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'Crossing State Lines': 54 Writers, One American Poem

This year, National Poetry Month brings an ambitious collaboration: a cross-country relay race of 54 poets contributing to one poem about America. The practice is known as renga, an ancient Japanese tradition of collaborative poetry in which one poet writes his or her lines then hands it off to the next.

The resulting poem, Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, was co-curated by California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes.

Muske-Dukes tells NPR's Renee Montagne that a poetry relay race was no easy task.

Crossing State Lines: An American Renga
By Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes
Hardcover, 80 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $27

"To write 10 lines in less than two days ... doesn't sound like much," she says, "but if you're a poet, it's quite an assignment."

Muske-Dukes says the collaborative nature of the poem meant poets were in conversation with one another, reacting to what the previous one had written. So when poet Micheal Ryan of the University of California writes, "How many poets does it take to change a light bulb? ... How many poets does it take to change a country? How many presidents? How much pain?" the next poet, Brenda Hillman of California's Saint Mary's College, responds with this:

-- & a lightbulb turns
earth. Berkeley lovers in a
Thai cafe: mint, sweet

basil. Geminid showers
all this week ... Solstice, almost --

You can take money
out of the empire but you
can't take the empire --

Look. Enough of these wars. A
rabbit crouches in the moon --

For her own contribution, Muske-Dukes followed a poem by Suheir Hammad, which revolved around the theme of foreclosure.

"The line from the previous poem by Suheir Hammad is, 'Pray a house is not a home,' " Muske-Dukes says. "In response to the idea of foreclosure ... I picked up that line in mine."

Muske-Dukes' poem reads:

Pray a house is not
A home. And while you're at it,
Pray that prayer is

Not a funhouse mirror slid
Between terror and God's face.

Time to make something
From nothing — garden, star chart,
Beehive, birdhouse, abacus

To add up what remains when
What we thought was wealth is gone.

And so it goes throughout the American renga: Poets touch down, zigzag and take two steps forward then one step back. But every one of them takes up the challenge poet Robert Pinksy lays out in the first lines:

Beginning of October, maples
kindle in the East, linked
to fire season in the West by what?

For some, the answer is in nature, bird song and ascendant notes. Others speak of love and every love driving toward a more perfect union.

And still others speak of war. A poem by Edward Ledford, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, appears toward the end of the renga. Ledford experienced the Sept. 11 attack at the Pentagon and tells Montagne what he found in the building's ruins.

"Right where the Pentagon had sheared off, on about the third floor, is a dictionary on a pedestal still open and apparently untouched," Ledford says. "And I always thought that had a lot of symbolism."

Ledford's poem reads:

Pathogens injected Trojan-horse-style; temple walls crumble
before a small
lexicon, altared and stable, unsullied, too briefly a miracle. Our

neo-tragedy was their crazy carte blanche.
You'd think they'd have read their Homer. But, like

slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to
applause, which muted, a-hem, throats cleared for political
posterity.

Soldiers are nothing more than pharmakon charged with the
damned's duty,
enlisted to oaths that only finally matter when we wish they
didn't. The

soldier-philosopher turns the gun on himself to salvage some
meaning.
A smirk and crooked smile, Heh heh heh, sure showd em, didn
we, Dead-eye.

"It's so dark, that poem, it's remarkable," Robert Hass, who wrote the renga's ending, says of Ledford's contribution.

Hass is a former U.S. poet laureate, and his poem reacts to Ledford's words while giving a nod to Pinsky's opening — he was writing in April, six months after the project's October start.

"I didn't know I was coming at the end," Hass says, "but I [knew] that Robert [Pinksy's] poem had maples in it, falling, and the Buddhist phrase that's used to describe the renga ... is, 'Swirling petals, falling leaves. The autumn is the same thing as spring. The seasons keep changing.' So Robert's autumn gave me the spring, which it was when I was writing these lines."

Hass' poem, and the renga's closing, reads:

Oh well along the coast in greeny April
Forgiveness is the blue sheen
Of lupine on a windy hillside,

The grasses stating their case for
and against "the continent's violent requiem."

The year turning as a renga turns
Toward its source, rivery, many-voiced,,
But what source, really, in the turning?

So the hikers who have walked to the cliff's edge
Unpack their lunches and stare at the Pacific.

With lines like "the continent's violent requiem," there's no denying that the poems of the renga are charged with a kind of violence.

"It's so hard to know how to think about American violence," Hass says. "Because we're at war, that violence runs through this poem. It was on every poet's mind."

So Hass approached that question by considering both the good and the bad of American history. The answer, he found, was forgiveness.

"The earth forgives the previous year every year," Hass says.

And so, too, does this American renga.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This April, National Poetry Month brings an ambitious collaboration, 54 poets writing an American renga. A renga is an ancient Japanese tradition where poet hands off to another; a kind of poetic relay race.

Here's poet Carol Muske-Dukes who is one of the editors of the book that emerged called "Crossing State Lines."

Ms. CAROL MUSKE-DUKES (Poet Laureate, California): We called on the folks to do almost the impossible, which is to write 10 lines in less than two days. Ten lines doesn't sound like much, but if you're poet...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: ...it's quite an assignment. And one other aspect of the renga is that it's a conversation poem. So the poets were in conversation with each other. In a line that Michael Ryan, for example, of making a riff on the joke: How many poets does it take to change a light bulb. And it ends with how many poets does it take to change a country, how many presidents, how much pain.

The wonderful poet Brenda Hillman picks up on that with: And the light bulb turns earth, Berkeley lovers in the Thai cafe: mint, sweet basil, Geminid showers all this week, solstice, almost. You can take money out of the empire but you can't take the empire - look, enough of these wars. A rabbit crouches in the Moon.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Well, to hear more of this grand American renga, we brought in two other poets who contributed lines: former poet Laureate Robert Haas and Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford.

And welcome to all of you.

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Thank you.

Lieutenant Colonel EDWARD LEDFORD (U.S. Army): Hello.

Professor ROBERT HAAS (Former U.S. Poet Laureate): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: So we have you all collected, but let me start by turning to Carol Muske-Dukes. So why don't you read us your poem. And the key thought in the previous poem was foreclosure. Although, read the line in the previous poem that speaks of foreclosure.

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: The line from the previous poem by Suheir Hammad is: Pray a house is not a home - in response to the idea of foreclosure. And so I picked up that line in mine.

(Reading) Pray a house is not a home. And while you're at it, pray that prayer is not a funhouse mirror slid between terror and God's face. Time to make something from nothing - garden, star chart, beehive, birdhouse, abacus to add up what remains when what we thought was wealth is gone.

MONTAGNE: And that is how it goes throughout this American renga. The poets touch down, zigzag, take two steps forward and one back, each taking up the challenge poet Robert Pinsky poses in these first lines...

(Reading) Beginning of October, maples kindle in the East, linked to fire season in the West by what?

For some, it is nature; birdsong, ascendant notes. Others speak of love. Every love is the drive toward a more perfect union. Still others speak of war.

Ed Ledford brings this long column nearly to its close. He served in war as an Army officer. For him, that cross continental connection is a moment of violence were only words survive.

Ed Ledford, you're a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Where did you look for inspiration?

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: I have actually been at the Pentagon when the plane hit, so this has been something that I've thought about a lot. Right where the Pentagon had sheared off, on about the third floor, is a dictionary on a pedestal still open and apparently untouched. And I always thought that have a lot of symbolism.

MONTAGNE: Read your poem for us, please.

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: Okay.

(Reading) Pathogens injected Trojan-horse-style; temple walls crumble before a small lexicon, altered and stable, unsullied, too briefly a miracle. Our neo-tragedy was their crazy carte blanche. You'd think they'd have read their Homer. But like slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to applause, which muted, a-hem, throats cleared for political posterity. Soldiers are nothing more than pharmakon, charged with the damned's duty, enlisted to oaths that only finally matter when we wish they didn't. The soldier-philosopher turns the gun on himself to salvage some meaning. A smirk and crooked smile...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: (Reading) ...sure showed 'em, didn't we, Dead-eye?

Prof. HAAS: That's so dark, that poem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAAS: It's remarkable.

MONTAGNE: Bob Haas, you did end the renga which began in October, the fall. You ended in April. What did you pick out in that poem of Ed Ledford's that you going to draw through as a thread?

Prof. HAAS: One of the things that Ed's poem reminded me of was that this is a poem written in wartime. I didn't know I was coming at the end but I knew that Robert's poem had maples in it, falling.

MONTAGNE: And that would be Robert Pinsky.

Prof. HAAS: And the Buddhist phrase is used to describe the renga is one word all mushed together that is: swirling petals, falling leaves; that autumn is the same thing as spring. The seasons keep changing.

So Robert's autumn gave me the spring which it was when I was writing these lines.

(Reading) Oh, well, along the coast in greeny April forgiveness is the blue sheen of lupine on a windy hillside. The grasses stating their case for and against the continent's violent requiem. The year turning as a renga turns toward its source, rivery, many-voiced. But what source, really, in the turning? So the hikers who have walked to the cliff's edge unpack their lunches and gaze at the Pacific.

MONTAGNE: In the end, there is a forgiveness.

Prof. HAAS: The earth forgives the previous year, every year. On the other hand, the other phrase I picked up is from another poem that is the grasses stating their case for and against the continent's violent requiem. It's so hard to know how to think about American violence. And because we're at war, that violence was, I admit, you know, runs through this poem. It was on every poet's mind. And partly it's been the job of American poets - I mean I think Herman Melville said the job of American artists would say no in thunder.

So thinking about how, you know, how we walk this Earth with all the great things in its history and all the vile and terrible things in its history, is where we've come to always, in thinking about this country.

MONTAGNE: Robert Haas is a former U.S. poet laureate. Carol Muske-Dukes is the current poet laureate of California. And Ed Ledford is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. They're among the 54 poets who contributed to "Crossing State Lines: An American Renga."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Steve Inskeep will be back on Monday. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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