Curated Prompt: Oliver de la Paz – “The Fourteen-Hour Sonnet”

Oliver de la Paz
Oliver de la Paz

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Oliver de la Paz.

When you’re a parent of three children under the age of 6, you have to be very deliberate in finding time for yourself to commit to the page. My family lives in the country, and it’s a 40-minute commute from my house to the doorstep of my workplace. In addition, all my children are in daycare. You’d think that having the kids in daycare would afford me some time, but it doesn’t. When they’re in daycare, I’m either teaching, thinking about teaching, preparing to teach, or administrating on some committee that has to do with teaching. Needless to say, my writing time comes in pockets. Slivers. Little flares. My relationship with the page is no longer routinized. I used to have ample time to dedicate to writing, but that was before children. Now my writing time is broken down into excursions. Mini-trips. Little rendezvous. I understand that this is my life and rather than succumb to long silences, I challenge myself everyday, to think about a poem. In order to cope with my hectic schedule, I developed a process that fosters obsession.

An obsession is not a terrible thing to have when you’re a writer. It can be a motivator—generative beacon. I try to dedicate increments of five to ten minutes throughout the day to the composition of a line. I also attempt to write a line every hour for fourteen hours, so by the end of the day I have a sonnet-length collection of lines. My poem “Requiem for the Orchard” was composed under these particular conditions. During the hectic weeks of Christmas vacation (who’d have thought Christmas vacation would be hectic?) I had a sense that I needed to craft a “spinal” poem for a collection of poems I had nearly completed.

During the Kundiman Retreat in 2007, I assigned the Kundiman Fellow cohort the following assignment. I give it to you now:

1) Write a single line every hour. Write no more than a line. Even if you feel you wish to write a second line, restrain yourself from doing so.

2) Set an alarm to go off every hour.

3) At the top of every hour, write a new line, adding to the collection of lines you have written throughout the day.

4) Do this for fourteen hours.

Here’s what happens, at least to me, when you set up these particular circumstances—you wind up thinking about the poem all day. Sure, you’ve spaced out the time you get to the page, but in the interstices of an hour, a poem begins to take shape from its first line to its next line to the line that follows. Of course, you’re going to want to be sure that you are in a safe locale for this. One Kundiman fellow was driving when the fellow’s writing alarm went off and she nearly sideswiped a car. Don’t do that.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable, forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems and the co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

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

Weekly Prompt: Writing Through Form

Few of us ever sit down to write and think, “Wow, I feel like writing a double abecedarian today!” or “I’m not sure why, but this feels like a sestina type of morning.”  If you’re anything like me, you have a somewhat removed relationship to form: you know it’s out there, and have grown up loving sonnets and sestinas, but you’re steeped in contemporary free verse and it’s not often that you turn naturally toward the formal constraints of meter, rhyme schemes, and patterns of repetition.  What I’ve discovered however, is that using form (or multiple forms, even) as part of a drafting process can be tremendously helpful.

Take this process, for instance.  I begin with a page and a half of rough, ill-formulated free verse (part of my stream-of-consciousness generating process), cut everything that seems extraneous, then apply a ten-syllables-per line rule that reads roughly like iambic pentameter.  Some lines feel forced, others buckle with newfound muscle and verve.  In certain places, the syntax torques into interesting patterns and the language tightens with sharpened verbs and image.  I extract all the lines that are working well and weave them into a pantoum.  The language overlaps, recontextualizes, and surprising new meanings are forged and unforged.

My pantoum reveals the weaknesses of specific lines, so I cut them, keeping only the lines strong enough to stand alone.  Strong enough to pass, if you will, the “test” of the pantoum.  What’s left is a hodge-podge of lines and my poem looks like a newspaper with the headlines cut out, but one or two stanzas remain untouched.  I smash them into a rough fourteener form, then work and rework the language until what emerges—hammered, refined, and carefully tuned, is a new poem.  I am pleased.

Your process (or experiment) doesn’t have to be as involved as the one I’ve just described.  Writing through form (where form is not the final destination, but rather, the means by which one reaches the poems one really wants to write) can be as simple as: free verse to blank verse, or free verse to haiku to heroic couplets.  Be creative.  Mix and match, invent unexpected combinations of form (ie. “What do you get when you cross iambic tetrameter with an elegy?”).  Some pairings may prove disastrous, but no worries.  Since you’re writing through form as part of a drafting process, even the most awful results can be redirected in the next draft.

Feel free to either post a sample poem or share a few process notes from your attempts to write through form.  Good luck, and have fun!