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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: Renga on the Terrace

‘Open Unaware’ is an 18 verse renga composed by eight poets at the SPL on Saturday 25 June. The forecast wasn’t good, and we wrote our first verses inside, but when the sun emerged we took our pens and our chairs out onto the terrace, and spent the rest of the day there. Through the surrounding buildings we had a view of Salisbury Crags, and were able to watch or ignore the various passers-by as if we were in a boulevard café.

Renga, originally from Japan, means ‘linked verse’, and is written by a group of between three and a dozen writers gathered for the occasion. It proceeds on the principle of link-and-shift; each verse should link to the preceeding verse, but also shift away from it; any two consecutive verses should combine to form a coherent single unit, but three consecutive verses should not.

I’ve taken part in many renga events, but not for some years now, and it was a pleasure to refamiarise myself with the form. We were a mix of experienced and new writers, some familiar with haiku and others not, but a renga is great leveller; verses are short, and rely as much on the spontaneous and unguarded as on the considered and polished.

2016 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Japanese haiku poet Yosa Buson (1716–1783), so we started with a verse by him. Thereafter none of the verses are credited to an individual; the poem as a whole is group composition. (Some of the unselected verses are included at the end, as a way of showing other possible directions the might have gone in; as they are effectively individual verses I have credited their authors.)

Ken Cockburn

'Open Unaware'

A peony appears
in my mind
after the petals have fallen

   strawberry icecream
   drips on burnt skin

white discs glowing
eight poets sip green tea –
Venetian blinds

   shadows lengthening
   it’s time to put pens away

fireside crackles
smoke hangs thick in November sky –
Dad, can I play outside?

   first go on my new bike!
   don’t take gloves, big mistake

following the wrong track
brings me above the loch
to where I should have been

   waving goodbye
   the ship becomes a speck

“these aren’t real tears,
just grit in my eye”
his voice quavers

   the grey office after lunch
   ho hum, a telephone rings

photocopier jammed
reams of A4
wait their turn

   dry leaves follow the old fellow
   through the automatic doors

a break in the clouds
on a windfall apple
a slug glistens

   pears ripen in a row
   newspaper-wrapped against rot

tittle tattle tales
browsed with a warm bacon roll
white van parked on pavement

   chattering magpie
   saluted for good luck

hunting for eggs
half hidden in the nest
camellia buds open unaware

   shaky chicks emerge
   unfolding exhausted wings

An 18 verse renga in summer
Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh
25 June 2016
Master Poet: Ken Cockburn
Participants: Susan Bittker, Gillian Dawson, Imogen Forster, Michael McGill, Hilary, Linda, Jamie

The first verse is by Buson, trans. Merwin & Lento, no. 250 in Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson (Copper Canyon Press, 2013)

Additional verses written on the day, but not included in the renga. (Numbers refer to the verse which they were offered for.)

(3)
clouded night
moths flutter
to the lamplight
(GD)

(5)
last light
the scrape of a shovel
on coal
(GD)

(6)
snowball fight
the snowman loses his head
(GD)

(8)
walking through birchwoods
a month before we married –
the long May evening
(KC)

(10)
in the neck of a bottle
the wind's song
(GD)

(11)
rainy day
conversation peters
to silence
(GD)

(12)
wet leaves clog the gutters but
the water finds a way through
(KC)

(13)
autumn flares
in the reds and oranges
of his tweed jacket
(KC)

The clock turning back,
one hour of moonlit shopping;
a long aisle of tins
(MM)

(14)
Pumpkin men, farming;
the darkness under their boots
(MM)

(15)
cryptic clues
whispered in the library
Times crossword
(GD)

(17)
my father sees
another spring – a bullfinch
in the birch tree
(KC)

ground frost
cherry blossom nipped
by bullfinches
(GD)

(18)
Gardens fill with sweet blossom
that soon fades like music
(IF)

Category: poems