WHISK, a collaboration in the Japanese renga tradition, by Yoko’s Dogs
COVER IMAGE Winter Twister (2006), by Will Gill, photo by John Haney
Written collaboratively, the poems of Whisk play with language in all kinds of weather as they nod to traditions of Japanese linked poetry. From the everyday to the intensely lyric, moving through urban and rural landscapes, the images and surprising leaps — potatoes in a cardboard box, starlight, cows in monsoon-soaked trees — move readers as readily to laughter as into contemplation.
Traditionally, renku or linked verse was composed under the guidance of an esteemed poet like Basho, during an evening of festivity with plenty of food and drink; longer sessions might include outings to natural or sacred places. Verses are linked by objects, word play, moods, and other means that are neither merely logical nor predictable, and the emerging poem is more journey than story. In Whisk, a burlap-wrapped shrub leads to a cat with a dead mouse at a dinner party, which leads to a man smoking alone in a car. The Doggies happily uphold the festive tradition of the renku party, but are completely collaborative, editing and revising together.
In Yoko’s Dogs’ practice, traditional Japanese images take on a distinctly Canadian and contemporary cast. The poets write of snow, ice and slush; wolf or buffalo moons; highways and logging trucks; bear scat and batteries; bus queues and dog runs; skunks in the garden and squirrels running off with baguettes from the trash. Whisk evolved over five years. Though rooted in Canada and the northeastern US, it spans several continents, touching down lightly in Brazil, India, Greece and Italy, even as it returns to the constancies of home and our place in the world.
Yoko’s Dogs was formed in 2006 around a small tin table at La Maison Verte, a co-op grocery and café in Montreal, when poets Susan Gillis, Mary di Michele, Jan Conn and Jane Munro decided to engage in writing Japanese-style linked verse as a way of expanding their individual practice and exploring new forms. Over the first few months, they wrote and revised and wrote some more, read and studied and discussed the traditions, all via email. They quickly settled on a system of composition, and decided that for readers the mechanics of this system should disappear, as the forms for molded concrete are knocked away after the concrete object is set. The result is this book’s standard four-verse poem, occasionally expanded into longer sequences.
In 2008, all four poets met for a three-day renku party in rural Ontario. Here the Doggies composed their first site-specific sequence and substantially revised earlier work. At this meeting too they found their name, in one of their earliest and most haunting images, “Yoko’s house is dark, her dogs/tied in front too cold to bark.” Since then they have continued to work from distant places, meeting once a year to compose and revise.
Meanwhile, each of the Doggies remains actively engaged in her own work. Susan Gillis teaches literature and creative writing in Montreal; her most recent books are The Rapids (Brick, 2012) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Mary di Michele, poet and novelist, teaches at Concordia University. Her latest poetry collection is The Flower of Youth, Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems. Jan Conn is a research scientist in Albany, New York, and her latest book of poems is Edge Effects (Brick Books, 2012). Jane Munro lives in Vancouver; her most recent poetry book is Active Pass (Pedlar Press, 2010).
In keeping with tradition, which they happily and radically break in order to invent anew, the Doggies’ practice is rigorous, exacting, challenging and exuberant. Wherever they are, when they are writing together, laughter rises and poems occur.
ISBN 978.1.897141.54.0 | $20