Renga City (3)

3. Kyū (Outcomes)

i. Publication

After a while with every project comes that moment of self-reflection: no longer ‘how shall we do this’ or ‘how are we getting on with doing it’, but ‘what shall we do with it now’? That moment probably arrived when StAnza very kindly approached us to do a version for this year’s festival, expanding the potential participants in terms of where they could come from, but leaving the method the same. While the results of our renga had always theoretically been globally visible, this served to crystallise the sense that we were building up a verse record of how one of the most extraordinary years in our lifetime had impacted upon one city. (And twal mile roond – conceptually extended in March to include farther-flung folk, certainly, but hadn’t I always been a bit flung?)

In the most practical sense, that leads most writers to think of publication. Wouldn’t ‘a year of renga: the pamphlet [actual title TBC]’ be the simplest way of fixing that ongoing impulse into an artefact? Ordinarily we’d begin by wondering who would publish it and how would this be paid for, but the times do seem to have that old punk air about them – why wait for The Gatekeeper to tell us our civic impulse doesn’t quite fulfil their latest mission statement? So we are considering instead how it should be designed – Dundee is, after all, having quite a moment as a City of Design.

Perhaps something of those divisions into sections of four might be worth capturing? After all, renga were often written with a strong awareness of the materiality of the page, as the wiki tells us (note this is a discussion of the 36 verse or hyakuin renga):

‘During a renga session, the verses were transcribed onto a paper known as kaishi (懐紙), using four sheets, or eight sides of paper, total. The first side (初折 sho-ori) and last side (名残折 nagori-no-ori) contained 8 verses each, and the rest of the sides contained 14 verses each. There were various structural rules based on the paper layout, the most important being the “four blossoms eight moons” rule (四花八月). Each sheet should include one verse that used the word hana (花), or blossoms, and each side should include one verse that used the word tsuki (月) to mean moon specifically (as opposed to “month”).’


More on this breaking story as things actually start to happen (or break)…

ii. Community

The more significant outcome for me at any rate has been an intensified sense of community: the increased awareness of my home town as a place that is carefully contemplated and cared about on a daily basis, by writers in this instance – but then the poets, when gathered into the collaborative unit of the renga, become representative of their city: their regard is a symbol of its regard. By the same token, of course, the extent to which such writing is overlooked or goes unacknowledged without promotional prompting or external validation is an indication of how any city goes about valuing itself – some places, as writers in Dundee have long known, seem more comfortable in their cultural skin than others.

In a period of isolation, anxiety, and involuntary exile, then, it has been a great pleasure to feel part of something that concerns itself as much with how it feels to be at home in oneself as in the spirit of place. I just count myself lucky that the Dundee renga has demonstrated that the city not only has its own distinct genius loci, but also something of the mischievous genius of Loki – it is, after all, hame of the Bashō Street Kids… It’s been a blast, and I look forward to the next twelvemonth with a renewed spirit.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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