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.

Teaching US Poetry from 1900-1950

I started teaching modernism as a graduate student, leading discussion sections for Walt Litz at Princeton in ’91. When I arrived at W&L in ’94, I resolved to teach much more diverse syllabi: I put the version of modernism I’d studied in conversation with the New Negro Renaissance and included many women writers (Walt’s syllabus was all white and male). Soon I was bringing in formalist modernism, too–featuring the so-called “songbird poets” and analyzing various kinds of experiment that earlier discussions of the field hadn’t made much space for. Something I love about teaching, though, is that you can’t just rest on your laurels: I’m teaching you a version of modernism that’s fuller and more complicated than the one I received–aren’t I the greatest? Changes in scholarship and theory demand renovated approaches, but so do the students themselves.

I posted on Facebook recently that my students have never been so alert to questions of gendered and sexual violence in “The Waste Land” as they were this October. I was really glad I had this recent suite of short essays from Modernism/ modernity to bring to class, organized by Megan Quigley and centered on how #metoo has changed conversations about a modernist poetic monument. My current students think sexual violation, as reality and metaphor, is at the very foundation of modernism, and while I’ve always highlighted those elements in certain poems, I’m still trying to get my head around that as a perspective shift on the whole field. They’re very interested, too, in modernist portrayals of mental illness and how it’s persistently feminized; the more I consider those questions, the more foundational they seem, as well. Honestly, I wish I had more than twelve weeks with these students, so we could deepen our reading together.

We are, however, past midterms already! This weekend I’m reading their first essays, and the scholar to whom I owe the most for the success of this assignment is Suzanne Churchill at Davidson, a scholar of modernist little magazine culture and another Princeton survivor (it was a messed-up place back then). When W&L’s Digital Humanities cohort brought Suzanne here a few years ago, she visited a version of the class I’m now teaching; for the occasion, she loaned me a little magazine assignment she’d been using in her own courses. I’ve since modified it into a sequence of steps: we read Suzanne’s essay “Little Magazines” from Companion to Modernist Poetry; used class time to compare poems from our texts to their original presentations in little magazines; and read this excellent website on Georgia Douglas Johnson that Suzanne created with her students. Then we devoted a session to informal presentations of this response paper assignment:

“Go to the Modernist Journals Project site and either browse through the magazines or search for an author you’re interested in and follow the links (search last name, first name—it’s not case sensitive). Find an issue of a journal that interests you. It should be published between 1900 and 1945, and it should include at least one poem. Then post a brief reflection (~300 words) in which you identify and briefly describe the issue you chose and why you chose it, saying something about how a poem within it relates to other content and/or design elements. What kind of readership does the magazine seem to be projecting? How do font, layout, juxtaposition, and/or illustration affect the poem’s meaning?”

Finally, they wrote 8-page essays comparing poems in little magazines to other published versions, either building on that response paper or switching focus, if they preferred. I shouldn’t report on their discoveries here because this assignment resulted in some actual original scholarship–illuminating publishing circumstances that haven’t been discussed in print before, to my knowledge, although, of course, we’d all have to do a LOT of work to determine that for sure. This means that grading their essays has been slow (I have a lot of backtracking to do, as everyone wrote on different pieces/ publications) but genuinely exciting.

I had originally cancelled this coming Friday’s session, requiring them to go to at least part of a department retreat instead, but the scholar whom we had invited to visit cancelled. So, I asked these students, what would you prefer? Go to a different lecture or reading as class make-up, or reinstate that class and choose readings for it, anything you like? To my surprise, they wanted the class back, and they wanted to focus it on contemporary poems responding in some way to the modernists we’re studying. I’ve had a lot of fun assembling a reading packet! Not surprisingly, many of my own poems have been triggered by modernism, but I’m mostly steering clear of my own stuff in favor of Bishop on Moore; Wendy Cope and Jeremy Richards on Eliot; Evie Shockley on Anne Spencer; Honoree Fanonne Jeffers on Helene Johnson; William Woolfitt and Cynthia Hogue on H.D.; David Ray, Lauren K. Alleyne, and Hilde Weisert on Frost; Kenneth Koch on Williams; Terrance Hayes and Franny Choi on Hughes; and more (many of these great poems are not online). Thanks to Diane Kendig, Max Chapnick, and others for suggestions–please post more in the comments!

In short, in a busy season, this class is absorbing a lot of energy and creativity. I could use an extra weekend every week, one for the work and one for some downtime…but I’m also really happy that I can teach this class for so many years and still, well, make it new.

Respect in classrooms vs. crap outside them

Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.

Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.

I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.

These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).

The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.

I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.

But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.

Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.

Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.

I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.

Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).

xmas 1988
Christmas sweaters, 1988