UNTITLED (VHS): Paolo Villanueva

On Feed Sonnets

Poetry & Interview with Award-Winning Poet

R.A. Villanueva

R.A.Villanueva is the author of Reliquariawinner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He is also the winner of the inaugural Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry.

Reliquaria is available now from University of Nebraska Press, independent bookstores such as McNally JacksonWORD, and Skylight BooksPowell's Books, and Amazon. In the United Kingdom and Europe, Reliquaria can be ordered via Combined Academic Publishers and Waterstones; in London, Reliquaria can be found at The Saison Poetry Library and the London Review Bookshop.

His writing has appeared in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Bellevue Literary Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, his honors include fellowships from Kundiman and The Asian American Literary Review and scholarships from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. 

Melissa R. Sipin, TAYO's editor-in-chief, first met Villanueva at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle. The two caught up via email after their initial meetingbefore Villanueva's big move to London. Villanueva, whose preferential social media is Twitter, introduced to Sipin what he calls, "feed sonnets." TAYO presents one of his feed sonnets, "Lake View," which was written in response to Bruce Lee's "lost interview." We hope you enjoy Villanueva's evocative and visceral poem, and join in the conversation on form and inspiration in our comments section below.

Lake View
(Full Text)

We save our best views for ghosts, line
the Palisades with candles and
memorial trinkets, crows stuffed
with sawdust and beads. Here is stone.
Here’s a fist’s worth of peonies
laid upon marble. Here is smoothed
granite, milk, passport candids,
rainwater to hold in a glass
etched with psalms. From the overlook
you catch fog giving way to Mt.
Baker, the Cascades like knuckles
into the mouth of the after-
noon. What you hear is the sound of
your lungs filling with wind, with prayer.

Why Twitter?

In Transformers, there’s a kind of team/supergroup robot that has the ability to join together to become a more powerful single-bodied, single-consciousness machine. This species of robot is often referred to as a Combiner, or—for those with a more philosophical bent—a Gestalt.

A roll call, for reference: individual Constructicons combine into Devastator, the Aerialbots become Superion, the Predacons merge to make Predaking, etc.

Voltron—with his individual lions interlocking to form one giant, Blazing Sword-wielding Defender of the Universe—is, of course, another example:

The fundamentals of Twitter’s design make it so that longer kinds of poems can’t fit without bending, inventing; monostich and the epigrammatic and haiku can work, but to try to carry the syllabic values of a whole sonnet into one post on Twitter is a no go. And so if you’re fixated on the sonnet (as I have been), you are compelled to play with a work-around, or a Gestalt approach: seven couplets coming together as a linked feed.

For me, part of Twitter’s unique appeal rests in the surprising flexibility of its margins. I’d like to think that “Lake View” and its sonnet-inspired siblings are a way of riffing off that elasticity.

(While on the subject of Twitter, here are others worth following: Emilia Phillips @gracefulemilia, Dana Tommasino @figmentspot, and Rabih Alameddine @rabihalameddine each curate their own streams of images, art, ephemera; Rigoberto González @mariposaboy and Anthony Brown @timesflow are prolific readers who often highlight excerpts from their ever-growing libraries, offering sharp reflections on new books.  

And absolutely follow Teju Cole, who is, at the moment, on a self-imposed “Twitter break,” but who already has started all manner of interwoven strains of Twitter experiments to explore: a 4,000+ word essay, a “remixed” a running catalog of “all the kills in the Holy Bible,” and ghazals ingeniously derived from strangers’ timelines, to start.)

What is the poet's relationship to form?

One approach to your question is to hear “form” as synonymous with “inherited conventions” or the rigors of a received, long-established tradition (i.e., “sestinas do this” or “sonnets are supposed to look like this” or “villanelles usually move this way” or “ renga are born from this historical context and so you make this move here, that turn there,” and so on).

Taken that way, I think writers understand—consciously or unconsciously—that one’s relationship with “form” is a negotiation with rules, a staking a place between the polarized imperatives of “bow down” and “break free.” At best, those impulses clash and empower each other. (See poems like Patricia Smith’s “Motown Crown” in Rattle, Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass,” and Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘ “God’s Grandeur” for enactments of these tensions.)

There’s a wider discussion of your question in Tupelo Quarterly, in T.J. Jarrett’s “Women in Form” series. It’s a fascinating array of conversations.

In particular, I’d urge everyone to read Nicole Sealey’s two sonnets “Legendary (1)” and “Legendary (2)” and her back-and-forth with Jarrett, where she mentions this thought from Patrick Rosal: “poetry is both tribute and treason.”

You know, now that I think about it, we might need to acknowledge that yours is a big question. It’s tempting to pull back and counter-pose this question in return: what isn’t “form?” After all, syntax and grammar are themselves larger forms driven by traditions, consensus.

Isn’t trying to say what you want to mean—poet or not—reliant on finding the right container for the breath, the fitting shape or body for the thought? What to do with that relationship?

In an interview with The Paris Review, Tarfia Faizullah reflects on how making art helps route us toward an invention of self and a remaking of the world’s forms. Here’s her last exchange with Sean Carman:

A poem might find its form in the way a person seeks to find out who she is, how she can be seen.

Right. I once heard the poet Li-Young Lee say, “Syntax is identity.” That’s something I’ve always believed, that everybody has a distinct vocabulary based on experience, upbringing, and geography. For me, form is a way of imprinting yourself. I think of it the way I think of the cave paintings of Lascaux, where there is this sense that somebody wanted to affix something permanent of themselves in a world, or a life, that is impermanent.

There’s something beautiful in that line I’ve italicized. It’s an affirmation of how writing can be seen as an act of perpetual form-making and innovation.

How did Twitter's restriction (140 characters) inform or inflect the lines in "Lake View"?

First: Edna St. Vincent Millay has a number of sonnets in tetrameter (I’ve written about three of my favorites here at This Recording) and I’ve always been mesmerized by the relationship of her metrical choices to the sonic effects of her poems and their meaning.

So: when I was thinking about Twitter’s 140 character limit, I had this gut feeling that the ten syllable line wouldn’t display right—or at least the way I wanted—across multiple platforms (mobile/web/desktop) and across the various clients people use. So I pulled back to eight syllables. Which ultimately means that the architecture of “Lake View” is as much under the influence of Millay’s urgency and pulse as it is born of the Twitter’s visuals and how it renders itself on our screens.

And lastly, while we’re in the space of having others speak for us, here’s Wendell Berry from his 1982 essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms:”

“It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

If being redirected and forced to adapt because of limits is “the real work,” then it’s been “real work” I’ve been hoping to do.