'Crossing State Lines': 54 Writers, One American Poem This year, National Poetry Month brings an ambitious collaboration: a cross-country relay race of 54 poets contributing to one piece of American poetry. The practice is known as renga, an ancient Japanese tradition of collaborative poetry, and Crossing State Lines is its American manifestation.

'Crossing State Lines': 54 Writers, One American Poem

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This April, National Poetry Month brings an ambitious collaboration, 54 poets writing an American renga. A renga is an ancient Japanese tradition where poet hands off to another; a kind of poetic relay race.

Here's poet Carol Muske-Dukes who is one of the editors of the book that emerged called "Crossing State Lines."

Ms. CAROL MUSKE-DUKES (Poet Laureate, California): We called on the folks to do almost the impossible, which is to write 10 lines in less than two days. Ten lines doesn't sound like much, but if you're poet...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: ...it's quite an assignment. And one other aspect of the renga is that it's a conversation poem. So the poets were in conversation with each other. In a line that Michael Ryan, for example, of making a riff on the joke: How many poets does it take to change a light bulb. And it ends with how many poets does it take to change a country, how many presidents, how much pain.

The wonderful poet Brenda Hillman picks up on that with: And the light bulb turns earth, Berkeley lovers in the Thai cafe: mint, sweet basil, Geminid showers all this week, solstice, almost. You can take money out of the empire but you can't take the empire - look, enough of these wars. A rabbit crouches in the Moon.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Well, to hear more of this grand American renga, we brought in two other poets who contributed lines: former poet Laureate Robert Haas and Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford.

And welcome to all of you.

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Thank you.

Lieutenant Colonel EDWARD LEDFORD (U.S. Army): Hello.

Professor ROBERT HAAS (Former U.S. Poet Laureate): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: So we have you all collected, but let me start by turning to Carol Muske-Dukes. So why don't you read us your poem. And the key thought in the previous poem was foreclosure. Although, read the line in the previous poem that speaks of foreclosure.

Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: The line from the previous poem by Suheir Hammad is: Pray a house is not a home - in response to the idea of foreclosure. And so I picked up that line in mine.

(Reading) Pray a house is not a home. And while you're at it, pray that prayer is not a funhouse mirror slid between terror and God's face. Time to make something from nothing - garden, star chart, beehive, birdhouse, abacus to add up what remains when what we thought was wealth is gone.

MONTAGNE: And that is how it goes throughout this American renga. The poets touch down, zigzag, take two steps forward and one back, each taking up the challenge poet Robert Pinsky poses in these first lines...

(Reading) Beginning of October, maples kindle in the East, linked to fire season in the West by what?

For some, it is nature; birdsong, ascendant notes. Others speak of love. Every love is the drive toward a more perfect union. Still others speak of war.

Ed Ledford brings this long column nearly to its close. He served in war as an Army officer. For him, that cross continental connection is a moment of violence were only words survive.

Ed Ledford, you're a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Where did you look for inspiration?

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: I have actually been at the Pentagon when the plane hit, so this has been something that I've thought about a lot. Right where the Pentagon had sheared off, on about the third floor, is a dictionary on a pedestal still open and apparently untouched. And I always thought that have a lot of symbolism.

MONTAGNE: Read your poem for us, please.

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: Okay.

(Reading) Pathogens injected Trojan-horse-style; temple walls crumble before a small lexicon, altered and stable, unsullied, too briefly a miracle. Our neo-tragedy was their crazy carte blanche. You'd think they'd have read their Homer. But like slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to applause, which muted, a-hem, throats cleared for political posterity. Soldiers are nothing more than pharmakon, charged with the damned's duty, enlisted to oaths that only finally matter when we wish they didn't. The soldier-philosopher turns the gun on himself to salvage some meaning. A smirk and crooked smile...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lt. Col. LEDFORD: (Reading) ...sure showed 'em, didn't we, Dead-eye?

Prof. HAAS: That's so dark, that poem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAAS: It's remarkable.

MONTAGNE: Bob Haas, you did end the renga which began in October, the fall. You ended in April. What did you pick out in that poem of Ed Ledford's that you going to draw through as a thread?

Prof. HAAS: One of the things that Ed's poem reminded me of was that this is a poem written in wartime. I didn't know I was coming at the end but I knew that Robert's poem had maples in it, falling.

MONTAGNE: And that would be Robert Pinsky.

Prof. HAAS: And the Buddhist phrase is used to describe the renga is one word all mushed together that is: swirling petals, falling leaves; that autumn is the same thing as spring. The seasons keep changing.

So Robert's autumn gave me the spring which it was when I was writing these lines.

(Reading) Oh, well, along the coast in greeny April forgiveness is the blue sheen of lupine on a windy hillside. The grasses stating their case for and against the continent's violent requiem. The year turning as a renga turns toward its source, rivery, many-voiced. But what source, really, in the turning? So the hikers who have walked to the cliff's edge unpack their lunches and gaze at the Pacific.

MONTAGNE: In the end, there is a forgiveness.

Prof. HAAS: The earth forgives the previous year, every year. On the other hand, the other phrase I picked up is from another poem that is the grasses stating their case for and against the continent's violent requiem. It's so hard to know how to think about American violence. And because we're at war, that violence was, I admit, you know, runs through this poem. It was on every poet's mind. And partly it's been the job of American poets - I mean I think Herman Melville said the job of American artists would say no in thunder.

So thinking about how, you know, how we walk this Earth with all the great things in its history and all the vile and terrible things in its history, is where we've come to always, in thinking about this country.

MONTAGNE: Robert Haas is a former U.S. poet laureate. Carol Muske-Dukes is the current poet laureate of California. And Ed Ledford is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. They're among the 54 poets who contributed to "Crossing State Lines: An American Renga."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


Steve Inskeep will be back on Monday. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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