Kathrine Varnes

Of Crowns and Cake

hen I started coordinating collaborative sonnet crowns several years ago, the idea was to combine the collaborative tradition of Japanese linked poetry with the formal tradition of the sonnet, and by inviting women poets I hoped also to tap into feminist ideas about collaboration and what subjects are proper to poetry, particularly in the famously sexist context of the sonnet. Some will make the post argument, pointing to Millay, Brooks, Rich, Plath, Hacker, Peacock: "It's been done." These are the kinds of people who gobble up all the almond cake at a dinner party. "Sorry. None left. We ate that in the seventies." Think of the younger set and their palates! Perhaps it is the baker in me who disagrees with the notion of the form as a fixed object. We discard unsavory epithets and we substitute hazelnut oil for lard, knowing that the best recipes invite modernization. Do not get me wrong: a collaborative sonnet crown is harder and takes longer than a bake-off. But it is a community project, like an internet-age puy. It's never too late for building.

     In most of the crowns, collaborators link the crowns in the usual way, picking up the last line of the previous sonnet as the first line of our own. The last lines of our sonnets are penned like batons for a relay race. After a few of these crowns found homes,

Perhaps it is the baker in me who disagrees with the notion of the form as a fixed object.
I wondered what would happen if we took on Big Old Tradition more aggressively, even heroically. What if we took an old chestnut, not one memorized too often, but something recognizable and important in literary history as it comes to us, and used each line as a "seed" line in our own sonnets? Instead of writing 15 sonnets, we would write 14. The original sonnet would pull the crown together not just formally but also thematically. Here is my first invitation, sent to Robin Kemp's Formalista listserv November 6th, 2006:

Anyone interested in a new crown venture, will you please let me know (back channel kv@kathrinevarnes.com)? I'd like to go for a heroic crown based on one historical (read public domain), so this means that the commitment to the project is two sonnets, each based on one line of a long dead sonneteer. Each person (6 others beside me) in the crown will be "assigned" two lines from which to pen two sonnets. We get a month to do it. Then we put it all together and see what happens. I assume, on this list, that I don't need to say how important it will be for the whole project to hold together that the sonnets are in pentameter (but apparently I just said it anyway). I don't mean stiff--a rollicking pentameter tends to be what I write; I try not to be a hypocrite. I just mean five beats per line. After some revisions, if we think it's worth it, we send it out for publication. For this reason, I ask that participants not rush off to publish the individual sonnets right away but give the group a chance to publish together first. That's all. Sound fun despite how hopelessly over-promised you already are? I have been known to write a first octave while walking to my car; you can too.

     The miracle is not that I thought this would be fun, but that really good poets--Ann Fisher-Wirth, Charlotte Mandel, Tatyana Mishel, Diane Arnson Svarlien, Marilyn Taylor (as well as two others who later left the group)--actually agreed to try it. Most of us had written together before and had a sense of the ground rules. We knew each other as flexible and ambitious writers who were able to revise. We batted a few ideas around. Sidney was a possibility, even Millay and some contemporary poets were up for consideration until we remembered about permissions.

     Milton's Sonnet XII was the challenge we could not resist. I wouldn't wish some of those lines on my worst enemies, and yet, and yet, we agreed that it offered up a good launching point. We did not disagree about the importance of Milton's mighty line on the development of our own senses of meter, and still what poet does not shudder at the story of his daughters reading ancient texts phonetically to the Blind Old Man but being refused their meaning?

The subject of this particular poem, divorce politics, is still au courant and appropriate turf for a feminist battle.
As a figure, Milton is complex and worth a good tangle. The subject of this particular poem, divorce politics, is still au courant and appropriate turf for a feminist battle. We didn't feel constrained by his subject after we got rolling, and we didn't spend ourselves writing in-depth analyses of his poem. Instead we dove into the language, reshaping it to our needs, whether disassembling, estranging, domesticating or extending what we took as Milton's meanings. After some discussion, the group also decided to write our sonnets consecutively rather than at once. We needed to respond to each other, to shape the poem's linear movement.

     From the first giddy invitation to finish, the project took nearly three years. We had busy lives--moves, losses, travel, and of course other projects. At one point, a group member became impatient with the long delays and pulled her sonnet out, which left a hole for the rest of us to patch up. Shortly after, during revisions, another poet bowed out when she could not spare the time and did not wish to hold us up anymore. These were difficult exits, as we needed to let go of the first vision and rethink our goals. At first we were concerned about the lack of symmetry this introduced, but in the end it made for a stronger crown, one less concerned about neatness and more aware of the movement between voices, the narrative of the poem, and the shuttle between ostensibly "private" and "public" concerns during dark times.

     One of the benefits of collaboration is that writers learn from each other without the usual workshop baggage. The single project diffuses a good deal of competitive feeling from the start: we egg each other on and delight in our mutual successes. And since the goal is publication at the outset, when we offer feedback for revision, the stakes are higher and personal--not just an act of charity, say--since a weak link reflects on us all.

     Another value of collaboration, as I see the finished crowns, is that when the voices of each sonnet coalesce, they are like a modern Greek chorus--or at any rate the closest we could manage without a smothering dollop of whipped irony. Oh sure, we have tongues in our cheeks, now and then. But one cannot collaborate without commitment, and this takes bravery and seriousness, too. There is an ethic as well as an aesthetic, although we never spoke of it outright, and we certainly didn't plan it. Perhaps someone might make a case for an organic growth in collaborative writing, in the sense that it captures discrete moments of observation between poets over time. I am reminded that in Latin traditio means to surrender, deliver up. The sonnet crown frees us by giving us structure, a recipe to vary, but it is not the only force here. The ingredients are honest. We have taken our confection out of the oven, cooled it to serving temperature. Plates, forks not required. Enjoy!


Kathrine Varnes writes poems and plays in Mamaroneck, New York, the setting for certain alleged indiscretions of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Kathrine has taught for two decades in a range of institutions, from inner city high schools to elite private colleges, most recently at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Her book of poems, The Paragon (Word Tech 2005), contains a range of formal experimentations from the nonce to the avant garde. Further poems and essays have appeared in publications such as Valparaiso Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Measure, Prairie Schooner, Black Clock, Connotations, After New Formalism, and Parnassus. Kathrine is also co-editor with Annie Finch of An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of their Art (University of Michigan Press 2002) and a coordinator of collaborative sonnet crowns.


Kathrine Varnes

Marion Belanger: My current project, Continental Drift: Iceland/California, is structured around the geologic boundary that forms the edge of the North Atlantic Continental Plate. I was particularly interested in the fact that this geological boundary has no political allegiance, was not determined by wars, by financial interest, or national demarcation. It is a boundary that cannot be controlled or contained by human intervention.
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