They Can Do It

Editor's Note: On June 22nd 2010 the poets of No Choice but to Follow gave a reading at Punahou School after which each poet led a workshop for different aged students ranging from those about to enter the sixth grade to those going into the twelfth grade. Linked poetry was described as “PoetryTag,” because students were encouraged to lock onto someone else’s poem to write their own. Each poet followed her own plan and process. This is Juliet Kono's experience.

Once a teacher always a teacher.

So, of course, recently when asked to teach renshi or “tag poetry” to 6th and 7th grade students in summer school, I did my teacherly thing, thinking of outcomes, strategies, processes, objectives, and goals, because I didn’t know how else to approach this task. Bad stuff actually, when you want your students to fly.

While I often hate thinking in terms of some kind of methodology in writing poetry, the rational teacher mind inevitably gets in the way under the pressure of procrastination. I relied on this experience for want of something better in generating a feasible exercise for my classes. My strategy was to have the students try the process for themselves with the outcome of having a completed renshi sequence with interesting and well-written poems. I found that the students did the task with understanding—hooray—something that I hoped would happen because I was hung up about my own goal. But having reached my goal, the outcome was not as I had anticipated, though I did not necessarily have the “best” poems coming out from the exercise. The students thought too much about making connections rather than writing about something deeply felt. Perhaps later, now that they know how renshi works and what is involved, they will entertain more heartfelt sequences of their own.

Initially, I was right in thinking that though the students saw us, the authors, at Wo Center, reading poems from No Choice But to Follow, which they could see on the screen and recognize the connections between the poems, they would have forgotten the process by the time they arrived at the classroom where I was to teach my workshop. I realized that due to distractions—hormonal and otherwise—and the passage of time to get back to the classroom, the 6th and 7th graders would have forgotten what to do. Yup, although they had a general idea as to what tag poetry was all about, when asked, they were unsure if they could do this writing by themselves.

To begin, I had the students do a word association game where they stated the previous classmate’s word, followed by something of their own. I pleaded for the weird and unique, words from their home languages, and words they used amongst themselves. The next person was then asked to pick up the previous person’s last word and state something of his/her own, and on down the line. For example: waves sails; sails wind-nets; wind-nets hammock; hammock rock; rock candy; candy cavity; and so on.

We also talked about poetry a bit, about writing “pictures” or images, the instruction having very few restrictions—4 or more lines; not to take too much time—with the advice to write about something familiar. Breaking up the class into groups of four, I had them decide who would begin and each person after that. I began the process by writing my own poem and each group’s first writer was to take my last line and begin their group’s sequence. I wrote the poem on the board, which went something like this:

In my early morning walk,
I stopped by a wall
of night-blooming cereus.
I stopped and looked
into one of the flowers
and saw
the eyes of a bee looking back at me.

The first writer in a group of four girls took only a part of my line to begin her poem and the rest of the girls followed, creating the following renshi or linked poems.

Eyes of a Bee
Beady little things
as dangerous as a shark
It stares at everything
and always is so dark

Always is so Dark
Like the night with no stars
an empty room without a candle
A world without laughter
a person without a heart.

A Person Without Heart
Her eyes bore into me,
no warmth in her face.
What’s going through her mind?
I can’t fathom such a thing.

I Can’t Fathom Such a Thing
Why are oceans so deep
or stars so bright
or trees that can
reach the sky.

I told them they could delete anything in the last line if they wished but not to change it too drastically; once they started, they appeared to have little trouble in what they wanted to write though one or two of them complained about the constraints caused by the line of the previous writer, nonetheless created their poems until they finished their table’s sequence. Considering the short time to write their lines, everyone got the hang of it and wrote their poem. (As an afterthought, I don’t think the poems are bad at all!)

They were asked to read their poems in front of the class, and from what I gathered from their faces, they were genuinely surprised by what they had accomplished. Later, at the end of the class period, I had the students paste their group’s poems together into one long sheet, which they taped onto the white board for others to read and appreciate.

Other group sequences:


As a bird
I would imagine
Being free,
and looking to
a water color sunset
soaring above a cerulean ocean

The Cerulean Ocean
The vast cerulean ocean
containing, sheltering the mysterious creatures within
constantly changing and shifting the waves
moved by the power of the moon

Moved by the Power of the Moon
The moon controls everything
It controls the tides in the ocean
It controls when night comes
The moon awesome


Oh how I love pugs
Their cute curly tail
Their playfulness
With fur and blubber keeping them warm

A sea of blubber surrounding
my brother’s belly.
His flab squishes my face, hurting me.
That’s my brother with the belly.

An enormous thing blocking the sun
Don’t know what it is
It is as big as the Eifel Tower
Boom Boom Boom
Fat Albert moves
then gets his inhaler

Inhalers are important
They are a matter of
life and death
Inhalers are like
A fire man,
Pulling you from death
a lifeline


Cashing upon the sand and rocks
of the sea shore
Are the giant waves of the ocean
rising from the depths of the vast abyss?

Like a balloon
rising into the light blue sky
slowly floating away
away from the ground
higher and higher into the sky

Kites chasing the birds
in the majestic blue sky.
Soon the clouds will
camouflage them leaving
The last sight of the kite
chasing the bird in the sky.
Winds blow the clouds away
leaving the kite plummeting into the ground


Crashing on the Rocks
The jet plane spirals into the salt covered boulders
in seconds, it is engulfed in flames
I hear blood curdling cries of pain.

Kids run around me moaning out of hunger.
Poverty afftects the whole village.
Women sacrifice their food for their children.
some people too hungry and sick to eat.

My hunger overwhelms me.
Stomach growling,
ready to pounce
on the unaware animal
soon to be dinner.


Everything is falling apart
This is not what I expected
Where is everything going?
My life is vanishing
It’s all over.

It’s All Over
It’s all over
The pain is gone
I can finally say goodbye
My heart connot go on

Life is different
It was nice knowing you
I’m leaving now
Life is harder out here
on your own
Maybe someday I’ll come


Hurricane Popcorn
Sweet and salty
crunchy and good.
Kakimochi and furikake
yummy yummy
Pop! Pop! Pop!

Pop! Pop! Pop!
The sound of
the mini fireworks
that I throw at
the ground
I wish I could see
the colorful
big fireworks
in the sky.

The bright sun
shining in my eyes.
Clouds filling the sky,
rain falling from
above down below.
Getting wet.
I walk back home.

Crashing on the Rocks
I’m at the beach relaxing
I swim and get a tan
while my brothers hunt for shells.
I explore crabs
which lead me to rock.
And later on I crash out
while exploring on the rocks.

The Rocks
Every stone has a story
how it was created
how it was shaped
where it had been.
Every rock has a story
a story to be told
to all that
are willing to
and listen.

Listen listen closely.
As we go into a journey
across the world.
Listen to the breeze
with the leaves rustling in it.
Listen to the animals
calling you.
Listen to the life
that calls you back to life.
wake up we’re here!


Born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, Juliet S. Kono is the recipient of several awards, including the US/Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, most recently in the Imagine What It’s Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology. In 2006, she won the Hawaiʻi Award for Literature. Her previous publications include two books of poetry, Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years; a collaborative work of linked poems with three other poets, No Choice but to Follow; a short story collection, Hoʻolulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile; and a children’s book, The Bravest ʻOpihi.

Juliet S. Kono's first novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, is available in our online bookstore.

Talk story

  1. Jean Toyama says:

    These links are amazing. You are right, they could do it! In such a short time they grasped the whole principle.

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