Rengay: A Journey into Symbiotic Poetry

The following essay appeared on “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side,” a newsletter (originally private) for members of the Horror Writers Association, hence the darker rengay provided as examples. It was published in May of 2004 on the Horror Writers Association website. In introducing the essay, newsletter editor Marge Simon wrote of rengay that “It has a great deal of potential as a form for dark verse, so read on and enjoy!” The following text has been lightly edited. See also “From Scifaiku to Rengay.”

      by Deborah P Kolodji

A Poet’s Muse is a fickle thing. Inspiration tugs at the mind’s edge with tantalizing potential, yet when committed to paper, sometimes seems lacking. To coax the reluctant poem onto the page, poetry forms can prove useful by providing a starting framework. Working with another poet in a collaborative poetry form can also jump-start inspiration, by feeding off of the inspiration of one’s writing partner.
        One form that has yet to be used widely among horror poets is the rengay. A Westernized variation of Japanese collaborative linked verse (renku), rengay was invented in 1992 by Garry Gay and consists of six stanzas, each either a three- or a two-line haiku-like verse. The first rengay was a collaboration between Gay and another well-established haiku poet, Michael Dylan Welch. Gay is a former president of the Haiku Society of America and the first president of the Haiku Poets of Northern California. Welch is the editor of Tundra, a journal of short poetry, and the former editor of the now-defunct haiku journal, Woodnotes. Both are published widely in haiku journals and anthologies and have won numerous awards from the haiku community.
        Renku is a style of Japanese linked verse that dates back over a thousand years, varying in length from a shisan (twelve stanzas) to a hyakuin (100 stanzas). The starting verse is called a hokku, containing three lines and a seasonal element. The second verse contains two lines that link to the first verse in some way, but also shifts the focus away from the first verse. Links can be built upon associations, contrasts, or comparisons of an item within the previous verse or by continuing an atmospheric element of the verse. The renku proceeds, alternating between three- and two-line verses, with a sense of seasonal progression.
        The renku is a form that demands adherence to firm rules. “Back-linking,” making links to a verse preceding the preceding verse, is strictly prohibited. The placement of certain types of verses, meanwhile, such as a moon verse, a blossom verse, and a love verse within the renku is also regulated. Although such rules make renku enjoyable for groups of poets to compose, many of the finished poems are far from fun to read, perhaps because of the deliberate avoidance of an overall theme, resulting from the rules against back-linking.
        I had an opportunity to ask Garry Gay why he felt there was a need for a new form of collaborative poetry. “As a dedicated haiku poet, I wanted to work closely or intimately with just one or two other poets,” he said. “I found the renku/renga too long and full of rules. It wandered through all four seasons when I wanted to stay in one place in time. I wanted a linking form that was like haiku itself. In the here and now and focused on a theme (at least a main theme). I thought it would be fun to see the same subject but from different perspectives. When I thought it through, I wanted the form to be useful and practical. Not just a game. There did not seem to be a form that met my requirements, so I invented one. I wanted it brief and to be suggestive just like haiku.”
        I also asked him what he thought about using the rengay poetry form to write horror, science fiction, or fantasy poetry, and he replied: “Actually, I always thought that the rengay form would work for modern [mainstream] poets. But as my interest was haiku, it was these poets I presented it to. I thought in time, at least modern [mainstream] poets might find it useful. Maybe even adapt it in some way (but keeping the verse pattern). So I won’t be surprised to see it find a wider audience.” He also said, “I do think the rengay will work perfectly for this group of writers (i.e. the poets of the HWA [Horror Writers Association]), simply because of the theme or story telling format of the rengay.”
        So, how does a poet collaborate with another poet and write a rengay? The first stanza of a rengay is a haiku written by poet A, which is followed by a two-line stanza by poet B. The third stanza is another haiku by poet A, followed by a three-line verse by poet B. The fifth stanza is a two-line stanza by poet A, followed by a final three-line verse by poet B:

                Stanza 1 - Poet A - 3 lines
                Stanza 2 - Poet B - 2 lines
                Stanza 3 - Poet A - 3 lines
                Stanza 4 - Poet B - 3 lines
                Stanza 5 - Poet A - 2 lines
                Stanza 6 - Poet B - 3 lines

The rengay can be adapted for collaborations between three poets, shifting the pattern slightly so that three-line and two-line haiku alternate each stanza. The poets alternate ABCABC, to observe the following pattern:

                Stanza 1 - Poet A - 3 lines
                Stanza 2 - Poet B - 2 lines
                Stanza 3 - Poet C - 3 lines
                Stanza 4 - Poet A - 2 lines
                Stanza 5 - Poet B - 3 lines
                Stanza 6 - Poet C - 2 lines

A rengay can also be written by one person [and by six people], using either pattern.
        A rengay varies from a renku in that it follows an overall theme. There is more choice when linking verses because each verse can either link to the previous verse or link back to the overall theme. However, it is important that each verse be associated somehow with either the previous verse or the rengay theme. [Note: It is actually necessary for all verses to develop the theme rather than link to the previous verse or the theme.]
        When writing a collaborative rengay, there are at least two approaches. First, it is important to be familiar with English-language haiku and senryu and to understand that haiku is much more than the 5-7-5 form taught in grammar school. After some practice writing haiku, one poet might present a haiku/senryu as a starting point for a rengay, and the theme begins to develop after a second poet provides the first link. Another method is to discuss possible themes with the other collaborators, such as “the color black,” “grave markers,” or “rituals.”
        Here is a sample of a two-person rengay:

                Pop-up Book of Nightmares

                by Mary Margaret Serpento and Deborah P Kolodji

                fresh-stained recliner
                in the study: The Pop-up
                Book of Nightmares

                burnt strawberry tarts
                after the toaster fire

                bony fingers through
                the grating sparks: busker round
                of Bedlam Boys

                of tangled bedsheets
                the still mound

                corkscrewed off
                his signet ring

                the fresh cement
                in the patio

The first poem in this rengay was inspired by the title of a book Serpento saw at the Lansing Antiquarian Book Fair. When trying to form a link to this verse, I focused in on the word “pop-up” and remembered a story I had read about a fire that was caused by a Kellogg’s Pop-Tart in a toaster. So, then a loose theme of “nightmares in various rooms of a house” developed from there.
        If I had selected something else from the hokku (first verse) to link to, a completely different poem would have resulted as in this rengay written from the same starting hokku with Andrea Gradidge:

                Shadow of a Smile

                by Mary Margaret Serpento and Andrea Gradidge

                fresh-stained recliner
                in the study: The Pop-up
                Book of Nightmares

                the shadow of a smile
                behind the cavalier

                lace curtain pulled
                away from the French door
                cane handle gripped

                bamboo grove
                pierced by the gibbon’s scream
                at midnight

                languid decline and fall
                horticultured tontine

                hired hand trembles
                at the telegram
                from overseas

In this case, Gradidge saw a cavalier in Serpento’s study and, as a result, their rengay took a completely different course from the previous rengay, developing into a tale of family banishment and murder for inheritance.
        Here is an example of a three-person rengay. In this case, we started with a general theme of twilight:

                Gravel Walk

                by Mary Margaret Serpento, Andrea Gradidge, and Deborah P Kolodji

                twilight across
                the gravel walkway
                letter crumpled

                invisible ink stains
                lilies in the moonlight

                glint of silver
                the heirloom letter opener
                caked with blood

                slow blade caress
                cheekbone moko

                a maiden’s curse
                over long slow wing beats
                of the great owl

                spilled pomegranate seeds
                in the moon’s fading dirge

Since the rengay was meant to be a collaborative form, I have never set out to deliberately write a one-person rengay. However, on occasion, problematic poems have ended up as rengay by the end of the editing process. For example, consider the evolution of this poem about the toll of cigarette smoking:

                Left Behind (original version of poem)

                by Deborah P Kolodji

                Fresh sutures of pain
                a carton of cigarettes
                stashed behind the desk
                testament to your addiction
                your obnoxious laugh in my head
                silenced too soon.

                I must reek of nicotine
                wearing your old sweater
                this March morning
                by your too-fresh grave.

After my third rewrite of this poem, a rengay emerged:


                by Deborah P Kolodji

                a carton of cigarettes
                stashed behind the desk
                last testament to addiction

                he reads from Psalms
                as the family gathers

                for chicken egg noodle
                casserole dishes

                baked in the sun
                streaming through stained glass
                the organist plays

                “Rock of Ages”
                I search for words

                at your grave
                the reek of nicotine
                wearing your sweater

The rengay form has become popular within the haiku community. Rengay often come about from impromptu links on haiku email lists. I asked Garry why he thought the form caught on so well within the haiku community. His answer: “I was surprised at how quickly the form was accepted. Clearly there was a need for such a form. The only other thing that comes close to the rengay is of course the renku. But the renku does not allow you to tell a story or even stay in one place. Also the renku [in most forms] is very long and with all of the devices it has it is somewhat clumsy. In a nutshell, being brief and topic- or theme-focused really made the rengay successful. Its rules are few and it does not take very long to do one. The ability to have an intimate collaboration with just one or two other writers is also appealing.”
        Collaborative poetry seems well-suited for genre poetry because of the symbiotic effect of feeding/nurturing creativity between members of the writing team, bringing the participating poets into new realms at the outer fringes of consciousness. The structure of the rengay helps facilitate this process by providing a blueprint to initiate the journey beyond the limits of our own imagination.