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(FEATURE) 14 Questions about the Sonnet with Nat Raha, Ali Graham & Nik Ines Ward



‘Writing a sonnet is like squeezing an overripe fruit in your fist…’


One of the hallmarks of Edwin Morgan’s work is the sonnet form: Glasgow Sonnets (1972) and Sonnets from Scotland (1984) are firm favourites on everything from school curricula to public libraries and the discerning poet’s bookshelf. There is, however, often a split implied in critical responses to Morgan’s work, separating his use of traditional form and more experimental approaches. As David Kinloch points out in ‘Edwin Morgan’s Orientations’ (2020), this binary is something of a misnomer. ‘These kinds of division’, Kinloch argues, ‘do not really exist in Morgan’s mind’. Kinloch’s linking of Morgan’s experimentalism and tradition is very much in the spirit of the contemporary queer sonnet. As part of our Brilliant Vibrating Interface series, funded by the Edwin Morgan Trust’s Second Life Award, Mau Baiocco and Maria Sledmere caught up with some of our favourite contemporary sonneteers to find out their thoughts on craft, technology, constraint and literary tradition. 


Respondents:

AG: Ali Graham

NIW: Nik Ines Ward

NR: Nat Raha


1. What first drew you to the sonnet as a literary form?


NIW: I first tried writing a sonnet in Sophie Robinson’s online writing workshop Devotion and felt this immediate kinship to the form. It made everything make more sense to me, gave structure to words that had felt hard to place before. I liked the need to keep the poem small and compact. Everything had to be fitted in together like a puzzle - this feeling of click when the lines and images worked together. Also, the twisting knife that the volta could be was something that I loved. That feeling of being gutted. 


AG: I had learnt about the beginnings of the sonnet in Renaissance Italy as part of my undergraduate course about a year before sitting down to write Wreathing. At the time, I had been pretty dismissive of the sonnet. I found it hard to even see it as a vehicle of any kind of truthfulness after hearing that Petrarch barely knew Laura de Noves, the woman to whom his sonnets are ostensibly addressed, only meeting her once or twice. But that year of thinking it over without directly thinking about it really turned things for me, for the better. I became curious about the form’s strangeness; its shimmer of address and non-address; the intense and blushing attention; its particular algebra. The foldedness suited who I was when I was writing Wreathing, those acts of saying floridly because you find yourself deeply unable or willing to say directly, and the deeper the aversion, the lusher the poetic speaking. 


NR: My throughline as always is with experimental writing. I think Jeff Hilson's The Reality Street Book of Sonnets was one of the first anthologies I really read, coming into the London innovative scene in the late 2000s. Sean Bonney and Jeff were both writing long sequences of sonnets/14 liners - The Commons & In The Assarts - which were sharp and politically ruthless, and knowing and playful, respectively. Sophie Robinson's first book, a, was also a touchstone for writing and feeling through a queer, lesbian poetics and lineages, in part through a sonnet sequence, with a strong Steinian influence. All of these opened the door on alternatives of what the form could be. 


2. What are a couple of your favourite sonnets?


NIW: Bernadette Mayer’s ‘Sonnet, you jerk’ and also Terrance Hayes ‘I lock you in an american sonnet’.


AG: ‘Sonnet V’ by Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Night of sleepless love’, by Federico García, Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ by Caravaggio.


NR: Bernadette Mayer’s ‘Clap Hands’ & ‘Incandescent War Poem Sonnet’; Harryette Mullen’s ‘Dim Lady’.


3. Do you see any links between the interfaces of social media and the ‘attention economy’ of the sonnet?


NIW: Definitely, while I was writing sonnets I was spending a lot of time on instagram and was posting a lot of my work to fit that ‘square’ in a satisfying way. But it was also as much about my attention span and how long I could focus on writing a poem, as much as it was about holding the attention of other people enough for them to pause their scrolling and read it. By putting the sonnets on my instagram, I was encouraging people to interface with me, the sonnet became a little window within the classic square. Maybe it would be cool to say that it gave me a platform to show my work to a larger audience, but it actually turned into a reward system for my brain. I would post a good poem, it would get likes - thus I was validated. Posting a new sonnet was like pulling a level of a gambling machine, I was excited to see what I would get out. It means you have a very weird relationship with your work and the people who read it - because they are interacting with it whole scrolling through curated content and targeted advertising. I know the poem is the product I sell, but it also became its own reward system for my brain. I was creating content - but I was also consuming how people would interact with it. 


4. Can you say a bit about your experience with sequencing/ordering sonnets: what decisions did you make and why?


NIW: I realised once I was coming out of my ‘big writing focus’ that a lot of my sonnets had ties to the seasons (unintentionally) which is how I then ordered them after them. It was a fortunate accident. Most of the sonnets were written in the seasons they are in - apart from maybe a new odd ones.


NR: Oh. Um. Is this a question about the unfolding of love and the inevitable heartbreak? Or hopefully something more perverse than those Romantic ideations? I wonder if the ordering of sonnet sequence is another element that is ripe for experimentation. 


5. To what extent is ‘constraint’ a central logic of the sonnet for you?


AG: Constraint is there, definitely, if only as what I am working against, this tendency that has been there in sonnets historically and arguably is what the sonnet is born from. It’s something like breaking in a shoe, in which constraint is both the shoe and the wearing of the shoe. In Wreathing constraint is heavily present. I wrote these sonnets whilst very in my feelings for someone whose chief research interest was (maybe still is) constraint in poetry. I learned a lot about the poetics of constraint from talking to him, but also in this desire to practise constraint, not in a sense of submission, more in a hope to meet him and know him better, albeit in a convoluted way. 


I liked the coinciding of writing in this constrained form with someone in mind who had drawn my attention to constraint. It was a pretty yearning experience, the longing consolidating the constraint and vice versa. But I didn’t want the constraint to be total. I still had my frustrations with the hetero-masculinity of that specific, enclosed, unidirectional gaze, which the sonnet both makes manifest and gestates. When I workshopped some of the sonnets during my masters programme, the lecturer said they brought to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of desiring-producing and that these sonnets seemed to be very hard at work as desire-machines, and this assured me and guided me in completing the sequence. What would a desire-machine be if not overflowing, leaking, revelling. I call the little bits of text highlighted in black, appearing in the negative, escapings. They are verbing, bursting and being thwarted, (re)bodying the sonnet form, plural, tricky, and resistive.


NIW: I think constraint is something which informs all parts of the sonnet. The words, the lines and their breaks, the rhythms and imagery. Writing a sonnet is like squeezing an overripe fruit in your fist - it’s overrunning in energy and ideas but also so tightly contained at the same time. The sonnet is as much about what is ‘packed into it’ as it is about what “overflows” (outside the conventional form, or even what is left unsaid)


NR: I spent a lot of time trying to unthink the formal norms of the sonnet’s constraint - which, when writing countersonnets, I read as classically heteronormative, or open to certain forms of homosocial desiring. So I worked explicitly with experimentation in the form as a negation of constraint - to the point of the sonnets becoming almost unrecognisable as sonnets in their gestural expressions of queer desire. The line has to become something else in the process; but the form remains haunted by its closure, even in the context of a sonnet sequence.

 

6. A sonnet is traditionally defined by three formal characteristics: a set number of lines, a rhyme scheme and a turn — the volta. Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of 'the turn', turnings or inversions in your work with the sonnet? 


NR: the volta - the sauciest bit. But like a date, it's predictability at line 9 (or even line 13) can be too formulaic. The volta might be the 'backward glance', but queer poetics is an invitation to skew (or eschew) expectation. Elsewhere, the volta can appear like an unexpected gift. 


For me, poetic space (the page) also becomes a ground of inversion/invention. I worked steps into my lines, to disrupt the linearity to make the sonnet more roomy for queer feelings. A queer architecture/architectonic, complete with a view of the moon from bed. Movement from the space of dreaming. The music of each line gets a chance to pause and pivot between the step and also the line break.


NIW: The turn for me is the twist of the knife - something that leaves you winded. I don’t know why I associate it with such aggressive metaphors but I do believe it has such violent potential. It’s pulling the rug from under your own feet, as a writer at least. I don’t think I have these turns in every single sonnet I ever wrote, but they are always there in my favourite ones. It’s hard to anticipate turns as well, then you’re in the middle of writing a sonnet. How to intentionally end up where you didn’t think it would go? I’m not sure, at the best of times I try and let the sonnet take me there. There’s a sonnet I’ve been trying to write for a year now where I can never get the final two lines the way I want them  - I’m still waiting for it to lead me there. 


7. How do you see the relationship between resolution, form and sexuality in the sonnet?


AG: Resolution or lack of resolution was important to me while writing these. I was considering what a queer poetics could be, reasoning that if queerness is politics then it is also ontology because any politics is also ontology. And so I was asking myself what the ontology of being into all kinds of people and genders is, and settled on uncertainty, flux, but also something joyous and savoured. I came to the term ‘indeterminacy’ through reading some interesting material on determinism in the philosophical sense as well as quantum indeterminacy. I wanted these sonnets to always be getting away from the reader, just a little bit, to overflow, to be mysterious. The sonnet’s history of constraint as certainty, as finality, as the inevitability (of heterosexuality) was a point of chafing here. I was getting this blister from the shoe. I was determined for these sonnets to be weird, always getting away from the reader a little, overflowing, to contain their mistakes – the escapings are comprised of lines that couldn’t fit in the main body of the sonnet.

Quantum indeterminacy is based on spinning, distribution, qualities. It asserts that it’s impossible to know a particle’s properties because the moment you measure, it changes, and you have no point of comparison because no two particles are the same These resonated with the politics of legibility, the conflict between enjoying surprise and translucency and the autistic apprehensiveness that I was grappling with at the time. Shifting, fluid sexuality is often construed misogynistically, as something weak and false and without depth, but at even the most minute level, the universe knows and exists otherwise. 


8. What are the sexiest features of the sonnet?


NR: On a bad day, I'm like "is lyric really still sexy?"

On a good day, it's just how one line can take one's breath away. Start at the top, or stay for the couplet. 


9. Sonnet means ‘little song’. Do you use the sonnet form to think through music, or any other aural experience?


AG: Sound has had a numeric component for me for a while. I often need to break down the syllables of words I see or hear, tapping and counting them out upon my fingertips with my fingers. So the sonnet and it’s music was an extension of this in some ways, but a tricky one too, since fourteen isn’t so good a number for the tapping exercise – ten or five is better, and eight can sometimes feel alright. Rhythm is a really central part of what music and language are to me.

 

I had this keen sense of a complicated relationship between attention and the aural before I begun working in and with sonnets, given I live with auditory processing difficulties.  I don’t always hear what people are saying to me if the conversation is going on in a noisy place or there are visual or tactile distractions around. Really, sound is something I am always acutely aware of – certain sounds are painful to me, as in the screech of expresso machines, the bitty crinkling of polystyrene pieces, one thing brushing against the end of a roll of paper towel. And some sounds I love – if I find a song I like I’ll loop it for days or weeks and listen to nothing else. Repetition and return is precious to me – in life and in poetry. It is very gratifying to me that Wreathing, as a sonnet crown, ends with a sonnet that takes one line each from the previous sonnets.

 

10. Are there any particular histories or movements associated with the sonnet of particular interest to you?


NR: I've always been into the queer lineages that surface through the form, from Shakespeare to Sophie Robinson. The New York School kind of steals the show, though, Edwin Denby, followed by Bernadette Mayer and Ted Berrigan, and then also that bit in the ‘70s where Alice Notley and Berrigan move to London/England. 


Recently, though, I have been wondering what sir Thomas Wyatt was 'really' up to (politically), and if the forms courtly origins in the Anglophone world need to be critically reconsidered as part of an anti-colonial imperative to elaborate the interrelation between British poetics and empire.


11. What did you discover about voice, tone and/or register in the process of writing sonnets?


[Bonus question for readers!]


12. If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?


NR: "So um, Sonnet 20?" 


13. What future is there in the sonnet? Will we always find ourselves coming back to it?


NR: The first 800 years of the form have gone pretty well. Synonymous with love, desire, measured expression and constraint. Lets just hope all those elements that feed it improve for all of us! Affect has a political economy after all. 


14. If you could describe your experience of writing sonnets in one word what would it be?


NIW: Euphoric


NR: ecstasy. or agony. 


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pet cemetery, Nik Ines Ward


you’re not my ex but i still think of you as one,

i don’t know if that makes it easier.

in my dreams, your head is in a bell jar

& i am your neck, stretched out like hot candy.

i felt like an ex before i even was one –

talking about you in the past tense

while you were wearing my clothes.

i don’t know what you did that was worse:

giving me a pet name after your dog

or watching me chase things that were too fast.

i used to stare at doors until they looked like you  

i used to read words that only had letters from your name.

i did like being yours, but i didn’t always like you.


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from Wreathing, Ali Graham


I will best know by

looking away from

        hear all ninety six

of my future throats

clearing themselves

        in all eventuals

there will be singing

 

 

      put unarrival on any of those

{

I am into a more which is inverse

of tapering and steer through for it is

here actually that I begin       or here

        either or implies lack of care        even

unchoosy        it is somewhere north at distance

from me that you are presently and I

do not mean abstractly        it will be warm there

each dusk undifferentiated and no

great length of time         that I will imagine

soon        regretful there are no trembling things

in season        I ready the circumstance

for meet to you again      drink herbal things

     faint mimics     spare of that planetary

way of your doing         I want to move you

 


O

in absence of know

of event that squats

in a future        you

know      it is the line

that strums between me

and distant maybe

has me here living

 


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Sonnet (Bridget Riley incidental), Nat Raha






                       

 


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Further reading:


SPAM recommends…

Nat Raha, countersonnets (Contraband Books, 2013) 

Ali Graham, Wreathing (SPAM Press, 2022)

Nik Ines Ward, A Devotion of Sonnets (SPAM Press, 2021) 


We also recommend the Datableed Sonnet Issue 14.


~


Text: Maria Sledmere, Mau Baiocco, Ali Graham, Nik Ines Ward, Nat Raha

Published: 12/01/2024


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