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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.
"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
Soldiers are nothing more than pharmakon charged with the
enlisted to oaths that only finally matter when we wish they
soldier-philosopher turns the gun on himself to salvage some
A smirk and crooked smile, Heh heh heh, sure showd em, didn
"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.