by Ce Rosenow
New forms of poetry often undergo a period of experimentation as poets make their first attempts and then develop their own preferences within the form. In the five years since Garry Gay created rengay [in 1992], many different techniques have been tried and tested by poets around the United States. However, it is not simply because rengay is a new form that this experimentation is taking place; it is also because rengay relies on collaboration between poets to produce the final poem. Any time two or three poets work together to construct a poem, the potential for experimentation is highlighted. The endless number of possible writing partners suggests an endless number of experiments, and it is therefore likely that this form will always carry with it some degree of innovation.
Yet still, within the realm of exploration, there are still certain rules that apply in order for a poem to be classified as a rengay. These rules are documented in the article, “Introducing Rengay” [later retitled as “Rengay: Its Birth and Growth”], written by Michael Dylan Welch and published in Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America. It is a six-verse, linked poem that follows a theme. Gay originally intended for the poem to be written by two poets but Welch expanded the form into a three-poet version as well. The verses must alternate in length between three lines and two lines and should be haiku or haiku-like stanzas (Welch, 20).
However, some of the basic assumptions made in these initial rules have needed clarification. For example, rengay was initially defined as a poem written by two or three poets, but what poets bring to the work are poetic voices and these do not necessarily correspond to a one-to-one ratio of poet to voice. The actual requirement for a rengay, then, is that there be a minimum of two voices and a maximum of three voices in each poem, and no two consecutive verses can be written by the same voice. This means that either two or three poets write the poem, or in the case of a solo rengay one poet develops two or three voices.
While these basic rules provide the groundwork for rengay, and while poets have generally adhered to them, the base established for rengay still lends itself to experimentation for a primary reason: each rule demands collaboration and collaboration leads to innovation. Collaboration means working together, especially to create or produce something. It is this emphasis on creation that relates to innovation. Two or more people, even when working at the same task and toward the same goal, bring with them at least marginally different understandings of the task/goal and different approaches as to how to achieve it. When the task/goal is to create something completely new, such as a poem, these differences combine into an entirely new result each time they encounter one another. Just the reliance upon something as diverse and open to interpretation as language leads to differences in constructing the poem. When the poem itself is a new form with little context on which to draw, the different approaches to writing it, to understanding the theme of the particular poem and to interacting with the verses written by the other partner(s), dictate as much or more of the poem’s direction and final outcome as do the basic rules that define it.
This is clear from a brief examination of the types of rengay that have been written over the past five years. Early on, many of the poems did not utilize the linking or shifting aspect between verses [common in renga and renku] so much as they simply depicted the different poets responding to a single theme. For instance, in “Taking the Field,” a rengay by Christopher Herold and Welch that was published in Frogpond (22), the following two verses do not relate to each other beyond bases at a ballgame in Candlestick Park.
after the anthem
by the pate
runner off first
the pitcher’s tight jaw
In later rengay, more poets began writing links that relate to one another and contain an internal comparison similar to that found in haiku, such as the following from “Sidewalk Café,” written by [Cherie Hunter] Day and myself:
between passing cars
English ivy in and out
of a chain-link fence
The connection between the two verses is the weaving of sax music between the sounds of passing cars and the weaving of ivy through the fence. The weaving is alternately an audible one and a visual one, which is more developed than links in some early rengay but not as subtle as the links that are currently being written in rengay today.
A large number of poets have moved toward a subtler linking, developing multiple levels of meaning in their poems. This development can be seen in the results from the Haiku Poets of Northern California rengay contests as well as in many of the rengay appearing in poetry journals. The following verses are from “Novena,” a rengay about spiritual rituals by Day and myself and published in Northwest Literary Forum (Rosenow, 8):
a bend in the mountain path
placing my stone on others
the fragrance of fresh lilies
at the grave site
Here, the action of leaving something behind, of connecting with others who have gone before, unites the verses. In each, there is a relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world and there is the recognition that we want to both be remembered by others (first verse, albeit anonymously) and to remember others (second verse).
As poems that feature this multiple-layered linking have appeared, other developments have been taking place. Day began experimenting with the possibility of an internal dialogue, of the poet writing and responding to herself. In 1995, she pared down the required number of poets and created the solo rengay to further expand the concept of collaboration and the potential of linking. In her essay, “Rengay: Going Solo,” she explains that she created the solo rengay to explore the multiple inner voices of the poet, the subjective “I am” and the objective “me” a la William James, rather than to allow the poet to take on multiple, fictional identities, although this second option is still a possibility (Day, 39).
At the same time, other writers have moved in the opposite direction, exploring collaboration between the maximum number of three poets. Consider these verses from “A Rain of Leaves,” written by Donna [later Claire] Gallagher, Pat Gallagher, and Welch (Welch, ed. 7):
a rain of leaves
before the first drops
frost on the window
behind my head
above me, bristlecone pine
Collaboration has contributed to other changes in rengay as well. To a large extent, these changes have been occurring because different poets respond to one another in different ways, as seen in the above examples. They also occur because rengay are written in different environments and using different media. I have found that, in my own experience, the response differs depending on where the collaboration takes place. If I am writing a rengay in its entirety at one location, as rengay was when it was first created, the result leans toward the single-layered linking of early rengay. The verses carry more overt connections to each other and often rely on the location to provide the links. My links come much faster and focus more on the setting, on physical imagery, and the links tend to be less intuitive. I am writing largely in response to the other person’s verse, looking around quickly for something that will connect with it. The other person’s reaction to my link has a great effect, as well, because they are able to see/hear/smell/taste for themselves the thing(s) I am including in my verse and to comment on them directly.
When I write with someone through the mail or via email, I have more time with each link. I read and re-read the other person’s work, letting it sink in. While I can create a verse about something I am experiencing at that moment, I am also freer to go back into my memories to find verses that fit the rengay in a more subtle way, relying less on what is happening around me.
Utilizing other forms of communication, such as email, also allows poets to write with people who may not be friends or neighbors but are instead strangers and who live all around the world. In some ways, writing rengay with a stranger via email allows one to explore the even greater freedom that people are encountering in many Internet communications. There is less inhibition for poets who want to experiment with their writing and the results of this type of collaboration are only now beginning to see publication in books and journals.
As the time from its initial inception increases, rengay is becoming an increasingly established form. Examples from its short history suggest that it is encountering an even greater amount of innovation because of its collaborative aspect. As the number of poets who write rengay continues to multiply and new partnerships between writers form, this experimentation will grow as well. Based on the work that has been done so far, it seems that experimentation will continue to be a unique characteristic of this new form.
Day, Cherie Hunter. “Rengay: Going Solo.” Northwest Literary Forum 18 (1995): 37–40.
Rosenow, Ce, ed. Northwest Literary Forum 24 (1997): 8.
Welch, Michael Dylan. “Introducing Rengay.” Frogpond 17.3 (1994): 19–22.
Welch, Michael Dylan, ed. Woodnotes 20 (1994): 7.