As we approach nearly a full year of the pandemic, I’m searching for new ways to connect with people and to reflect on our shared experiences. Renga, a collaborative Japanese verse form, offers one opportunity for creatively engaging with others across time and distance. Comprised of alternating three- and two-line stanzas, a renga can be written by two or more people, with no real cap on the total number of participants other than a willingness to keep it going. Here’s the basic structure:
Stanza 1, line 1: 5 syllables
Stanza 1, line 2: 7 syllables
Stanza 1, line 3: 5 syllables
Stanza 2, line 1: 7 syllables
Stanza 2, line 2: 7 syllables
And so on, repeating sets of three- and two-line stanzas, until a stopping point is reached. Most frequently, each participant writes one stanza before passing it off to the next writer, who sees only the stanza that precedes their own, leaping off from it into their own lines. The completed renga is a communal product, more than the sum of each individual stanza.
In The Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch notes that the renga began as a party game but eventually evolved into both playful and serious versions. Several contemporary examples of the renga in English illustrate the possibilities for the form as a shared testimony to a particular moment in time:
- During the first one hundred days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Major Jackson curated a “Renga for Obama” at Harvard Review Online, with more than two hundred American poets contributing to this celebration of President Barack Obama.
- Poets Marilyn Hacker and Deema Shehabi used the renga form for their collaborative book Diaspo/Renga: A Collaboration in Alternating Renga. Shehabi, a Palestinian-American poet, and Hacker, a Jewish-American poet, wrote sections of renga back and forth between 2009 and 2012, prompted by the Israeli siege of Gaza.
- Most recently, the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College invited Smith students, staff, faculty, and alumnae to participate in a renga-writing project in response to the current pandemic.
So, recruit a friend, several friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbors, and give the renga a try by text, by email, by mail, or any means you can devise. You might use this form to share about life during the pandemic, you could decide on a different topic together, or just get started and see where things go. Be lighthearted or serious, deep or ironic, anything at all. But do this together, linking words to build a bridge across all the distances we face.