Rengay: The Art of Partnering

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 Carolyn’s views, or clarifies my own perspectives.

by Carolyn Hall

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.


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, standalone 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 standalone 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.


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.”)


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


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.


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:

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

— 14, 16, 30 October 2014