|destined for the belly||
a nijuin renga in Spring
St. Mary's Quad, St Andrews
StAnza Poetry Festival 19th March 2005
straw sun hat
raven shakes his pinions
girl at the microphone
as haws trail the may
hairy passageways connect
Eve stretches forward
even when leaves fall
Copyright © the participants 2005. This poem may be freely reproduced, provided all participants are credited.
for the belly
renga reflections 19th March 2005 by Larry Butler
St. Mary's Quad - StAnza Poetry Festival
Outside in an enclosed garden on a sunny morning under a hawthorn just coming into leaf and near a huge evergreen holm oak; we couldn't have wished for a better setting. The theme of the festival was Body & Soul, so we decided on a body-based schema with a working title of heart to hand. The renga was one of several options for festival participants, so we divided the day into roughly 4 sessions that people could book in advance or simply drop-in. Most participants came and went and came back again, by the last 3 verses we had about 14 participants in our circle under the hawthorn tree; so instead of picking up pace towards the end, we slowed down to a long pause in choosing the last verse.
Although we didn't use the inside option which was a bit stuffy and grand with life-size portraits of academics looking down on us in judgement, we had easy access to toilets and hot water. A few blankets would have been useful to offer and a fire in the middle.
Colin was/is the host poet we all hope for: friendly, welcoming, well-prepared with clip boards, paper, pens, cast iron teapot, green tea and renga guidelines. Donning his yukata robe, he opened our renga with a welcome ceremony rattling away evil spirits to the four directions. As he brewed tea, I led a whole body warm-up based on shiatzu and chikung.
Earlier, walking from my B&B in Murray Park, I grazed through the charity shops with nothing particular in mind. I like charity shops and St Andrews has an abundance and good quality stuff. In one shop - British Heart Foundation - I bought a broad brimmed straw hat. It was a sunny morning and I might need it. And this led to opening verse:
straw sun hat
Colin replied with his grass blade flute and I loved the subtle but clear link to the straw hat. At first he couldn't play his grass blade, but we all plucked a blade and had a blow. Soon there was a whistling grass ensemble and I joined in with my shakuhachi (bamboo) flute. I told the story about the first time I mastered a renga at the Edinburgh book festival when my shakuhachi had only been with me for a couple of days and I couldn't get a note out of it (and no one else could either, not even an accomplished western flutist) It lay silent all day. This time it punctuated our words with wind.
Between verses, I encouraged everyone to do some bodywork, relevant to where we were in the body schema. We shook all over like dogs just out of a river. We rubbed our hands, cupped our eyes, played with our ears, stretched, yawned and made healing organ sounds (shhhhhhh, sssssssss, haaaaaaaaaaaa, whooooooooooo, heeeeeeeeeee) based on oriental medicine. We danced through the day following the 5 elements: fire, earth, metal (air), water, wood. We touched and were touched.
With 14 poets offering their words, I found the last few rounds a challenge having to choose from so many good verses. Colin was an impeccable diplomat in his support. With only a nod from me or a question, he knew what to do or say - make tea, ring the bell, offer a suggestion such as choosing lines from different participants to make a verse. I did this once in:
Eve stretches forward
But the following verse proved the most interesting of the whole renga. After lunch our numbers had dwindled to 4 poets because a master class with Jane Hirshfield was happening at the same time. After three poets, including myself, read their 2 lines, we knew we hadn't found the best verse. We waited in silence. Our 4th poet declined to read. After a little persuasion from me, she whispered her words with a giggled apology. Even before she read, Colin and I knew hers would be the best verse to link with the previous one. She chose to remain anonymous as a participant!
a good fucking in
The final reading with our scroll of verses on the grass reminded one person of a funeral, a celebration of our life, a day well-lived. It was the end of our time together. We were about to scatter with a feeling a satisfaction, pleasure and completion having created a being for the day in the shape of niijuin renga. And the sounds of our talking about the weather, our bodies, our births and deaths reverberated into the evening.
StAnza renga 2005 - heart to hand - personal impressions by Colin Will
The BBC omens being favourable we agreed we would hold the renga event outdoors. The 'pre-booking sheet' I had left at the Byre box office had disappeared, so we had no idea who or how many might turn up. This didn't bother me in the slightest - I only worry about things when there's no sensible alternative. I had felt good about this renga since Larry and I first talked about it, and I just knew that it would work. Larry's schema based on body parts and their associations was joyously innovative, and wholly appropriate to the Festival theme of Body & Soul. We had agreed earlier that any seasonal framework would be lightly laid on top, and indeed it seemed to work as a kind of cloud layer, coming and going as the wind of the poem took it.
The setting in the quadrangle garden was atmospheric and energy-giving. The space was open but enclosed by ancient stone walls which inevitably made their way into the poem. In the centre a magnificent old tree spread its beneficence and in another corner stood a thorn tree reputed to have been planted by Mary, Queen of Scots. As poets and passers-by came and went throughout the day so too did the birds - skeins of geese on a ragged flight-path; a pair of death-rattling crows; blue-tits flitting silently in the hawthorn's twigs, and frequent noisy interjections from herring gulls, all punctuated the writing.
Larry and I spoke at the start, introducing renga to those who had no previous experience of writing in this way, explaining our roles, and setting the scene for how the day might play. Larry's approach was inclusive, warm, supportive and body-centred. It was a great pleasure to work with him again. Before each writing time he would talk about the particular organ or body part which was the subject of the verse, and he would encourage us to perform exercises involving that part (with a few exceptions of course). He and I both consider renga to be an extended conversation, and together we managed to keep the talking going throughout the day, no matter how many or how few might be in the renga space at any one time. In all, just short of twenty participated, although not all wrote, and a few who did were not included in the written-up version. No matter: it took all those present to get the poem written, and all who wrote are free to publish. At each verse selection we're confronted with a multiple choice of 'roads not taken', each of which might have led to an equally good poem.
The initial section (jo) was conducted very slowly and serenely. The third verse is a beautiful example of the specific function of this (daisan) verse - to turn aside or change the subject - and from one who had never before written in this form! The second section (ha) was written much more quickly, with some very original, amusing and powerful verses. We returned to calmer waters in the final (kyu) section, but the last verse (ageku) came out as a triumphant affirmation - so bold and so apt. Wonderful.
My role during the day was to assist Larry, to welcome guests, to attend to paperwork - distributing the schema, guidelines and taking names - to making and serving the green tea, and to keeping time (which I did as elastically as possible). This didn't stop me from throwing in verses at most rounds, nor from talking! The rhythm of the day was easy and unpressured.
I want to pay tribute here to Larry's thoughtful and sensitive editing of the poem once we'd all dispersed. It's at this stage that the master poet can take his or her time over the poem, looking for repetitions, subtly altering stanzas and links to make the outcome more satisfying. Each verse still has all the spontaneity of its original creation, but some have been lightly reworked (with authors' permissions) to balance the whole poem.
I've written renga in many settings and with many people; this was among the most pleasurable. I love the finished poem, but the journey and the conversation to achieve it were probably more important.
Have a good day? We all did.