3 Sonnets from the 22nd Century
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Hmm, to explain myself, these three sonnets [below] are part of a sequence I’ve been working on since 2008. My sonnets have been read by pornstars, webcam models, and now I’ve moved onto avatars, who I recorded from the avatar website, sitepal.
Now, I know sonnets are old fashioned and quaint, but if you indulge me, the next time we have a drink I’ll pick up the tab, or at least let you run out of the bar first.
Ok, good, so, when I first started writing these, I was working with the structure of a “Shakespearian” sonnet, which of course wasn’t invented by Shakespeare, but is now associated with him. I had, uh, “bard on the brain,” having just finished All the World’s A Grave (Plume, 2008), a new play I wrote by culling and rearranging lines from the works of Shakespeare: Prince Hamlet goes to war to capture Juliet, and returns to his country to find that his mother had murdered his father and married Macbeth. But for the sonnets, I couldn’t stick with Shakespeare, and I adjusted and revised until I had what I think is a contemporary, American form: 13 lines, with rhymes that aren’t consciously audible. (Side note: Did you know that execution day in early America was Friday the 13? If you had hot corn to sell, that was the day to go the town square to find a crowd.)
Oh, but I have kept Shakes’ themes.
Sonnets, in my estimation, are about sex and lust, and occasionally self-righteous rage.
That seems like a “timeless” list of subjects, no?
I rankle at the notion of “timelessness.” Usually, such talk is the stuff of forcing some kid to read something boring (to keep them in the safe stuff; the more contemporary, the less sanctioned). Either that, or it’s an excuse to produce work that’s politically absent, i.e., politically passive (and encouraging of passivity).
One of the things I wanted to do in these sonnets was bring them into a contemporary mindset, and out of the atavism that’s associated with “poetry.”
Of course, that’s the reason that five of the “Seven Webcam Models read Sonnets” (published by Vice) were banned from youtube. (Here’s a bit about that at PEN.) I wanted Webcam models because they’re the now pin-up girl, the now representation of sex and lust. Sonnets or webcam performance: it’s art about sex and lust. Webcam performers never see their patrons live, are completely independent, and remotely stir up emotions and thoughts that their audience may not be able to access without them — just like poets. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be so fortunate as to find someone to play out the hypocrisy of “poetry is only for the finer folks, i.e., not webcam models and their ilk,” but youtube did it.
But back to timelessness. As much as sonnets are a thing of the past, as much as poetry is presumed to be not the stuff of the webcam model and a contemporary ethos, sonnets fit perfectly on smartphone screens. For the last five years, as I muddled through the city, drinking martinis and showing people my latest sonnets, that was something I grew to appreciate.
Sonnets are a perfect 21st century text delivery vehicle.
And that was something that got me to thinking about how sonnets move through time, and move us through time. And that, in turn, got me to thinking about avatars, which are pretty eerie: as our descendants, they feel like they’re looking backwards at us — like we’re in the past and they’re in a present that’s inevitable. And that line of thinking led to “avatars read sonnets,” because it’s our future. Poetry is a kind of time travel, and these things are our future selves.