#SonnetsSoWhite?: Poets of Color on Race and Traditional Verse Forms

By Greg Emilio
One of the most meaningful panels I attended at AWP 2019 was titled, “#SonnetsSoWhite?: Poets of Color on Race and Traditional Verse Forms.” The purpose of this panel was to explore the ways that writers of color have been engaging with, and reinvigorating, received poetic forms, which have largely been the province of white male poets. Many of the poets on the panel pointed back to the English language’s most famous and prolific sonneteer, Shakespeare, as being their gateway into formal verse. But the Bard wasn’t just a gateway, but a gatekeeper for these poets. The heightened romantic language of his sonnets presents an enormous obstacle for any young reader, but especially for young readers, and aspiring writers, of color. For these poets, Shakespeare may as well have been writing in a foreign language. The sonnets feel alien and elitist. Most of the poets talked about how they felt they didn’t have access to sonnet’s lofty realm—they didn’t have the keys to the kingdom.

One poet, Erica Dawson, spoke about how, even after she’d gained the poetic wherewithal (the keys) to understand Shakespeare, she fell into the trap of imitation, of wanting to sound like dead white poets. For much of the history of contemporary poetry, free verse has been the chosen form for poets of color. As a black woman writing in form, Dawson explains that she was often seen as participating in the hegemonic norms of poetry. She was seen as submissive rather than radical. However, further along in her poetic path, Dawson learned to use these traditional forms as a tool of subversion. In her current book, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, she mixes formal and free verse to create a unique poetics of resistance. She makes the bold claim that poets of color need not fear form; they should embrace the modes of expression that express them best. If a poet of color feels their voice at home in formal verse, then they should master those forms.

As a poet drawn to form, I was fascinated by this panel’s discussion. As a white male poet, I feel compelled to reassess the reasons why I’m drawn to formal poetry. I have to make sure I’m not pursuing a poetry of elitism and exclusion. I believe that formal poetry deserves a place among free verse in our contemporary poetic landscape. But, we must, all of us who practice form, breathe fresh breath into these forms. We should be writing poems (formal or free) that aren’t gates or keys, but imaginative pockets of empathy—rooms in which we might try to make art more meaningful for all.