Open ‘renshi’ in China
From the Westernized renga that Octavio Paz practiced with three European poets in 1969, to the modern Japanese renshi that Makoto Ōoka has promoted since the 1980’s, this type of chained poetry has been regarded as ‘collaborative’ writing. However, I see underneath a potential ‘interference’. Each poet subconsciously resists the influence of the preceding poet and interferes with the continuous flow of the poem by shifting to a new, unexpected direction. What’s visible is the so-called responding, what’s invisible is the hidden force of shifting: each poet hijacks the ship, changing its direction by creating a detour.
In the Trilingual Renshi that Yasuhiro Yotsumoto initiated, I made a sharp turn in poem #2: a mermaid sang her own little tune. But I immediately felt ‘loss of control’ when Kim Hyesoon shifted to the South Korean ferry that sank in 2014. Writing renshi is about losing control. Each poet is the captain for only a few seconds.
Once a renshi is started, extra-textual rules are gone. There is a natural desire to go against the established course. No matter how much one wishes to collaborate, there is a rebellious mind in each poet that dashes out unleashed. On the surface level, everyone seems to be responding to the earlier one – ‘three girls’, ‘three sisters’, ‘children’ – but each poet refers to something different. A chained poem becomes a series of poems unchained. The Trilingual Renshi ends as a morning chorus, each voice a bird drawing its own sky path in the assembly denouncing the Second World War. For myself, I try to say there are other types of invasions in history, such as the colonialization of the Americas, and there are other types of suppressions and sufferings, such as when Osip Mandelstam was rejected a pair of pants, and Marina Tsvetaeva was rejected a canteen job by the Soviet Union’s Writer’s Union. My last poem, #35, alludes to Wallace Stevens and therefore to ‘13 ways of looking at history’. The four of us present various views from different angles.
There are little words and images that link the broken pieces together. But once written down, everything is open to interpretation. One may see ‘links’ or a ‘chain’, while another may see resistance and interrupting.
What one can ‘interfere’ is where the renshi goes; everything else is controlled: the theme, the length, how many participants, how many poems altogether, who goes after whom, and how many lines in each stanza, etc. Is an open renshi possible where anyone can join at any point without a controlled order? Isn’t it possible? I made two attempts by using the online forum of Poetry East West in China where many people were in the mood of celebrating the ending of WWII. This was ‘open’ in the sense that I didn’t invite any poet specifically. Anyone could join. In the first renshi, ‘Mountains’, I set up a few rules first, but instead of following the Japanese 5-3-5-3-5-3 pattern of stanzas, I proposed to use the Chinese classical 4-line quatrain (but in modern free verse) because it’s impossible to maintain 5-3-5-3 when people can cut in anytime. I posted an opening poem and indicated that anyone could participate in this ‘chained poetry’ by posting 4 lines one after another. A few days later, I saw the renshi tree grow into multiple branches. I trimmed here and there to make the main trunk obvious, and then posted additional rules. More side branches. More trimming. Then the final cutting: 24 poems were collected as shown in the draft translation below.
Some poets complained about the ‘4-line stanza’ rule toward the end of writing ‘Mountains’ and wanted the form to be even more open. Even more open? So I set up new rules for the second renshi, ‘Oceans’: each person could write 2 to 6 lines each time; with or without stanza breaks; at intervals of 2 to 6 people in between. This time, no sideway branches. Very quiet. Most people left the forum. A few stayed. A new issue came up: when to stop an open renshi? If it goes in full swing, like a long poem, let it keep swinging. If it spins, it’s better to stop. I cut the poem at #20, when it didn’t seem to be going further in a meaningful way. Again, as in writing ‘Mountains’, I don’t know any of the participants personally.
As a reader, I tend to look for something that threads through the lines by different authors, to see how it coheres as one poem. As a participant, I tend to break the bind. To control. To lose control. To hijack. To be hijacked. Despair. Struggle. Hijack again. Are we writing one poem of different stanzas? Or a sequence of many poems? I’m not sure. How can I be sure? A renshi is a voyage without a captain – even the one who launches it is not the captain, because poets don’t like to be ordered around – especially when you work with strangers in an open renshi.
However, when you make it open and work with strangers without setting the order, there can still be a deep understanding between poets. In ‘Mountains’, #2 glided smoothly from ‘height’ to ‘distance’ linguistically but jumped to the early stage of mankind: ‘a brush of faint ink, no roots yet, climbs in the snow’. This is not only brilliant but also penetrates to the deep consciousness of #1. A good renshi poet can read the preceding poet’s mind by saying something completely different, as if interfering the other poet’s speech, but at a deeper level revealing what the other poet meant to say. This also happened in the Trilingual Renshi from time to time, akin to revealing what’s behind the lines while reading another’s palm. #8 in the second renshi, ‘Oceans’, is beautiful and skillful at the same time. The image of ‘blue fish’ responds to the ‘china (porcelain)’: ‘Let the blue fish fly off. With fluttering flags. / Each storm shares the surname with us’. #8 resists being in the kitchen, washing dishes, but flies to a metaphysical ocean. It interrupts the image of china pieces stuck in the sink. It protests. It calls for rebirth: ‘renew ourselves’. It’s a good close reading of #7. It doesn’t just continue with the meaning or metaphor but shoots out, responds from far away.
#23 in ‘Mountains’ goes like this:
Hands on hips, he spit at wife of Liu Ba in West village, fucking her in dreams.
That year he aimed his gun to the left, his sickle to the right. Today nobody dies
for loving someone to death. Only in 1942 a German rifle beat a US carbine.
This stanza seems so unusual, apparently not responding to the previous one. But the more I read it, the more I realize this poet is ‘interfering’ with the previous excessive whistling by offering something more down to earth: What’s history? History is what happened in 1937 and 1942. It’s both joining the guerrillas and sleeping with the landlady, left or right, Germany or America. What’s poetry? Poetry is to say A when meaning to say B. What this poet is trying to say is said beautifully, although it beats a little bit around bushes.
Again and again during the open renshi I felt anxious and frustrated, unlike Yasuhiro who was always polite and showed excitement when each new poem came in. I was impatient and couldn’t wait until it was over. But now I look back and see all the branching out and blooming as each poet trying to send out a distinctive voice, with resonance happening only at a deep level. Some lines are even more illuminating now and haunting: ‘And fish shuttle between the sunken battleships, bones and fine porcelains’ (#11 in ‘Oceans’).
Some Chinese poets have told me by email that they think renshi is by its nature a game, not serious enough, not independent enough, too collaborative. Is it really so? If you are serious enough in its undertaking, it will be as serious as any form of writing. The more serious criticism is the latter part, ‘not independent enough, too collaborative’, implying ‘not independently creative’ enough. Here ‘collaborative’ becomes negative. This notion comes from the very belief that renshi is only about linking and connecting.
But once you practice renshi, you will see that each poet ‘intervenes’ and ‘interrupts’ more than connects. Yes it’s a game, but only in the sense of the confronting and wrestling involved. Renshi requires as much, or even more, creativity and imagination than writing a poem alone, because each poet wants to stand out. ‘Dependency’ only comes into play when you read the poet before you. But you go on independently. Even in ‘responding’, one is not less creative. Who doesn’t respond to W. B. Yeats or Emily Dickinson or Paul Celan? Responding doesn’t deplete individual creativity. In writing a renshi, one treats each preceding poem as a tradition and rises against it. Breaking away from the tradition is the underlying motive of responding. Renshi is an art of reacting and interfering: take something from the establishment and change it. Each poet resists the influence of the previous one and departs to a new territory. A renshi is a journey with infinite possibilities.
Read the two ‘open renshi’ poems here:
And visit the online forum of Poetry East West.