Ira Lightman: I was dimly aware of avant-garde renga-ing from being on the Buffalo poetics group in 94-95. Several poets kept clogging the list with one they were developing (says me, who didn't read them, just deleted unread, they just "clogged" my inbox, putting me off being on the list). I just knew it was a group form, and what looked like an excuse to waffle on and on, boringly to anyone not in at the start. Does it come all of a piece with the more widespread interest in haiku? I have wondered if the renga is a challenge to Pound and imagism, or a way into them. Because haikuists are either Poundian or anti-Poundian, aren't they? Can I ask where you date your introduction to renga?
Alec Finlay: Young, young, young, and off the bookshelves. There were a pair of beautiful books Cid Corman had sent my Dad from Kyoto in the early 1960s, Cool Gong and Cool Melon, of haiku translations - traditional japanese books, stitched-by-monks-and-with-horse-hair-spirals-of-reed-pulp-paper kind of thing, with Cid’s excisions of words biroed in. I always remember a hunk of flem blown in the hand, pared to snot blown ... . Then there was a grander Western book, but also published
in Japan, by Cid’s friend Will Grossman, who made his fortune in selling Scotties or Kleenex, I can’t recall which, and this was The Monkey's Raincoat, a classic renga by the Basho school. The truth is, the poem in that book did not interest me nearly as much as Cid's haiku, not back then, for it was more dependent on allusion, and I couldn't grip on to what was going on. But the idea of a form of poetry that was shared caught my attention: the in-between people aspect, more than the words.
IL: How do you mean by that? I know when you talk about it, or do it, you do create a concentration, a sobering, that makes a nice room atmosphere. I always want to kvetch, and jabber, or clam up and spit when being socially literary...
AF: The pursuit is not literary for me at all; so, though I know your camps, they are not my concern. Around 1990 my friend Harry Gilonis showed me a renga that he did by post - this was in the days before email - with Tony Baker, pre your Buffalo experience, but not dissimilar in its avant-garde context. I liked some of the word clusters in that, but being a work of Harry’s, very deliberate, worked-up and referential, so, a work that highlighted the literary aspects that could not satisfy me, or I them. It did not feel like anything I would actually do, but then neither did writing back then.
IL: Yes, so there's a lot of love of reading, rather than headlong "I must express" in your approach. And a love of finding the right context to read - the best looking book or performance event to frame the word-event.
AF: My first poem was a haiku, which happened to me as something I saw, then felt and then wrote down: burnt cheek / from watching the geese / go west. Back then I enjoyed Kevin Bailey’s little magazine Haiku Quarterly, which was done in the familiar spirit of the small press adventure. And you have to be aware that for me haiku were easy: I was very ill back then, so reading had to be very few words at a time ...
IL: Reading, as well as writing...
AF: ...and the way the haiku image is short tracked, from eye to mind, in little spoonfuls, was a word medicine I could take. But I want to place all of these reflections firmly ‘back then’. You have to remember how late I came to writing and making. I was a publisher first and foremost, for ten years. Some time passed, as they say, and I fell back in love with haiku, and gathered together the anthology of Scottish haiku and short poems, Atoms of Delight (which does have one short
semi-renga in it).
IL: Which celebrates shortness, the manageable short piece...
AF: None of these literary activities led me to renga. The departure, or arrival, came in the years, roughly 1996-2000, when I uncovered an art practice of my own, one that reflected my deeper artistic self. An important urge was to return to that desire to experience shared consciousness that renga had always proposed. I was increasingly making art in that space between the word and the body. It was around the same time (1999) I thought up the football haiku project (published 2002),
which was a combo play & poem.
IL: And that also "publishes" the shorter pieces so they start to talk to each other, to link. I begin to see the development...
AF: I devised also two related performances. The first was a piece that involved scrubbing (with wooden brushes and tea leaves) a constructed wooden floor exactly the dimensions of Wittgenstein’s house in Norway. The second was to construct a wooden platform exactly the size of Basho’s hut, upon which renga would be written as a public performance, and green tea drunk.
IL: Which were connected as spaces of wood?
AF: And by tea. Tea was a light hearted homeliness that connected the projects, but the attempt to connect Basho and Wittgenstein and models of places to write was my first serious attempt to define a space for shared thought.
IL: And this was the physical space to "publish" small pieces working together, that makes the pieces be made to work together?
AF: Kind of. The performances would have taken part in rooms next door to one another, with the process of writing and reading aloud the renga juxtaposed with the natural white noise of
IL: So that the words are put together with some of the craftsmanship of the builder in wood. There's a Tom Stoppard speech in a play of his, about the well-written line being springy like a dance floor or a cricket bat...
AF: I can see too that somewhere within this were the elements of water and air, and a sense in which one had sounds from the symbolic world of the unconscious connected with moments of
utterance. There was also a durational and a body aspect to these performances, which lasted all day. At the time I definitely thought of myself as a ‘scrubber’ rather than a ‘writer’ (cue Sid James laugh).
IL: Publisher as 'scrubber'. Writer as... 'thinker ... guru...'
AF: The poets who I would have selected for the renga were going to be haiku ‘experts’.
Of course, the proposal was rejected by the performance art festival, but it stayed with me and I became determined to make it happen. What I always remember is that at the first renga platform event (2001), after I had done the Eck preamble explaining about what the day would involve; after everything was set up and the tea was made; after everyone was settled down; after the first verse was written; well, there was nothing left for me to do but take my own place and join in as a poet. It sounds ludicrous but in one sense I had finally ‘tricked’ myself into writing, if you like. And this event, more than anything, brought me closer to a writing practice. So, I sat down and began. How did you find it when you bumped into your first renga?
IL: My experience of renga work was through meeting you, because I came in off the street to the BALTIC, to take in a show with my family. And one of the displays was a foreign language concrete poet Oyvid Fahlstrom, so I thought "right, I'm (sometimes) a local concrete poet, I'll ask to see the artist in residence. It was you. You came down. We chatted, you took my e-mail. Then, soon after, you invited me by e-mail to attend a renga day, with very little (as I remember) explanation of what it was, just I was welcome as a poet.
I turned up. To the BALTIC, on the day you'd said. I was directed to your studio, a second floor big-windowed, white walled, pine floored, cosy space, looking out onto the river. There was a group of people, with no particular airs, that felt like a group you'd walk into for a meditation class, or yoga class, willing, middle-lots-of-things, polite. And you were all sitting around the renga platform, which was a little like a Tardis console in shape, in my mind. Though it was in effect a central square [cube], with benches on all four sides, for the effect of sitting on it. There were lots of cushions. Tea served, from a metal flat tea pot. Concentration, as a noticeable group on a class day-out in the park on a very ornate public bench designed as a piece of public art by a modernist/socialist sculptor. (My first
associations, on fact here.)
I think I was ten minutes late, so you'd all started, and I roughly knew it was a poem that we all added to, decided a verse, and then all took off from that verse. I was given a pad, and started drafting my
suggestion for the next verse. I knew we had ten minutes to come up with one, and then we'd all present what (if anything) we'd come up with.
AF: Sounds like we were at the same thing.
People often talk about the calm of that studio, and the homeliness, which taken as it is, is not a fact of the space. I realise it is something I give to it – I recognise the atmosphere from many comments, though it wasn’t always a calm space for me, being my place of work, and being in an institution that had a strong imaginal gravity. I did enjoy those days, so like family picnics, as a way to bring a gentleness to the space, and share it with people, to a purpose. Something Wittgenstein says comes into this: a beautiful light is shed by work.
Placing the renga platform in my studio was also a conscious political act, in terms of what was a very imperial procession of huge exhibitions and giant works of art, in a perfect series of galleries. There were no seats in BALTIC, no seats for people anywhere. Art invites, surely, yet in a building of that size there is no given place to reflect restfully, take the gaze from the outward exhibition inward. I don’t count cafes - who would - there, or at Tate Modern. These are very cool, formal hostile environments; beautiful, light, spacious but thou shalt not dwell here. I noticed from the first day that people always process through BALTIC, and I watched them going up and down the stairs and the lifts, through the galleries. The renga platform was the one place that a few people stopped and spent a piece of their life.
IL: How do you feel about my wheeling around the words 'middle' and 'class', though?
AF: Yes, sure, very ‘middle’, but not only the passive ‘middle’, perhaps also a Cagean determination to find a point of rest and duration. To ask, without much explanation, will you come and spend the day working together. After all as you know we did ’work’ all day, and when we had finished there were common experiences of exhilaration and exhaustion. You’ll recall how we would all go off for a huge meal to fuel up, and then a general collapse, and so to bed.
What I like about the platform is its being a bench that has joined itself up into a raft. I like the way it floats. You have to either sit against one of the four inner posts facing in (facing faces), or dangle your legs over the edge looking out (facing world). And this structured seating enacts what the days poeming does, looking inward and outward.
I must have done 9 or 10 renga in the studio, and often they began from the arc of the Millennium bridge, or the strong lines of the Tyne bridge; then the poem floats off of down the river to the sea. So it was a ship we were in, hollow, floating and crewed.
Interesting you say class day-out; day-out, yes, but class? Does the word perhaps also reflect that we have so few descriptive terms left for a social group which is multifarious and which shares a common activity: Oh, they’re at the fishing.
Is ‘class’ partly the ‘rules’? I do know what you mean, for their is a pedagogical aspect (guilty your honour), but is that an initial reaction to their being a ‘master’ and a preordained process? And in your own permutational work don’t you set up such structures? Did your experience of that aspect lessen as you did it more? I find that I have become more and more at ease doing renga, and less concerned with the fact that there are ‘rules’. I may even use the rules more, as I understand them better, but like with any game I find that rub up against them less.
The renga platform is the one project I honestly would like to become generic, to exist everywhere - flat packed platforms in Ikea, permanent platforms at every school - and I would have no problem for it to lose all association with me, as ‘artist-author’.
There was a time when your local Village Hall didn’t offer Tai-Chi. You and I can also remember before Cranberry Juice. So, why not?
IL: Thanks for being more sanguine about all the senses of middle. Your point about gallery seating - I like to live with a painting, or at the very least sit by it if galleried. I like to reproduce too, so people would put my visual poems on the wall and osmoticize them, not digest, not analyse, live
with. Is that part of your coming to the renga, thinking poems like paintings? We all know about "like painting".
AF: More body and consciousness, or do I just mean your ‘live with’. Painting is so focussed on the personal mark made on a ground: perhaps the renga platform and the renga consciousness are closer to architecture? I did create a social-performative shared space, and a quiet guided practice. These are frames and dimensions. The platforms four corner posts make 6 very precise viewing frames, to the north of you, to the south of you, to the east of you, to the west of you, to the sky of you, to the earth concealed beneath you. We step into the frame of writing - and I still find renga are the hours when I most clearly do writing.
I did set up those social frameworks and I found that I became an author. I also took on a role of governance or guidance, through mastering the renga. The frame is clearly set out to measure traces of inter-personal consciousness, in the way one poet picks up and transforms another poets image. If I could boil down the renga part, even the word part, reduce them to zero and still be left with those inter-personal dynamics, I would be glad to try that.
Renga is very close to that Cagean desire to find a mode of art that is identical with a mode of life (or a weather system, a natural operation). It has a similar concern with the politics that underlie or undermine social relationship. Renga lays bare and also moderates power relationships. Renga has a rule to listen to everyone, and counterbalancing that, it has a form of governance - which is something that Cage works against, but also embodies. I’m thinking here of Cage’s and Jasper John provocations that they could imagine a society in which there was no art and that could be an ideal state. Renga has the same utopian tendency to say, if I do need to lose ‘art’ in to have this possibility of connected relationship realised within society, then that is a bargain I would accept. (An offer that culture or state are unlikely to make this month).
After one renga I asked the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock if he could - in some utopian world - choose between poetry-as-poetry, and poetry-as-renga, what would he chose - in other words, if writing could be that mode of sharing, as a given, rather than a solipsistic memory based flexing of the consciousness muscle - , and Gabriel said that yes he would. We were exaggerating: I like it when Cage says that, of course, not everyone has to make music my way. The point is that renga is a counterbalance to the social disaster that literature is.
Renga is to heal a wound.
IL: Can I take myself back through your answer to reconsider some of what I see going on during a Renga day? I see everyone trying to write haiku - well, a two or three line imagist poem, one image per line. I see that there are at least four constraints (that can be liberating): (i) don't repeat too much of either the theme or vocabulary of the previous verses, (ii) link, so that you don't repeat or drone (see i), and be sure to turn (but don't twist your ankle), (iii)keep within the season or theme, if there is one specified for that verse (iv) write a good renga verse.
This is from the Ha (middle section) of a renga in Spring:
scolding the kids -
the family knot
is loose enough
of course they will all
fit in the photo
roots finger out
from the frame
green tomato chutney
we shut the door
while the radio plays
So here are some of the basics: one verse says "I", so we try to go for "we" in another, sometimes things have definite articles, mostly they don't but not rigidly.
I see the role of the master poet to remind everyone of these rules or conventions, but only after at least one participant has gone wrong. In other words, they have repeated, gone for the wrong season, and so on. The master may say, you're nearly there, if it was only ... and suggests a correction. We don’t go back though: we all listen and learn as ‘mistakes’ happen.
AF: Yes, the pedagogy is only done within the process, but it mustn’t detain you. No-one is wrong and there is never the reason to say, if only you had written one more like X, But, at the same time, each person does gradually learn from listening to how one verse follows and alters another, so they begin to see the choices that are involved.
IL: So, something happens that I recognise from writing anytime: no-one gets roughed up for not fitting the pattern. A verse that got rejected may be reworked, or called back whole when a later verse, in the right season, comes; or its moment comes - which suggests to me that we as a group we try to turn the poem step by step, towards a poem that can include a verse we liked that got rejected earlier on (either on technical grounds, or because there was one that fitted better from someone else).
AF: It can feel like that, but in actual fact it seems an inevitability of the flow of a day and a poem that there are relatively few occasions when one can - individually or as a group - make that return. Its like a kid walking along a lane dotted with fresh puddles, there is a way in which we all walk and in which the earth turns that means we don’t tend to turn back to go and splash in ones that have already been passed. We move on.
You just can’t hold on to a verse too tightly (though you can take it away with you as a readymade haiku gem). I admit, I did used to have a habit of sometimes resubmitting verses a few times, but one soon loses that. Even doing that the context of the poem has changed so much, so even if the verse do work at a later point they are effectively already another poem.
I have a feeling that the group intention you are sensing may arise from a lagging fear of being in the transitoriness of the renga, which is quite strange - the making in company aspect - and the
responsibility of mastering can make one nervous, incase such-and-such a person isn’t going to be included - one can imagine protecting them, by trying to put a ‘fold’ into a verse they wrote, to come back to it. One rarely does though.
IL: Because there is, in a sense, so much to write: it is not a workshop in making small imagist poems, because we do not have time to analyse each specific verses - and I can see that it isn’t even useful to do so, for we need to write the next link, which presents its own. The more one does renga, the more one saves up a line, for the next time one does a renga. This used to be lines one might have worked up, and overworked, for a longer solo poem. I wonder if others learn to do this, to stop overwriting lines that are only good for renga.
AF: During any renga day itself, it's almost more frequent for a verse to ‘happen’ to be recalled late on, perhaps when things are stuck and people are labouring. In these rare occasions, it feels as if one’s consciousness had made a loop back through the comet?s tail, picking up the grains of a word or image that can work. Its always fun that, but it won?t work to hold on intentionally, for the act of mind gripping prevents one turning towards each new link. We come aware that the poem is defining the choices.
IL: I guess I am drawing attention to why the renga space is like one's own writing space - writing by oneself for others. Isn't one of the origins of the Japanese tradition that the master is a very, very good poet,, and everyone comes along in a sort of "masterclass", like a classical music class, where the learner plays and the teacher says "now, see how I do it".
AF: I think so, or something like that. In Basho’s case many of the poets in his school were very gifted in their own right, and in their renga there was a convention of writing in turn. Also in classical Japan so many people knew how to write a haiku. It was the mark of being a civilised person. A key aspect of many classical renga is the meeting of the visiting poet and a local host, so perhaps it is more like a duet operating within a quintet.
IL: Renga includes the expectation that if the learner comes up with a great line, it goes in unquestioned. This is egoless, because you the beginner get your verse in and not even an established name can push theirs in instead, the "ego" in the room can't bully the beginner. But in practice, most of the verses are by the experts, no?
AF: A marker you learn very quickly is: everyone laughs = good verse. This is true not only for humorous links, for there seems to be an immediate sense of relief, sharing this intimate social space with strangers and presenting images, so laughter comes when a verse is ‘true’. Sometimes also there is a group sigh. The wonderful thing is that this comes more from the fidelity and freshness of the image, or the naturalness of the speech. We are not reacting to a person because we know they are a good poet or because they write a perfectly ornamented line, but simply because they said something that has veracity. Of course, at any renga poets who have a ‘professional’ practice, and those who know haiku will tend to predominate, but someone like myself, or Gerry loose, or W. N. Herbert, will recognise when we have written a verse that has the characteristics of a good haiku, but it just does not sing. Some haikuists who come along can actually begin to grate, because they know how to write you a correct haiku, but often fail to link in an empathetic way. They can become
like bird watchers who tick names off but no longer hear the beautiful songs or see the feathers.
With beginners every now and then they will say something so directly, so truthfully, and this is a release for the poem and everyone there. The example that you choose includes verses by ‘professional’ poets and people who have never written poetry before. (The different
characteristics of the ’simple’ ground verses and the ‘complex’ design verses explain this).
IL: Yeah, and many's the professional who cannot write a simple line, and needs the simple verses to offer clever links between. And can dazzle the beginner at the rule of "don't repeat what's gone before" by technical analysis skills.
AF: There is also the quirky aspect of the day, where a poet writes lots of good verses but somehow their links never quite fit in - perhaps they are ‘late’ catching a seasonal change, or it may be that their verse always seems to be the second best option. Sometimes a poet suddenly has a ‘run’, and perhaps their verses will be selected for 2 or even 3 links in succession. And some poets have to untangle their ‘sweetness’, like the woman who kept writing about how pretty the world was, and then she finally apologised this round I haven’t really got anything, just a few words, and she gave us the perfect image of houking up a cherry stone she’d swallowed. It was an exact image for what was happening in our own consciousness and her body, coughing up something from deeper.
IL: And yet, experts, certainly in poetry, today, so fear unknottedness, even cliché, the basic heart-to-heart (the commonplace Bunting told us to stick to) that the learner trounces us with something spoken, or plainly put, that is the best verse that round by far.
AF: Surething. Like the German guy who was walking round the Botanical gardens in Edinburgh when we had an outdoor renga platform event, and stayed for one link, not even long enough to sit down, and dropped in:
the wood stack settles, creaks
it will hold
IL: I guess that is one of the big appeals of the form?
AF: It is one of the more romantic ideals, that a wandering stranger can be absorbed immediately into the poetic process. The moments are rare, breathtaking, gifted - to have an encounter based on heart, perception, poetry, with a passing stranger. And there is nothing cloying about it. We’ve also had the experience of someone who happens by or we meet being written into a poem, and that seems to me to be just as beautiful and important. I think though that the utopian politics are now more focussed in my mind on the consensual meeting between strangers who spend a fixed period together, a day, or 24 hours. This assembly becomes almost a poets parliament, especially where the discussion is rich.
IL: I still have some doubts about some renga rhetoric, and I'm guided in this respect by something Marjorie Perloff says about Cage: "I do not mean to imply that such artistic authority is a bad thing. Poetry is, after all, with rare exceptions like the Japanese renga , a form of individual production, and however much the author of the Roaratorio may have wanted to get rid of the ego, his stylistic signature remains highly individual, indeed uniquely Cagean." Cage let in non-specialists, and that gives his work those bits of directness, as your renga days do. But I feel the essence, as you say, must travel, go further, otherwise it will leave the renga too, perhaps.
I've tried to suggest how your Renga practice came alive for me by walking into the room (in the Baltic, but in other places I've seen you do them), and did so organically: I sat in the room for ten minutes, and got it. That's the essence. However, I do actually remember at least scanning some of the renga that were done as chain e-mails those years ago, and being very non-plussed after 10 minutes (or less). I wasn't expecting much from your renga because those older ones had come trailing all this ideological baggage ?- it's so non-ego, it's so democratic, or group mind - and yet they had been dull to me when I read them.
Yet i've read work on the page that did seem to come from a group mind and be non-ego, or less ego, like Cage's work, like some of Mac Low, like Ron Silliman's sentence accumulating pieces, like Bruce Andrews' work. I worry that this is all the problems with intentionality, it's supposed to be like this so it is. There isn't that shock, then, of the written text feeling different and slowly dawning on you.
AF: The renga is composed orally - during the day we all use a pencil and paper to note down our verses, but it is always in reading these round aloud, along with the preceding verse, that the selection is made. It is almost Socratic in that respect, and yet the written text does NOT record that entire dialogue. It is a residue that does not represent the X paths we could have taken, the verses that we loved but veered away from and the memory of people speaking them - someone shy coming in strongly, someone irritated settling down; someone being too poetic finally letting go of that. As well as the people and energies as a material of the renga, we have all this spoken body of poetry that is sifted out of the poem. So, what Andrews and Mac Low are doing, no matter how avant garde their techniques, no matter how found the material is, and no matter how extreme the process of writing through or over a text, is still WRITING. Of course, you’ve touched on a problem - metaphysical or experiential - between reading a renga and taking part in a renga...
IL: Yes, for me how it travels is what, I guess, you've faced when writing up and presenting an individual renga. I've received renga that I was in, and that I wasn't in, from your poetrycircus mail-outs, and sometimes had actively to bring in my memory of the essence of what I experienced on one of the renga days in to reanimate the text (as we all do on the day itself when we read it aloud).
AF: There is no getting over that fact, that lack in the verses themselves. In a way a renga is no more than chapter headings and sketches, as ina Dickens novel, for what the materials of the days were. The only way to confront that, artistically, is to represent the temporal element of the day in some way.
IL: I do like some of the ways you've animated renga: I quite like the unscrolling animated renga on the renga platform website, which give a sense of the process of composition; I really like them appearing on a Jenny Holzer-like LCD display, one verse at a time, in a linear fashion, as you did at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Each verse or line fills the consciousness but you partly forget it as you come to the next - that was quite like the way one writes them, thinking of all the patterns one has to fit, and then suddenly leaping into inspiration (an Oulipo constraint liberating fancy) ...
AF: A line as an arc in time ...
IL: ... And I like your poem that was composed from found moon verses from the renga, all flattened into single lines, with the moon a central vertical column, like a beam. I really liked the Stein-like repetition with variation; it seemed to get at the root of one kind of minimalism, which we can't do deliberately anymore, now there's so much minimalism about.
AF: Exactly. They are the harvest of over 40 renga, so there is a sense of accumulation there. And the moon is the one fixed image that reoccurs in each renga which one can serialise in that way.
IL: These are offshoots from the experience, but I think one can love it without knowing anything about the renga or the renga space. It could survive on papyrus, like a Sappho fragment, when nothing is left of our civilisation, and suggest a complex background you could guess at (a culture that wanted to write about the moon but had to do so with some arcanely tortuous roundabout method that kept it fresh - hence the potency of gathering them all together, the risk of breaking the very rule of reticence by seeming overkill, a creative tension in a work of constant reference to the moon that seems to come out of a culture of holding back from referring to the moon ...)
AF: In other words, a study of shared consciousness.