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Little Revolutions: Writing the Contemporary Sonnet, a Craft Class with John James via Zoom

October 3, 2021 @ 12:30 pm - 4:30 pm


website maker As a poetic form, the sonnet — or, “little song” — is distinguished above all else by its capacity to turn. While this movement presses against the natural compression of the form, it catalyzes semantic affordances otherwise unavailable to poems of such length. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term for this turn (“volta”) stems from the Latin volvere, whose resonance in the English “revolution” signals changes in the spheres of politics, culture, science, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that this well-worn form has proven so remarkably enduring: it grapples with the new. In this workshop, we will explore how the “turn,” combined with — or departing from — traditional prosodic elements, interrogates novelty and how the form itself adapts to changing times. We will then employ some of these strategies within the context of our own poems, utilizing these techniques to navigate personal, political — etc., etc., — newness. Readings will be drawn from canonical sonnets, including ones by Spenser, Shakespeare, Percy Shelly,  John Clare, and others, as well as more recent examples by Claude McKay, Bernadette Mayer, Wanda Coleman, John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, Derek Walcott, and so forth. Time constraints will not permit us to discuss each poem in great depth, though we will rigorously interrogate a select few, but my hope is that the range of these readings will shed light on the evolving nature of the form as well as its adaptability to changing times. Prompts will be made available ahead of time and students are asked to submit a draft, or several, in advance of the workshop meeting.

John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize (Milkweed, 2019). He is also the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His poems appear in Boston ReviewKenyon ReviewGulf CoastPEN AmericaBest American Poetry, and elsewhere. A digital collagist, his image-text experiments appear in Quarterly WestThe Adroit Journal, and LIT.

Also a scholar, John writes on poetry and poetics from 1740 to the present. He has presented papers at Yale University, the University of Chicago, and NAVSA’s 2017 Victorian Preserves conference in Banff, Alberta. His current project, tentatively titled “Made Future,” investigates the science, technology, and manufactured environments of the British eighteenth century.

His work has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Scholarships are available for this course. For more information on how to apply (fall applications are due August 15, 2021) visit our Scholarships page. 


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October 3, 2021
12:30 pm - 4:30 pm
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Hudson Valley Writers Center
Philipse Manor Station
Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591 United States