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In an Improvisational Mood

By Sharan Strange

Wanda Coleman

“…a poet’s consciousness is improvisational and open to transformation…”  — Carolyn Forché

Posit these United States as inherently hybrid, an improvised thing, a contrivance—argument and exultation…in literary body both sonnet and jazz, its variations on a blues aesthetic. Posit the American poet—by proximity, by their “American-ness”—thus, a jazz sonnet. What could that look like?

The much-praised recent poetry collections by Terrance Hayes have brought renewed attention to Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnet, a signature form of her oeuvre. She described them as jazz sonnets, noting their use of “progression, improvisation, mimicry…” and other hallmarks of the music, and her intention in crafting them “to blow my soul.” The multiple implications of blow being the point, of course—with blown soul as means, mission, and measure of the work. Coleman did not much care for either the didactic, prescriptive rhetoric of some late 20th-century poetry or the dry, “safe” writing championed by the literary establishment. Jazz is black American art, which means its character is marked by the exigencies of survival in America. Her structured expression is the artful embodiment of those tensions, as it simultaneously delights in wildness, unexpected juxtaposition or movement, and devilishly serious play. In the manner of jazz improvisers, she riffs on historical and contemporary tropes and voices of the canon. But, most importantly perhaps, as Priscilla Ann Brown notes in an interview with Coleman about a decade before her death in 2013, she especially makes a space for “marginalized, invisible people.” (Read “American Sonnet (10)” here.)

In the same interview, Coleman also discusses her relationship of content and form—which entailed layers of relationship to visual arts, music, as well as language—and “all of its little convolutions.” She explains: “You know, when you break a line where it places the emphasis, the ‘enjambment’ in the poetic line, the juxtaposition. How when you move text around, meaning becomes altered; somehow, just by changing the position of something, meaning sometimes leaps out at you. Meaning wells up. That kind of movement in language. I enjoy word games and word play and all the tools—the writerly tools…. [H]ere I am coming along and I get an idea—the Jazz sonnet. And what is that? So, here I’ve taken a traditional form, and I want to say: now, as a Black person, … What would that look like? What would that be? So here I am with forms like a sonnet, a traditional form. What would Wanda Coleman’s version of that be?”

American Sonnets: 91

Wanda Coleman  (from Mercurochrome, 2001)

the gates of mercy slammed on the right foot.
they would not permit return and bent
a wing. there was no choice but
to learn to boogaloo. those horrid days
were not without their pleasure, learning
to swear and wearing mock leather so tight
eyes bulged, a stolen puff or two
behind crack-broken backs and tickled palms
in hallways dark, flirtations during choir practice
as the body organized itself against the will
(a mystic gone ballistic, not home but blood
on the range) as one descended on this effed-up
breeding hole of greeds—to suffer chronic seeings

was’t hunger or holiness spurred the sighting?

In a 2008 interview with Paul E. Nelson on the subject of her American Sonnets, Coleman remarks on the requisite “openness” of form (as with jazz), “…adhering only to the loosely followed dictate of number of lines. I decided on 14 to 16 and to not exceed that, but to go absolutely bonkers within that constraint. I also give the sonnets a jazzified rhythm structure, akin to platter patter and/or scat and tones like certain Beat writers… I often mimic the rhythms of my subjects. I’ll do a Miles Davis riff or a Holiday riff depending….”  In response to his question about the trope of repetition (specifically, of the words jailer in American Sonnet 85 and mayday in American Sonnet 88), she states “The image of society as a prison runs throughout my work…so it was on my mind and came spontaneously in #85. When calling for help (I believe the American expression mayday is after the French world for help), there is usually a natural repetition related to urgency. I repeat it three times as I’m wont to do—which, in my case, is adapted from listening to the ministers of my childhood church-going days. They usually did it three times—like magicians counting to three—as if there were some conjure value in the process.” (Read “American Sonnet 88” here.)  Finally, Nelson asks Coleman how she would “give the assignment to write an American Sonnet,” to which she replies: “I would invite my students to try [my process], overlaying their specific 1) issues (what the sonnet is about) 2) rhythms (places and devices often have them) 3) tones (shadings of attitude) 4) musical taste/preference (rock, classical, blues, etc.)—how to develop the minimal language to simultaneously encapsulate and signal each.”

American Sonnet for Wanda C.

Terrance Hayes  (from How to Be Drawn, 2015)

Who I know knows why all those lush-boned worn-out girls are
Whooping at where the moon should be, an eyelid clamped
On its lightness. Nobody sees her without the hoops firing in her
Ears because nobody sees. Tattooed across her chest she claims
Is BRING ME TO WHERE MY BLOOD RUNS and I want that to be here
Where I am her son, pent in blackness and turning the night’s calm
Loose and letting the same blood fire through me. In her bomb hair:
Shells full of thunder; in her mouth: the fingers of some calamity,
Somebody foolish enough to love her foolishly. Those who could hear
No music weren’t listening—and when I say it, it’s like claiming
She’s an elegy. It rhymes, because of her, with effigy. Because of her,
If there is no smoke, there is no party. I think of you, Miss Calamity,
Every Sunday. I think of you on Monday. I think of you hurling hurt
Where the moon should be and stomping into our darkness calmly.

In the same way that Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets pay homage to jazz form, adopting her transformed sonnet becomes an homage to her particular brand of improvisation—a fitting word in itself, as it derives from Latin roots meaning both “unforeseen” and “to see ahead.” In asserting the primacy of particular cultural forms for their ability “to put things that [she] saw in the world into literature” so that “others must see them,” Coleman invigorates the notion that art can shift our perceptions and expectations…shaping our struggles into more organically meaningful expressions of survival that can also move us toward better human society. What would your American Sonnet be?

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