Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with Zachariah Wells on Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets

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Tonight (Wednesday, June 11), The IV Lounge Reading Series will be hosting the launch of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Biblioasis Press). The anthology includes poems by Milton Acorn, Margaret Avison, Ken Babstock, George Elliott Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Malcolm Lowry, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Don McKay, Eric Ormsby, Pino Collucio, Bookninja's George Murray, Stuart Ross, Goran Simić, Karen Solie, and dozens of others.

The launch will be held at the IV Lounge at 326 Dundas St W, across from the AGO. It starts at around 8pm.

I interviewed poet and anthology editor Zachariah Wells by e-mail as he was running around getting ready to fly from his home in Vanvouver to Toronto...

NW: First of all, what's your definition of a sonnet? I mean technically and personally, if the two don't completely overlap.

ZW: A poem that may or may not be fourteen lines long, often but not exclusively written in iambic pentameter, and may have a set rhyme scheme, usually featuring some sort of turn, traditionally taking for its subject romantic love, but now pretty much open to anything.

For the book, as this waffly non-definition suggests, I've been pretty liberal and have tried to cast as wide a net as possible, so ultra-orthodox formalists might poo-poo some of my choices. Technically, there has to be something about a poem, usually a kind of compact dialogic structure, that makes it essentially a sonnet, even if it breaks most of the rules of orthodox sonneteering.

NW: What is it about the sonnet form that attracts you to it?

ZW: I love its density and how it can be simultaneously compact and expansive (particularly as units in long sonnet sequences). I love the elegance of its shape(s) and the dialectical structure of its internal arguments. Scottish poet Don Paterson, whose anthology 101 Sonnets was an inspiration for my book, has said that the sonnet "represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take." I agree.

NW: Which came first, the idea for an anthology of sonnets or the sonnets themselves?

ZW: A bit of both. I've always loved the form and have made many attempts at it myself. And there were many Canuck sonnets I already knew of that I prized highly. But after hatching the idea, I discovered a whole lot more that I hadn't known about previously.

NW: What was your aim with the anthology – was it more about the sonnets or the writers you included? (Or was it just for fun?)

ZW: My principal aim was to produce an enjoyably readable book, rather than a comprehensive compendium. The focus is very much on the single poems, rather than on the oeuvres of their authors: more an eccentric arrangement than an authoritative act of canon-building. That said, I hope that the book does open up some questions about how the Canadian canon has been built and I hope it challenges some of the standard assumptions about our poetry.

NW: Such as…

ZW: Such as: Canadian poetry defines itself by its rejection of its inheritance from English poetry and by the conventions of plainspoken naturalism. Such as: a good modern/post-modern Canadian poem doesn't rhyme. Obviously, the opposite is just as silly (if it don't rhyme, it ain't poetry), but has not been as fashionable.

NW: Are there forms that are unfairly seen as old-fashioned? Are there any that are still employed though long past their best-before dates?

ZW: I think calling a form old-fashioned or out-dated misses several points – which hasn't stopped many people from doing it. Writing a sonnet today using Elizabethan or Victorian diction, tropes and imagery would, yes, be pointlessly anachronistic. But a form like the sonnet is a neutral structure – pace those who would insist that it's a tool of patriarchal imperialist oppression – at least in the abstract. How that structure is fleshed out, and how the frame itself is bent, warped and remoulded, makes all the difference.

Some forms (like villanelles) are very easy to write, but almost impossible to make into successful poems. I can't imagine an anthology of a hundred villanelles that would be anything short of tortuous to read. This has nothing to do with the form's age, and everything to do with its basic inflexibility. The sonnet, by contrast, has always been characterized by its plasticity. It's been adapted in so many different ways throughout the ages by poets of widely varying sensibilities and preoccupations.

NW: Do you see yourself doing this (putting together an anthology) again soon? Could this be the first in a series?

ZW: I doubt it. I have a backburner idea for an anthology I'd like to do, but don't foresee having the time to work on it anytime soon. But maybe if there's a publisher crazy enough to take on publishing a 500 page book of dubious sellability...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine. His writing and reviews have appeared in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Toro, Geist, Saturday Night and elsewhere. His novel, A Week of This: a novel in seven days, was published this spring by ECW Press.

Go to Nathan Whitlock’s Author Page