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The Renku Sessions: Pilgrims' Stride Wrap

renkuchainWelcome to The Renku Sessions. Renku is a participatory literary game, following a set of rules that are implemented by the leader of the session. If you would like to learn more about renku go here. And if you would like to see a sample of a complete renku go here.

First and last, I thank all of the poets who have played the game. This includes everyone who made offers, whether or not your work is included in the finished kasen renku. It is your spirit of creativity and your willingness to collaborate that constitute the value of this process.

Thanks are also due to The Haiku Foundation for the idea of a renku feature and especially to Dave Russo and Jim Kacian for showing me how to use the technical apparatus for creating the weekly postings.

I have had two main tasks here. One is obvious; serving as your guide in this renku session. The other may be less obvious. As the inaugurator of this feature, which will continue with other leaders, I have attempted to establish a model that would work this time and also serve as a basic model for future sessions.

There have been some special challenges. An open, public, and international forum is a near antithesis to the setting in which renku was first developed and practiced. In order to fairly present some semblance of a renku session on-line and with an open and fluid group, I have had to perform both the traditional role of sabaki and also the role of pioneer. To succeed as a pioneer, one must adapt to new realities. Some of the new (to me) realities of leading a renku session under the present circumstances include:

* The fact that the group consists of an unknown number of people
* That people can participate with various degrees of anonymity
* That people can participate intermittently and, therefore, be unaware of what may have been discussed in their absence
* That the group consists of people with extreme differences in past experience and present motivation for participation
* That the session is designed for thirty six weeks (originally, a kasen renku would be completed in a single session, generally in less than a day)
* That the session does not take place face-to-face, so the penchant of internet communication to foster false impressions and misunderstandings is a factor and the opportunity to evaluate the clarity (or lack of clarity) in one’s instructions by reading individual faces and body language is lost.

For those who are new to renku I would like to emphasize that what has taken place in these sessions is as characteristic of the internet as it is of renku.

So, what would renku be like in a pre-internet or non-internet setting? First, there would be a known number of participants, whether in a room together or linked by mail. And, because of that, there would be a different sense of community. The participants would have individually been given and have accepted some form of invitation to participate. While the basis for this can vary, the one universally underlying principle is mutual respect.

I use a party metaphor often in describing renku. The difference between a renku-style party and an internet party is the difference between a party with carefully chosen guests who the host/hostess expects will delight in each other’s company and a party thrown while the parents are away, where there is no telling who or how many will show up and where there is a possibility that the house will be trashed. Our challenge has been to try to represent the character of the first kind of party in a setting that promotes the latter. With your extraordinary help, I think we have succeeded in establishing a good precedent here.

A few observations about renku, in general:

* The point of writing a renku is the experience of collaboration. This consists of two types: collaboration with one’s immediate partners and collaboration with renku writers of the past.

* The written result of a renku session is best appreciated by those who have had the experience of writing renku. It is likely to register as mere non-sequitur to other readers.

* Renku involves adherence to a set of rules. It has been around for centuries and there are many variations on the rules. It is helpful if initial collective decisions can be made about which set of rules are in play and if a balance is sought between perfect adherence to rules and the natural tendency of poets to experiment with and alter existing forms.

A few observations about renku on the internet:

* The fabulous opportunity of working with a world-wide set of poets requires some adjustments. For instance, kigo (season words or phrases) that are related to calendar dates create a problem since the same date occurs in different seasons in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Christmas, for instance, is a winter event in the north and a summer event in the south.

* An international renku requires some negotiation over which images lose or retain their local resonance with a world-wide set of participants.

* Special consideration should be given to participants for whom the language of the renku (English in this instance) is a second language.

* All participants should be willing to learn about phenomena that may seem “exotic” to their existing frames of reference.

A few observations about my personal experience with this renku session:

* The most important task, as I see it, is setting and maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect.

* In order to promote this atmosphere of mutual respect, it is everyone’s task to avoid, insofar as possible, embarrassing other participants.

* The opportunity for inclusiveness is both a primary asset and a special challenge of this format.

* Since a very long commitment of time is required, special efforts are required in order to maintain focus. I am personally a quick study. With similar partners, I would complete a kasen renku in hours rather than months. One might presume that more time would make the composition easier. And for some people, that is no doubt the case. But for my part, I found it harder than a more spontaneous, or at least a more instantaneous, process might have been. And it’s always good to keep in mind that no one is going to take months to read the finished renku!

* One objective benefit of this experience has been the opportunity to become acquainted with new renku partners. I am currently writing with partners that I met in the course of “Pilgrims’ Stride” and look forward to the possibility of writing with others among you in the future. I hope that many of you may also benefit in this way, with new renku partners.

So, finally, thank you. Thank you. It has been an honor and truly a pleasure to work with you.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I’ve done renku face-to-face in Japan and the U.S.A. with various sabaki from different countries, as well as a 24-hour Online Renku Tournament (which was exhausting).

    Thanks for your patience and sensitivity over the weeks. I hope to have another chance to have you as a sabaki again!

  2. John, congratulations on being the brave one to be the pioneer sabaki for THF’s first renku, successfully concluded.

    It might be of interest to note here the very first concluded haiku I was lucky enough to participate in was also conducted on a poetry website and open to all comers, in 2009. It took place on the Cordite Poetry Journal, produced then by David Prater. Keiji Minato was sabaki and David Lanoue was involved as well. It was lucky in more than one way for me: I discovered it by accident whilst looking up a book review and it was already well in progress.

    I’ve looked up the Cordite archives and find that the comments threads, which had been preserved until recent years, have now gone (probably just a matter of a link going dead), as has the public invitation, but the renku itself and also Keiji’s & David’s introductory notes and the samples of haiku provided by both are still there.

    ‘David Lanoue: Welcome to Haikunaut’

    ‘Keiji Minato:Notes on Renga’

    The renku, in two parts, can be accessed here:

    Also there are Keiji’s ‘Notes on Modern Haiku’ (4 pages) and a selection of 5 haiku each by MINATO Keiji, NAKAMURA Yasunobu, OKADA Yuki, OKAMURA Tomoaki, SAKAITANI Masato, SATÔ Ayaka, TAKAYAMA Reona, TOMITA Takuya, UI Togen, Ludmila Balabanova, Johnette Downing, Curtis Dunlap, Stanford M. Forrester, Ljudmila Hristova, Jim Kacian, Toru Kiuchi, David G. Lanoue, Lenard D. Moore, Naia and Petar Tchouhov.

    The whole of it seems to have become a bit corrupted in the archives as far as links go but it’s all there (apart from the threads which show how it worked as it went along…and it worked very well, with most being complete beginners, too) but I’m afraid if I post all the links, this post won’t go through.

    I trust that the ‘Haikunaut Island Renga’ & associated notes will be of interest to readers and at least of historical interest to THF, perhaps even that the full content might be obtained to archive at THF, especially if the comments could be retrieved. It’s possible that it was the first renku to be composed open to the general public on a poetry website.

    – Lorin

    ‘Keiji Minato: Notes on Modern Haiku’

    The completed renku (renga):

  3. Thanks so much, John, for leading this pilgrimage. It has been my first experience of participating in a renku and I really enjoyed it – and learned a lot in the process. I now miss dropping by every Thursday and hope our strides cross the same path again 🙂


  4. Thanks John, you have been an exemplary leader. I was not able to participate on a particularly regular basis so having your clarity at the start of each new verse position made dipping in and out easy. Leading such a long renku has meant a major time commitment from you and my thanks for that as well.

  5. Thank you John! 🙂

    I’ve been involved with several public renku including a 1000 verse renku, and one with over 3,000. Both of these were great fun and I hope to publish them one day on the With Words new website when it goes live.

    Thank you so much for taking us all on a journey and I look forward to the final renku appearing in a publication.

    my very warmest regards and appreciation,


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