Interview with Sonnet L’Abbé

By Natasha Ramoutar

Sonnet L’Abbé is the author of two previous poetry collections, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, and is a professor at Vancouver Island University. In her latest collection Sonnet’s Shakespeare, she breaks open William Shakespeare’s sonnets, engulfing his words with her own. Natasha Ramoutar, a reviewer for Room, interviewed her as a follow up to her review of Sonnet’s Shakespeare. The interview explores several Caribbean-specific references throughout the collection, such as if Guyana’s status as a British colony influenced the work and the incorporation of Caribbean idioms and dialects.

Note: This interview was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

ROOM: When I’m thinking of Shakespeare as a father figure in the English canon, I also think about the way that I learned Shakespeare in school and my parents did in Guyana as a British colony. Can you tell me about this pervasiveness of Shakespeare’s works across English colonies?

Sonnet L’Abbé: I would say that the narrative around how Shakespeare has been used as a tool of colonization… that narrative is something that I didn’t necessarily come up with myself. I remember it first being proposed to me in graduate school. And it made sense at the time.

I would say that personally, though, it wasn’t Shakespeare that I understood to be that colonial text. My grandmother, Anita Rayman, my mom’s mom, was not able to go to the “good” school in Georgetown because she had darker skin than her sisters. But nonetheless, she was very proud of the poems that she had memorized. These poems were really ingrained in her mind. She used to recite Tennyson a lot, a bit of Kipling.

My uncle on my dad’s side, my white uncle who is a poet, when he got married a second time, the room was full of poets. It was my grandmother that was reciting the Tennyson, along with the people that were just, you know, reading it out of a book. The white people [were] reading it out of a book for their wedding, holding that up as ceremonial, but she knew it by heart. So that moment really struck me. My grandmother also remembered those Tennyson lines when she got Alzheimer’s and was in a home. They stayed with her as much as some song fragments did. That’s my personal anecdote around British literature being woven into the fabric of my Guyanese family’s sense of decorum and pride and learning, and, you know, their hopes for children doing well.

For this project, I chose the sonnets to stand in for all the British poetry and all the Shakespeare inculcated in brown and Black bodies, becuase of the tie to my name. I also chose the sonnets because of my name. My mom’s name is Janet, my dad’s name is Jason. So my name having the meaning of “a form of poetry” was something that I learned, maybe, I don’t know, when I was four or five or six years old, pretty young. My dad had a paperback copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was not his; it was his brother’s. It was not well used. I would take it to school and I would read it. When I was seven, and we were learning times tables, which I already knew,  I would take out the Shakespeare sonnets and I basically tried to figure out what they meant. Nobody seemed to find that strange.

Book Sonnets ShakespeareROOM: The jacket copy to the book calls what you’re doing in this collection “literary patricide” as you displace or speak over William Shakespeare’s sonnets, but that his sonnets are “never entirely silenced.” What prompted you to approach this collection with this technique?

SA: Around the time that I was figuring out what I was going to write, I was interested in representations of human cognition and human states of consciousness through plant metaphors. I ended up writing a full dissertation on the work of an American modernist named Ronald Johnson. Ronald Johnson’s main claim to fame is that he wrote a book called Radios, which was an erasure of Paradise Lost. It’s considered to be the first erasure text. So, I found myself reading a lot of criticism about erasure while trying to figure out what I was going to do next, and also being aware of a resurgence of popularity of blackout poetry around me in Vancouver and at the time in Toronto.

And then conversations around poetics of appropriation were also happening. [Like when] Goldsmith used the text of Michael Brown’s autopsy. Poets like Goldsmith had already been somewhat problematic, right? The conversation that saw a source text as if it was just raw material to be used and shaped by your genius self was part of also what was going on in poetry. [It was] all those things together. The critical writing around erasure poetry was mostly written by dudes about dudes – American white dudes about American white dudes. At the time, the criticism was calling erasure poetry an extension of found poetry, using metaphors like – “corrosive poetics” – comparing the process etching. It was like none of the approach to the source text was at all being addressed.

But Zong! was around, and I had seen some work by Gary Morris and Jordan Abel. The people writing in Canada seemed to know that erasure, as a practice, is like editing or censorship. As a person who’s not the dominant demographic, how can you even see a word like erasure and not have the politics of cultural erasure and silencing and assimilation and all of those things not come to mind? How could you do erasure without having its resonances with editing come to mind or with censorship? I ended up writing an essay about it. It came out in Avant Canada. I wondered why are the white Americans talking about erasure this way? Look at these Canadian and Turtle Island Indigenous poets using erasure to think about how literary practice participates in forms of erasure!

The way that you manage your difference or try to erase your own difference, just by virtue of being surrounded by a different kind of voice, was what I was thinking about in conversation with those other poets who are already using blackout erasure or whiteout erasure. The strategy of surrounding peoples was something that that colonizers did. I thought about my own experience growing up, and in Vancouver or Kelowna, as the only Black mixed-race person in the room, in the cohort, in my workplace, when I came up with this overwriting erasure process. That sense of being surrounded is still true for me here in Nanaimo.

ROOM: I’m interested in the importance of voice in the poems. One line I have here is “Amerindian Carib sounds survive in me–tones nuff nuff be ring in me hed steady na” and also the phrase of “yuh tek yuh eye and pass me” – all of these phrases that still exist in Guyana or are used across the Caribbean. In what ways do you use that kind of language throughout the collection?

SA: I don’t actually know if there’s a correct word to speak of what my family would say was, “how they speak in the backdam.” My family tried to not speak that way and then whenever there was a joke to be told, then that voice comes out. My Aunt Sally had great phrases and my grandmother too.

Those sounds, those phrases, are the music of Guyana for me, the music of how one side of my family speaks. I think that the musicality and rhythm and inflections of how your family speaks to you are kind of bred in the bone, in the sense of your basic neuroplasticity and your senses. You end up responding viscerally to these sounds. You’re like a baby, you’re basically rocked to sleep with these tones. That’s how my mother’s voice sounds.

“Amerindian Carib sounds survive in me” – like there’s no way that the diction that we’re hearing that is Guyanese are not influenced by the people who were already there (in what became Guyana). The sounds of an Indian English and an African vernacular influenced English, all of that, which developed on the Indigenous lands that the Dutch and British called Guiana: my body is going to those sounds as if they are home.

ROOM: I sometimes see boxes or boundaries placed around folks from the Caribbean on what kind of music they should like or what kind of music they experience. I really love that this collection goes from Mighty Sparrow to Prince to Björk to Tanya Tagaq. How does your interest in music and potentially your work as a musician weave its way into this collection?

SA: I don’t think I ever consciously was like, I’m gonna make sure that this book is a lot about music. It was afterwards people said, there’s a lot of music in this book, I’m like, oh yes, I guess so. I know that one thing that I did want, when, after at a certain point, I decided that the book was going to be diaristic, was that I really needed to show my joy and what gets me out of bed. But then I wasn’t even identifying as a musician. I hadn’t picked up the guitar to play until 2018 basically. I’ve been playing guitar for two years now, and understand so much more how my body experiences song as joy. So joy was a huge part of it. And Prince died, right? And David Bowie died. So those two pieces are there because I was writing diaristically, and I love the music. Tanya Tagaq I saw in concert.

Sometimes I can get in my head about why even do poetry. When I think about music and why music exist, I don’t need the same justifications. I’m like, music has a rhythm, music makes you feel, and it’s pleasing to the ear or not pleasing to the ear and we just move to it. There’s something deeply physical about it in a planetary physics kind of way. And when I tune in to my poetic practice as that, then it makes sense to me. Then I’m happy to keep doing it.

I get now that my sensibility as an artist or as a creator has always been about rhythm and inflection and tone and musicality. There are sad reasons that I did not pursue actual instrumental music before this. But that identity of musician, that I abandoned a long time ago, survived. My sense of having an ear and listening for the sound of things: it survived in poetry.

ROOM: XXXV (35) uses imagery from the practice of yoga. I found it really interesting that this idea of yoga being really peaceful was put in direct conversation with more violent themes: “everything unvoiced, the hate we swear we hate, stretches my fingers” and “a pure-like yoga, unrobbed, undismembered from Indian men.” Tell me about the two themes operating in this poem.

SA: I remember the moment of finding that last line. That last phrase that surprised me. I was not conscious of that going into it. And then that line came out I was like whoa, yes! That’s where I want this to end. I love those discoveries, where my body pipes up.

I experienced the practice of writing poetry as a place that I would go to take my tensions. I also experienced it like needlework, like okay, I’ve got this frame. I’ll take my threads and my own thoughts and I’ll do that. But I also experience poetry as creating a breathing, calming word. When I’m shaping breath. Like, “mentally shaping breath through language” and thinking about rhythm as I do it, for me is a helpful metaphor to explain how it works for me. It’s also a helpful metaphor when I’m in the moment and get in my head about why am I doing this again? I feel like that’s part of the integrity of the work of writing, right, is to always sort of be asking yourself what the hell am I doing this for? It can help you not lie. It can be tempting to exaggerate things, and I’m not entirely about that. I’m very much about trying to reach for the things that are really difficult to express and trying to get them right and if I look bad, owning that. I think that’s part of my ethos.

Yoga is kind of like that. Yoga is not supposed to be about looking fly in yoga pants. Ideally, it’s a conditioning, it’s something that keeps you healthy, but it keeps you in touch with yourself and you’re supposed to be aware of your pains. And give space to your pains and give space to your attention so you know what’s going on with you, and then you can be responsible to it. But when you actually like experience yoga in its Vancouver forms or its colonial forms, it’s so stripped of Indianness. It’s so stripped of its roots. It’s been so commercialized and packaged and it’s been turned into like Gwyneth Paltrow, aspirational blonde whatever. It’s sad to me. I mean, I have a few books I got to research what is yoga, what was it before it was dismembered from Indian men? What is that? I still can’t be sure that tradition would be supportive to me as a woman. I think it was still very patriarchal, in the Gurus who got to be the ones who taught and led the practice.

Natasha Ramoutar is an Indo-Guyanese writer by way of Scarborough (Ganatsekwyagon) at the east side of Toronto. She has been published in The Unpublished City II, PRISM Magazine, Room Magazine, Living Hyphen and more. Her first book of poetry Bittersweet was published in 2020 by Mawenzi House.

Sonnet L’Abbé is a mixed-race Black writer, professor, emerging musician and organizer of Afro-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese, and Québecois ancestry. They are the author of three collections of poetry: A Strange Relief, Killarnoe, and Sonnet’s Shakespeare. Sonnet’s Shakespeare was a Quill and Quire Book of The Year for 2019, was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Raymond Souster Award, and longlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Their chapbook, Anima Canadensis, won the 2017 bp Nichol Chapbook Award. L’Abbé lives on Vancouver Island and is a professor of Creative Writing and English at Vancouver Island University.

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