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.

Obliterature

“Obliterature draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual, minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview. Such writing might include letters to the editor, junk mail, diary entries and their twenty-first-century digital descendants: blog entries, comments on a newspaper and magazine site, Instagram posts, LiveJournals, Snapchats, Tumblrs, or tweets. Obliterature, fittingly enough, is also popular parlance for a ‘letter or email written while drunk off your ass’…The concept, as we develop it in this article, explains the literary phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s words and the labor phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s work.”

– from “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism” by Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde in the September 2018 Modernism/ modernity, a special issue on “weak theory”

None of us knows if our writing careers will be of much interest to literary critics in the future–or whether there will continue to be literary critics, or a future–but I have to add a few more categories of ephemeral writing that consume a LOT of my time these days: comments on student poems, response papers, quizzes, and essays; assignment sheets; teaching notes; course descriptions; recommendation letters; private editorial comments on Submittable; and the smartphone text-i-verse with its debris of emoticons. I’ve also been a lead drafter on a surprising number of university-related guidelines and reports, having been here for 24 years and generally preferring to do the writing portion of committee work over other tasks.

So I like this term “obliterature” a lot, although it’s from an article I’ve so far only read a portion of, because I’m tight on time but got snagged by the title as I was sorting mail. I recognize obliterature as an object of fascination for me as a critic–all the scraps and commonplace books kept by Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Spencer, and many other women as they tried to find time for poetry amid domestic chores, tough jobs, and political urgencies. I also recognize it, with more chagrin, as denoting a body of seemingly-necessary writing I constantly perform, obliterating time for other kinds of writing I am constantly saying I should prioritize.

Trying to keep my head above water as a teacher, I’m writing very little for any current or future public these days, except for this blog. But I have been stricter with myself than usual about finishing revisions on long mss and making sure they’re under submission–one of which is a book of criticism mixed with personal narrative, which editors keep telling me they like but can’t publish or persuade their boards to take on. Writing personally is just too feminine, maybe. To quote from later in the same essay: “To read like a girl, or throw like a girl, or run like a girl, is to do it the wrong way.”

I love the feminist call from Micir and Vadde for passionate amateurism, for questioning the grounds of expertise and its forums, but I also observe how professionally the call is constructed, in a top-notch scholarly journal, with 6+ pages of fine-print endnotes. In other words, their petition arrived on my desk via the very mechanisms they put under critique. I just hope they and I are right that there’s a readership for such writing in its long, less familiar, less prestigious, and perhaps girlier forms–and that publishers become more willing to take it on.

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A few of the many cards collected among Anne Spencer’s papers

Germinant

My daughter spent the weekend in Budapest, an eight-hour bus ride from Prague, where she’s studying abroad. My son spent the weekend at the state chess tournament, at which he played well and scored a couple of upset wins against higher-ranked competitors. I spent the weekend honing a PowerPoint concerning faculty survey results for the program directors’ plenary at the AWP, which is not my cup of tea, although many cups of tea were consumed in the process. My workload has definitely been tilted too far towards service lately. On the bright side, even as I struggle to meet all those commitments, poems are spraying out of me wildly like water from a damaged spigot. It’s a spring thing–the light comes back and so does the poetry.

I enjoyed editing the “Process” column for Modernism/ modernity, but I’m grateful to be handing that patch of earth to another gardener now. For my last post, I interviewed one of the contemporary poetry scholars I most admire, Jahan Ramazani. “Isn’t that one of the glories of rich, complex, multidimensional poems,” he writes, speaking my language, “that they keep emitting light long after much else in their time has gone dark?” I hereby raise my teacup to scholars and critics everywhere doing good work in service of rich, complex, multidimensional poems. May it keep mulching new poems and reinvigorated conversations.

The other publications poking out of wintry soil this week were two poems in the new issue of Barrow StreetThe shorter one, “Recumbent Lee,” is pictured above, photographed in Payne Hall at W&L. Lee Chapel rises in the background, a building that’s basically a shrine to Lee; Valentine’s statue is housed centrally within it, and the general himself is buried in the crypt. My poem was written and accepted well before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last summer, but in a way, it’s overdue. I have a lot of problems with Valentine’s well-rendered work of art. The graceful way it whites out cruelty–that’s not what I wish to teach and honor.

A waxing gibbous moon rising over the rear of Payne Hall, however, after a wonderful lecture by Robert Macfarlane about language and the more-than-human world–that’s a brightness I’d amplify. It’s funny how I can feel so stressed about everything happening outside my classrooms but pretty good about what’s happening within them. But as I prep pantoums, ghazals, blues, and documentary poetry for tomorrow, I do feel nourished by the work of helping their writing and thinking grow. It’s decent ground to stand on when the wind is high.

Urgent: curse for moonlight declamation

Two blessings and a curse–guess which one is the most fun to read aloud? My poxy poem, “All-purpose Spell for Banishment,” written last New Year’s Eve, just appeared in the new issue of SalamanderMaybe if we all chant it naked by moonlight on the solstice, inserting the name of our least favorite president, the new year will bring us more light. On the beneficent side, “Border Song,” from Ocean State Reviewis the way I remember the especially moving 2016 wedding of my friends Jenna and Lucy, bless them both. And check out my poem in the new Blackbirdif you have time, in which I try, through a slightly banged-up pantoum’s repetition, to turn a bad year around.

Benedictions to the editors of all those journals, including interns who slipped issues into the mail during the last sliver of fall term. Blessed be, too, the good people at Modernism/ modernity, who posted my column on archival frustrations last week: “Seeking Anne Spencer.” Blessed be Anne Spencer. Salutations to the gods who permitted me to finish my full-length essay on her and submit it by today’s deadline, as well as to my spouse, who suggested some timely edits at a very busy moment of the term. All hail Janet McAdams, micro review editor at Kenyon Review Online, for assembling such a mighty roster of smallnesses every other month, including, this December, my praise of Nicole Cooley’s Girl after Girl after Girl. 

I haven’t been writing poetry much, but I’m hoping to change energies now by reading voraciously and steaming a Christmas pudding. In the meantime, I hereby beam out good cheer to all my friends, and all poetry’s friends. It’s been a stupid, toxic, nasty year, but there are lots of good words left to utter, and sometimes they make a difference.

Failing that, please enjoy a gratuitous black cat, caught in the act of chewing my tree.