When we started the renga project, I had only an inkling that it was a way to bring people together and perhaps lift up each other during a time when the arts were under attack and underfunded in Kansas. At the time, I felt especially lost because of the poet laureate program had no home despite my efforts to find one, so looking for about 150 poets with connections to Kansas to join together was a welcome diversion. Because the renga, a traditional Japanese form, is a conversational poem, each poet needed to wait until the person before him/her wrote, and then jump in with no hesitation and add onto the conversation. It was an experiment, a notion, even a kind of whimsy when I posted the first entry, and hoped for the best. Each poet had to put him/herself on the creative edge, and see what happened just as I had had to simply relax on the edge where I was dangling since I couldn’t force solid ground to rise under my feet.
A year later, the renga has not only drawn in close to 150 poets, each one meeting his/her “renga at your door” deadline, but resulted in a beautifully-produced and artful book (thanks to mosaic artist Lora Jost, book cover designer Leah Sewell, and publisher/book interior artist Denise Low), and close to 15 readings stretching as far west as Garden City and as far east as over the border into Missouri (just barely, though, at The Writers Place on Feb. 1). In the last few weeks, our first batch of readings has shown me what a renga can do as one poet after another — at Watermark Books in Wichita and during Final Fridays in Lawrence — stood up in read in an unfurling singular poem that just happens to be 150 pages long and authored by 148 poets.
Hearing people read their sections aloud, I noticed all kinds of nuances and gestures in the language that I had missed when reading the poem parts as they were written (in our google doc), on the website when I posted them (on our website), and later in the book when I edited it. For example, I somehow how missed the beauty and double-meanings of “my mother’s delicate bones” in Susan Kraus’s part, and the loveliness of Megan Kaminski’s lines, “Each day begins deep in sod/streaming over flint, limestone” when I was so busy laying piece by piece of the poem into its whole.
A renga is both linear and like a mosaic, each section illuminating what’s around it but also adding something to the whole landscape of the poem. Now, however, I see what a mosaic in motion looks and sounds like when, at each reading, a different combination of 8 or 28 or however many poets reads, and one poet’s words now resonate with a poet perhaps 6 pages earlier or 22 pages later in the book (as well as a month earlier or 6 weeks later on the website). Time and space rearrange themselves each evening we gather.
Over a year after this project began, the arts are still in question (a new 9-month-old new agency is to distribute grants and create greater opportunities for the arts and artists, not much has happened yet). Yet the poet laureate program, which I carried in my pocket for so long, hoping to guide it to a new harbor, is now at home with the Kansas Humanities Council, and the call for a new poet laureate just went out. The renga, to my surprise, turned out not just to bring poets together — on the web, the page and in an assortment of rooms where we’ll be reading — but to sustain me in a time of confusion, doubt, fear and simply dwelling in not-knowing.
Throughout the last year to now has created a poetic mosaic that tells of this land and sky, and a conversation among poets that helped us hear one another despite how forces may have silenced or separated us. Long may the renga shine, and thanks to the renga for showing me a path.