The Pitch: Sonnet's Shakespeare

Carmine Starnino talks to Sonnet L'Abbé about her new book

WELCOME TO THE first instalment of The Pitch, a new biweekly series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to Canadian poet Sonnet L’Abbé, who opens up about the collection she's working on, entitled, Sonnet's Shakespeare.  

 Photo used with permission of the author.

Photo used with permission of the author.

Carmine Starnino
Tell me about your new book.

Sonnet L’Abbé
You're familiar with erasure poetry—where people cross out words from a piece of writing and make a new poem from what's left? Like Jen Bervin's Nets, which she made by whiting out Shakespeare's sonnets? My book is the not-opposite of that. I make prosey poems you'd have to erase to find Shakespeare again. Think of the blank page as a territory I want to live on, and Shakespeare's sonnet as culture I find already there, where I want to be. I don't stress: I just patiently occupy the space, letter by letter, in between and all around the letters of that first nation until you can't see it anymore. But it's still all there, each letter of Shakespeare's poem, in order, inside mine. The whole thing's an analogy for colonialization. The tone is all blocky and perverse. I'm just lucky that, with my name, I can make a great punning title out of what I'm doing. 

Why Shakespeare?

His sonnets are a foundational document for me. I read them first when I was about seven, because the paperback copy my father had from high school was the only thing I'd ever seen in print with my name on it. When I got to high school, I used them for simple display-text programming assignments in Computer Science. So personally, I've spent a lot of time with them. But the sonnets are only foundational for me because they're foundational to our English literature. It was also important for me to run over a well-loved, "indelible" artifact of English-speaking identity.

The whole thing’s an analogy for colonialization. The tone is all blocky and perverse. I’m just lucky that, with my name, I can make a great punning title out of what I’m doing.

You mention the tone, but can you comment on the "spliced-up" language in the series?

Though I'm not totally into this metaphor for the process, I feel like I'm rug-hooking letters into the original weave-frame of Shakespeare's writing. Because I'm choosing my language based on the letters in his words, I often make choices that are exactly the kind of glaring thesaurus-speak I would discourage in my students' writing. For example, instead of "My best self commands my poetic rhythm" or some such, I wrote: "A superversion of myself commands discursive eurythmy"—writing that if not for the procedure would just be too precious to put down with a straight face. The sentences are declarative and chunky because there's no moving phrases around; you can't write a line and then decide it goes better a bit closer to the top. I think of the beats of Eunoia: " Ubu sums up lump sums. Ubu trumps dumb luck."

How different is this from your other work?

From my books, quite different—my first idols were Szymborska and Heaney. But after those books I went to B.C., where I spent a number of years of experimenting in visual poetry and working with the language of plant science. I wrote a Ph.D. on a Black Mountain poet, and met a ton of West Coast poets. Those visual and science poems are still scattered in the journalsphere. I'm still at work on the plant-poem book that comes out of all that.


A preview of Sonnet's Shakespeare:

Those wiccan witches mind the Rede, they burn incense, harm practically zip. But polytheistic people frighten the satan-combatants by debasing their ordered theology. Liable missionaries file for their own forgiveness through written heartrend, although systemic oppression is not eased by ministers’ sighs. To be Aleut, Dakota, Cayuga – or not to be. Yellowknives fight to state Indian right, by gods, to stay unoppressed and unteached. The ghosts of rough frenemies still possess history: we are others’ foreigners, doing unconsented deeds, shaking red hands, tuning out torture and molestation when convenient. But holy shit, how civilly the other mounts a sound complaint! How fairly is Wolastoqiyik worldview by biblists killed, Father? Father, I offer from the tree of intelligence this bodied daylight. People are searchers if from the kingdom humans are immutably driven; ought human quiddity to rest thus schismed from grace? When “I” clouds do block contact with wordless heaven, so much flatter is the answering Earth. Compliant lexicons deny insights witches’ tinctures spark; lingos tar epistemes with charges of innocence. Matter’s thought still describes matter, whether we believe in absolute daydream or not. The ordinary’s Really dream, a waking astronomy of consciousnesses. Sorry story, your witch’s spelled wrong. Perfect dreamlands, unbenign, prohibit deformity; nightmarishly peacemaking they grieve for a lost, unlocked garden. O digitalis! What shaped your chemical stem to throb for freaking hearts?

Now happiness opens its undisguised embrace. Willing warmth forward, trust nests here and mentors Eeyores in badassery. Glossolalias of inebriated weeping become lullabye. Outcries, embarrassments, mistakes meet endearment and turn into bubbly tenderness. Safe havens unravel knots within. My bookish hustle hits its critical masses with a dandelion-gold kiss. A superversion of myself commands discursive eurythmy, familiar me breathes witty shizzle. Laughing makes life’s sketchy moods into emotional roller derbies – crash! – zing! – whoa! A perky, friendly nature unfolds like shimmer, like shimmery swirls of mirth; friends possessed by desire begin getting chill. Talismanic Banksy art brands this attitude; a human sexiness copes with what’s imposed; listening joy is a content-creator. Cuddle-feasts yield upbeat infants; cheesy poetry phonics bug hoity poets like myself, revealing megapretentiousness, tada! Respect aesthetics sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” unironically. I think on this glee and question: when did my state start to Like me? What other spectacular kickassness might break out from dancy particles? This is a song for geekdom, sung for fallen earth. I sing smooshy mantras to combat cheaters’ ventriloquy. Sugar-sweetened formalist rhyme isn’t sweet love, obscure modernist poems bleed no red, but such wordie schmaltz has bodily stirrings that soft hearts divine. This unicorn poet’s vocals horn slang Empyrean for blessèd-state-wise kingdoms.


CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor, Poetry Editor for Véhicule Press, and Non-Fiction Editor for Porcupine's Quill. 

SONNET L'ABBÉ's latest book is Killarnoe (2007). She edited the 2014 edition of The Best Canadian Poetry in English.