From Scifaiku to Rengay

First published in Scifaikuest, 2006. This essay is a revision of the author’s “Rengay: A Journey into Symbiotic Poetry,” published in the Horror Writers Association newsletter in 2004. The following text has been lightly edited.

by Deborah P Kolodji

One of the difficulties in writing scifaiku is that there isn’t a lot of room to develop complex ideas. Much of mainstream haiku is inferred from the framework of the earth we all live on, but a scifaiku needs the reader to make a greater mental leap from a hint written in a few syllables to a place he or she has never been before. When done skillfully, a scifaiku can be breathtaking, but sometimes, it’s a difficult jump.

A science fiction rengay can be used to bridge the gap to longer ideas, a way to use haiku-like verses to tell a story. A rengay is a Westernized form of renku, a style of Japanese linked verse that dates back over a thousand years, varying in length from a shisan (12 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 and links to the first verse in some way, but also shifts the focus away from the first verse. The renku proceeds, alternating between three- and two-line verses, with a sense of seasonal progression. There are strict rules for linking—“back-linking” to a verse preceding the preceding verse is strictly prohibited. In addition, there are strict rules for the placement of a moon verse, a blossom verse, and a love verse within the renku.

To Western sensibilities, the resulting renku poems are often long, surreal, and not nearly as enjoyable to read as they are to compose. In 1992, Garry Gay, the former president of the Haiku Society of America, collaborated with Michael Dylan Welch, the editor of Tundra, a journal of short poetry, to develop a new form that appeals more to Western eyes, the rengay. Gay told me, “As a dedicated haiku poet, I wanted to work closely or intimately with just one or two other poets. 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.”

A rengay follows a set form. The first stanza 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 haiku by poet B. The fifth stanza is a two-line stanza by poet A, followed by a haiku 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 senyru 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/senyru 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 a “moons of Jupiter,” “solar winds,” or “time travel.”

Here is a sample of a two person rengay written by me and Ann K Schwader, published originally at Strange Horizons on August 30, 2004:

Minions of the Moon

by Deborah P Kolodji and Ann K Schwader

crescent grins

halfway to the horizon

minions of the moon

permanent footprints

in a video landscape


a formula in yards

not meters

Houston Houston

do you read the static

of history

another flat-line

in decontamination

pure wilderness

still sovereign despite

that flag

This poem was inspired by a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One, where Falstaff says, “let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s Foresters, Gentlemen of the Shade, Minions of the Moon.”

From “minions of the moon,” we thought of Apollo and the days of moon exploration and the poem began to develop from there. If Ann had selected something else from the hokku (first verse) to link to, a completely different poem could have resulted.

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.