Illustration by Dali Dunn.
“Just like fish, the ideas submerge and then reappear again later on down-stream”
I sit down with the wonderful Osian Williams to talk about his new collaborative poetry project ‘Rhizome Renga’. Born from a wish to replicate Oxford writing group community spaces like the one set up by SOTA, ‘Rhizome Renga’ takes the ancient Japanese collaborative verse form and translates it to something digital, where haikus are used to forge bonds between contributors as they remain separated by Covid necessity. On its surface level, the idea is simple. Osian wrote a haiku back in June, three of his friends responded. Three of each of their friends responded, and so on, and so forth. Osian tells me the project is now on it’s 10th wave and I pause in an attempt to work out how many that is, only to realise life is too short, or that my maths skills aren’t up to it.
Osian bristles with excitement for the formal qualities of the project and what they represent:
“So renga is an early form of Japanese poetry and haiku is derived from it. Renga was a collaborative verse form. Between two and a dozen people would be involved and write between 50 and 100 verses. One person would write a haiku and then the next person would write the next two 7 syllables lines as an answer, together making up a total of five-line verse called renga. With this project, people just answer haikus with haikus, so a kind of hybrid form.”
Looking worried, he stresses that he certainly isn’t implying the need for innovation on the verse form.
“Haiku has always appealed to me as a beautiful way to convey a thought or idea. It’s easy to write, though not necessarily well! It’s easy to read and there’s no compromise on quality. It’s a very old form of verse that has proved itself. It’s ideal really. And it means it’s clear I’m not asking people to write an epic.”
Originally Osian tells me, like so many creative projects conceived of in the last few months, ‘Rhizome Renga’ was about filling in something that lockdown had snatched away, a feeling of writing community. As an active member of SOTA, he tells me about the excitement of sharing work and ideas, something very much reflected in the spider diagram of poetry I scroll through.
“The main important aspect is that each haiku elicits 3 more haikus and I wanted those links to be meaningful, I wanted people to know the person they were responding to. For a lot more people to get involved, which is what I want, I’m okay with the idea of forfeiting the extent of these inter-personal links. What I would like to do is to create a website where you see a haiku and you respond, maybe there you’d note down what university you go to so you can see that the clumps from Oxford, Liverpool etc when you looked at the picture as a whole. I still want that connection to be there but maybe on a different level if it’s growing fast.”
As I look back at the poetry diagram, what I start seeing is a map of personal connections; it animates with life. In an online world that seems of late so sterile of emotional and creative connectivity, I can’t help but feel excited.
“One thing about traditional Renga is the ‘disjunctive linking’. That means that the first two haikus need to link but that the third can’t link to the first. That’s not the case here. It’s interesting to see how themes are picked up on and left and then unexpectedly re-emerge. A lot of them seem to be watery, quite watery.
Pete Miller, one of the first contributors, wrote about ‘light shimmering like mackerel scales’ and this idea of fish down a stream has been picked up on by quite a few people but separated from each other by some distance. I don’t know what it is that is driving people to do that, but I think it’s really interesting. Just like fish, the ideas submerge and then reappear again later on down-stream.”
We move on to taking about his own role, dubbed (by him) as ‘System Operator’, and how the curation of the project works.
“I see it all but don’t meddle. The only thing I really change is the formatting! I’m basically there to connect the dots, but let the dots be squares if they want to. The real treat doing this project is that I’m receiving haikus on an almost daily basis and they are all superb, they’re all amazing! There are so many amazing writers in Oxford and it’s amazing just to shed light on their talent really!”
The project isn’t just built on enthusiasm though, but is inflected by the reading Osian has been doing of Deleuze and Guattari from which he derives his de-interventionalist approach to editing the project, and more broadly the decentred rhizomic configuration. From this lens of critical theory, the project gives equal weight and footing to all its contributors, forming a tessalated pattern of creativity, inspiration and connection. He quotes to me:
“To attribute the book to its subject is to overlook the workings of matters and the exteriority of their relations… A book is an assemblage and as such is un-attributable, it is a multiplicity but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails”
He smiles ruefully, toying with a very dashing beaded glasses holder he has on (courtesy of his little sister), telling me he’s sure he’s not doing the book justice.
“That’s really what the Rhizome Renga is though, a collaboration in its purest form, or its most impure form, I’m not sure which, where there is no centre, it’s not binary.”
If you, as I certainly now do, want to get involved and contribute a haiku, message Osian on Facebook or through the Instagram page here. “Try not to put too much ego into it, I wouldn’t bother agonising over it.”
For more about SOTA, read an interview with them here.