September 14, 2012

Five Questions With... Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai, author of Subversive Sonnets

1. What on earth possessed you to write sonnets in this day and age?

Sneaky, Geoff! That’s two questions in one! So, first: What on earth possessed you to write sonnets in this day and age? 

The sonnet has been around a while, six hundred years or so, but we can still consider it modern because, though it’s fallen out of favour a couple times, it’s come back and held its own right up to the present. It’s also adapted over time and proved very versatile. So Sonnette (her German name) is an old girl who’s weathered well! Though free verse or vers libre has been around for much of that time, and some poets have ditched formal poetry once and for all, many poets have kept writing in traditional forms, including the sonnet form. And there are poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Derek Walcott, for example, who write both free and formal verse. 

The second question is What on earth possessed you to write sonnets in this day and age?

Simplest answer is that I find that having a pre-established form to depend on when I write poetry can be very useful. This time, the sonnet seemed to fit the bill.

2. Why did you choose the title, Subversive Sonnets? It seems almost oxymoronic.
It is oxymoronic. (I specially like the moronic part.) For a long time the working title was Litany on the Line: subversive sonnets in thirty-three sequences. But when I put that title up on FB, friends said, just call it “Subversive Sonnets!” The title is to the point, since I wanted to sabotage and disrupt both the form and content of the sonnet. I wasn’t going to observe the set forms of Petrarch or Shakespeare. I wanted to bang the form about a bit, as others have done before. My banging about was going to be different though. I intended to write in patwa, aka the demotic (from the Greek root demos = the common people, as in democratic), and I was also going to mash up English and/or creole with other languages: Shona, Cree, kw√©yol, Spanish, French, Latin. I also wanted to treat everyday subjects in a down-to-earth way – seriously but matter-of-factly. I think of the poems as having a low rather than high seriousness., but a seriousness all the same. There’s one, “Thomas Thistlewood and Tom” about a slave being given Derby’s Dose. That’s about as basic as one can get! But it’s a love poem as well, and sonnets started out as love poems. 

3. Why did you livicate "Lace Makers" to Tony McNeill?

“Lace Makers” was an offering I made to Tony ages ago probably to celebrate those ‘embroidered’ lines at the ends of some of his poems. I don’t know any other poets who use this concrete embroidery in their poetry, though there may be some. That makes him a lace-maker. Also, he’s a good, very old friend. We shared troubled times. He helped me with my writing. I still think he’s the most original poetic talent in the Caribbean, laureates included. And he is (or was) a wild creature, a force of nature and a maker of exquisite things, like Rosie in the poem.

4. Many of the poems exhibit a fear of mania, yet in "Bluesman," there seems to be an embrace. Why the change?

I, who have a collection of poetry called Certifiable, really hope none of the poems ‘exhibit a fear of mania’! Mania is in many cases the condition of honest, deeply engaged people whose chemical or physiological wiring has gone wrong.  Phineas Gage is a good example. There’s a theory of ‘madness’ based on disturbed persons having a direct, unremitting engagement with ‘reality’, which is, of course, so horrible that it drives them to distraction. Antipsychotic drugs are often described as inserting a filter (missing in ‘mad’ people, present in ‘sane’ people) between the psyche and the assaulting world outside, so that the contact with outside stimuli is not so intense. You’re right about the embrace in “Bluesman” but I wonder if the other poems aren’t peculiar embraces of the same sort? “Family Story, only child’s version” ends, “Careful then, how you cross me.” It’s an empowered position on the part of the unbalanced only child, with the mother whom she makes “walk and jabber to herself,” and the grandfather who took his own life. At the end of “No problema, doc, the persona makes the paradoxical statement, “When I do harm, it’s harmlessly.” Well, will she or won’t she harm harmlessly? What does the poem suggest will be the effect if her harmless harming? Isn’t she in control, however frayed her life? Doesn’t she toy with her therapist? Describe the signs of her condition with humour, however twisted? And so on… 

5. Akan, Igbo and Catholic spirituality converge in your collection. Were you uncomfortable with this poetic ecumenism?

It’s Akan, Igbo and Catholic spirituality that converge. Ecumenism is about religion. Religion is the organized affair that ‘s resulted over the centuries in our fighting and killing one another. Spirituality involves the spirit in each of us reaching out, in the way we know best, to The Great Spirit Out There, however we name that spirit. 

About Pamela Mordecai:

Pamela Mordecai writes poetry, fiction and plays. Her four previous collections of poetry are Journey Poem; de man: a performance poem; Certifiable and The True Blue of Islands. Her first collection of short fiction, Pink Icing and Other Stories, appeared in 2006. Her writing for children is widely collected and well known internationally. El Numero Uno, a play for young people, had its world premiere at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People in Toronto in 2010. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

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