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An Introduction to the New Junicho

Ashley Capes

Perhaps it is cheeky to claim this form of Junicho as wholly 'new.' As I have suggested in the short preamble at the renku site 'Issa's Snail' (where the first two 'New Junicho' were composed) it actually utilises the ushin renga tradition via a focus on allusion. Along with that familiar feature of collaborative verse, the New Junicho retains other core elements that allow the reader to identify a renku; chain linkage, the dynamics of link and shift, the verse positions hokku, waki, daisan and ageku – all are retained, as are more obvious elements like multiple authors and the total of twelve verses common to a Junicho – which is perhaps most ideal for a renku that has so much focus on the human intellect.

While it is a chief hope that this form doesn't fall into a realm of cleverness for its own sake (via increasingly obscure and tenuous allusive links) it would be wonderful to see the element of 'play' given some extra room. Perhaps in part due to the power of the Zen tradition found in Western interpretations of Eastern forms, Renku can be serious stuff. On top of which, it's jam-packed with rules and guides (which have their uses of course) so it's refreshing to think and hope that the 'New Junicho' can incorporate some irreverence, some lightness of tenor.

Now, exactly where this new form seeks to adapt and innovate is by 1) allowing Cultural allusion verses to take the place of the seasons as the key substructure to the renku and 2) resurrecting some topics from the medieval renga and adding new but related topics) and 3) adding Gendai and Shasei categories to the structure.

By combining these approaches, the New Junicho operates within the broader concepts of both renga and renku, but allows room for incorporating modern life as it develops, along with a vast potential for politicisation, abstraction and allusion. In fact, it does more than 'allow' for these things, it requires them. The following categories and topical allotments of a New Junicho demonstrate this:

6x Cultural [Topics: literature, politics, art, music, religion, film]
4x Shasei
2x Gendai

with a fairly conservative potential schema appearing in a form such as:

1 - hokku / shasei
2 - waki / cultural (lit)
3 - daisan / cultural (film)
4 - verse / shasei
5 - verse / shasei
6 - verse / cultural (art)
7 - verse / cultural (rel)
8 - verse / gendai
9 - verse / gendai
10 - verse / cultural (pol)
11 - verse / cultural (mus)
12 - ageku / shasei

Of course, ideals of variety and change are vital to moving a renku forward and so it should be clear why the topics in the cultural verses appear only once here, as they should perhaps do so in other more adventurous schema. So too should the reason why the category of Shasei and Gendai be included in a New Junicho. Even with only twelve verses, it would not do well to bury the reader in Intertextuality. Some respite is needed, and thus there must be room for Shasei verses and their immediacy. Gendai allows us to innovate further, experiment with form and other aspects of composition and presentation, but also to feature subject matter that may not be addressed by the existing Cultural Topics.

But the New Junicho should not be seen as 'turning away from the past.' It has traditional elements in its design. It doesn't simply try and leap from nothing, but is instead looking forward from a firm foundation. It is a hybrid form, because it incorporates changes and seeks to remain flexible and inclusive, something I believe is necessary in order for innovation and development to occur. These two ideas are certainly not the only criteria for development, but they are important. And despite the New Junicho removing the seasons from their key role, there is still room to incorporate them (perhaps only once each however) into any of the categories.

We want no art form to stagnate, especially not one as vivid as renku, and so in a way, this form of collaborative verse seeks to move as language moves. For instance, in regards to the category of Culture, could not any one of the Topics be swapped for something like 'Technology?' Or 'Science?' As the cultures of our writers develop, and new spheres become more important to a society, so new topics could take places of honour alongside Film and Art (for instance.) Equally important would be the notion that as new practises and techniques in language are developed, Gendai or 'modern' verses are present to accommodate this.

After completing a pair of New Junicho at Issa's Snail, our discussions touched on many issues, but perhaps most important was the idea of Cultural Literacy. A potential problem spawning from the focus on allusion was that the cultural literacy of readers will vary – especially across cultures and time zones. Even with the internet and its explanations at hand, it is not ideal to flip from poem to search engine each time you encounter an unfamiliar referent. This is something we were aware of when editing the first New Junicho and it served as a reminder that Renku, like all language, should serve the needs of communication rather than obfuscation.

Since those first two poems were written in mid-2011, several more have been launched and completed in various online spaces. Having been participant, leader or at least observer in the majority of them, it's been fascinating to watch the form develop. I've noted a tendency for sabaki to run them degachi, perhaps instinctively, or perhaps taking their lead from the first two 'New' Junicho. Either way, I think this is very important to note. I don't believe it would be impossible to run a 'New Junicho' by turns, but I believe that, at least while the form is in its infancy, the competitive mode remains highly beneficial, both to reader and poet.

Why should this be so? For a reader, you should be comfortable believing that the sabaki had a wealth of highly desirable verses to choose from, resulting in the best poem the group could produce – which can be true of all renku of course.

But for the writer, on one hand going competitive can take the pressure off, but it also allows 'hidden' talents to emerge. Our experience of the seasons may be somewhat universal. Renku poets will have a smaller degree of variation in their experience of summer or winter, than they may with topics and concepts like politics, religion, art or technology – so too one poet's idea of exactly what it means to 'mould break' with gendai. This is not to say that you cannot innovate with the seasons, only that new opportunities arise with these topics.

Furthermore, working in a competitive state allows everyone to simultaneously practice writing all categories of verses for the entire duration of the poem. This is useful for any renku, but extremely useful a new form. It also avoids a kind of 'typecasting' whereby sabaki, especially those who've worked with the same participants many times, may (not unfairly) rely on or throw a certain verse position to any given poet, because in the past, that poet always delivered the goods on this or that version position.

I'd like to wrap up my introduction with a question that I've been asked several times by several people, which is: "As a poet, what is my responsibility to an art form? Am I expected to conserve it or depart from it?" I've yet to come up with answer that's to my own satisfaction, though I obviously lean toward the departure side of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, it's a question I'd like people to bring with them when they encounter this new form of Junicho.


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