July 26: Shared Water: a renga

A month or so ago I wrote about renga (or renku), the form of collaborative linked verse from which the haiku evolved. Everything I’d read about it fascinated me and I was itching to try it, so I issued an invitation for renga partners. Steve Mitchell of Heed Not Steve was the only one brave (or crazy) enough to take me up on it. This means that Steve was the only one who got to have the fun of spending the last month emailing renga verses back and forth with me as we tried to master the notorious intricacies of renga link and shift.

See, here are the most basic rules of renga: each verse should link to the verse immediately before it — should connect to it somehow, say in subject or tone or viewpoint or just linguistically, as for instance when one word suggests a variety of meanings that can be played on in different ways. It should also shift completely from the verse two before it — should have nothing in common in the ways I just mentioned. You’re also, technically, not supposed to repeat significant words (nouns, verbs and the like) in the course of a renga. And you should try to cover as many different subjects as you can in the course of a renga — to create a little microcosm. By the time you get to about verse 18 of a 36-verse kasen renga, the type we attempted, these rules are starting to drive you (and by “you” I mean “me”) out of your mind. In a good way, of course.

Steve and I, both complete newcomers to this form of poetry and a little intimidated by the whole thing, elected to take the (relatively) easy route of using one of Jane Reichhold’s ready-made seasonal kasen renga forms — in this case, the one for summer. These specify for each verse who should be writing it (with two people writing, you more or less switch back and forth each verse, except when you don’t), how many lines it should be (you alternate 3 and 2 line verses), and what the subject matter should be. Jane’s forms are loosely based on the great Basho’s kasen renga rules: the renga moves through the seasons, making a couple of complete cycles of the year, and contains a certain number of references to moon and blossoms and love. You can entertain yourself trying to figure out which verses are which in our renga.

Steve was lots of fun to work with — I enjoyed trying to figure out how the heck each new verse he sent me was supposed to link to the verse I’d just sent him. Links can be very subtle and devious sometimes. We both kept notes on each verse we wrote — how we linked, what we were thinking as we wrote it and how we saw it fitting into the renga as a whole. I’ll link at the bottom to a separate page I’ve created with all our notes, so if you feel like reading them you can.

The overall impression a renga should leave is not of a neatly ordered landscape, as in a traditional Western poem with a unified theme, but a sort of whirlwind tour of the world  via several different modes of transportation and with a constantly changing group of travel companions — moving like lightning from one subject to another, from one kind of weather to another, from one mind to another. For this reason, they can be challenging to read if you’re not used to them — but once you start to get the hang of it, they are exhilarating. Or at least I think so. Hope you do too.

*

Shared Water

a summer kasen renga between Steve Mitchell and Melissa Allen
June-July 2010

balmy blue lakes
shimmering dry heat
shared water

organic milk on the strawberries
the shortcake dissolves

copper strands
entwine the land
quaint bitumen

bright socks on her needles
she watches the people on the bus watch her

playing parlor games
unmindful as the moon peeks
through the drapes

bleached plastic pumpkins
holding a seance on the lawn

stalking through frosty grass
the cat leaps
on the tail of a leaf

the young boy makes a muscle
dad gives a low whistle

biology class picture
the children
divided by sex

anonymous in the dark
feral peafowl invade the trees

the third day of fever
he writes a poem
about the war

those brothers interred
their silence accuses

the moon
through a row of icicles
flashes of insight

on the roads a glacial crawl —
fly away Snowbirds!

andante
their conversation waltzes
to the music

light steam in his nose
hot tea hides his fortune

bright pink sweater
the unexpected shyness
of the blossom

iridescent hummingbird
faster than gravity

the soothing cool wind
so brief
windows left open

under the microscope
the fruit flies are born and die

(ME) gnashing ego
believes (ME) its own truth
fear (ME) and (ME) death

half asleep, waiting for the sound
of the false teeth being brushed

the a.c. hums
our summer lullaby
the meter spins

fish reeled from the river
silver-clad for the boating party

dressed for dinner
“Where’s your new brooch?”
she pins it on

cuttings from the jade plant
he returns her Polaroids

the oak tree
with enduring scars
carved initials

Moscow beer line —
passing the communal cup

moonlit haze
I think I hailed this cab
it looks amber

goosebumps on her arms
he rushes through the painting

cold autumn rain
she counts the money
one more time

fragile sand dollars
half-buried by the surf

the oily sea
punishment from the gods
for digging too deep

wool coats forgotten
a reprieve from the frost

damp violets underfoot
trying to imagine
cactus flowers

the riverbed mesquite
imagining water

*

You can look over here if you’re interested in reading our notes about our writing process.

*

(And if you’ve made it this far and you are intrigued by renga, I hereby issue another invitation. Ashley Capes of Issa’s Snail, a renku site, who has done a whole lot of writing and coordinating of this fascinating kind of poetry and really knows what he’s talking about, has kindly offered to organize a renga for readers of this blog to participate in — leave a comment if you are interested in participating.)

Haibun: Collaboration

My old friend Alexandra Crampton (a former boarding school roommate and fellow native New Englander, now an anthropology professor newly arrived to the same Midwestern state I live in), posted the passage below on her Facebook page a few days ago. It’s so lyrical and has such a unique voice that I immediately screamed to myself “HAIBUN!” and offered to write a companion haiku for the piece and publish the whole thing here. She graciously accepted, although I’m not sure she quite understands yet what I’m up to. So herewith — a collaborative haibun:

Alex:

While reading on a hillside overlooking Lake Michigan, a sequence of sleek jets interrupt like pickups down a summer strip – Then, directly overhead, 2 more with US NAVY clearly stamped on each belly. Throughout the city, jets circle and peek between buildings, creating a surround sound of freaky so I bike down the coast in time to see how the world ends — not with a bang but something like synchronized swimming…

Melissa:

the apocalypse —
stage-managed by
blue angels

June 5: 3: Haibun for my sister’s birthday

IMG_3949

December 2008: We* were home† for Christmas, for what we knew or suspected would be the last time we would all be together because my father‘s cancer was taking root deep in his body and could no longer be eradicated, and we (the younger two generations) got up one morning and decided we needed to make a road trip to go get the world’s best doughnuts§. Forty-five minutes away, through the countryside. About halfway there, there’s this tree. My father had reminded us about it before we left, so we were on the lookout for it. This amazing tree. I had never seen it so didn’t really know what to expect; how amazing could a tree be? Well. It’s the oldest tree in the state. An oak. Hundreds of years old, with huge branches, bigger than a lot of trees, literally grown into the ground. And as we discovered, if all five of us stood around it and stretched our arms as far as they would go, we could just touch fingertips. The tree’s circumference was exactly the same as our combined heights. We’re all short. But still.

*

the oldest tree we know
stretching
to touch each other’s fingers

*

That’s me on the left. My sister on the right. My son in the middle. The men are in the back, stretching invisibly.

Happy birthday, sister.

*

If you’re going to force me to be brief you at least have to let me have footnotes:

* me, my husband, my son, my sister, and my sister’s then-boyfriend

† at my father’s apartment and my mother’s house (they hadn’t lived together for nine years but they never got divorced and they still saw each other all the time), in the area where we grew up, eight states away from where I live now and three states away from where my sister lives

§ I don’t want to turn this blog into an advertisement so I’m not going to say the name of the place that makes these doughnuts, but if you email me privately and ask nicely I might be willing to reveal all.

June 4: 4-7: The Technique of Narrowing Focus

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)

Jane:

“This is something Buson used a lot because he, being an artist, was a very visual person. Basically what you do is to start with a wide-angle lens on the world in the first line, switch to a normal lens for the second line and zoom in for a close-up in the end.


“the whole sky

in a wide field of flowers

one tulip”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques


Me:

ten thousand runners
I stand alone
and look at my feet

on the horizon a freighter
with a box
with a man inside

reading Anna Karenina
once again
finding that sentence

forest full of
maple saplings
guessing which one will live

June 3: 1: A sort of haibun (Old Letters)

For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.

*

Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers,  wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.

What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.

I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.

Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.

*

old letters
the strangeness
of handwriting

*

100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.