Poetry International Poetry International
an interview

Can a poem be written collectively?

Yasuhiro Yotsumoto
August 25, 2019
Situated on the shores of the Euphrates River, Halfeti has been home to many cultures and languages. Today, half of Halfeti is submerged, and the town is a symbol of what ancient civilizations left behind for us after they disappeared. In May 2018, we, Turkish and Japanese poets and translators, met at the part of the town which is not yet underwater. For days and days, we took boat trips, swam among the relics, explored the caves, tasted Mesopotamia's local food, and held long conversations. This collective poetry workshop created new opportunities for all of us. Being side by side enabled us to see ourselves in the other's mirror more clearly, instead of minimizing the personal side of poetry. Thanks to Renshi – a modern poetry form within the framework of strong Japanese traditions – we learned how the wisdom of the past is made meaningful in contemporary interpretation. Like the traditional poetry styles of many other languages, Turkish folk poetry used to be sung with a tune and thus, used to be a collective activity. Maybe, for this reason, we readily warmed towards Renshi. We instantly found out that the collective atmosphere we were not used to could offer us an incredible, new language. It was an unforgettable experience for all of us, and we managed to create a Renshi poem, in which the signatures of all poets completed each other at a junction of Japanese, Turkish and English. Below: an interview with Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, who was our sosho, or moderator, of the Halfeti Renshi. The interview was originally conducted in Turkish and Japanese thanks to simultaneous translation by Esra Kılınç.
Q: Writing Renshi requires an utterly different perception of poetry. How did you decide to take on the adventure of writing poetry together with other poets?
A: World-famous Japanese poets Shuntarõ Tanikawa and Makoto Ooka – these two masters – had taken action to revive an extinct style, called Renga, which started centuries ago. Creating a brand-new form, which they named Renshi, they adapted the tradition of writing poetry together, which runs in Japanese poets’ genes, to the modern era. Ooka invited me to their Renshi workshops in 2004. From the very first session, I felt that writing Renshi was precious work, and after the first time, I continued attending their sessions.Together with Masayo Koike, who started writing  Renshi at the same time, we progressed with our own project. For one year, we managed to exchange poems every month and finally to have them published in a book, which we called Taishi, or dialogue poems, a variation of Renshi..

Q: What was was your first Renshi session like?
A. Makoto Ooka, Masayo Koike, two Dutch poets, and I attended. The night we met Master Ooka entrusted me with writing the first poem, called Hokku, which starts the Renshi by greeting the participants (Renshu). It made me so excited that I could not sleep all night. I thought about the five-line verse until morning. Finally, in the morning, I’d managed to write a poem which was accepted by my master. In that session, Ooka objected to some of the poems of the Dutch poets. This system is called "damedashi"  in Japanese. There is one master poet (sosho), and they have the right to reject a poem when they think it does not work properly within the flow and structure of the Renshi. The reason for the objections in that session was either the ambiguity of the connection or its overtness.
Culture clash
Even though the master expressed his reasons very politely, the Dutch poets did not understand and were not convinced. Watching this situation, I had a chance to learn a lot. These things are not justified with logic very often in Japanese literature and culture. When a Japanese person is told that something is not good enough, and reasons are explained in a couple of sentences, that person unconditionally accepts the decision. But the Dutch, because they grow up and live in a different society, only accept this when they understand the logic completely. This was the reason for the difficulty.

Q: Could you tell us how Renshi evolved from Renga?
A: Waka is one of the oldest styles of indigenous Japanese poetry. The word ‘wa’ signifies both being Japanese and peace. The word ‘ka’ means song. This style is written in a 5/7/5/7/7 syllabic meter. There was a lesser degree of individualism in this Japanese poetry tradition; a poem was something that people recited together, at a meeting of a group of people. The poets are focused on conveying anonymous emotions in a fictional setting, instead of expressing their own. Having been given a theme, such as "a full moon half covered by a cloud", they wrote their poems, and a judge, found among the group, decided on a winner.

The original collective writing method in Japanese poetry is Renga, the ancestor of Renshi. It is not only a group activity but also a collectively written poem. The first participant’s task is to write a poem in a 5/7/5 meter to start the poem, and everybody else adds two verses in 7/7 meter, one at a time. In the end, a chain-poem of 36 or even 100 5/7/5/5/5 waka units is created. There are very detailed records of Renga sessions from the 12th or 13th century. Although the poets and the community came together and had fun, these events also were taken seriously. A poet who could not manage to create a beautiful poem in their turn was embarrassed. The poets’ name, fame, and existence depended on their performance in Renga sessions. The key trait of Japanese people is working together. This is innate and traditional for us, although the introduction of modern Western culture in the 19th century shifted the trend toward individualistic self-expression. 

Q: How did Renga transition to Renku? What are the main differences between these two styles?
A: Renga coincided with the Japanese Middle Ages. In the 16th century, during the Edo period, its strict rules were bent, and Renku (also called Haikai no Renga) appeared. Collaborative poetry no longer only belonged to the noble and elite. It expanded to a broader public, and accordingly, themes became varied. In the very first Rengas, the subjects were limited. It was obligatory to write poems about designated themes such as romance, the moon and flowers. With Renku, daily life and humor entered poetry.

Q: When did Japanese poetry globalize?

A: Japan met up with Western culture in the 19th century when Western imperialism forced the country open to world trade. Japanese poets read Western poetry, and their interest in Renga and Renku dimmed. Traditional, collectively-written poems were replaced. This was a period during which poets embraced their individualism and developed a new style of  written (rather than spoken aloud) free verse. In the 1930s, nationalism arose in Japan and we turned into a militarist nation; Japan invaded China and eventually declared war on the U.S.. As nationalism arose, traditional forms came back, and fixed-form verse became popular again. After the war ended, many Japanese poets felt ashamed as very few of them had written anti-war and anti-militarist poems. On the contrary, almost all of them, including some considered modern and experimental, supported the government’s attitude by writing verses in praise of war in the traditional style.

As a result of this shame, traditional forms were harshly criticized and marginalized. Once again, Japanese poets started to write modern poems. They took poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden as models, along with their ideas that poetry should not be held captive by rhythm and sentimentality. Many poets in Japan still hold these ideas.

Q: Did the first Renshi arise as a result of this polarized era?
A:  A group called Kai (oar), including Ooka and Tanikawa, started their Renshi studies at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. They aimed to carry the emotion of togetherness and fraternity of the old days into modernism. In the same period, Japanese poets started to think that “Okay, we are writing poems, but we are all alone, each trapped in their own pigeon hole of individualism However, we used to have a tradition, and we used to read and sing our poems together.” Even though they rejected blindly following tradition, they missed coming together, doing things together and started to dream about a return to some of the more traditional ways. There were those who considered this idea of a comeback reactionary and criticized Renshi practitioners as such.

Q: Does this negative reaction against Renshi continue, or are Renshi now mostly accepted?
A: Of course, there are some people who exhibit adverse reactions. They might think that “poetry is a totally individual thing, and should be written by spitting blood”, but Renshi works are increasing among Japanese poets, inclduing younger generations. And Renshi does not reject individualism. Each of our true colors, hidden deep down, appears more clearly when we work with others. When they work together with other poets, they can express their feelings more comfortably. Existence, expression, and writing about others brings us to a truer expression of ourselves. This is the paradox.

Q: The rules of Renshi seem simple and, at first, easy to apply. However, as you write, you understand how difficult it is. What are the basic rules of Renshi?
A: Although Renshi do not have as many rules as Renga had in the past, the most challenging thing about a Renshi is making a successful connection between two parts. This connection is impossible to explain and can only be understood by intuition, by writing. Connecting verses should be neither utterly independent of each other nor strictly dependent. In Renshi, all the connections have to be perceived by all the participants. The most crucial role of the sosho is to observe and direct the connections.

The most important rule is to maintain forward movement, the flow, and to write in a given time and in the same place. And, admittedly, no one may drift away from the flow of the poem. One should not predetermine what to write in their next turn, but respond to the latest poem spontaneously. Thinking only what one is writing is not enough; the poet also has to open roads for the ones writing after them. This is the opposite of the modern poet’s attitude. A modern poet would close the door to work on poetry in the middle of the night. In Renshi, a poet is not expected to express themselves from behind the protection of a closed door but rather to free themselves to the dynamics of the session.

While writing these Renshi, we had the chance to learn how crucial connection and sustainability are. This process is philosophical. One of the most common mistakes is to write a poem which is very close to the previous one and therefore unsurprising. Proceeding to the next poem should always surprise us. Another important rule is to move the Renshi forward continuously. For example, the same words/concepts can’t be repeated throughout the Renshi.

One of the challenges of Renshi is conserving your uniqueness while becoming part of the whole. You must come to terms with your ego and poetry. Renshi is an activity enabling a dynamic exchange between togetherness and individualism. That’s why participating poets inevitably move between these opposite poles. A person with an enormous ego can’t reach the level necessary for writing Renshi. But the ones who lack individuality, also can’t write proper Renshi.

Renshi not only create a platform for writing poems together but also make the participant’s soul visible. I would say that they have a psychotherapeutic function.The Renshi that have affected me most belong to the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon. I invited Hyesoon to a Renshi workshop about a year after the tragedy of the Sewol ferry disaster, in which more than 300 people, including many students, died when it sank. In the beginning, she wrote only about the sunken ship, and as we were aware of the tragedy, we didn’t reject her adherenece to this theme. We knew that no matter how much we might resist, she would inevitably mention the young people who passed away. While we thought that these Renshi could possibly not be successful, at the end of the poems, the children turned into butterflies and flew off, and in this way the entire Renshi lightened and the chain of poems was enlivened. After this experience, I began to feel that Renshi have their psychoanalytic and therapeutic side.

© Efe Duyan and Pelin Özer
Translator: Ayşegül Gürsel Duyan
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