Why Renku/ Why know anything about it

Petals in the Dark (2015, catkin press)crop petals coverPiaget insisted on the value of play in learning, and many of us stop playing, except for cards or sports, with other adults. Enter this poetry form, and Marshall Hryciuk’s first collection of what happens when poets decide to play together.

Petals in the Dark is an collection of verses by poets all over the world, linked and shifted, and guided by Marshall Hryciuk in the position of renku master. That sounds formal, and some forms can be. But to be part of a renku led by Marshall is to feel simply very alive, intellectually, socially, and creatively. For years he and his wife Karen Sohne have created poetry parties noted for a certain wild abandon, but an abandon that includes everyone, anyone who is ‘game’ to participate. It is truly a party.

I love this photo of Marshall, taken at Versefest 2015 as he was guiding a varied group of audience members, some who had done renku before, and many others who were new to the genre. Nevertheless, everyone got into it, and the party was a fine one. The Japanese sake was fine too.marshall cropped at VerefestIt’s amazing how quickly participants begin to move as one, like a flock of starlings; there’s a movement, suddenly the poem can go one way, and in the next verse, go somewhere else, all the poets interacting. Everyone is on the same side in this game, everyone wants to win, and the prize is a completed renku. Some writers think and work quietly, others get excited, competitive and rowdy while the parts of the renku are busy forming the whole. At Versefest it was no different― there we were all scrambling to write the next verse.

In the introduction to Petals in the Dark, Marshall writes: “…renku would be, under Basho’s tutelage, poems about what was happening, here and now, for, and by, these not-so-refined merchants and travellers who wrote in their everyday clothes in their everyday surroundings.”

In this spirit each renku begins informally. There is a feeling of ‘Come on in, how are you, I’m so glad you’ve come. Tell me about yourself. Have a drink. The food will be ready soon.’ It is a recognition of, and welcome to, each person at the party, an assurance that the host, and everyone else, is interested in who you are, and wants to make you comfortable. One strength of this form, as Marshall indicates, is that a renku is: “…a poem that has a consensus of differing perspectives and personalities expressed and yet contained within it. Backgrounds, literacy and poetic competency are not as important as doing itcommitting poetry, showing that poetry is one of the joys of life…”

Committing poetry, then, and committing poetry as a group as well as separately. While the poem is a group party game, each person gets credit in publication, or in a reading, for their own verses. There’s a feeling of a release in a zen-like way; each poet letting go, giving in to fate. The poem will go where it will go. There is nothing anyone can do to plot its course, for:  “…. participants are blind to even the possibility of an overall theme…you learn to avoid cause-effect writing that is the backbone of plot…the dramatic withholding of a secret, together with re-definition, restatement and conclusive appraisal…”

Pivotal is this ‘waywardness’; no one has any idea of where the poem will go, but it might be a good idea to remember where the poem has been as there is no point in repeating what someone has already said. This can get complicated after a few glasses of sake, or brandy, or wine. But it’s a wise poet in any genre who allows room for a poem to make itself.

“Within a renku a…writer can lose her or his predilection for prediction and delay….there is no linear development.”

And so the party continues, guided but not fenced. It should, as mentioned above, include ‘what is happening here and now‘, the headlines and concerns of all world citizens, what kind of coffee you had this morning, the colour of your socks, feasts and festivals, flora and fauna, books and movies, right down, or up, to the whole universe and beyond. It is just so damn much fun for us everyday travellers in our everyday surroundings!