Published October 2009 | sunnyoutside | Buffalo, NY | 56 pages
These days, when many people think of sonnets, they often scrunch up their noses, conjuring up images of Shakespeare moldering away in his grave. They might regard any poem in a form (such as a sonnet) warily from afar, then poke it with a long stick, the way you might poke a roadkilled raccoon in the eye. Friends, I am here to tell you, Not so! The sonnet is very much alive and relevant to our Facebook-oriented ways.
The book is comprised of twenty-three sonnets, each about a different U.S. state (with the exception of two Canadian provinces and one U.S. territory). The poems are postcards sent back from love affairs and road trips, from Alcatraz and Cape Cod. Each state is one I’ve actually visited (with the exception of New Jersey—see the bottom of this page), although several were only for a brief time or merely driving through. The book, therefore, examines both the pleasures and pains of wanderlust, and the thoughts we carry with us no matter the landscape.
I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and began this project about nine years ago, when I first became interested in sonnets. Writing poems in a form is very challenging at first, as external (and arbitrary) rules are applied to the poem. The first several sonnets I wrote were awful. I wrote about ten of them that first year, and only two remain in the final book, after heavy revision. Slowly, they got better, as I read more sonnets, and understood more how a good sonnet was supposed to operate. I never focused on this project intensely, but it seemed every year a few would leak out, until I realized I had a tenable collection. Some of the states—Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota—needed to be rewritten several times over the course of the years, and other states remain locked doors for me, no matter how many times I approached them. (Curse you, Michigan! Confound you, Tennessee!)
Each poem features an illustration to accompany it, created by Kevin Charles Kline. I think the book looks beautiful, and that’s entirely due to the efforts of David McNamara at sunnyoutside. I’m very proud of the final product, and I appreciate his willingness to take a risk on this book, especially given many people’s initial reactions to sonnets as described above.
* * *
I’m grateful to several places that have given the book some publicity:
- In 2011, State Sonnets was part of a review-essay by Erik Richardson in The Centrifugal Eye.
- My poem “wanting to hate niagara falls” and some accompanying commentary about the process of writing it are included in the Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Forms and Formalists, edited by Michael Kriesel for Verse Wisconsin #104.
- Karla Huston reviewed the book in Verse Wisconsin #102.
- On November 17, The New Perspective, Carroll University’s student newspaper, published an article about me and the book. See page 6.
- In November, The Midwest Book Review reviewed the book. Twice.
- In September, I was interviewed by WUWM, along with Wisconsin Poet Laureate Marilyn Taylor, about sonnets and an all-sonnet reading we gave. You can find more info on the Interviews page.
* * *
imagining new jersey
it’s the garden state, sure, what with the swamps
and suburbs blooming tropical beneath a canopy
of smog. we presume that someone wants
to live there, drinking beer, frittering at a factory,
but this is my story: right now, she’s at newark
international, dragging her suitcase like a mailbox
full of old clothes. maybe she’s watching planes cut thin arcs
of air like shepherds’ crooks as they herd their flocks
of clouds, sheepish and gray. i’m tired of gardens
of time zones; she’s tired from jet lag and planes fueled by luck
and aerodynamics. her perfume hangs like a charm,
and when she gets home, i’ll ask (before discarding
her tickets), “how was new jersey?” as she turns to pluck
the dead blossoms from the garden of my arms.
* * *
the stones of gravel roads there tick like eggs,
while the wind is an old man, wheezing and comical,
finding nowhere he can sit down. he begs
to be left alone, to play his harmonica
of cornleaves the way he used to, before
the interstate couldn’t distinguish what cheer
from williamsburg. knock it off. take two more
aspirin with your ethanol. tonight is clear
as a gaze, and the fields are dark chessboards:
better move your tractor. god will take man.
—i want to kiss her then rip up her passport,
saying, the arc de triomphe can be damned;
let’s drive to where dust fogs the stars.
listen. there’ll be music. we’ll hum a few bars.