RENGAY

Rengay is a form of linked verse created as an alternative to Japanese renga or renku. The form was devised by Garry Gay in California in 1992. A rengay consists of six thematic haiku verses and is normally composed by two or three poets, although solo and six-person rengay are not uncommon. Since the form’s invention many hundreds of rengay have been published, primarily in English, and two competitions for rengay have been established in the United States.


Rengay is a six-verse linked thematic form of collaborative poetry. Garry Gay invented it in August of 1992, and the first example, “Deep Winter,” was written by Gay and Michael Dylan Welch on August 9, 1992, in Foster City, California. Gay named rengay by combining “renga” with his last name and proposed that it have a specific pattern of three-line and two-line verses for two poets. Welch proposed a pattern for three poets. The first three-person rengay, by Donna [Claire] GallagherPat Gallagher, and Michael Dylan Welch, was “A Rain of Leaves,” written in November 1993. Cherie Hunter Day produced the first solo rengay, “Night Rain,” in 1995. Six-person rengay have also been written, the first one most likely being “Journey in Blue” by Gay, [Donna] Claire Gallagher, Fay AoyagiDavid NobleBruce Kennedy, and Welch, written in April 2002. The first rengay to be published was “Between Storms” by John Thompson and Gay, in the Romanian journal  Albatros/Albatross in 1993. Welch also wrote essays about rengay, appearing in 1994 in Frogpond and Woodnotes, that began to promote this new collaborative poetry, with additional essays appearing later. Others who have written essays about rengay include Cherie Hunter Day, Garry Gay, Carolyn HallCe Rosenow, and Joan Zimmerman. In 1995, the Haiku Poets of Northern California (HPNC) held the first of its annual rengay contests, which was won by Valorie Woerdehoff and Connie Meester for “Moving Inside,” tied for first place with Ebba Story and Cherie Hunter Day for “Tidewater Marsh.” The judges were Welch, Gay, and Thompson, who also published the first rengay book, Hammerhorn Lake. Other collections of rengay are listed in the bibliographic section below. In 2020, the Haiku Society of America (HSA) added rengay to its annual contests, joining the HPNC contest as the only contests for this form of collaborative writing. Rengay have been written by poets around the world, but chiefly in English.

The main goal of rengay is to have a theme that unifies all six verses. This goal distinguishes rengay from renku or renga, which seeks to avoid thematic development as it “tastes all of life.” Instead, rengay seeks to have a sharper focus, which Gay thought would make the rengay more accessible to Western readers. Gay also limited rengay to just six verses to make the form more easily publishable on a single page of a haiku journal. The form for two poets is as follows: A-3, B-2, A-3, B-3, A-2, B-3, with the letters representing the poets, and the numbers indicating the number of lines in each given verse. The middle two verses are both three-liners, which is an arrangement that renga and renku never have, but Gay asserted this tradition for two-person rengay so that each poet would have the same number lines, thereby creating a balance between the two voices. The first poet dominates the first half of the rengay with two three-liners, balanced by the second poet dominating the second half with two three-liners. For three people the pattern is A-3, B-2, C-3, A-2, B-3, C-2, a form that also achieves balance among the three contributors. Variations of these two forms have been explored, but these two forms are the primary and traditional patterns, and the only two versions accepted by the HPNC and HSA rengay contests. Gay has suggested that all the three-lines verses should be haiku, and that even the two-liners should be haiku, or at least haiku-like. The two-liners should avoid being three-line haiku forced into two lines.

The theme of rengay can take many forms, limited only by the imagination of the poets, and serves to benefit readers as a clothesline upon which each of the verses are pinned. Thus, the theme should endeavor to be clear to readers (as a product of the rengay) and not serve just as a prompt for writers (merely as a process). Concrete themes such as writing about a baseball game are immediately clear to readers, as is the seasonal theme in “Deep Winter” and the tree theme in “Rain of Leaves.” More abstract themes, such as “love” or “envy,” may be less immediately identifiable to readers but can still infuse all the verses with a similar tone. Some rengay also have a secondary theme, which was noted in one of the aforementioned winners of the 1995 HPNC rengay contest, shared here, first published in Woodnotes 26 (Autumn 1995):

Moving Inside

freezing rain
dousing the fire
in the sumac    
 
ice melts          wet
where your hand was  
 
                        stained glass door
                        catching the moon
                        sliced in half   
 
                        your shadow
                                 across the warm patio
                        just misses mine          
 
            moving inside . . .
            frost on the window pane       
 
            inside . . .
            kindling in the stove catches
            sparks  
.
.
.
.
Valorie
 
 
Connie
 
 
 
Valorie
 
 
 
Connie
 
 
Valorie
 
 
 
Connie

As the judges wrote in their commentary, “‘Moving Inside’ works on two levels, something hitherto unprecedented. One may read this rengay for the crispness of its images as the people move indoors (on the narrative level). But on an erotic level, ‘moving inside’ takes on an entirely sexual and richly erotic meaning.” This rengay also offers an innovative visual arrangement of the verses.

Poets who write rengay can approach the theme in different ways. Some poets, such as John Thompson, prefer to share or receive a starting verse and then respond spontaneously without discussing the theme beforehand. In this way the poet writing the second verse chooses the theme from various options that might be possible in the first verse. Other poets discuss the theme before they start writing, sometimes brainstorming possible subjects that fit the theme, and perhaps arranging them in a preferred order. In addition to a primary theme, some rengay have demonstrated secondary “themes” such as also having a seasonal progression or other structural unfolding. On occasion the last verse refers to the first verse, giving the rengay a circular feeling, or the last verse might deliberately depart from the theme in a creative but still connected way.

Rengay can be written easily via e-mail or postal mail, which enables poets to respond in whatever time they need to come up with new verses. Writing in person adds a stronger social aspect to the collaborative process (a trait shared with renga and renku, which were typically social rather than literary events) but may require participants to respond more rapidly or spontaneously. It is common for poets to help shape the verses by other contributors to better develop the theme or to improve individual verses, making the collaboration more than just an assemblage of themed verses.

Rengay typically have titles, and the title may sometimes be a misdirection to hide the rengay’s theme (especially if otherwise obvious), leaving the theme to be discovered by readers rather than be given away by the title. In other cases, the title may be a pointer to the theme (if otherwise not immediately clear in the verses). As a result, the titling of rengay is an art itself. A rengay risks failure if the title is too obvious or too obscure, and the rengay as a whole also risks failure if individual verses are weak, or depart from the theme, if the theme is ambiguous, or if the two-line verses are really three-liners forced into two lines. In contrast, a rengay is successful if each verse (especially each three-liner) works well as an independent haiku, and if the thematic development provides surprises and richness, being careful to avoid too obvious a development, which has led to the employment of sometimes obscure themes. If the theme is not apparent to readers, however, then the collaboration would seem not to qualify as a rengay. It is thus essential that the theme be not just a motive for the writers, but clear to readers. Otherwise, the collaboration may come across as just a six-verse renga or renku, where participants are merely linking verses without the clarity of identifiable thematic development.

The following rengay, by Tom Clausen and Michael Dylan Welch, won first prize in the 2007 HPNC rengay contest, and was published in Mariposa 18 (Spring–Summer 2008):

Sixth Sense
 
the baby’s eyes
change color
with the sky    
 
        loud train horn—
        ice crystals hang in the air      
 
three-cheese lasagna—
a bit of garlic stuck
to the pulled-out hair  
 
at the seaside museum
the sample otter skin
worn bare        
 
        parking lot’s fresh blacktop
        simmers in the sun      
 
Peter and the Wolf—
my toddler’s eyes
opening wider
.
.
.
.
Tom
 
 
Michael
 
 
 
Tom
 
 
 
Michael
 
 
Tom
 
 
 
Michael

In this rengay the theme is an exploration of each of the five senses, with a “sixth sense” included as well. The eyes and color mentioned in the first verse emphasize the sense of sight, yielding to the sound of the horn in the second verse. Taste appears in the third verse through lasagna and touch in the fourth verse through the feel of an otter skin. Smell in the fifth verse is slightly less overt but is present in how fresh blacktop must smell in a hot sun. And in the sixth verse, the toddler’s wide eyes suggest a sense of wonder. In this rengay, the title clarifies the rengay’s theme, and helps to suggest that the sixth verse departs from the exploration of the customary five senses in the first five verses. The title also raises an implied question—what is the sixth sense?—that the rengay resolves in the final verse.

One technique common in renga and renku is for each successive verse to link to the previous verse yet also shift away. This strategy needs no emphasis in rengay, because the theme itself automatically links each of the verses. Likewise, shifting also occurs naturally as each verse presents a distinct iteration of the theme. It is therefore possible for a rengay to be constructed by assembling sets of verses written independently on the theme by the collaborators beforehand, or for verses to be reordered for better poetic effect after the initial composition. Part of the attraction of rengay, as with renga and renku, may lie in the art of responsiveness to each previous verse, which is a social act, not just a literary one, whereas rengay can provide more flexibility in ways that emphasize the product as well as the process. Rengay writers are always free to write in whichever ways they prefer, provided that they follow the established formats for two or three writers, or for one or six writers, and that they produce a finished result with thematic clarity. Anything else may be considered to be an experiment.

This summation of rengay focuses on rengay written in English. Rengay in other languages deserves additional reporting. In addition, it appears that almost no rengay (if any) have been written in Japanese, and it may well be a worthwhile opportunity for Japanese haiku poets to explore rengay as a deliberately thematic alternative to the renga and renku traditions.

Author: Michael Dylan Welch

SOURCES / FURTHER READING

HISTORY, CRITICISM, AND COMPOSITION GUIDES

  • Gay, Garry. “Rengay.”  Chapter 4 in A. C. Missias, ed., In Good Company: An Exploration of Haiku-related Linked Forms (Philadelphia: Redfox Press, Spring 2003), 37–43. 
  • Gay, Garry. “Writing Rengay.”  Notes for a presentation at the North Carolina Haiku Society’s Haiku Holiday, 2006. Michael Dylan Welch, ed. Graceguts website: http://www.graceguts.com/rengay-essays/writing-rengay.

SELECTED RENGAY COLLECTIONS

  • Beary, Roberta, Deborah P Kolodji, Victor Ortiz, and Ebba Story. In Concert: Four Rengay. San Francisco: Haiku Poets of Northern California, 2010. Trifold broadsheet.
  • Codrescu, Ion. Oaspete străin: haiku, rengay, haibun și renku / A Foreign Guest: Haiku, Rengay, Haibun, and Renku. Constanța, Romania: Ex Ponto, 1999. Translated by the author. A travel journal, in Romanian and English.
  • Dale, Magdalena, and Vasile Moldovan. Mireasmă de tei: poeme renga / Fragrance of Lime: Renga Poems. Bucharest: Editura Făt-Frumos, 2008. 3 rengay among other linked-verse forms; in Romanian and English.
  • Day, Cherie Hunter, ed,. Beyond Within: A Collection of Rengay. Portland, Ore.: Sundog Press, 1997. Anthology of women’s rengay with work by Carol Conti-Entin, Helen K. Davies, Cherie Hunter Day, D. Claire Gallagher, Marianna Monaco, Ce Rosenow, Ebba Story, and Joan Zimmerman.
  • Gay, Garry, and John Thompson. The Unlocked Gate. Photographs by Garry Gay. No place [Santa Clara, Calif.]: Rengay Press, 2008. Haiku, rengay, and photographs.
  • Gay, Garry, and Michael Dylan Welch. Four Rengay. Foster City, Calif.: Press Here, 1999. Broadsheet.
  • Gay, Garry, John Thompson, and Michael Dylan Welch. Hammerhorn Lake. Foster City, Calif.: Press Here, 1994.
  • Kaplan, Betty, and Max Verhart. Smoke Signals: Nine Rengay. Bakhuizen, Netherlands: 2003.
  • Kirschner, Joseph, Bill Lerz, and Charles Trumbull. 3 x 3 x 3: A Triple Rengay Sequence. Evanston, Ill.: Deep North Press, 1999. 9 rengay in a 6-fold sheet. 
  • Watsky, Paul, and John Thompson. Four Trails, Four Seasons: Pt. Reyes Rengay. San Francisco: Smythe-Waithe Press, 1998.
  • Welch, Michael Dylan. “Rengay.” Graceguts website: http://www.graceguts.com/rengay. Listing of and links to the poet’s published rengay under the headings “Recent Additions,” “First-Prize Winners from HPNC Rengay Contests,” “City Rengay,” “True Colour,” “Other Solo Rengay,” “Two-Person Rengay,” “Three-Person Rengay,” and “Six-Person Rengay.”
  • Welch, Michael Dylan. True Colour: Solo Rengay Poems. Redmond, Wash.: City of Redmond, 2014. 13 solo rengay.
  • Welch, Michael Dylan, Tom Clausen, Alice Frampton, Rich Krivcher, Dejah, Léger, Lenard D. Moore, John Thompson, and Ikuyo Yoshimura. Six Rengay. Sammamish, Wash.: published privately, 2010. Quadrifold broadsheet.
  • Witkin, Jeff. The Duck’s Wake. Potomac, Md.: self-published, 1996. The first collection to include rengay.
  • Woerdehoff, Valorie Broadhurst, and Connie R. Meester. Tsugigami: Gathering the Pieces. Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2018. 37 rengay and other linked verse.

RELATED HAIKUPEDIA ARTICLES

San Francisco International Rengay Contest

Garry Gay Rengay Award

Garry Gay

Updated on August 21, 2020