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Visual Innovation in Renku Poetry

Seasoned With Chili – Bea Bereis, Simone Busch, Ramona Linke

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Suspended in the ether of the World Wide Web there lie many modern examples of text and imagery tenuously fabricated in the fashion of traditional Japanese linked verse. There you may find "hand altered" transmutations of digital photography (1), randomized, computer generated "haiku" phrases, web apps that convert and piece together musical sounds from color images (2), simple sequences of amateur snapshots, collaborations between painters and sculptors, multi-discipline performing arts as renku mandala (3) plus a plethora of other brainstorms and, on occasion, mere gimmickry. The contrasts are plainly apparent between traditional Japanese renku method and modern imagistic technology, art and performance, though not all complement the art of human interaction with the written word.

The question arises of whether or not to write of the structure and use of linking imagery as a wholly unique, separate genre. Where in the historical source literature of renku composition are instances of linked words and image in which the progression from one element to the next is distilled to the expressive choice of the participants? Precursors of visual art and linked verse in the manner of haikai expression are nearly impossible to find, although, with the rise of popularity of photo haiga during the previous decade, it was only a matter of time before a few committed artists broke ground using photo and haiku technique to create linked sequences. In March of 2009, our previous edition's featured artist, Linda Papanicoloau, in league with Jim Swift and Carol Raisfield, created a "graphic renga" of photo haiga, combining disparate pieces of work, new and old, to create a whole. Their effort transcended semantic constructions and tied the topics of written renku to iconic imagery. The twelve combined haiga of Icy Wind serve as an example of the emotive expressiveness of linking verses combined with images (4).

Most haiga compositions, when thoughtfully produced, follow the school of thought which holds that any attached picture must not simply illustrate the written verse. Employing more than an extension of this technique, Bea Bareis, Simone Busch and Ramona Linke have combined their diverse talents to successfully merge voice and vision in creating Seasoned With Chili. Incorporating photographic imagery with relevant prose, our trio of collaborators offers a further rendering of the possibilities of dynamic flow inherent in linked verse.

Each with extensive publishing credits of their own, Bareis, Busch and Linke blend their expertise as photographer/musician, creative writer/poet, and haijin/painter. Their artistic influences combine to inspire a further depth of emotional range to Seasoned With Chili, creating a resonance that merges the senses and informs our perceptions of meaning. Reading and viewing this composition, one is immediately presented with striking impressions that stimulate the mind's eye. A new dynamic is brought to the reading of haikai linked verse by introducing symbolic photography as a means to further propel the "renku wave".

A group loyalty is revealed in the construction of the piece. By prior agreement, the initial focus is on the text over image. This team of authors approach their renku composition seriously, achieving a variety of implications without upsetting the unity of the entire text and its diverse subject matter. Each individual stanza remains part of a cohesive momentum where no one verse overwhelms another. Maintaining the mystery and strength of the original German composition, the progression pleases and surprises, as exemplified by the quiet introduction of the hokku/wakiku pair:

. . . someone opens
the monastery gate

to the state parlor
a scent of baked apples

Continuing this cogent motion, the daisan effectively breaks away from the opening verse, with subsequent verses supporting the jo-ha-kyu movement throughout each side of the shisan. Serving as more than mere markers, seasonal references inspire complexity, humor and wisdom in imaginative scenes. Fresh blossoms emerge as metaphors for love, thunder belies calm endurance, while the moon provides its eternal backdrop to a moment of fleeting poignancy. Modern references mingle with timeless settings that fuse notions of nature and humanity. Careful reinvention of mood and feeling is pronounced throughout the progression of the renku, familiarizing the reader with scenes from life on a grand scale while at the same time elevating the mundane, all the while evoking poetic responses at once intimate, revealing and subtle.

Within their notes, the authors describe a reliance on "loose" translations from the original German language(5). The purpose is to better enable the transference of mood and feelings that transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. The verses generate a syntax that endeavors to remain approachable and familiar, yet, either by intent or by accident; the translations provide a pattern of calm reverberations throughout, affecting the prosody of the piece while keeping the poem grounded in the present. This synchronous rhythm is at first indistinct, dispelled somewhat in the contemplation of each image's suggestiveness. With a closer reading, metrical cohesion becomes more evident between each successive verse, allowing the progression of the poem to build to an uplifting conclusion.

Verse topics segue from place, to person, to landscape and back again, although three major geographical locations are mentioned in the space of five verses. Some might regard this as upsetting the standard renku rules of intermission, i.e., prohibitions about the use of similar words or phrases in close proximity without adequate space to lessen any impact of repetition, or as the Master Basho might have put it, "taking a step back". Basho was not one to adhere blindly to technique or rules though, nor is the mention of three specific locations a spoiling affect for me.

It could be that the imagery carries the day, retaining the poem's momentum while adding extra textural elements by allusion. Through visual association, the ingenuity of juxtaposition is enhanced, allowing an additional source of deeper meaning. A new and exciting parataxis is created, lending allusive connotations that are at once atmospherical and compelling and which intersect in a space in the reader's consciousness.

No explanations are offered for the choices of supporting imagery— why a certain photo was chosen or exactly where they were taken— although photographer Bareis credits the use of a raw digital photographic format to best display a richness of detail to each photo, all of which are un-manipulated but for the color choice in one of the photos. By using the lowest lens aperture whenever possible, Bareis brings details in each image sharply to life, creating enticements of texture and instilling a tactile, sensory experience to the reader's perception. In many instances depths of field are elongated, sometimes indistinct, suggesting purposefully mutated and dream-like illusions. These choices heighten a sense of the ephemeral to the poet's and reader's vision alike.

At times one is tempted to view the photography as a journey unto itself, yet its strength reveals a simplicity that colors the emotional impact of the written verses without overwhelming the scenes that the poets Linke and Busch so carefully present. Human figures are absent from the photographs, inviting the reader to place himself within the picture. This enhancement of conceptual dimension allows the arousal of associations of poetic juxtaposition on the reader's own terms. As a thought provoking piece of art, the addition of visual imagery enables a recontexualization of the written words and phrases to further the appreciation of a multitude of allusions held within.

But, enough of rules, jargon and literary wonkery. The important question is, "does the poem work as an example of haikai-no-renga?" With the reflections of vivid visual imagery and prose that appeal to thought and feeling, the movement of Seasoned With Chili maintains a pleasurable pace that appeals to the eye and ear as well as to the appreciation of prosody and linking technique. I would claim that the combined images and text of Seasoned With Chili insightfully creates a progression of renku wave encompassing a full array of the poets' meanings and opening the door wider to innovation in linked haikai verse.

William Sorlien, Renku Editor

1. "Dialogue with No Word," Nakamura Rieko and Anzai Toshihiro; Renga.com, September 2007.
2. "Generative Visual Renku: Poetic Multimedia Semantics with the GRIOT System," D. Fox Harrell and Kenny K. N. Chow, Hyperrhiz, Summer 2009.
3. "Kaleidoscopic Mandala," Arawana Hayashi, Yumiko Matsuoka, Allen LeVines, Shokan Tadashi Kondo Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture, November 2000.
4. "Icy Wind: a twelve tone graphic renga," by Jim Swift, Linda Papanicolaou and Carol Raisfield – first published Simply Haiku 2009, vol 7 no 3.
5. The original German version of "Seasoned With Chili" is published in Volker Friebel's monthly haiku selection at Haiku-Heute.de – http://www.haiku-heute.de/Archiv/Chili-fuers-Dinner/chili-fuers-dinner.html

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