Sonnet L’Abbé’s new book is a labour of love; one that had her lost at times. It is a triumph of effort, imagination and tenacity – and you might say the book she was born to write. For Sonnet’s Shakespeare, L’Abbé went through each of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and created new works by writing over and around them. Keeping the original text in the original order, she then added her own words to create new dense poems. Each new work is numbered to correspond with the original.
L’Abbé’s new non-sonnets address issues of culture, politics and autobiography – everything from the death of David Bowie to her own trauma as a survivor of sexual violence. She deals extensively with her experience of Canada as a woman of colour, an experience that informed her reaction last week to the photos of Justin Trudeau in blackface. (She was not shocked.)
They are utterly readable, sometimes searing, often very funny. And if you have the time, it’s really fun (yes, fun) to sit with the original sonnets and compare them to hers. (In some poems, the original text is visible, in grey type.)
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” which begins Sonnet XVIII, becomes something entirely different in L’Abbé’s version. “Sonnet’s Shakespeare’s syllabics stomp on patriarchies. Sonnet’s Shakespeare throats the bummers of daddy mythologies, art movement cruelty, oversimplifying bros, and more!”
She began the project in 2012, inspired, in part, by discussions about the appropriate use of source text and the rise of erasure poetry, where words or letters are removed from an original text to create a new work of art. “It made me think about how one does not necessarily have to delete a voice on a page or physical body, a person, in order to silence them,” she says during an interview, fresh off a seaplane. She had flown into Vancouver from Nanaimo, where she lives and where she works as a professor and chair of the Creative Writing and Journalism department at Vancouver Island University.
L’Abbé, whose parents are French-Canadian, and mixed South Asian and black, says her own experience of being silenced has a lot to do with growing up in Canada, feeling othered. So she thought, “Why don’t I take a source text that I feel symbolizes the dominant culture’s pressures on me and respond with power?”
The process was painstaking. She cut and pasted two copies of each sonnet, keeping the original on top and transforming the bottom copy to become her own. The collection can be read as a document of our time, which is amazing considering the timelessness of the source material. The works are peppered with contemporary references – MDMA, IKEA, LOLs – and deal with current events such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and even Jose Bautista’s bat-flip. There is also a great deal of personal content, including her inability to have a child and attempt to adopt.
L’Abbé was born in Toronto and moved with her family to various places before settling in Kitchener-Waterloo, where she went to high school. She tells me that, as a child, some friends were not allowed to bring her home because of her skin colour. It was like being gaslighted, she says – learning about this multicultural Canada where people don’t see race while experiencing something very different. “I’ve been the brown mug for do-good leftists before; my trust wants mending, with more than style and nods to the arts,” she writes in Sonnet LXXVIII. The poem ends: “How now, Justin? How savage are my rude designs on your inheritance?”
One thing L’Abbé does not want to discuss is what happened during a residency on literary diversity at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2017. She was a faculty member at Centering Ourselves: Writing in a Racialized Canada when tensions arose. Her Sonnet CXLVII, which begins “I’m sorry,” was inspired in part by the experience. “Meaning to call out the disease of colonial amnesia, which feeds on being out of touch, on withholding empathies which would jeopardize the empire, I overstepped. Unaware I was being everything I’ve judged. I didn’t handle it well,” she writes.
L’Abbé says what happened at Banff led her to ask some difficult questions about her project of, as she has put it, colonized sonnets (she no longer uses that term). “I paused and asked myself how responsible was I being. What right did I have to say certain things, right? And, yeah, I went over the whole book, asking myself questions from more angles than I had asked them before,” she told me. (The Banff Centre has not run the program again. It has been replaced with the Emerging Writers Program and the Auto-Fiction programs, both of which attract writers from diverse communities, according to the Centre.)
Sonnet’s Shakespeare, originally scheduled for release in 2018, was finally published in August. It will have its Toronto launch Monday at OCAD University. On Tuesday, L’Abbé will mark her 46th birthday.
Last week, after the Trudeau blackface photos emerged, I reconnected with L’Abbé. “No one called him on it; no one said, ‘Go back to your room and don’t come out until you are dressed unracistly!’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think it’s important to see what entire rooms of people once let a privileged man do with impunity, and use our current awareness and power to do more than just brand Trudeau racist for a hot second.
“Let’s use the moment to acknowledge an entire structure of white privilege and supremacy in Canada that black, brown and Indigenous peoples live every day, and discuss what policies will address the incarceration, dispossession and marginalization of people that systematic racism has encouraged.”
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