Renga City

Tuesday 18 May 2021

A guest blog post by Bill Herbert, of the Dundee Renga -- who StAnza collaborated with in February to create a crowd-sourced renga.

1. Jo (How it all began)

i. The circumstances

The Dundee renga has been going for a year noo, and recently we teamed up with StAnza to extend the idea to a wider (world-wider!) constituency, so this seemed like an opportune moment to reflect on what exactly we have done. Beginning with what, exactly, is the Dundee renga? Well, what it has become is a group-generated collaborative poem based on the old Japanese form, generating twenty brief verses a month and involving around thirty writers from Dundee and thereaboots, posted online for aa tae see at the Gude & Godlie Ballatis website, here.

I like projects that appear to arrive on a whim from nowhere, which are content to use the materials immediately to hand - the punk equivalent of the old Hollywood musicals trope of ‘let’s do the show right here!’ I suspect my affection comes more from the way this feeling of randomness resembles the internal spark of inspiration, but occurs socially, as if already a collaboration. If such projects take off, it feels like this moment partakes of the idea of synchronicity, the apparently meaningful coincidence, after which, hopefully, we can all take pleasure in the way they go on to generate actual meaning.

That’s how most of my collaborative projects have kicked off, from random encounters with future co-editors or co-translators to the political poetry blog, New Boots and Pantisocracies, which arose from a few (terrible) puns exchanged online with Andy Ching, linking Ian Dury with Coleridge and leading to six years of postings so far.

Similarly, a couple of Dundee-based haiku written and posted online by the academic, local history librarian, and folklore guru, Erin Farley, led to us wondering if a geographically-fixed renga could be generated by building an email group and asking them to write a verse a day for twenty days every month. (Yes. It could.)

ii. Background

I first took part in a renga sometime in the late 90s/early 00s when Alec Finlay led a day-long session in the Baltic in Newcastle. I then led another session in 2003 at his invitation as the kyaku, or guest poet, who writes the hokku, or opening verse, when we all met in the (reconstruction of the) Centurion’s House in Arbeia, the Roman fort which sits just across the Tyne from me in South Shields. I remember Eck plugging a kettle into an anachronistic power point to make a pot of sencha, just as he had in the Baltic, but with a somewhat different feel. That renga formed part of a chain written along Hadrian’s Wall, published as Writing on the Wall. My opener was

That gull could be cloud,
Lowry, a legionary:
its wing refuses.


I also remember being delighted that we managed to fit in a line of Virgil from Book 9 of The Aeneid as copied out (wrongly) by an unknown Roman child* and found at the fort at Vindolanda: ‘interea pavidam volitans pinnata per urbem’ -- the next lines make it clear that this is a tragic passage about a death in battle: ‘nuntia Fama ruit matrisque adlabitur auris/Euryali…’. (ll. 473–475, rendered in Dryden’s translation as: ‘Soon hasty fame thro' the sad city bears/The mournful message to the mother's ears.’) This was of course in the same year as the invasion of Iraq.

It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that the renga is capable of capturing complex layers of histories and cultures in just this way, the surrounding immediacies and keen observations of several individual minds, and turning them into a singular something, simultaneously capturing and enacting a quality I have come to focus on more and more over the twenty odd years since my first renga: ephemerality.

By that long Greek polysyllable, I’m gesturing at the universe of meanings the Japanese poets contained in terms like okashi (delight), aware (perception of transience), sabi (impersonal loneliness), or karumi (lightness) -- each of which would require a separate article to articulate. But I only mean that, in Larkin’s phrase, ‘Days are where we live’.

A newspaper is ephemeral -- in Greek it is, literally, εφημερίδα, ‘for a day’ - but as a way of approaching the day they represent, newspapers provide a unique combination of major and minor news, cultural summation and trivia, cartoons and games. Indeed, as Erin Farley has admirably discussed, for many years they contained poetry, often (and not only in Dundee) of a politically radical nature. We might read them from cover to cover, keeping clippings of everything that interests us, or we might not. Then the next day we might buy another one, or we might not.

Renga are a sort of newspaper of the soul, but not in the sense of the individual soul - rather, in their attention to both the inner and the outer, to phenomena and epiphenomena, and their grasp of the transformative impact of imagery or vocabulary, they capture the metaphysics of a social territory or milieu or, as here, a city. Whether they report on it or embody it is another question (see part 2).

Read parts two (Ha) and three (Kyū) of Bill Herbert's article will be published on Bill blog.

*But note a possible, less innocent reading here from Peter Kruschwitz.