Renga for Obama

Renga for Obama

In early 2017, Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson curated the “Renga for Obama” project, a celebration of the Obama presidency featuring over two hundred American poets writing in pairs. The project, which originally appeared at Harvard Review Online, was published two stanzas a day for the first hundred days of the Trump presidency and was highlighted in the Washington Post. It has since been released as a limited edition chapbook with an introduction by Major Jackson and is available for purchase in our online store.

The full text is available below.


We are embarking on a literary project of historic proportions, one that expresses the profound sense of gratitude we have for a modern political leader who is measured, thoughtful, humane, and literary-minded. While some of us have not agreed with every decision he has made over the past eight years, the exemplary way in which he has carried out his duty represents the very best of who we are—a nation bonded by a high regard for freedom and the arts as a carrier of our most treasured values. As one poet wrote, “I am so grateful for this opportunity to honor the best president to have served during my lifetime.”

“Renga for Obama” is modeled on a traditional Japanese poetic form. Poets, working in pairs, will compose a tan-renga (short renga) of two stanzas: first, a traditional haiku of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, followed by a couplet, called a waki, of two lines of seven syllables each (7-7), which is intended as a response to the haiku. A new tan-renga (or pair of stanzas) will be added every day for the first 100 days—or maybe more!—each pair of poets adding to the renga chain. While President Barack Obama occasions our meditation, we hope that the renga will range freely over any number of topics. We only want to emphasize that this poem is intended in a spirit of celebration.

Healing in winter
Lava-flower tea—its wood
Endures like laurel.

Island-born, cool lava-bloom.
You. Presiding, laurel-crowned.

a helicopter
lifts from winter lawns—yet your
verdant hope keeps on

the snow conceals a future
hatch of shadow dragonflies

January 22, 2017
Kimiko Hahn
Chase Twichell

The moon hidden there
In the folds of day, the grey
What blind bold walking

Sane voice burnt in black wax won’t swerve
All I hope for now is reverb

Your weather said cool.
Cigarettes, oratory.
Who dubbed them mom jeans?

The moon doesn’t care, I know.
Your light glows from the inside.

January 24, 2017
Tom Healy
Mark Wunderlich

I wear black today
and step into mid-winter

A gold breeze touches my work
shirt open to some sweet song

Old school. So cool, you.
Solitary writer dreams
Midnight floating world.

Sing Al Green to me, baby.
Sing Barack, sir, as you please.

Nobody said fuck
like he did—a razor
nick quick as his smile

Romantic, dialectic—
yet a middle finger too.

January 27, 2017
Tom Sleigh
John Skoyles

Somebody said Yes
& the blood said Here We Are:
American Song.

And the bones too. The organs
and brain singing oh come back.

A country embraces
absence like something it’s earned—
the gnarled math of dust.

You tried to legalize us,
brief hope. No, no se pudo.

January 29, 2017
Kaveh Akbar
Javier Zamora

Stand tall as a fir
as their axes scrape the bark
of sixteen seasons

new moon drones in borrowed light
trans abolition everywhere

January 30, 2017
Sally Wen Mao
Adam Fitzgerald

Here in our thawed brook
calm floats one brown leaf despite
vile loud counter-song.

Beneath it, water deepens:
the ocean’s voices lifting.

January 31, 2017
Sydney Lea
Nan Cohen

Amazing his grace
Note sermon, her garden
Our house built by slaves

What has flowered here
And not what follows

Made in Hawaii,
Jakarta. African cool.
And then came Michelle.

A garden kept them grounded.
Those two girls. Kale. Kohlrabi.

Here the fallen seeds
push up through the sprouting scrub,
scourge the noxious weeds.

Shook ones’ leaves ante up’ed fête
make ’em say, you. will. miss. me.

What big ears you have,
Mr. President! and heart
Big as big can be,

Big as the Pyramid & Sphinx
In the drifting sands of Time

February 4, 2017
Ron Padgett
Ed Sanders

My Southie mother
would have loved you the way she
crushed on Kennedy

Crushed like blossoms—rose attar
Brushtroke ideogram: you

February 5, 2017
Robert Polito
Mary Karr

Eight years sleeping through the night:
always the given
eight years in reprieve.

The rat sneaking through the weeds
rouses the owl, which takes flight.

February 6, 2017
Michael Klein
Paisley Rekdal

I know I’m alive
for, even through this smoke, I
can still see your face,

your calmness a lei’s fragrant
promise the string will not break.

February 7, 2017
Ocean Vuong
Jane Hirshfield

scant ration of hope,
sustenance—a smiley face
of seven almonds

freedom branches one 2 3
storm light to come & to go

working the sown “and”
dowsing roots from glitter soil
our global bodies

part ether, part earth: gestures
test our being together

February 9, 2017
Laynie Browne
Andrew Zawacki

Waves don’t stop talking.
Where is your voice guiding us
through rocky weather?

Without you the country spins
like a mad compass needle.

February 10, 2017
Naomi Shihab Nye
Ilya Kaminsky

Ledbetter, S-CHIP; GIT-
MO slated, almost, to go;
Rose Garden signings.

A child’s still, clear eye now wet
For the humble heart that cared

February 11, 2017
David Wojahn
Afaa M. Weaver

Now where is your voice?
The after: this hushed city—
rain lashing windows

Storm then come time does
Know my heart will tell

February 12, 2017
Nicole Cooley
Kazim Ali

Snow falls on the path
where inalienable trees
like truth do not bend

sentinels at attention:
watchman’s duty never ends.

February 13, 2017
Jill Bialosky
Jonathan Galassi

We can. We will. Yes.
From marrow to groove. Yes. We
dare burden to break—

to carry our massive us.
Marching poets. Each. Beat. Leaps

February 14, 2017
Edwin Torres
Bob Holman

Unafraid to cry
even at the podium,
steelheads under ice.

Such strict poise: only a knack
for joy scores your brow just so.

February 15, 2017
John Hennessy
Sally Ball

Lunar eclipse—we
Keep remembering your smile
In our firmament

Or now a plate you can eat
your warmed waffle off in peace

beach marriage queer grace
cancer free o-surgery
dear life! we praise you

we make the stars ours again
one by one by one by ten

February 17, 2017
Jen Bervin
Samiya Bashir

Palmyra destroyed,
I couldn’t talk a whole day.
Frond-slaps in dry wind.

Switchblade Trump messing with us.
Please come back when you are strong.

February 18, 2017
Jorie Graham
Henri Cole

Birds, elephants, whales,
us: all go along to show
glory; Obama

slips to the years ahead this
splendor-space, a realm: Bear Ears.

February 19, 2017
Marie Ponsot
Mark Doty

But his gaze and hers
held a beam of light steady
erotic, equal:

We applaud deep roots, the willow
dances the storm in wild resistance.

February 20, 2017
Marie Howe
Cornelius Eady

who touches this book —
I, too, sing America —

keep on keeping on

how many able to breathe
thanks, ACA That’s just math

February 21, 2017
Maureen McLane
Steph Burt

Plumeria blooms—
fragrant islands on a tree
rise from common ground.

Over roots, over water
each passing step firms the earth.

February 22, 2017
Garrett Hongo
Hettie Jones

What’s more complex than
a body’s continental
history shining

past the old America
which is never past itself

February 23, 2017
Khadijah Queen
Alex Dimitrov

We . . . We . . . We . . . We . . . We . . .
The collective noun for all.
We ends and begins.

Cherry blossoms. One river.
Flowers ridden through DC.

February 24, 2017
Camille Dungy
Cate Marvin

Watch him see Michelle:
this is what a feminist
looks like, loves like, now.

Pomegranate, spikenard, phlox:
that garden’s a promise, kept.

February 25, 2017
Jill McDonough
Rosanna Warren

Look how we wave still,
our bodies one glowing beast
united in grief

our linked arms raised, your steadfast
millions churning the bright air.

February 26, 2017
Ada Limón
Dorianne Laux

Tended. Intended.
Care like fingers stripping vines
from the stalk. Sugar

dissolves in our tea, now in-
visible, now everywhere.

February 27, 2017
Vievee Francis
Nick Flynn

Sho. Be brown. Be Black.
Bewilder. Be wild. Be prez.
Be that that’s been that.

Pull dignity off yo’ rack.
Strut that hazelnut strut, Black.

Black beyond moonlight
Man alone before nations
Hail the chief once more

Othello, Othello not
we, the many Iagos

Blue parks, Greenland sharks
Louisiana black bear
Brown out the mean time

The feral silence of earth,
breath held for millennia.

Water, seasons, heart.
You move like the sea’s measure—
dropping the mic cool.

Pinned to my memory: petals of light.
Anxiety, scatter, seagull the sky.

Barack and Michelle
if we sing in this dark wood
would you reappear

pragmatist-preacher & cool
in the grass all I got this.

Keys given over
in such difficult weather—
his coat braced snowfall.

Pikake flowers bloom here,
this season come too early.

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March 6, 2017
Charles Bernstein
Tan Lin

Even my far sea
ferried your voice, which buoyed us,
black bellyfuls, hope

All empires end; we’re empire
Now. New song: disturb the peace.

March 7, 2017
Safiya Sinclair
Amy King