I took a break from Twitter.
A while back, I ran a series of talks on Respect for People. I talked about systems which encourage respect being those which are constrained or focused, transparent, and forgiving. I also outlined one system which had none of those, and would therefore have a tendency towards disrespect: Twitter.
Twitter is unforgiving, because it’s public. It isn’t transparent; 140 characters isn’t enough to even get a hint of motivation. It isn’t constrained, except by its 140 characters. And, in a week in which a lot of stuff happened offline, followed by yet another Twitter conversation that left me wondering why I bothered, I had enough.
I decided to take a break to work out what it was I actually valued about Twitter, and why I kept coming back to it, even though I knew it was the system at fault, not the people.
I worked it out. I know, now, what it is I’m looking for. And the best way to explain it is to look to a similarly constrained system: the Haikai no Renga.
I want more Haikai no Renga.
Back in the old days, the Japanese used to get together and have dinner parties.
At these dinner parties, they had a game they played. Do you remember those childhood games where one person would write a line of a story, then the next person would write a line then fold it over, then the next person, so they could only see the line that came before? And then, when the whole story unfolds, there are usually enough coincidences and ridiculousness to make everyone laugh?
This game was a bit like that, but it always started with a poem; and the poem was usually 17 syllables long, arranged as lines of 5, 7, 5 syllables.
Then the next person would add to the poem. Their addition would be 7, 7. The two verses, together, form a tanka. Then the next person would add a 5, 7, 5; and the next a 7, 7, and so on. The poem would grow and change from its original context, and everyone would laugh and have a good time.
This game became so popular that the people who were good at starting the game got called on for their first verse a lot, so they started collecting those verses. Finally, one guy called Shiki realised that those first verses were themselves an art form, and he coined the term haiku, being a portmanteau pun on the haikai no renga, meaning a humorous linked poem, and hokku, meaning first.
In Japanese, haiku work really well with 17 syllables; but in English I think they actually work better with about 13 to 15. That’s because there are aspects of haiku which are far more important than the syllable count.
There’s a word which sets some context, usually seasonal, called the kigo. More important than that, though, is the kireji, or cutting word. This word juxtaposes two different concepts within those three short lines, and shows how they’re related. We sometimes show it in English with a bit of punctuation.
The important thing about the concepts is that they should be a little discordant. There should be context missing. The human brain is fantastic at creating relationships and seeing patterns, and it fills in that missing context for itself, creating something called the haiku moment.
My favourite example of this came from someone called Michael in one of my early workshops:
rushing past my face –
mind the gap!
(Michael, if you’re out there, please let me know your surname as I use this all the time and would like to credit you properly.)
If you live in London like I do, having a poem like that, with the subject matter outlined but not filled in, can make you feel suddenly as if you’re right there on the platform edge with the train coming in. You make the poem. It’s the same phenomenon that causes the scenes in books to be so much better than the movies; because your involvement in creating them really makes them come to life.
But because there’s not enough context, and because one person’s interpretation can differ from another, the haikai no renga changes. It moves from one subject to another. It can be surprising. It can be funny. It can be joyful. Each verse builds on what’s come before, and takes it into a new place.
Haikai no Renga is a bit like the “Yes, and…” game.
In the “Yes, and…” improv game, each person builds on what the person before has said.
There was a man who lived in a house with a green door.
Yes, and the door knocker was haunted.
Yes, and it was the ghost of a cat who used to live there.
In the “Yes, and…” game, nobody calls out the person before. Nobody says, “Wait a moment! How can a door knocker be haunted? That makes no sense!”
Instead, they run with the ridiculousness. They make it into something playful, and carry it on, and gradually the sense emerges.
They don’t say, “No. You’re wrong. Stop.” They say, “Hah, that’s funny. Let’s run with that and see where it takes us.”
If people were to play this game on Twitter, they might do it by making requests for more details. “Yes, and what was it haunted by?” “Yes, and did the man own the cat?”
Or they might provide resources to enlightening information. “Yes, and have you read the stats on door knocker hauntings? .” “Yes, and do you remember that film where the door knockers spoke in riddles?”
Or they might just add another line, and see where it leads.
It starts with a Haiku.
Like the “Yes, and…” game, and like Improv, the haiku which kicks off the haikai no renga has to be an offer; something that the other players or poets can actually play on.
If a haiku were insulting to the other poets, or had some offensive content, then I imagine the poets wouldn’t play, and probably quite rightly you’d get an argument instead of a poem. Equally, though, if the haiku is too perfect, and too complete, then there’s no room for interpretation. There’s no room for other poets to look good, then make their own offers.
And this is where I think I can make a change to the way I’m using Twitter. If I state something as if it’s a fact, or I don’t leave the right kind of opening for conversation, then I won’t get the renga I’m looking for. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s true or not, or whether there’s context missing that other people don’t know about, or whether it’s a quote from someone else; if it’s not an offer, I won’t get the renga. If I’m writing something to make myself, or one of my friends, look knowledgeable and wise, I won’t get the renga. If I’m being defensive, I won’t get the renga. If I’m engaging someone who obviously doesn’t want the renga, well, then I won’t get the renga.
And I want the renga.
So that’s what I’m going to be trying to do. I’ll try to make tweets, in future, which are offers to you, my fellow Tweeters, to join in the game and play with the conversation and see if it takes us somewhere surprising and joyful. I’ll try to make tweets which invite the “Yes, and…” rather than the “No, but…”. And if I do happen to get the “No, but…”, as I’m sure will happen, then I’ll work out what to do at that point. At least, now, I know better what it is that I want.
If you want to play, come join me.
It’s just a tweet… but it could be poetry.