I’ve never done the self-reflection part of NaPoWriMo before. I’ve never tried to write a sonnet a day for a month, either! Which was … interesting.
I actually ended up with a total of 33 sonnets for a 30 day month. What happened was that there were two days with family crises where I didn’t get a sonnet written, and I didn’t want to not make the 30, so I kept going. And then, I wanted to end with a flourish, and I really wanted to try to write a sonnet crown, so … I ended up with 33. Just a few extra.
A sonnet crown involves a sonnet sequence where each sonnet begins with the last line of the sonnet preceding it in the sequence, and then the final sonnet in the sequence ends with the first line of the first sonnet in the sequence. Sonnet crowns are also supposed to be thematically linked, and technically written entirely in Shakespearean sonnet form. Depending on which authority you consult, sonnet crowns have either 14 or 15 or 7 sonnets in the sequence, or the number may be unspecified. I wanted all the poems in my sonnet crown to start with the letter “Z,” and found six words that really leaped out at me as being connected, so mine has six sonnets. Some folk will probably say it doesn’t count as a true sonnet form, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
I also really wanted to explore a variety of sonnet forms, and I had this idea of doing a sonnet series titled with all the letters of the alphabet. Before starting this project I wrote most of my sonnets in variations of the Shakespearean or English sonnet form. I sometimes would mix things up with a sonnet in the Spenserian or Petrarchan/Italian sonnet form. (By “variation,” I mean that I’m not terribly good at really working the iambic pentameter, and would instead do a syllabic count for the line length, irrespective of whether the lines were comprised of iambs or a mix of spondee, trochee, dactyls, or anapest. It’s a little less musical, but a lot more flexible. I also will use slant rhymes or near rhymes instead of strict rhymes.) I hadn’t done much else, and I wasn’t really aware of other sonnet forms. Did you know there are almost 200 different named sonnet forms?! 179, actually. Wow. I didn’t, either.
So, I still did most of the sonnets in my regular Shakespearean sonnet form, but I explored some other forms, as well. Here is a list of the sonnets by the form I was trying to work with.
The “so-called American sonnet“ ‘form.’ (FYI, there are at least two other sonnet forms called “American” [one, two] which are far more stringent than this version used by Billy Collins, Ted Berrigan, Terrence Hayes, Wanda Coleman, Daniel Bailey, etc.): Annoying American Sonnet, Piano Sonata Sonnet
Original: Question Sonnet (duodecisyllabic lines, ‘rhyming’ xAxxAxxAxxAxxA)
Shakespearen, modified: Couch Sonnet (octosyllabic lines, except for closing couplet)
I prepared for the project as I do most years — deciding on a theme, and for a month or two before jotting down lines and fragments and words that inspire at those moments. Sometimes I even remember why, but often I just use these as a source of prompts when I get into the writing. Because I was using the alphabet to frame the collection of sonnets, I alphabetized my collection of prompts.
Each day, I’d look at the list of what I’d written so far, my alphabetical index of titles, and see which letters were still left. I’d look at the alphabetized list of prompts. Many days I’d look at the official NaPoWriMo prompts or Luisa Igloria’s prompts. I never had any idea what I was going to write that day, except for the Forbidden series and the Z Sonnets. The Z Sonnets I had planned out the titles, which I wanted to write about in alphabetical order, but other than that had no real plan. The Forbidden series of sonnets came about because I brainstormed what to write about for that word and had way too many ideas.
This year, NaPoWriMo felt like performance art. I hadn’t thought of the possibility for sonnets to be a kind of improvisational act! I realized the power of the audience to shape what I was writing. Some of the pieces came from nuggets other people said, or were reactions to pieces other people wrote. One of the sonnets featured snippets from a Facebook post a friend had made only moments before I started writing, at the end of the day, when I was desperate for inspiration. That turned out to be one of the most popular poems in the series.
Most days I was surprised and delighted by what happened. I discovered the delights of the volta. I’ve developed a desire to explore MORE of the sonnet forms. Each one has its own challenges, strengths, and weaknesses. I’d like to get to a point where I could match a poem inspiration to a form that is suited to it. Well, I can kind of do that with villanelles, but not yet with sonnets or other poetic forms.
I realized how little space there is in a sonnet. It’s tiny tight nuggets of concepts and images. Often I wanted to say much, much more. At the same time, I found working in a tight form to make the process of NaPoWriMo in some ways simpler easier. Working in sonnets, with the alphabetical titles, and all those restrictions meant there was less emotional labor in the poems, and more cognitive labor. It was a kind of giant puzzle.
The poem writing time usually comes out of my sleep time, and by the end of the month, I am drained and flattened with exhaustion. I do start the poems on the bus in the morning, jot bits and pieces throughout the say, but I don’t get to actual assembly until my son goes to bed and I have clear uninterrupted quiet time. As he gets older, that gets later, and my NaPoWriMo work gets harder and more exhausting each year. Realizing how much easier the strict form made things, I’m debating about perhaps taking on a sonnet redoublé or heroic crown next year. The risk of taking on too much form is that you may lose the emotional drive to write the poems. If they become overly intellectual, they are cute rather than touching, so I’m not sure about this yet. I suspect I’ll be reading a lot more sonnets while I ponder this.
Usually, I write most of my poetry during April, explicitly because of NaPoWriMo. As a single mom of a special needs kid, with a demanding professional career that is most definitely not poetry, it’s … hard. But I have always been a poet and always wanted to be a poet, and turned down a fellowship in a poetry MFA program to go to grad school in a program with a future that would allow me to support my kids on my own. Each year, I want to keep the poems going, and just become too tired. I really want to not drop out this year. I’m thinking I might be able to keep it going if I try to do one poem a week. I’m thinking probably Sundays. So, watch this space, and see if I can do it. Moral support welcomed!!