Sonnet prompts from #SonnetsfromtheAmerican

Octave and sestet: my ridiculously precarious Zoom setup for delivering a paper at the Sonnets from the American Symposium, and then my home symposium-delivery system. Presenting on short-lined sonnets in a piece called “Partial Visibility,” I edited my messy desk out of the virtual window, throwing the focus instead on the bookcases behind me–so much more professorial. I thought about our partial visibility to each other all weekend, especially when Diane Seuss, the second-lo-last reader in the final event, talked about using long lines to expand the parts of life that can be included in the sonnet’s “gilded frame.” (Her new book, frank: sonnets, promises to be amazing.)

I loved the symposium, which was thoughtfully and effectively curated, and I learned a lot. Among the highlights: we viewed a video tribute to Wanda Coleman and her American sonnets put together by Terrance Hayes. There were mesmerizing live readings by Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Tacey Atsitty, Kiki Petrosino, Shane McRae, Patricia Smith, and many others. Carl Phillips gave a particularly good keynote about “disruption built into” the sonnet and its “tendency to sonic dispersion,” making the form especially hospitable to marginalized writers. Fruitful panel discussions swirled around work by Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jericho Brown, Brandi McDougall, Henri Cole, and many more. I heard from friends, put some names and faces together among scholars and poets I knew only by reputation, and even saw fellow bloggers whom I’d never before met (hello, Frank Hudson! I really appreciated your comments and want to hear more about singing sonnets sometime). What I liked best were the recurrent readings of the American sonnet as a dissident form, incorporating multiple voices through its characteristic turns and pivots, treated rebelliously and inventively by North American practitioners. When Phillips called the sonnet “wired for rebellion,” he echoed the symposium’s exhilarating theme–exhilarating for me, anyway, because my education emphasized the sonnet as an exercise in obedience.

This symposium also gave me a million ideas for writing. I gave you a prompt for short-lined sonnets last week as I was prepping my paper. Here are some more, with credit to the presenters who jogged these ideas.

Interpreting the parameters of the form however you like, write a sonnet that:

  • Is a mode of transport or place of collision (Marlo Starr, “Dissident Sonnets”; Yuki Tanaka, “Cross-Cultural Sonnets”)
  • Depends on a single repeated line, like “Nothing in That Drawer” by Ron Padgett, possibly breaking the pattern at the end (Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Standing In One Place to Move”)
  • Involves collaboration, maybe tossing couplets back and forth with a partner or using octave/sestet for the switch between voices (Simone Muench and Jackie K. White, “The Sonnet as Conversation”). (I’ve been involved, too, in a couple of collaborative crowns, handing off the baton poem by poem. Here’s one.)
  • Uses a meter other than iambic, as Courtney Lamar Charleston does in “Doppelgangbanger” (Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “This resonant, strange, vaulting roof'”)
  • Is a duplex, following Jericho Brown’s torque of the form (Michael Dumanis, “Subverting the Tradition in The Tradition”)
  • Is improvisatory, derived from jazz, a mode Brian Teare discussed in relation to Wanda Coleman (I think this was in post-panel chat–but if you want to read more Coleman than the “American Sonnet” I just linked to, I highly recommend the new Selected Poems edited by Hayes)
  • Is based on David Wojahn’s “rock n roll sonnets,” Molly Peacock’s “exploded sonnets,” Tyehimba Jess’ “syncopated sonnets,” Philip Metres’ “shrapnel sonnets,” Amit Majmudar’s “sonzal,” Lyn Hejinian’s “anti-sonnets”–research these variants and have at ’em! (Kevin McFadden, “The Resistant Strain,” plus additions from the chat after)
  • Dances through the volta in an unusual way. Many panels raised these questions: where can voltas go? Can they be outside poems, or between poems in a sequence?
  • Breaks other “rules.” A prompt for any form: what patterns can you warp to put your work in lively conversation with the myriad traditions snaking behind us? Or, how can you hybridize sonnets with other forms or texts, as poets do with blues sonnets and sonnet-ballads?

I hope one of those prompts clicks for you and you start drafting. We can’t doomscroll ALL the time (hey, what would a doomscrolling sonnet look like?). For still more alternatives to watching the political weather, check out this cool cluster of short essays, “#MeToo and Modernism,” just published by Modernism/ modernity; I have a piece in there about teaching Eliot recruited after the editor saw my blog post on that subject–an interesting development that has now happened to me a couple of times. And if you’d be up to listen in on an intimate multipoet reading from 6-7pm ET on Thursday 10/15, please contact me and I’ll send you the link. It’s part of a sweetly inclusive series run by Lucy Bucknell at Hopkins, not fully public, but I’m allowed to invite friends.

the salonnière introduces …the state she’s in!

My book is now available from Tinderbox Editions! And, once we get through this, it will also be available in independent bookstores near you.

In the meantime, I hereby introduce a virtual salon for authors launching poetry books plus anyone who enjoys a pretend party. Imagine this space as a high-ceilinged room, art-fans lounging on its velvet divans. The upholstery is a little threadbare, the paint on the moldings chipped here and there, but that just makes everyone feel more comfortable and bohemian. Trays laden with canapés gleam on some of the side tables; others groan under the weight of oozy cheeses, fat grapes, champagne bottles, expensive scotch, and cans of pamplemousse La Croix. The scent of beeswax tapers burning in candelabras mingles with the aroma of a nearby sculptor’s bare feet. An enlivening breeze sometimes wafts through the French doors, which are open to a balcony that overlooks city lights. Someone near the window adjusts their beaded shawl and laughs.

A shameless salonnière, I stand up first, welcome all of you, and introduce my own damn book, The State She’s In. (Did I mention it’s now available from Tinderbox Editions?) Here are my answers to the three questions I plan to ask many guests in turn:

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Wine varietals mentioned in my book include rioja, garnacha, and chardonnay, so we are well-beveraged; I can add to the menu a Black Walnut Celebration Lager I drank at AWP ’19 in Portland, with my poem “Black Walnut” in mind. After some syllables of cheese, wild rice blini topped with sour cream and caviar, and quesadillas with postlapsarian salsa verde, we will savor ramekins of pawpaw crème brulée.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

My loved ones and I are well, although we’re all worried, and my son is sad about having his first year at Haverford cut short. He’s also a straight-A student who is suddenly unable to concentrate. That teaches me something about how online instruction is likely to go and how forgiving and flexible we’ll all have to be. I’m not surprised this transition is logistically challenging for a seminar teacher like me, but it’s been emotionally harder than I expected. My identity is wrapped up in being a good teacher. It’s upsetting to let go of some of the standards I hold myself to.

I’m writing emails and texts plus revising syllabi. I also started a Pandemic Diary on paper, because I’ve heard from historians that they often lack as-it-happens accounts of crisis. No poetry at all, but it will come back–and really, when poets are in publicity mode they rarely get much writing done anyway. I’d remind everyone, though, that there’s actual scientific research suggesting that daily expressive writing improves immunity.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

For me, it’s my self-designed and therefore basic website as well as my page in the Tinderbox Editions store, where you can find the amazing blurbs some incredibly generous poets wrote for The State She’s In: Diane Seuss, Oliver de la Paz, and Linda Lewis. They are clicking virtual glasses in this salon, and they look fabulous.

***Stay tuned for future gatherings, and please let me know what books should be on my radar. Many possible factors could affect frequency; also, I want to read each book before introducing it. I’d love to post once a week, though–perhaps more often. Be well, friends!

Poetry and heart

Thanks to the folks at Copper Nickel! The new issue contains my essay on Robert Sullivan, “Uncanny Activisms”

I looked up “heart” and found definitions including feeling, courage, enthusiasm, vital part, “the condition of agricultural land as regards fertility,” personality, disposition, compassion, generosity, character, charity, humanity, and of course love. It has associations with memory, too (“by heart”) and deep concern (“to heart”). Obsolete: intellect, which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean by “heart” now. My curiosity about the word is probably connected to valentine season, but I’ve also been reading a ton of poetry lately and thinking about what draws me to some poems more than others–a set of qualities I sometimes call heart.

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

In town, though, crocus and snowdrops are arriving, early omens of a busier season. I’m not sure I’m ready for spring and the associated book-launch madness, but at least I have the generous blurbs below to reassure me the book is worth at least some attention. That matters so much, when writers you admire will spend their time reading your work and saying thoughtful, encouraging words about it. It gives me heart.

Still life with two relaxed superheroes and a sparkle pen

seuss

Sometimes, if I wake up extra-early, I’ll make a pot of tea and read one of the many bound-to-be-good poetry books stacked on the cyborg (what we call the sideboard, for obscure reasons). This morning I read Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and GirlIt’s full of elegy and ekphrasis, a very rich book I can’t do justice to here. As far as analytic sharpness, I’m tapped out at the moment by teaching and student conferences; I’m just reading receptively, to fill the well. But I’m moved by her poems mourning a father lost in childhood, friends lost to AIDS, and her own lost girl-self. I’m also processing a brilliant reading and visit from Rebecca Makkai, whose much-acclaimed novel The Great Believers concerns the arrival of HIV to Chicago’s Boystown in the eighties. Rebecca was my student here in the nineties; I remember her fierce intelligence well, how she blew in like a wind ready to strip away stupid traditions, as the best of my students do now. But that version of myself feels long gone. All these texts and memories mirror each other fractionally, so my head feels busy with bright shards.

I’m also especially taken by Seuss’s self-portrait series, perhaps because one of my classes is deep in discussion about confessionalism. Here’s one: “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.” But I like “Self-Portrait with Levitation” even better: “Embodiment has never been my strong suit.” Here’s to learning to float again, one of these days.

award

Heard at AWP 2018

The meaning of life: I don’t know and I don’t care. Bells don’t ask questions…When you’re old you have fewer questions about the nitty-gritty of poems. There are bigger fish to fry. Dying fish.               -Mary Ruefle in “Hell’s Bells,” a talk on tone

You cannot trust the sea.           -Ishion Hutchinson, plenary reading

On the days after the election, I had nothing to say, nothing to write.    -Virgil Suárez, plenary reading

Was was what we were.         -Diane Seuss, panel on persona poetry

African-American writers and other writers of the African diaspora–we don’t feel the sovereignty to write in the personal I, much of the time.   –Vievee Francis, panel on persona poetry

As soon as I put the I on the page I am abstracting myself. I can never be on the page…even the notion we can pin down a dialect seems kind of offensive to me.                   -Gregory Pardlo, panel on persona poetry

Forgive me, but you have such amazingly thick hair! Sorry, that was inappropriate.            -very nice editor (with thinning hair) to me, in the bookfair, when I bent down to pull out a business card

Above are some high points from a conference filled with literary geniuses. I can also give you the most awesome Q&A reply ever, useful for all kinds of occasions, courtesy of Mary Ruefle: “That is such a beautiful question I won’t spoil it with an answer.” You’re welcome.

There were low points, too, involving aching feet and feeling cosmically inconsequential, despite my super-elite board-member chartreuse lanyard (preserved in the picture below, since next year I’ll wear civilian colors again). I always find AWP exhausting but paradoxically nourishing, too, both because of literary riches and the presence of friends I rarely see. I was moved especially this year by how many women, old friends and strangers, touched my arm and said kind words, in low voices, about my Claudia Emerson essay, “Women Stay Put.” Sometimes you ring a bell and the sound seems to vanish; other times it resonates back to you. I’m so grateful when the tone returns.

I’ll be working to keep the good vibrations going as I fly back to Virginia today. To echo Diane Seuss and Ann E. Michael: is is what I’ll endeavor to be.