Big in Japan

Renga Project comes to poetic close

There are plenty of things in the world where "the more the merrier" just doesn't apply: bridge games, budget weddings and flying coach are just a few that jump to mind. But when it comes to community art projects with ambitious reach, there's really no downside to bringing on more people.

Santa Fe's Axle Contemporary goes collaborative and presents a new take on an ancient Japanese tradition with the Renga Project. Renga is a form of poetry where the writers switch off every stanza, taking inspiration from what was written before and continuing the story, with stanzas alternating through the haiku form of five-seven-five syllables, and the waki form of seven-seven. This particular renga is impressive in scope, with 52 contributing New Mexico poets.

Santa Fe's Poet Laureate Jon Davis, who wrote the piece's first verse, selected half of the participants, who then went on to each choose a successor to follow their stanza. The project has been a year in the making and culminates on the summer solstice. A large sign on display at the Railyard has been the home to this constantly shifting story that changes with the seasons. Each week, they remove the oldest of the six removable panels and add the most recent, effectively "scrolling" through the poem over the course of the year.

The sign was made by local woodworker Paul Baglione, who volunteered his time to build the structure, making use of only recycled materials. "I designed with what we had," he says, explaining that every piece of the sign except the poetry itself was leftover from a house-building project.

The sign has been the backdrop for what Axle co-owner Matthew Chase-Daniel described as "the shortest poetry reading ever" as the poet will often come to read their stanza at the changing of the panels. The whole thing, he explains, takes about 20 seconds, making it quite possibly the most time-efficient way to soak up some culture in town.

Because the pieces are seasonally oriented, poets had to carefully consider the effect of the surrounding environment on their particular part of the project.

Contributing poet Elizabeth Jacobson describes the process as an act of "real imagination."

"My piece was up in November," she says, "so when I wrote it in May, I had to really put myself further in time to write…I wanted to capture the hollow feeling of fall."

Nature has also contributed to the project in more unexpected ways. Any outdoor installation is bound to experience some turbulence, but rarely does that generate the kind of enthusiasm with which Axle met the windstorm earlier this spring. The mobile gallery's co-owner Jerry Wellman recounts, laughing, that the strong winds blew the stanzas "all caddywhompus." He calls the problem "fitting," given that "Renga is very much about nature, so in a lovely way, the spring winds participated."

The visual aspects of the project were not left solely to the elements. Axle also brought 52 local visual artists together to illustrate each stanza in a variety of styles. Neo-primitive artist Joel Nakamura, whose piece depicts a raven woven out of thorns, says he "can't wait" to see the finished book of illustrations and stanzas.

An impressive assemblage of creative minds will be on hand on June 20, when the project comes full circle.

"It's such a neat idea, and I haven't really seen the full scope of it yet," Nakamura enthuses.

Friday, June 20 The Renga Project: One Year, 100 Artists 5-7 pm >> free >> The Railyard

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