Rengay: The Art of Partnering

      by Carolyn Hall

The following essay originally appeared in Frogpond XXX:2, Spring/Summer, 2007. It excels in emphasizing the rewards of working with a partner, and in exploring the various issues that haiku poets face when writing together collaboratively. At the end is a new postscript that expands on Carolyns views, or clarifies my own perspectives.


There’s probably no faster, easier way to get to know someone at a distance than to write a collaborative piece with them. A delightful vehicle for accomplishing this is the rengay, a six-verse linked poem on a single theme (or two concurrent themes—see below) invented in 1992 by haiku poet Garry Gay. He envisioned two or three poets alternately penning verses—either in one another’s company (indoors or out) or via post. With the advent of the Internet and subsequent ubiquity of email, it has now become common for haijin across the globe to email rengay verses to one another and receive almost immediate responses from their partners. Sometimes it is only a matter of minutes or hours between the time links are submitted, discussions ensue, and edits are made that are satisfying to both partners. The tenor of these discussions and negotiations is often very revealing about the personalities of the poets. I see it as the haijin version of pen pals, and it can be terrific fun.
        From conversations with Garry, I know that once having given birth to this new genre he is happy enough to watch its form evolve and become enriched by the imaginations of those who have taken it up. From his perspective, the two incontrovertible “rules” of rengay are (1) more than one participant, and (2) adherence to a theme. I know that solo rengay have been attempted by some (including myself). But what makes rengay exciting is two or three brains working in concert. Though I may know where I’m headed with a verse and can easily imagine a link to it, I am unlikely to come up with anything as interesting as the associations my verse stimulates in someone else’s brain. It’s very exciting to open my partner’s email and think, “Wow! I never would have thought of that!”
        Now of course that “Wow!” might be either positive or negative. What if you hate that link that seems to come out of left field and that you can’t wrap your head around no matter how hard you try? If your partner is an old friend, it’s easy enough to say “Whatever were you thinking?” without destroying the friendship. It’s a different matter when you’re writing with a new partner. Here diplomacy comes into play. But it’s safe to assume that a rengay partner is just what it says—a partner. And it’s safe to assume that a partner is willing to work with you till you agree you’ve got it right. No doubt my partners occasionally gnash their teeth at my suggestions and/or rejections (just as I sometimes do at theirs). But usually they come back with a much better verse (just as I sometimes do), grateful for the kick in the pants. A personal failing on my part is a tendency to try to rewrite my partner’s verse—but that puts me back into the danger zone of solo rengay. Better to just send your partner back to the drawing board and see what emerges.

Theme

So you have a partner who’s eager to work with you. Now how do you go about establishing a theme? In my practice I have tried a number of schemes. There is the obvious tack of engaging in a discussion that results in an agreement to write about death and dying, or perhaps to incorporate spices in each verse. Or one partner may announce a desire to write on a particular theme, and the other agrees to go along for the ride. An equally valid approach is to simply begin with a verse presented by one player. The second player links to the opening verse. The nature of that link begins to suggest a theme. It may, in fact, determine the theme. But sometimes it is not until the third verse is linked to the second that the theme becomes apparent to both partners. (This is the point at which a secondary theme may also become apparent. For example, “This is obviously a rengay about art, but it looks like we have atmospheric conditions in each verse as well. Let’s carry that throughout.”) I’ve found that no one of these schemes is superior to another. Each can result in very satisfactory rengay so long as you are in agreement.

Ground Rules

Some ground rules to establish up front: Is it okay to send your partner back to the drawing board? (Some people are uncomfortable being asked to give it another try.) Does your partner expect you to send just one link, or does s/he prefer to be given two or three verses to choose from? There’s no reason partners can’t differ in this approach. One can choose to send only one at a time; the other may be more comfortable sending three or four and leaving it up to his/her partner to choose.
        Another issue that may come up is the form of the verses. I have a partner who feels very strongly that the two-liners should be strong, stand-alone haiku, complete with caesura. Others treat the two-line verses more like the two-line component of a traditional three-line haiku (“the delicious tickle / of a lady bug”) with no break. I find that a hard break in every verse tends to make the finished poem feel a bit choppy. But if that effect can be avoided, either way works.
        An aspect of rengay that I struggle with is the relative importance of the individual verses. Should each be the strongest haiku you can write on the subject? (For example, would you submit it to a journal or to a contest?) Or is it more important to write the strongest verse you can under the circumstances, taking into account the necessity of linking to the previous verse and sticking to the theme. I tend toward the “strongest verse under the circumstances” school. If that turns out to be a very strong stand-alone haiku, so much the better. But in rengay, each verse is in service to the poem as a whole.
        On this same topic, I sometimes will offer up an opening verse that is not the strongest haiku I have ever written. For example, “summer dusk / blurred colors of the freight train / on the opposite track” is an adequate haiku, but no contest winner. Yet it works well as a rengay opener because there are any number of associations an imaginative partner may bring to it and which might make interesting themes, such as opposites, trains, travel, fading light. In fact, my partner (Billie Wilson) responded with “vesper bells / a scatter of bluebirds,” and the theme soon established itself as “blurred colors.” The rengay was published in Mariposa.
        Another issue to agree on is whether verses must link to the preceding verse, or only to the general theme. In traditional renku, both link and shift are essential. Rengay doesn’t insist upon the shift—in fact it discourages it. But I think linking to the previous verse is half the fun and results (generally) in stronger rengay. One must be a bit cautious, however. When focusing only on the linking aspect, it is easy to shift so far from the previous verse or verses that that the poem loses its coherence. As an extreme example:

                swelling quince buds
                a wild turkey teeters
                on the fence

                the town drunkard
                makes his way home

The obvious link is between “teeters” and the stumbling drunk. (Or perhaps between the drunkard and Wild Turkey!) But the subject matter of the two verses is so disparate, and the shift in mood so abrupt, that it is impossible to intuit from them what the overall theme might be. In a long renku, linking and shifting balance each other out and make for an interesting journey. Rengay is too short to accommodate such shifts and they leave the reader perhaps feeling as if she is stumbling from one verse to the next. As a general rule, the shift should be neither so weak nor so strong that it calls attention to itself.
        This leads us to the issue of variety. Once you’ve chosen a theme, can you come at it from all possible directions? Can you skip around from one season to another? (Garry would say no, though I have seen successful rengay that do this.) Is it alright to move from indoors to out and then in again? Sometimes it’s fun to stay “in the neighborhood” or “in Hawaii.” My partner and I once took second place for a rengay in which we never got out of grandma’s kitchen. But she is the same partner who will often remind me that “it’s time we had some sound,” or “it feels like we need something moving upwards at this point.” I am always grateful for her suggestions because those considerations don’t often occur to me—and I think they always make for a stronger poem. My answer to the questions I’ve posed above is that I have no right answer. The most I can say is that it is important that the verses hang together; that they are innovative while all the while sticking to the theme. And, as with haiku in general, it is never a bad idea to engage several of the senses.

Title

Okay, let’s assume you have six verses (whew!) and you are both pleased as punch with the outcome. The last hurdle is the title. The title should be related, obviously, to the theme. And when the theme is subtle and may need to be teased out from each verse, the title is an excellent opportunity to guide the reader. My own preference is to choose a line (or a portion of a line) from the rengay to serve as the title. (But it’s important not to give away the punch line if there is one at the end.) I also prefer to hint at, rather than spell out, the theme. (For example, I’d choose “Once in a Blue Moon” over the more obvious “Colors.”)

Rewards

I have found collaborating with rengay partners extremely rewarding. If you haven’t already done so . . . try it, you’ll like it. You never know where it might take you!

                Imagining Eve

                fig leaves
                in April moonlight—
                imagining Eve

                first date . . .
                he helps me see Orion


                Himalayan dawn
                through open tent flaps
                a yeti sighting?

                close of day—
                in the center of the fairy ring
                bluebells


                searching the heavens
                for Heaven

                newfound love—
                a rainbow from one pot of gold
                to the other


                                Carolyn Hall
                                Billie Wilson

                                Frogpond XXVI:1, Winter 2003

Rengay Format

All rengay consist of six verses composed in the following formats.
  • For two people (Poet A and Poet B): 3 lines/Poet A, 2 lines/Poet B, 3/A, 3/B, 2/A, 3/B
  • For three poets (A, B, and C): 3 lines/A, 2 lines/B, 3 lines/C, 2/A, 3/B, 2/C


Postscript

        by Michael Dylan Welch

Carolyn Hall’s essay on rengay is a vital addition to the literature promoting this form. I admire how she emphasizes the rewards of working with a partner, and explores the issues that haiku poets face when writing collaboratively. Here are fourteen additional comments and observations:
  1. It was actually me who suggested the three-person form, not Garry. When he first shared the idea of the two-person form (just before we wrote “Deep Winter,” the very first two-person rengay together, on 9 August 1992), I immediately proposed the three-person form that has been followed ever since.
  2. Interesting that Garry considers having at least two participants as an incontrovertible rule. As Carolyn’s essay mentions, I (and others) enjoy writing solo rengay—I’ve written a dozen or more. I think they’re just as legitimate as solo renku, even if the primary virtue of both rengay and renku is to write collaboratively. Carolyn is right that writing rengay with a partner is superior, but it’s also interesting to see what you can come up with on your own.
  3. I appreciate what Carolyn says about diplomacy if you don’t like a partner’s verse. I’ve had two rengay stuck at the fifth and sixth verses (one of them a truly outstanding rengay) because I pushed back. I may not be the most diplomatic person, but I sure tried. I pushed back because the verse each poet offered departed from the rengay’s theme or progression (I wish these two partners would be grateful for the kick in the pants, as Carolyn put it, but so far, no). I think one reason I’ve done pretty well at HPNC rengay contests (when I wasn’t judging) is because of being a stickler for theme. I also believe that the theme works best if it’s fairly objective and accessible rather than subjective or conceptual (however, secondary or tertiary themes can indeed be more conceptual). I tend to work out the theme with my partner beforehand, but I recognize that other ways of arriving at a theme can work well too.
  4. Carolyn’s essay doesn’t address it, but another issue I’m a stickler on is making sure the two-line verses really are two-liners. The 2013 HPNC rengay contest winner had one verse (by John Thompson) that felt like a three-liner forced into two lines. I liked the verse itself, but it was flawed in form, and for me that would have kept the rengay from being a first-place winner, which I believe should serve as a model to follow in all aspects of craft. This is something I push back on with partners. Carolyn does talk about the issue of whether the two-liners need to be stand-alone verses, with a cut. I agree that they don’t have to do that, but I do think they need to avoid being three-liners forced into two lines.
  5. Regarding the setting of themes, I too have tried all the methods Carolyn mentions. The danger of just starting with a poem and seeing where it goes (especially without discussion) is that you can end up with a renku, and have such an abstract or nebulous theme that readers won’t even be able to tell what it is. No matter how good the individual verses might be, I’ve read too many rengay (even occasionally in HPNC rengay contest results) that have no clearly discernible theme. To me, this means the rengay shouldn’t be selected, no matter how fine individual verses might be. The theme is vital. If the rengay’s main theme is not fairly obvious (with overtones), then perhaps it’s not a successful rengay. Not all themes need to be handed to readers on a platter, and if they are, then secondary themes would add deeper resonances, but if the theme is too obscure, then the rengay misses one of its main requirements—and opportunities.
  6. If a rengay’s theme is too abstract or is clear only (or mostly) to its participants, then to me that’s a weakness. One wants subtleties, of course (especially with secondary or tertiary themes), but I think one could do that in rengay and have a more obvious or objective primary theme. In fact, I would say that the most obvious/primary theme in the best rengay isn’t really what the rengay is about, and that the overtones or additional themes often carry more weight, or tell the real story, and that’s what I look for beyond the obvious theme. For me, if I’ve got the time and creativity to pull it off while writing rengay, it’s getting those deeper subtleties to work in the context of the surface theme that makes the best rengay shine. If the theme is too subtle, then the rengay isn’t far enough removed from any old renku. However, a rengay that has an obvious theme but has little else to it is merely superficial.
  7. Something else that’s interesting about rengay is that it’s sometimes possible to completely rearrange the sequence of the verses once you finish, because the theme itself makes it hang together. I don’t often do this, but occasionally my partner and I have thought that a particular verse might work better as a starting or ending verse, in particular. It’s surprising what good things can happen—sometimes—by moving the verses around (while still maintaining the prescribed pattern of authorship). This has now become something I at least consider upon completion for every rengay I write, even if, most of the time, I don’t propose any rearrangement. It’s worth thinking about.
  8. I agree with Carolyn’s point of writing the “strongest verse under the circumstances.” That makes the writing of the rengay an “event,” which is very much in the social tradition of renga and renku in Japan. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t go back and revise a rengay (actually, according to Haruo Shirane, Bashō sometimes rewrote renku verses by others as well as his own, even changing the authorship of verses!), but there’s something satisfying in knowing you wrote a rengay together in a particular place (baseball game, Japanese garden, and so on), but that’s less true for rengay written over the Internet.
  9. As for the matter of linking and shifting in rengay, the theme itself always provides a link, but it’s fun to weave in other links. A related issue is that I do think the verses in rengay need to shift sufficiently. However, the distinction with rengay is that the shift has to take place in ways other than with the theme. In other words, rengay verses should shift within the context of the theme. So I’m not sure I agree with the statement that “Rengay doesn’t insist upon the shift—in fact it discourages it.” Rather, it is only the theme itself that is anti-shift. There’s no reason not to shift as well as you can aside from the link provided by the theme. In fact, many of the best rengay succeed by the surprising shifts they have despite being linked together by a clear theme. (As an aside, Carolyn’s example of the teetering turkey followed a town drunkard is most likely fine as a renku link, although some purists might say it’s too close or too obvious, actually, rather than too much of a shift. In any event, I agree that it’s not a good rengay link because, as Carolyn says, the subject matters are too disparate.)
  10. I agree with Carolyn that it’s fine for a rengay to explore multiple seasons (I’m not convinced that Garry would say no to that, and I don’t think it would take much work to find an example where he’s probably done exactly that). In fact, I’ve written rengay where each of the three-line verses was a different season, with the two-liners being nonseasonal—and this itself was one of the “themes” of the rengay (though not the only one).
  11. Regarding titles, I agree that they are important tools. When the rengay’s theme is perhaps less obvious, the right title can make the rengay click into place by pointing to the theme. Or, where the verses themselves make the theme pretty obvious, you can be more creative with the title—even to the point of intentional misdirection. You can use the title to point to or point away from the theme—and do so deliberately. It can sometimes be a sort of sleight of hand. The relationship of the title to the rengay is every bit like the relationship between any two renku or rengay verses, linking and shifting, creating synergy. There’s an art to titling. One point I’d add is that if one is using or adapting a line from the rengay itself as the title, I find it works best if the selected poem appears first or last in the sequence (with last best, if at all), or at least this location is a notch better than if the verse appears in the rengay’s interior. When the title comes from the last verse, that helps to give the rengay a sense of resolution and completion as you re-encounter the title in the final verse, creating a bookend effect. However, there’s no hard and fast rule, and titles that are not based on any of the verses directly can still be perfectly excellent too.
  12. Another question is how to present one’s rengay. The example Carolyn includes at the end uses italic to indicate the author of three of the six verses. The advantage of this is that it avoids having to put each author’s name or initials next to each verse, which can look cumbersome. The disadvantage is that italic can subtly change the way an individual verse is received, perhaps as if it’s being emphasized. Another option is to merely list the names of the poets at the top, with the person who wrote the first verse listed first. Then, readers who know rengay patterns will know who wrote each verse. The disadvantage of this is that not everyone knows the patterns, and authors or editors may not be consistent in listing the writer of the starting verse first. Yet another issue is whether to indent the two-liners. I’ve also seen the three-liners indented rather than the two-liners (which works well if the two-liners happen to each have long lines). As long as participants make conscious choices regarding what to do, I imagine that it’s worthwhile leaving the visual appearance up to the authors, and I could even see the choices as potentially enhancing the rengay’s theme, such as stair-stepping each of the verses if the theme happened to be stairs, for example—if that wasn’t too much of a gimmick. Rengay has shown itself to have many aspects that allow for endless creativity and variety.
  13. Carolyn has told me that she enjoys writing rengay but doesn’t really enjoy reading them. This is a common complaint about renku, and has been for centuries (which is why only the hokku was considered “art”—the rest of it was really a social activity, and frequently discarded). I too have found most renku to be tedious to read, even when I was one of the participants writing it, although they can be great fun to write. But I do happen to find rengay much more enjoyable to read than renku, and I think it’s because of the theme, including both obvious and more subtle themes.
  14. One final thought is the format for rengay. In addition to the standard two-person and three-person formats, which are the most common, poets have also embraced the solo form, with one person writing all six verses, sometimes taking on a persona for alternating verses, and the six-person form, in which six different poets each contribute one verse. These are natural extensions of the form, and the six-person variation is a wonderful way to engage a small group of poets at a special occasion.

I’m delighted to have Carolyn’s informative essay on Graceguts.

— 14, 16, 30 October 2014