A Round of Renshi & the Poet as Other: An Experiment in Poesis (Part Three)
The thirtieth and final poem of the renshi event fell to me as “visitor” and gave me a chance to consider or reconsider the entire process – the experimental side of it at least, as a test of poetry under special circumstances. The moves up to then had been easy enough, a cool kind of writing that I didn’t find at all displeasing, and a chance, as Robert Duncan had once put it, “to exercise my faculties at large.” On top of that – and not to be ignored – I was doing it out in the open and immersed in a language that I barely understood. It seemed to me too that Kaku, writing in the slot before me, had been pushing toward some kind of conclusion, to which I felt an affinity, but had to consider it, along with a specific request from Tanikawa, as an invitation to formulate my own coda here, a kind of capsule poetics as I conceived it. The conclusion of her short poem ran like this:
... We put logic to rest
We celebrate the outrageous
The last song remaining
Is our offering
To the world
And mine, as an alternative conclusion, was a reference both to my present predicament and to that other, distant world in which I lived and wrote:
people speak at me
& I don’t understand
except my name & yours
& little words like koko & asoko
& those that aren’t words at all
but sounds remembered
first as sounds
the small nouns
crying faith (he wrote)
what poets always knew
what still astounds
If the work we composed was communal, as I thought it was, then what I wrote here as a final “offering” would hold for all of us, bound by the renshi process itself to what the others had presented. What I was doing from my own perspective was calling up certain elemental terms for poetry – the sounds that change as we move from language to language and the crucial but easily neglected words like koko and asoko (“here” and “there”) or the “small nouns” in the quote above from George Oppen. The rhyme – almost terminal rhyme – came pretty much on its own and with a sense of its probable untranslatability into Japanese, where rhyme has always been beside the point. I realized too that were these thirty poems to be published, my preference would be for mine to remain in English, however crucial translation may have been to the renshi event as such. The distance or otherness of the English would show, as I conceive it, a further willingness to abide by the principles of something-like-collage.
While my poem brought the renshi part of it to a close, the poetics of the event continued outside and beyond the actual writing. The discussion at the public performance concentrated on the individual linkages at the heart of renshi, but also got into questions of appropriation, orality and writing, collaboration, even the way in which my presence as guest changed the nature of the renshi itself. For me it was enough to see the renshi event as an experiment in writing, and as such I thought of it as raising several distinctive but related questions.
Collaboration was the key word here, not in any easy sense but as a way – not for the first time nor the last – to put the self or self-as-author into question. The result wasn’t, as it surely has been elsewhere, a collaboration by consensus, two or more authors working together on a single text. Rather each poem within the total renshi was written individually and juxtaposed with what had come before, while bringing still others (by quotation or appropriation) into the field of the poem. (This last was done consistently in Itō’s case, sporadically by all the others.) And sometimes, writing in the same space and needing to translate, to work between languages or even between idiolects, a series of small changes and reconsiderations (modifications) might come up for discussion but never dilute the mystery and the force of what the larger work had brought together. In this way renshi as collaboration could also be taken as a form of collage – not the clear and consistent product of one mind but “a juxtaposition of disparate materials without commitment to explicit [syntactic] relations between elements” (D. Antin), or in the present instance, isolated and quasi-independent poems brought together by the principle of collage and the rules of distant linkage in the renshi.
A FOURTH DIGRESSION. Another set of renshi – the fifth of the present session – gives a sense of how the poems come together “without commitment to specific [syntactic] relations.” Even in Angles’s off-the-cuff translations, below, the sense of disparate sources and idioms comes across, the degree of fusion as much in the minds of the beholders as in those of the authors:
Oh, my beloved, darling husband!
If this is what you insist upon doing
Every day I will strangle to death
One thousand people from your land!
Pandemonium seeping from an article on the page of the morning news containing all the
Women’s sobbing leaking between the lines of the story
War cries filling the table of events
Voices packed tightly within the letters
In the voices, there is only breath
Only emptiness discreetly returned to silence
Hiragana, katakana, kanji, and western letters
Moving back and forth between the synapses
Of the left hemisphere of my brain
Meanwhile my hand and fingers go on strike
A raptor draws a circle over the satellite dish
Will sweep all illness away, they say
Will change one into infinite blue—
The body whole
840 million thoughts
the sutra says
come every night
& overwhelm the sleeper
looking for a place
for which he writes
his death poem
as a perfect circle
The sequence of poets here is Itō, Yotsumoto, Tanikawa, Kaku, and Rothenberg --
a detail of authorship that may or may not be needed in the final publication.
Also tied to collaboration was the act of writing in public as performance, first around a small table in the Orange cafe and bookstore, then in a room upstairs where the poets wrote out their poems calligraphically, and finally in the large auditorium of the Literature Museum. The effect of all that had a curious resemblance to those traditional rituals through which I had sat for hours and days in the Allegany Seneca longhouse and elsewhere – including the welcome breaks for meals and conversation (those also, as Richard Schechner once reminded us, a part of the ritual). And still more crucial here – as there – was how the deep past, theirs and mine, came into it – myth and poetry (or myth as poetry) with a suggestion of the sacred or numinous, the trace of gods and goddesses in whom we no longer believe but whose presence is still felt in the words that evoke them. All of these come into the poems here and elsewhere by processes of appropriation or othering, another aspect of collage applied to both the past and present, from ancient sutras and creation myths to satellite dish and morning news, to the sound and feel of David Antin’s hiccups, accompanying my accounting here, if it should come to that.
With Antin in mind too, I’m aware of how close the renshi event comes to the practice of improvisation, or if not improvisation, a form of accelerated writing, with any persisting constraints or turns imposed here by the interplay with others. For this, my presence may have had a contrary effect, introducing a series of short breaks or pauses while Angles translated each poem of mine into Japanese and theirs more loosely into English. Yet it was the translation, exactly, that was the key to the most far-reaching experiment of all – the renshi as an exercise in transcultural writing and a test, for me at least, of the degree to which I could think of myself and them as international poets – at least for the moment – or could think of poetry as a bridge rather than a wall or, like language itself, both a wall and a bridge. What made it easier for us of course was that the differences of language and culture had already been weakened, so that we shared a contemporaneity and with it a by now similar sense of poetry. (That we had English – in varying degrees – as a kind of lingua franca might also be noted.)
Still renshi is not primarily an experiment but very much a game, and treating it as an experiment in writing and poetics – a chance to test the possibilities of poetry under circumstances different from any I had known before – is a willful act on my part but one I had in mind throughout the four-day session. My own work as a poet, like that of most poets I know, is largely carried on in private, yet not without a sense even so of other voices, other poets, who constitute for me an often cited “visionary company” or, as I have it elsewhere, a paradise of poets. Treating authorship as collaboration, then, and performance as ritual puts into question that other side of poetry – our separation from each other by the realities, if left unchallenged, of cultural and individual identity. The further step would be to treat all acts of poetry as collaborative at heart, a great collective and collaborative enterprise – like language itself. In the critical divide between an oedipal view of poetic kinship and an absorptive and universal one, a conflict to which some attention has been paid by Harold Bloom and others, I and other poets of my company stand firmly with the latter view.