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Renga, Haibun And Nonets

Venturing into poetry

Swimming

I’ve always been a bit scared of poetry. I used to happily write (pretty bad) stuff as a kid, but as I studied A level and then undergraduate English I got more and more intimidated by it. Poetry felt like a house I didn’t have the key for; I didn’t have the courage to knock on its door. It was a place I didn’t feel welcome, full of rules, and sideways glances, and mystery. I was much more comfortable with prose; a place that has always felt like home. I love its messiness and bagginess and length. I always joke I’d much rather write an 80,000-word novel than even try to write a sonnet. Why would I tie myself up in knots about numbers of lines and syllables when I could just get lost in the depths of a story?

Back in 2007, I got interested in the relationship between writing and place. I set up an organization called UrbanWords and under that banner I’ve explored the fascinating interplay between writing and place through residencies, projects and commissions. An early example, in Belvedere, east London, was a public art commission from Bexley Council: I was to create text pieces from local oral histories, which would be installed as way-markers from Belvedere station, through the marshes, to the river Thames. The markers were metal circles, reminiscent of the discs you find marking out walking routes or bridleways. They were small. Definitely not big enough for a short story. Definitely something that suggested the word ‘poem’.

Knowing myself out of my depth, I signed up for an Arvon poetry writing course. Very out of my comfort zone, but what a joy it was to spend a week in Devon, playing with words. I met a talented poet, became friends, and for several years we exchanged work, met for dinner and talked about line breaks and word choices. I also worked with the poet Linda France as a mentor. Linda writes for the page, and for different places, with a range of public art commissions to her name. She introduced me to renga — a Japanese, collaborative writing form, birthplace of the haiku. Renga is traditionally written by groups of people, working over the course of a day, led by a renga master to create a poem which is a collage of verses by different writers. I didn’t write a traditional renga in this way, but I used the form: three lines, two lines indented, three lines, two lines indented; and I embraced renga’s brevity, its ambition to capture single moments in the simplest and most succinct way possible. I wrote three rengas, using the oral histories collected over the course of the project. It felt like the perfect form: short and multi-voiced, each stanza standing alone but also linked to the one that came before. I hesitated to call what I had made ‘poetry’, but it is work that I am still proud of. I have used renga again and again over the years. I often run workshops for urban academics and have regularly led sessions where we walk around an area and use the renga form as a way to observe and write about our immediate experience of a place.

It was this introduction to renga that started to thaw my relationship with poetry. And as my fiction writing practice developed and solidified, and I had my first novels published, I started to see poetry as a play space, somewhere I could experiment, push myself, question language and form. Maybe it was because I was more confident in my prose writing that I was able to loosen up around poetry and see what it might offer me. My interest in place also played a role. Poetry is so much more evidently spatial than prose; there is an inescapable relationship between text and white space and the margins of the page. I have become fascinated by form: both existing forms, and forms that we might invent ourselves in relation to specific places, processes and contexts. I have learnt to see how form – all those rules I used to be frightened of – can offer a kind of freedom; how it can push my writing out of its usual grooves and ruts; how it can open new doors and spaces to explore.

Last year, I discovered the haibun, another Japanese form interspersing paragraphs of prose with haiku which aim to deepen the reader’s engagement with the prose. I find its shift of register thrilling: how I can use these short poems to throw a different light on the prose, how the two elements work in harmony, creating a rhythm to the overall piece. In 2022, I was commissioned to write something in response to a fascinating three-year artist-residency project on two housing estates in Blackpool, curated by the arts organization LeftCoast. Instead of an essay, I wrote a haibun. And then I wrote another one for my PGCert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. It is a form I know I will return to again and again.

In 2022, I was appointed as writer-in-residence at Selby Market in Yorkshire, part of the town’s Selby Stories project. I spent the summer collecting stories from residents, visitors and tradespeople at the market, and was commissioned to create a series of new pieces, inspired by these stories, to be installed throughout the town. Having collected the stories, I started looking for a form for the final pieces. I tried renga, but didn’t feel inspired by it this time around. I tried prose poetry, but again couldn’t quite make it work. And then I stumbled across the nonet. It’s a form which has nine syllables in the first line, eight in the second, seven in the third, and so on, ending in a final line of one syllable. I was sceptical at first – syllable counting is not my favourite pastime – but as soon as I started trying to write one, I was hooked. I can’t say why, other than that it was a delight to find this form to fit these stories into. I love the shape of them too, these right-angled triangles. Look:

We swam in the summer, jumped in deep.
Come winter, we danced every week
on wooden boards, stretched across
the empty pool — best dance
floor in town, music,
laughter, and
tea, after,
from the
van

I can’t wait to see how they look when we install the texts in Selby.

One of the attractions of poetry, these days, is that I don’t attach any ambition to it. I have had two poems published in journals, and was immensely excited when they were accepted, but I have no ambition to be ‘a poet’, and if I never publish another poem, I won’t mind at all. I have huge, unwieldly, possibly unreachable goals as a novelist, but not as a poet. I can come to it as a novice, as a learner, as someone interested merely in having a go. I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose, and there is real joy in that. I wonder if there are lessons here for my prose writing; if there are ways I can bring this lightness, this willingness to experiment and ‘fail’, to the writing I take more seriously, without abandoning my ambition. Because experimentation and play are how we learn and develop, and I do believe that the more pressure and expectation we place on our writing, the harder it is for us to write well. Writing can be such a slow and iterative and sometimes painful process, finding ways to make it more joyful can only be a good thing, for me as a writer and – I suspect – for my writing as well.

Sarah Butler has three novels published by Picador in the UK and with fourteen international publishers: Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (2013), Before The Fire (2015) and Jack and Bet (2020). She also runs UrbanWords, exploring the relationship between writing and place through participatory projects and residencies.

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