after a reading of the three Japanese-style renku.

        Many thanks to Paul O. Williams, Michael Dylan Welch, and David Wright for coordinating the San Francisco events, renting meeting rooms, providing refreshments, sending out announcements, and entertaining the guests as tour guides during their brief stay in the San Francisco area. And special thanks to the visitors from Japan for the generous gift of their presence and for sharing their experience at writing Japanese renku.
 

Postscript

It was in the context of this weekend that Garry Gay invented the rengay form. On the evening of 8 August 1992, after a full day of hearing talks about renku, its rules, and its strictures, he went home and devised an alternative sort of linked verse—which he dubbed “rengay,” combining the word “renga” with his last name. In retrospect, giving the new form a memorable name was probably Garry’s best stroke of genius, making it at once easy to refer to as well as both familiar and new.

        It is fundamental to renku that it “taste all of life,” and that verses avoid repeating themselves, which can be a difficult challenge over the course of 36 verses for a kasen renku. Many haiku poets are definitely up for this challenge, but renku has always been more of a social than a literary pursuit, and few renku are as rewarding to read as they are to write, even if you are one of the participants. Garry felt that a Western audience might appreciate a more readable and shorter, more easily published variation on renku that endeavoured to focus on a particular theme for its duration. He thought that renku (at least the 36-verse kasen variety) was too long to hold the interest of most Western readers, especially when it wandered from subject to subject from verse to verse, even if it did so deliberately. Yet Garry still wanted to take advantage of the collaborative nature of renga and renku because of its rich social significance. Thus he devised the rengay—a six-verse collaborative linked form for two poets alternating three-line and two-line verses in a particular pattern. The pattern was A-3, B-2, A-3, B-3, A 2, B-3, with the letters representing the poets, and the numbers representing the number of lines in each verse. Thus the rengay was symmetrical, gave each contributor an equal number of three-line and two-line verses, and was also short enough to be easily published on a single page of a typical poetry journal.

        On the morning of 9 August 1992, Garry Gay arrived early in Foster City and met me at a coffee shop (I lived in Foster City at the time, and had arranged the meeting space where the group’s renku-writing session would take place that afternoon). Garry shared his new idea with me and I immediately thought it was brilliant, not only as an alternative to renku—so rule-bound as it is, sometimes to the point of oppressiveness—but also as a new verse form in its own right. Together that morning, we wrote the very first rengay, titled “Deep Winter.” Garry offered to have me start, but I remember telling him that he should write the first verse, since rengay was his idea.

        Garry talked about the possibility of having a moon verse (as with renku) at least once in each rengay, but we immediately decided that that would become tedious and threw out the idea. He originally thought that each rengay should stay in one season, but that idea did not last. I also immediately thought that it would be possible for three poets to write a rengay, and came up with the pattern for three poets: A-3, B-2, C-3, A-2, B-3, C-2. We talked at length about various ways in which a theme could be maintained in a rengay, and how we both agreed that each verse should also work as a stand-alone haiku—even the two-line verses—as much as possible.

        After our morning get-together, we went back to my home in Foster City and I typed up our very first rengay on my computer. That afternoon, in the breaks between our renku sessions with the rest of our visiting Japanese guests, Garry and I shared our rengay with Tadashi Kondo. We explained how it was deliberately thematic, and deliberately limited to six verses. We also explained how the rengay (in its two-person format) deliberately had two three-line verses in a row to give the rengay some symmetry and an equal number of lines per poet. Tadashi took my printout of “Deep Winter” and immediately started analyzing it, drawing lines between parts that showed “excess similarity” and making other critical notes. And they were critical. He said that our verses repeated themselves too much, and needed to shift away. Frankly, he didn’t get it. Of course it “repeated” itself. It was supposed to, because of the theme. We had told him this, but his practice and training in renku did not seem to allow him to do anything but object to our deliberate development of a central theme. In a box somewhere, I still have the paper on which Tadashi wrote his notes, and if I can find it again, it would be interesting to scan it and show it here.

        So that’s how rengay began. On 1 November 1992, HPNC’s quarterly meeting in San Francisco included discussions of linked verse (in reaction to the August visit by the Japanese renga poets), as well as the first public presentation and discussion of rengay. In summarizing that meeting, Ebba Story wrote the following in Woodnotes #15 (Winter 1992, page 2):

 

Michael Dylan Welch, Paul O. Williams, and Lequita Vance discussed their responses to the state of English-language renku. Their primary point was for renku/renga to evolve into its own terms through the practice of linking verses in a contemporary western context. Michael spoke of letting go of attachments to Japanese rules that don’t appeal to or even make sense for Western writers. Paul shared a handout suggesting alternatives for linked verse based on traditional English forms. Lequita spoke eloquently for creating new forms that are not only fun to participate in but which will have literary merit. Michael read a paper by Jane Reichhold in which she gave a history of the linked verse forms in Japan and summed up much of the feelings left after the Renku North America group attempted to teach us the “right” way to do renku. Michael also presented Garry Gay’s response to renku, his own creation, the “rengay”—a six-link piece written on a single topic by two participants. John Thompson read an especially pleasing example that he and Garry had produced. The meeting ended at about 4:30 p.m. Eight of the poets remained to have dinner together and, in pairs, composed several “rengay” and one series of rhymed linked couplets.

 

        I don’t quite remember what the next steps were for rengay, or when I wrote my next ones, but I do know that Garry Gay and John Thompson began to write rengay together regularly, and HPNC had a couple of private and public gatherings in 1993 and 1994 at which rengay was presented and written. Although I had proposed the three-person rengay format that morning of 9 August 1992, the first  three-person rengay wasn’t written for more than a year. It was “A Rain of Leaves” by Donna [later Claire] Gallagher, Pat Gallagher, and me, written 18 November 1993. And soon after that, I started publishing a series of articles publicizing rengay in Frogpond and Woodnotes, and rengay slowly began appearing in these and other journals. In 1995, Garry Gay, John Thompson, and I published the first book of rengay, titled Hammerhorn Lake (all of its rengay are now included on this site). Early in 1995, Cherie Hunter Day published “Night Rain,” in Woodnotes #27, Winter 1995, which I believe to be the first-ever solo rengay, and in the fall of that year also published an article about solo rengay in Northwest Literary Forum. Also in 1995, the Haiku Poets of Northern California started a contest for rengay, and Garry, John, and I served as the first judges. Jeff Witkin’s book The Duck's Wake (Potomac, Maryland: privately published, 1996) was the first book I know of to include rengay—Jeff included three, which he wrote with John Stevenson (“Near Silence”), Michael Dylan Welch (“Gravestones”), and Nir Bhao Khalsa (“Two Blue Bells Blossom”). Ce Rosenow also wrote an essay promoting rengay (“Collaboration: Exploring Rengay”) in Northwest Literary Forum #25 (Summer 1997). Another milestone was the 1998 publication of Beyond Within: A Collection of Rengay (Mountain Gate Press) by eight women, edited by Cherie Hunter Day. From these beginnings, rengay has steadily grown, and is now written widely around the world by haiku poets. I do not know of any rengay being written in the Japanese language, however, so perhaps that’s one of many possible ways for rengay to still grow further. I should also like to see rengay published with regularity in mainstream poetry journals. I believe there is room, too, for more rengay contests and even a journal devoted to rengay.

 

—27, 29 October, 7, 9, 17 November 2009, 17 January 2010