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The Interview

John Thompson photo.jpeg

John Thompson

An Award-winning Rengay poet

Neena Singh, Guest Editor, The Wise Owl talks to rengay poet John Thompson.  John collaborated on the first published chapbook of rengay, Hammerhorn Lake, with Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch in 1995. In 2008 John published another rengay book, The Unlocked Gate with Garry Gay. Although John has had many rengay published, publication is not the major reason he writes rengay.  Over the past three decades John has written hundreds of rengay with haiku writers around the globe.  John is most grateful for the poetic dialogues and relationships that naturally arose from rengay’s collaborative writing process.  

The Interview : John Thompson

Neena Singh, Guest Editor, The Wise Owl talks to rengay poet John Thompson.  John collaborated on the first published chapbook of rengay, Hammerhorn Lake, with Garry Gay and Michael Dylan Welch in 1995. In 2008 John published another rengay book, The Unlocked Gate with Garry Gay. Although John has had many rengay published, publication is not the major reason he writes rengay.  Over the past three decades John has written hundreds of rengay with haiku writers around the globe.  John is most grateful for the poetic dialogues and relationships that naturally arose from rengay’s collaborative writing process.  

 

Thank you John for taking time to talk to The Wise Owl.

 

NS: For the benefit of our readers, please tell us how you discovered rengay poetry and what drew you to it as a form of expression?

 

JT: Garry Gay, the inventor of the rengay form, is a friend of mine. He and I are both haiku poets interested in the linking verse origins of haiku. In 1992, when Garry showed me the simple form of themed linking verse he had come up with (and had playfully named “rengay”) I was immediately impressed with its potential to generate haiku. Soon Garry and I began writing rengay together and thirty plus years later we are still learning and getting ever more excited about the potential of collaborative writing.

 

NS: You are a prolific rengay poet. What do you find most challenging about writing rengay, and how do you overcome those challenges?

 

JT: Rengay is themed-based collaborative verse.  However, I prefer to discover its theme during the writing of the rengay rather than writing to a preset theme. This preference can confuse some writing partners and make the rengay unfocused and sometimes unsuccessful. However it can also result in more interesting and interwoven themes.  The act of writing a rengay (establishing a thematic poetic dialogue with my writing partners) is always a satisfying and transformative process for me.

 

Haiku (and rengay) makes the ordinary appear extraordinary and the extraordinary seem the ordinary state of affairs in this topsy turvy everyday-is-a-miracle-and-drudgery wonder-filled world we cohabitate with hummingbirds, ants and whales.  I strongly feel the process of creating haiku/rengay poetry is much more important than whether or how the product is validated by being published. Just as most gardeners rarely worry about whether they can sell their backyard tomatoes or roses, I enjoy creating haiku and rengay and sharing them with others for the sheer joy of doing it. Gardening and poetry both quantumly improve the quality of my life. So I don’t worry too much about how quantifiably marketable my poems or raspberries are…both activities provide unique beauties and experiences which more than compensate me for my efforts to nurture them.

NS: Our readers would be eager to learn about your creative process when crafting a rengay poem. How do you typically start, and how do you know when a poem is finished?

 

JT: I start by writing and reading lots of haiku.  I hunt haiku during hikes in Nature but also on the bus on the way to the city and in the frozen veggie section of the grocery store on my way home.  I fill notebooks full of many, many bad haiku but occasionally by mere chance or constant rewriting or fractal iteration, a good verse pops up containing a milligram or two of poetic resonance, or wit, or deep and varied meanings, insight, grace, chocolate for the soul and just the right amount of syllables.  I save these outliers to offer to my writing partners as starter verses for our rengay.  After we write the first few verses, the once murky theme(s) show themselves.  After we write the next few verses we are finished already.  I tend to discuss verses much more than other haiku poets, sometimes expounding extensively on why I like or don’t like where we are going in our creative ramblings.  I always try to accentuate the positive during these poetic odysseys with my fellow rengaynauts.

 

Writing poetry can often be a solitary affair, but rengay is definitely social.  The idea of “solo rengay” seems oxymoronic to me.  It can be a very fine haiku sequence, but if it lacks the collaborative and social aspect of rengay, it does not fit my definition of a rengay. 

 

In canoeing, the person who steers the canoe sits in the back. In rengay the first writer (poet A) steers the rengay for the first half of the poem, writing 6 of the 8 lines. Then the poets/canoers switch places and Poet B steers the rengay, writing 6 of the last 8 lines.  I like this arrangement very much.

 

Each verse of the rengay is “finished” when it is accepted by the writing partner, however we often go back and edit previous verses during the course of writing the rengay. The whole rengay is finished when all six verses and a title are agreed upon.  I love the fact that rengay writers get to title their poems, especially since stand-alone haiku are rarely titled. Some rengay I never stop tinkering with, even years after they were supposedly finished. 

 

NS: What themes or subjects do you often explore in your rengay poetry, and why are they significant to you?

 

JT: Sometimes I will try to write in the moment, taking cues from the environment we are walking through, but more often I use poems from my notebook that I hope will kindle a good rengay.  No subject is off limits for haiku or rengay in my opinion.  Whenever possible I like to use multiple themes in a rengay, but beginning rengay writers might want to start with just one theme and work toward multi-themed rengay after gaining experience with the form. 

 

Sometimes rengay writers try to pair resonant concepts with specific objects. For example a recently completed rengay explored the interwoven themes of “deep time” and “rock formations” (The starter verse is “low tide / the chert seacliff / shows its ages.” The final verse is “silent witnesses / to the dance of millennia/ sandstone fossils”. ) I like it when the sixth verse subtly links back to the first verse; this technique imbibes the rengay with a circular, as well as a linear, progression.

 

NS: Rengay is often a collaborative form of poetry. Could you discuss your experiences collaborating with other poets? How do you navigate creative differences and ensure harmony in the final piece?

 

JT: The writer of any particular verse has the final say on that verse.  I will usually try to change my verse if someone points out a legitimate weakness in it, but I will also defend my verse as well. Almost always the poetry ends up being improved in this back and forth process, which I earlier referred to as poetic dialogue.  I actually wish my writing partners would challenge my verses more often so we could have more discussions about them and I could improve them. On the other hand, some of the best rengay I’ve started have never been finished because our standards have been set too high. So I guess moderation in all things applies here; also maintaining a focus on the positive aspects of each offered link and respecting the people you write with.  Rengay is not a competition but a collaboration. Harmony is maintained by our shared goal and mutual respect.

 

NS: How do you see rengay evolving as a poetic form in the contemporary literary landscape? Are there any emerging trends or innovations you find particularly exciting?

 

JT: More people are writing rengay every year.  I think AI could play a role in encouraging even more people to write more rengay.  Personally I have found ChatGPT’s commentary to be very lucid and useful as an editing tool for my haiku and rengay.  AI may not yet write great haiku, but it can give you great ideas.  For example ChatGPT gave me the phrase “urban pulse” which I used in the verse “underpass fireflies / within the urban pulse / some dreams still aglow”. In a similar way, my rengay writing partners often spark a poem in me with one of their poems, which puts me in a poetic place that I probably could not have gotten to on my own.  I deeply appreciate that unique aspect of rengay.

 

NS: Please share some advice for aspiring rengay poets who are just starting to explore this form? What tips would you offer them for honing their craft?

 

JT: Good haiku make good rengay. So write lots and lots of haiku. Sometimes I like to describe rengay as a six-pack of haiku. The rengay’s theme can be thought of as the little plastic thingy that holds the six-pack together. But whatever the theme, the synergy bond between the collaborating writers, the mashup of connections made inside hearts and souls and minds, linking and leaping together, resonating with poetic power, well I am not sure what that spark is I am trying to describe, but it’s certainly not just a little plastic thingy, you know…it’s the enduring bond of deepening friendship and genuine appreciation for each other’s point of view.

 

NS: What makes a successful rengay poem? Are there any key elements or techniques that are crucial for creating a compelling piece?

 

JT:. There are many different kinds of rengay. Some fearlessly explore difficult themes of the head and heart that lie beyond the scope of rational understanding. Others just aim to evoke the jewel-like multifaceted nature of even the most commonplace things.  Whether a rengay teaches you something profound or just makes you feel good about participating in a poetic conversation, I believe all rengay are worthwhile and successful. The most compelling rengay reveals to me things I already know but with a playful twist and depth that satisfies deeply and completely while also awakening my hunger to know and experience and express myself poetically more often.

 

NS: Finally, could you tell us about any upcoming projects or publications you're working on? What can readers look forward to from you in the near future?

 

JT:  I write rengay with several people regularly now, but I am always interested in teaching others to write rengay so I can learn from them too. If any of your readers are interested in writing a rengay, they are welcome to contact me at thompcount@sbcglobal.net.  I would like to thank you for interviewing me and your readers for their interest in rengay.  Cheers and happy writing!

 

Thank you John for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and look forward to your innovations and experiments with the rengay genre.

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