Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ring Around The Rengas (Part One)

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Cherry Blossoms

By Karen Shenfeld

Last fall, James Pickersgill, a member of the Cobourg Poetry Workshop, and the editor of an inspiring weekly micro-publication called p o e t r y’z o w n, initiated a delightful project: the writing of a renga.

A renga is a collaborative linked poem, traditionally built from a series of haiku verses. “Originally,” Pickersgill explained to me in one of his famously comprehensive emails, “composing a renga was a group effort, undertaken at social gatherings, such as a seasonal party for the New Year, celebrations for a newborn baby, a birthday, or a newly-built house. Invitees would be asked ahead of the event to compose a haiku on a predetermined theme. Then, at the event, each would recite, one at a time, her or his haiku aloud. Afterwards, guests would compose and recite on the spot follow-up haiku, which were 'riffs' on the same theme or which took the renga in another direction.”

“Strictly speaking, the first haiku verse of a renga was known as a ‘hokku’. The word ‘hokku’ evolved into the word ‘haiku.’”

Inspired by Japanese tradition, Pickersgill began his unique renga project in early November 2010 by composing a “hokku,” which he then sent off by email to a fellow poet to compose a related haiku. Once he received back the second haiku, he then sent off the two haiku to a third poet, whom he invited to write a third haiku — which would stand as the third verse of a slowly growing renga. I was happily invited to write a haiku that eventually served as the 12th verse of what wound up to be a 27-verse renga

Along with the haiku verses, Pickersgill also sent potential participants a link to a written version of a presentation that he had originally given to the Cobourg Poetry Workshop on set forms for short poetry. This helpful presentation is replete with concise information about, and examples of, both formal and informal haiku, as well as a list of some guidelines for the writing of formal haiku in English (some of which I was previously aware of, and some of which I was not), including:

  1. a haiku must be about nature
  2. a haiku must contain a kigo
    (a reference to one or more of the four seasons)
  3. a haiku should use a minimum of punctuation or capitalization, preferably none at all
  4. a haiku usually uses only the present tense
  5. a haiku is not expected to rhyme
  6. a haiku is a poem written in 3 lines:
    the 3 lines of a haiku are written so one can stand alone (of necessity
    this would be either the 1st or 3rd line) and
    so two of the lines clearly work together (of necessity,
    either the 1st and 2nd, or, the 2nd and 3rd)
  7. a haiku uses 17 syllables, no more, no less:
    the syllables in a haiku are arranged as a 5 syllable 1st line,
    a 7 syllable 2nd line, and a 5 syllable 3rd line (this pattern is notated as 5/7/5).

In writing a haiku a poet may also likely demonstrate an ability to observe an ordinary moment while expressing a hint of something universal.

Pickersgill encouraged poets whom he had asked to participate in his collaborative project to write haiku that were as formal or informal as they wished, and to follow as many or as few of the formal guidelines as they saw fit. “There is no expectation about where you ‘take’ the renga,” he also wrote in his introductory email, “and no timeline to stop you from getting it done quickly, or deadline to prevent you going as slowly as you wish.” That said, if Pickersgill did not receive a haiku verse within a few days or so, he sent off the growing renga to one or even two more poets so the project would not get too stalled. Sometimes, one poet leap-frogged ahead of another.

Perhaps to help build into the project an element of playful surprise, he did not initially reveal the names of the participating poets. And, even when the renga was complete, he sent it to participants in two different versions: one with, and one without, the name of each poet set below the haiku verse that he or she had written. The annotated version of the renga also included the precise date and time that each haiku verse had arrived in Pickersgill’s email inbox.

When I asked James why he had decided to end the renga at 27 verses, he replied, “Why 27 parts? Um ... er ... well, the number is completely self-serving: a 27-verse renga would fit into a complete issue of my publication, p o e t r y' z o w n, with nothing left out and no empty space left over.” The fact that almost an equal number of male and female poets made contributions was a matter of pure happy chance. “Fourteen women and 13 men,” Pickersgill noted, “as evenly split as an odd number can be.

“If you examine the annotated version of the renga closely, you may detect little pieces of serendipity,” he continued, “such as the fact that it was composed gradually over a period of 80 days — from November 3, 2010 to January 21, 2011 — and that parts 24 and 25 arrived in my inbox precisely 20 seconds apart. I am not claiming there is massive meaning in these kinds of little facts, but there is a lot of fun to be found in them.”

Pickersgill’s first renga project inspired so much creative excitement that he initiated the writing of a second, and then a third renga. Upon the suggestion of fellow Cobourg poet Mark Clement, participation in the writing of the third renga was restricted to 2011 dues-paying members of the Cobourg Poetry Workshop (CPW) (rather than another fertile hodgepodge of Pickersgill’s contacts), with the idea that the completed poem would be included in The Local Lot V, CPW’s next anthology.

Here, now, for your reading pleasure, is the first of the three rengas that James Pickersgill sparked the writing of. I am presenting the poem twice: one without, and one with, the names of the contributing poets. Stay tuned tomorrow for two versions of the second renga. Their postings on Open Book coincide non-coincidentally with National Poetry Month, as well as with Cobourg's 2011 Poetry’z Own Weekend or POW! Festival — which is taking place from Thursday, April 14 to Sunday, April 17, and which headlines Lorna Crozier, who is coming from her home in Victoria B.C. to help launch her new book from McClelland & Stewart, Small Mechanics.

FYI: The following two rengas are also being published simultaneously in a bright-paged hard copy of p o e t r y’z o w n. So, if you live in the Cobourg area, don’t hesitate to search out a copy from The Cobourg Poetry Workshop.

Renga #1

leaf carpet turns town
gutter sidewalk lawn golden
frosts beyond respect

*
Incandescent sun
flashes from the lustrous earth.
Snowmen stand alone.

*
slowly aging year
falling leaves in gentle sounds
final destiny

*
Last gasp of summer
its exhaled breath turning chill.
Leaves falling like tears.

*

autumn's final squall
chases mantles of white lace
across stone shoulders

*
now is winter come
all my birds have gone away
empty garden cries

*
neighbour's dog suspects
leaf raking under moonlight
bare-naked branches

*
Where leaves were now hangs
pendulous the hornet's nest
great and globed and gray

*
on half-frozen lake
paddle the wild swans of cool
turn on seat warmer

*

She lay down with me
at night on an autumn fairway
no one felt foolish

*
above earth lunar
eclipse brights golden through dark
gives us brief moon-pause

*
along winter streets
cars and trucks trundle through snow
take my hand in yours

*

cinnamon
          places far away
apple pie

*
bodies spoon in blanket heap
scooping warmth skin on skin
dreaming snow-shine

*
from sharp-edged cold winter night
to love's warm-held hearth;
our journey ever inwards.

*
A street lamp works late
Brightens the flurries at four,
Shadows whitening.

*
Dawn light shimmers cold
icicles glow magic pink
no charge for the show

*
winter blues— wish I
were a ladybug hitching
rides on June's green hat

*

When on South Street you
tripped me, face first, into a
snow bank –— I lost hope.

*
Winter storm-watch issued
Crow hides peanut in snow
Tractor-trailer flips on 401

*
Night should be hidden
Brocaded trees dance bidden
In full moon ballroom

*
Early new morning
Snow blankets, still, a bed or
A funeral shroud

*
is it wrong to wish
for global warming to work
its magic faster?

*
grow fur, sprout wings
scrape the sun, the molten light
speaks the wind in ice

*
Never mind. I'm not here
for the moon's desire.
I came for the butter and the bread.

*
extreme warming comes
now farewell sweet planet once
universe shrugs twirls

*
a seed catalogue
peels back the blanket of snow
revealing warm earth

Annotated Version of Renga #1

leaf carpet turns town
gutter sidewalk lawn golden
frosts beyond respect
          James Pickersgill, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 3, 2010
*
Incandescent sun
flashes from the lustrous earth.
Snowmen stand alone.
          Mark Clement, 8:00 a.m. Thursday, November 4, 2010

*

slowly aging year
falling leaves in gentle sounds
final destiny
          Wayne Schlepp, 5:15 p.m. Thursday, November 4, 2010

*
Last gasp of summer
its exhaled breath turning chill.
Leaves falling like tears.
          Carol Ward, 11:00 a.m. Saturday, November 6, 2010

*
autumn's final squall
chases mantles of white lace
across stone shoulders
          Eileen Holland, 10:20 p.m. Saturday, November 6, 2010

*
now is winter come
all my birds have gone away
empty garden cries
          John Stubbs, 7:40 p.m. Monday, November 8, 2010

*
neighbour's dog suspects
leaf raking under moonlight
bare-naked branches
          Deborah Panko, 4:00 p.m. Sunday, November 21, 2010

*
Where leaves were now hangs
pendulous the hornet's nest
great and globed and gray
          Mike Barnes, 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, December 14, 2010

*
on half-frozen lake
paddle the wild swans of cool
turn on seat warmer
          vivien masseau taylor, 2:00 a.m. Monday, December 20, 2010

*

She lay down with me
at night on an autumn fairway
no one felt foolish
          Cliff Bell-Smith, 11:55 p.m. Wednesday, December 22, 2010

*

above earth lunar
eclipse brights golden through dark
gives us brief moon-pause
          Kate Marshall-Flaherty, 9:26 a.m. December 23, 2010

*
along winter streets
cars and trucks trundle through snow
take my hand in yours
          Karen Shenfeld, 11:07 a.m. January 11, 2011

*
cinnamon
          places far away
apple pie
          Pauline Winkle, 9:34 p.m. January 11, 2011

*
bodies spoon in blanket heap
scooping warmth skin on skin
dreaming snow-shine
          Roz Bound, 9:10 a.m. January 12, 2011

*
from sharp-edged cold winter night
to love's warm-held hearth;
our journey ever inwards.
          Rick Webster, 12:40 p.m. January 12, 2011

*
A street lamp works late
Brightens the flurries at four,
Shadows whitening.
          Richard Greene, 2:20 p.m. January 12, 2011

*

Dawn light shimmers cold
icicles glow magic pink
no charge for the show
          Jennifer Hall, 8:05 p.m. January 12, 2011

*

winter blues— wish I
were a ladybug hitching
rides on June's green hat
          Donna Langevin, 9:26 a.m. January 13, 2011

*
When on South Street you
tripped me, face first, into a
snow bank – I lost hope.
          JonArno Lawson, 9:58 a.m. January 16, 2011

*
Winter storm-watch issued
Crow hides peanut in snow
Tractor-trailer flips on 401
          Grahame Woods, 8:53 a.m. January 18, 2011

*
Night should be hidden
Brocaded trees dance bidden
In full moon ballroom
          Laurene Winkler, 10:00 a.m. January 18, 2011

*
Early new morning
Snow blankets, still, a bed or
A funeral shroud
          Alice McClintock, 10:56 a.m. January 19, 2011

*
is it wrong to wish
for global warming to work
its magic faster?
          Kassia Ballian, 7:51 p.m. January 19, 2011

*

grow fur, sprout wings
scrape the sun, the molten light
speaks the wind in ice
          Janet Read, 10:59:43 a.m. January 20, 2011

*
Never mind. I'm not here
for the moon's desire.
I came for the butter and the bread.
          David Hickey, 11:00:03 a.m. January 20, 2011

*
extreme warming comes
now farewell sweet planet once
universe shrugs twirls
          Rod Anderson, 11:51 a.m. January 20, 2011

*
a seed catalogue
peels back the blanket of snow
revealing warm earth
          David Sheffield, 7:36 a.m. January 21, 2011

Karen Shenfeld has published three books with Guernica Editions: The Law of Return (1999), which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2001, The Fertile Crescent (2005) and My Father's Hands Spoke in Yiddish (2010). Her poetry has also appeared in well-known journals and anthologies published in Canada, the United States, South Africa, and Bangladesh. It has been featured on Canada’s CBC Radio and CKLN, and on 39 Dover Street, a short-wave radio programme produced on the Isle of Wight, England. She has been awarded Canada, Ontario and Toronto Arts Council Grants. In March of 2010, she travelled to Linares, Mexico to participate in the first Festival Internacional de Literatura. Shenfeld has also brought her poetic sensibility to the writing of feature magazine stories, for publications such as Saturday Night and The Idler, and to documentary filmmaking. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival. Shenfeld lives in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy.

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