Rengay

First published in In Good Company: An Exploration of Haiku-Related Linked Forms (Acorn Supplement #3), edited by A. C. Missias, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Red Fox Press, 2003, pages 37–43. A few light edits have been applied here. See also “Writing Rengay,” a 2006 expansion of this essay.

      by Garry Gay

The rengay was introduced on August 9, 1992, in Foster City, California, at the first major North American renku-writing session. “Deep Winter” was the very first rengay, written by Michael Dylan Welch and me in a coffee shop the morning before the renku-writing session took place. I had been exploring alternatives to the longer renku; I was seeking to develop a short linking form with the goal of its being much more intimate and thematic than the longer renku. I wanted the ability to have a form or pattern that let two poets (or three) link and shift, giving their own perspectives on the same subject matter. I also wanted the freedom to stay in one season or place. I felt that subtle shifts added perspective to the overall poem, but that major shifts disconnected the readers and the poets from the overall experience of telling a story.
        The rengay is like a haiku sequence, but between two writers; there’s one distinct theme but two perspectives on that theme, and in fact there may even be a sub-theme or second-level topic subtly developed. I feel that it is important to be able to write the poem without distractions, and therefore there are no rules such as avoiding the repetition of words, the placement of moons or flowers, or shifting and linking as ends in themselves. Instead, you and your writing partner need to explore together artistically how subtle you want to make your connections. Thus, except for the thematic focus and the set pattern of verses, there are no fast rules.
        The rengay form is meant to give the satisfaction of seeing quick results. It offers the opportunity to spend quality time with another poet and the ability to finish in one session a shared creative endeavor. The poets explore one central subject and should stay within the chosen season or place. I also felt it was important to have the length of the poem be just the right size to fit on a standard journal or magazine page—often magazines will give one page to a single poet, and thus it gives two poets in collaboration on a single poem the same opportunity to get their work published.
        Here is a description of how the rengay is structured: Two (or three) writers participate in producing a six-stanza linked poem. The first writer (to be decided between them) starts off with a three-line verse, then followed by the second writer with a two-line verse. Again, the first writer contributes a three-line stanza. Then the second writer writes a three-line stanza, followed by the first writer’s two-line verse, and again by the second writer with the final three-line stanza. Thus, for two writers the progression is as follows, with the letters representing the poets and the numbers indicating the number of lines in the given verses:

A-3, B-2, A-3, B-3, A-2, B-3

The pattern for three poets is as follows:

A-3, B-2, C-3, A-2, B-3, C-2

In short, the rengay is a collaborative six-verse linked thematic poem written by two or three poets alternating three-line and two-line haiku or haiku-like stanzas in a regular pattern.
        It is important to keep in mind that each verse is really a standalone haiku in either three or two lines. The California poet John Thompson, who has been one of the form’s strongest supporters, calls rengay “a six-pack of haiku.” Certainly, the two-line haiku can be the most challenging. Most poets write haiku in three lines or sometimes in one line, but the two-line haiku are important in the way that the total poem flows. As each poet will get to write only one two-line verse or haiku, it is at this point that you have the chance to either change the direction of the poem’s course or build on the theme to expand the evolving topic.
        The rengay lets you explore a topic or theme that you as a poet are drawn to. There are several ways to approach the theme or central topic of a rengay. You can agree on a given subject, like the color red, before you start to write, or you can respond to a shared experience, like attending a friend’s wedding. Alternatively, you can agree to write on a subject that you both may know something about but have never experienced together, such as the ocean-one poet could be thinking and writing about the Pacific Ocean, while the other might be writing about experiences of the Atlantic Ocean. Another approach is to write a number of haiku separately and have each poet present their poems to the other. When you find a subject that sparks your imagination, you’re on your way. The possibilities are endless.
        Rengay have titles. This fact can be used in some very clever ways. The title can be used to set the poem up, as with a place name like Hammerhorn Lake, or can just hint at the subject of the poem, as with “Snapshot” for a poem about both developing film and a developing friendship. Sometimes the title is just taken from a line in one of the verses.

                Snapshot!

                by Cherie Hunter Day and Garry Gay

                cropped photograph—
                leaving my shadow
                on the darkroom floor

                from the bottom of the tray
                your smile slowly develops

                pulling me closer
                in front of the camera . . .
                first date

                pinned
                on the bulletin board
                your snapshot

                a roll of negatives . . .
                the brightness of your dark eyes

                self timer
                I join you
                in the photograph

The theme of the poem can be very obvious or relatively understated. Often there are two concurrent themes running through the poem, one more obvious than the other. The poem, like a haiku, does not have to come to a conclusion but can be left open-ended to let the reader use his own imagination.
        Linking and shifting can be quite fun in a rengay. Remember that you are looking at the same subject but from a variety of angles. While you may shift away, your partner may link back. Often the process involves not so much linking to the verse before you as linking to the overall subject; still, each link is a response to the preceding link. The fun part is talking over your link: Does it communicate the mood of the poem? Move the poem forward? Advance the idea or concept of the poem? The whole process of writing together is where the real joy and satisfaction comes from. The communication between the poets sharing their views and discussing their craft and ideas is very rewarding. Often each poet offers the other several verses and, between you, you agree on the verse that best carries the poem forward. Remember that this is collaboration.
        The last link is a very key link. It often in some subtle way links back to the first link, but it does not always do so. Sometimes, just as in haiku, the rengay is purposely left with that open-ended feeling.
        An important aspect of the rengay is the turning point halfway through the poem. At the fourth verse the poets trade places, giving the second poet the power to influence the final direction of the poem. Thus, along with the shifting and linking between the verses, the poets also shift in importance midway through the poem: The first poet is now writing only one two-line verse, while the second writer becomes the poet with the prominent voice. Thus, the second author is in a very important position because this poet will conclude the poem.
        At this “turning point,” a few subtle things can be taken into consideration: a possible new direction for the poem, a new perspective on the topic, and a conclusion to either link the last verse back to the beginning or leave the topic open-ended. Here is another opportunity for exploration of the theme or themes. Does the second poet want to complement what has gone before in the early verses or now take the poem into new territory? Remember that the rengay is a collaboration, and a lot of enjoyment comes from talking about the verses, how they link, and where they take you. You should be discussing your Verses with your writing partner and making suggestions for improvement.

                December

                by Garry Gay and John Thompson

                leafless trees
                the grayness of the soul
                through the fog

                unfinished spider web
                beaded with dew

                weathervane
                points again
                toward winter

                late tomatoes
                that may never ripen—
                last year’s resolutions

                the dream remembered
                among forget-me-nots

                rock garden
                changing colors
                in the rain

The rengay’s quick acceptance and worldwide growth were a very pleasant surprise to me. Clearly there was a need for a different linking form that gave writers an opportunity to write on a single topic in a creative way, that was brief enough to be completed in a relatively short amount of time, that was short enough for publishers to reproduce on one page, and that allowed just two (or three) writers to have a shared experience. It is the unique perspective of each poet that gives the rengay its energy. There is a wonderful chemistry that goes on between the poets as they share possible verses and subtle changes and suggestions, and in the way the poem flows and unfolds.
        Another surprise to me was how the rengay form opened the floodgates for others to come up with new creative poetic forms and devices. I do think the rengay itself has gelled into a clear and successful form. However, it seems to have made writers—who are, after all artists—realize that they could be just as innovative in new ways to both present and publish their poetry. There are thus a number of rengay offshoots and variations. I am pleased to have sparked such an interest in other ways for us to develop innovative poetic linking forms.


“Snapshot!”: Originally published in Frogpond XXI:2 (1998), p.54; also included in Snow on the Water (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 1999, p. 99). “December”: Unpublished.