Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tyehimba Jess, Allison Joseph, and those sonnet sequences

Tyehimba Jess's  book leadbelly was the one that prompted me to pay closer attention to what contemporary poets were doing with sonnets. Jess includes a crown of sonnets toward the end of his volume, and as it turns out, several poets have produced crowns or extended sequences of sonnets.
Allison Joseph's My Father's Kites, for instance, contains a sequence of 34 sonnets focusing on her father. 

Jess and Joseph are key touchstones in broad network of poetry projects featuring sonnets.

2005 - Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly 
2005 - Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till [a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme]
2007 - Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (a crown of 10 sonnets) 
2007 - Elizabeth Alexander's & Marilyn Nelson's Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color
2009 - Allison Joseph's My Father's Kites (includes 34 sonnets)
2010- Tyehimba Jess's "Sonnet Crown for Blind Tom" (7 sonnets) [reprint in 2013] 
2010 - John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie 
2011 - Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split: Poems (a sequence of 19 sonnets)
2012 - Patricia Smith's Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah ["Motown Crown"] (15 sonnets)
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

The appearances of those sonnet sequences in volumes reflect the extents to which contemporary poets utilize the extended spaces of books to present extensive poetry projects. Jess's sonnets, for example, are part of a larger book-length treatment of the life of musician Leadbelly, and Nelson's sonnets for Till comprise the entire book. Most print-based magazines provide poets with the space to publish one or two points at a time, but certainly not sequences of 19 and 34 interrelated sonnets like in Finney's and Joseph's books, respectively.

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
As those sonnet sequences suggest, for many poets, volumes of  poetry are no longer simply sites for the publication of individual poems. Instead, the books serve as platforms for poetry projects that showcase deliberate interconnectivity among several different pieces.  

14 Sonnets by 14 African American poets 
The Strength of Weak Ties in Nikky Finney's Sonnet Sequence
Nikky Finney's George Bush Sonnet Sequence, Pt. 1
Allison Joseph and the fourteen-line box

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