Curing Poetic Loneliness with Rengay

First published by the Federation of BC Writers in Wordworks 2021:1, January 2021, page 12 (shown below), together with a rengay written with Naomi Beth Wakan, “In Praise of Idleness.” Originally written in early February 2020.

Sherman Alexie once said, “Writing is a lonely business.” Poetry too. We wander lonely as clouds in rooms of our own, the muse seeming to visit only if we lock ourselves up in our isolated garrisons. This approach may often be effective, but another choice, at least occasionally, is to write in collaboration. One way to do that, in poetry, is with rengay. Garry Gay invented this responsive poetry form in 1992 and named rengay by adding his name to the end of the word “renga.” Renga is a Japanese collaborative poetry game with a thousand years of history. Some renga had 36 verses by two or more poets, but others had 100, 1000, or even 10,000 verses. Haiku poetry grew out of extracting the starting verses from these renga as independent poems. Garry’s update shortened this collaboration to just six haiku or haiku-like verses focusing on a theme, which renga usually avoided as it sought to “taste all of life.” Garry and I wrote the first rengay together in 1992, and now rengay is published in haiku journals around the world.
        The rengay pattern for two writers is A3, B2, A3, B3, A2, B3, (letters represent the poets and numbers indicate the number of lines in each verse). For three writers, the pattern is A3, B2, C3, A2, B3, C2. A theme, such as baseball, times of day, or varieties of flowers, could be set at the start, or one poet might offer a haiku he or she has written recently and the other poet could pick an aspect of that poem to develop thematically. The latter is what happened with “In Praise of Idleness,” presented here. Naomi sent me her poem at the end of an email message. I liked its lazy subject and responded with a two-liner of my own on that theme, inviting her to write a rengay together. This was a rewarding way to focus a bit of our correspondence. Many haiku poets also write rengay together in person, as a social act that hopefully has literary possibilities. Sharing verses and perhaps discussing technique and voice can also help to hone your craft with immediate feedback—and help you get to know the person you’re writing with. For me, rengay is a social sort of poetry that makes writing a much less lonely business.


Michael Dylan Welch is a Canadian living near Seattle, where he served two terms as Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. He cofounded the Haiku North America conference in 1991 and the American Haiku Archives in 1996, founded the Tanka Society of America in 2000, the Seabeck Haiku Getaway in 2008, and National Haiku Writing Month (www.nahaiwrimo.com) in 2010. www.graceguts.com.