Friday, July 24, 2015

Poetry Friday -- Renga With Friends

About a month ago, Steve Peterson (@insidethedog) invited me and Jan Burkins (@janmillburk) to try writing a renga with him. Renga is an ancient collaborative poetic form, and is actually where haiku was born!

Steve gave us these directions and resources:
  • 3 line haiku-like poem 
  • 2 longer lines (sort of like a tanka form when you put them together). Another person writes this. 
  • 2 lines are inspired by the haiku immediately above. 
  • then, 3-line haiku poem inspired by the 2 previous lines, 
  • and so on like a game of telephone until we reach 35 lines total.
And some resources

     a description of the form.
     some examples.
The order of play went Steve, me, Jan (repeat). Here's our first renga:

in the prairie dawn
a spider's web snares the sun  --
cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus
breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies
bow, sun’s church--peace be with wheat
and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,
jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes
shoulders shaking with giggles
two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today
word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky --
thunderheads poke fingers
at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead
ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home
does the ground remember
stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked
to the wall above the stove

try to imagine
the layers of memories
beneath the dust
how much memory is imagination
how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass
in the stale air
motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road
reverberations can be felt

After we came to the 35th line, we gathered via conference call from Mountain, Central, and Eastern time zones to discuss the process and the product.

Steve instigated this poem writing adventure because of a desire to try collaborative writing, and to practice the haiku and tanka forms, but he found himself meditating on Jan and me as he chose the words he thought would best fit with what we were trying to say.

For me, it was like trying to catch a tune and sing along.

Jan was continually looking for the meaning in each set of 5 lines alongside the meaning of the poem as a whole.

Our memories of church and our ideas of "prairie" were very different, but we realized that Rosenblatt's reader response theory was alive and well as we wrote together -- each of us as reader/writer could bring ourselves to the text and make our own meaning, independent of the two others.

For me, the prairie in the poem is the flat, dry landscape of Eastern Colorado, where I've spent this month with my mom. Wheat harvest has been in full swing, but no one is complaining about the rains that might have delayed some of the harvest -- they were good for the corn. Those white-robed acolytes are my childhood friend Barbie and me, trying to be solemn in our candle lighting duties, but invariably giggling all the way down to the altar and back. The end of the poem is woven with images of change, home, memory, and loss -- all of which have been bitter and sweet in this month of helping my mom transition from her home of 60 years to a new home in assisted living.

Jan and Steve found echoes of current events that I can see now, but that didn't occur to me as we wrote.

We have plans to play with revising this poem, and we are fifteen lines into another. It has been fabulous to take risks together, to watch the poem unfold, and to hear each other's actual voices over the phone after listening so closely to each other's writerly voices on the page. Thank you, Steve and Jan!

Steve's post about this adventure is here.

Jan's post about this adventure is here.

Margaret has the Poetry Friday Roundup today at Reflections on the Teche.


  1. This is very cool! Love the prairie dawn, the crickets, the memories.

  2. Sounds like a fun project!

  3. You three play well together! Very nice.

  4. Beautiful, Mary Lee. Thank you for describing the collaborative process of how this poem came to be. Sounds like a lot of fun!

  5. In our early marriage, my husband and I drove the back roads of Missouri (where we lived) and found abandoned houses to explore and wonder about. That was so long ago, before the time that everyone took pictures and pictures, so I have none, but your poem brought that time back so vividly, although not on the prairie. That calendar on the wall, in every house, abandoned to fade. And I love this: "does the ground remember
    stories brought to earth". Indeed. Love the collaboration, Mary Lee. What a nice gift you have given each other.

  6. Ever since I read Willa Cather (40 years ago!), I've been intrigued by the prairie. These poems are truly evocative.

  7. Totally enjoyed reading about your collaboration. I love the poem!

  8. I am a big fan of collaborative work and believe that art breeds art... I've participated in a few renga over the years and always find it a stimulating, rewarding experience. My favorite above is the faded calendar tucked among all those nature images!

  9. This collaboration was both challenging and fun. Creativity shared with each other makes meaning.

  10. I loved reading this -- both the poem and process.

  11. I loved reading this -- both the poem and process.

  12. I don't have much experience with prairie landscapes; thanks for the view from three poetic angles.

  13. This is so lovely! Many lines really resonate--I especially loved: peace be with wheat


    how much memory is imagination
    how much dust is history


    thunderheads poke fingers
    at a thirsty land

  14. Terrific post, Mary Lee, both the renga and the reflection. It felt both enclosed and holding, like the sanctuary of a church, and wiiiide open like prairie fields. Also glad to know you have found time to participate in this!

  15. Mary Lee, this process is such a wonderful way to collaborate and allow three distinct voices to blend their thoughts into one sweeping poem. Yes Rosenblatt's theory is alive as not only all three of you interact with the text but you allow the reader to have a close encounter with the blended voices and what they are saying. The lines that resonant with me are: try to imagine
    the layers of memories
    beneath the dust

    how much memory is imagination
    how much dust is history.


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