Friday Prompt: Re-imagining the Sonnet

Writing the sonnet can feel like stepping into a well-worn pair of shoes.

This week’s prompt is, in large part, inspired by NYC-based Poetic Theater Productions’ call for re-magined versions of classical love sonnets , which I have been mulling over and trying to write into for the last week. Thinking about the challenge of modernizing the themes of a well-known sonnet for a contemporary audience has also gotten me thinking about form, at large, and the ways in which the sonnet itself has been re-shaped and re-envisioned in the contemporary era.  While poets writing sonnets still continue to seek out the spirit of traditional form variations (such as the use of iambic pentameter, schemes of rhymes or off-rhymes that imitate the traditional Elizabethan, Italian, or Spencerian sonnets’ patterns, or even the inclusion of a turn, or the limiting of a poem’s length to 14 lines), many endeavor to push the form in new directions.  There are many examples of “nontraditional sonnets” that buck the rule, but one of my favorites is Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus, where she uses the metered structure of iambs, and rhymes that often fall slant, in order to record, and examine, the narratives of victims of the death penalty in the United States.  McDonough’s sonnets are, by design, rubbly, and at times brutal in their pacing.  They are woven through with found language drawn from historical documents, and her masterful crafting of the poems that enfold these quotations allows the skeleton of the sonnet form to serve almost like prison bars–the poems and the people whose stories they tell are, at once, made visible by means of the formal “cages” which contain them, and are yet simultaneously engaged in a continual struggle against them.

Mông-Lan also employs the sonnet in her collection Song of the Cicadas, whose eponymous sequence is a crown of sonnets, identifiable as such partly because of the length of each section (which falls around 14 lines, on average), but primarily because of its use of the formal convention in which the sonnets are linked by a series of repeated lines (the end line of the previous sonnet becomes the first of the one that follows, and the end line of the final sonnet is the first line of the first).  “Song of the Cicadas” breaks from the notion of the sonnet as a formally-regulated structure by disregarding meter and rhyme scheme; its individual sections do not even quite look like sonnets (which we expect to be blockish and dense in shape, and quite short), as the poet’s use of unconventional breaks and spacing causes the poems to float, lattice-like, on the page.  And yet, because it operates by calling upon the notion of the sonnet (however much it simultaneously resists it), we, as the reader, can read it as such: songlike, concise, clean and tightly polished, colored by the signature turn or tonal shift that we expect–even assume–drives the argument of each section forward.

Mông-Lan, Jill McDonough, and the many other contemporary poets who play with this well-loved form challenge us to re-think the sonnet, not just in order to “revive” it from the realm of stodgy antiquity or cliché, but in order to re-imagine it as was originally intended–not just as a pretty poetic form, but as a form of confident, and often surprising, poetic argument.

Prompt: Write a sonnet that re-imagines traditional formal constraints while still retaining enough of traditional conventions to make it identifiable as a “sonnet.”

(For more on different types of sonnet forms, please see this page from

Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

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A Conversation With Mong-Lan

Mong-Lan and two of her book covers.

Mong-Lan is a Vietnamese-born American poet, writer, painter, photographer, and Argentine tango dancer and teacher.  Mong-Lan’s first book of poems, Song of the Cicadas, won the 2000 Juniper Prize from UMASS Press and the 2002 Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Awards for Poetry.  Her other books of poetry include Why is the Edge Always Windy?; Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art, the bilingual Spanish / English edition, Tango, Tangueando: Poemas & Dibujos and Love Poem to Tofu and Other Poems (chapbook). A Wallace E. Stegner Fellow in poetry for two years at Stanford University and a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam, Mong-Lan received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona.  Her poetry has been frequently anthologized, having been included in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Book of Poetry: Best Poems from 30 Years of the Pushcart Prize; Asian American Poetry —The Next Generation, and has appeared in leading American literary journals. Her paintings and photographs have been exhibited at the Capitol House in Washington D.C.,  for six months at the Dallas Museum of Art, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, in galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in public exhibitions in Tokyo, Bali, Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Seoul. Based in Buenos Aires, Mong-Lan travels frequently.  Visit:

LR: You are both a visual artist and a poet, and both of these art forms have a strong presence in your books.  How have your sensibilities as a visual artist have influenced your poetry’s aesthetic?  Did you come to one through the other?  At what point did the two interests begin to intersect?

ML: My sensibilities as a visual artist have influenced greatly my poetry’s aesthetic.  The open field of the page is important to me, just as the blank canvas or white sheet of paper is to the visual artist.  When writing poetry, I think in spatial terms, not just linearly.  So, in this way, I concern myself with the placement of words on the page, using the way words bounce off each other, the connotation of words next to each other, above, below, to the right and left, and diagonal. In Tango, Tangoing, my latest book, you can read certain poems not only left to right, but down one column, then down another column.

I didn’t come to one art through the other.  A visual artist since childhood, I showed my artworks in Houston and then in San Francisco, where I flowered and came to mature as a visual artist in the very liberal atmosphere there.  At the same time, I was writing since high school, scribbling in journals my feelings, emotions, narratives, stories and things that I couldn’t depict visually in paintings.

Both poetry and the visual arts are twin sisters, and it’s easy for me to shift from one to the other.  I find that these arts complement each other.  And, so, there in San Francisco in the 90’s, I found myself as a poet as well as a visual artist, giving readings with other Vietnamese-American writers/poets.

LR: When you are putting together a collection of poems that will include visual artwork — how do you view the art in relationship to the text?  Do you see the art as illustrations of your poems? As a kind of visual poetry in and of itself?

ML: In my first two books, Song of the Cicadas and Why is the Edge Always Windy?, the text is primary, and the visuals secondary.  The artwork in both books were used more as appetizers and section dividers.  In Song of the Cicadas, I included pen and ink drawings that I drew when I was in Vietnam, the same time I was writing the book itself.  It just happened, naturally and synchronistically like that.

Because many people commented on my artwork in both books, I decided to include more of them in my next books.  In the chapbook, Love Poem to Tofu & Other Poems, and in Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art, the artworks are very integral to the books, indeed [they] complement the text a great deal, although the texts can stand by themselves.  There are many more drawings/paintings in these latter two books—they’re more like entrees and not just appetizers.

The artworks in my books can stand by themselves; thus, they are not mere illustrations. Yet, they do illuminate the text and add another dimension to it.  Yes, I would consider my artworks a kind of visual poetry in and of itself.

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