In Sonnet L’Abbé’s latest book, the Vancouver Island poet and VIU professor superimposes her own truth and experience over the words of William Shakespeare.
Four hundred and 10 years after the publication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, L’Abbé presents Sonnet’s Shakespeare, in which she takes the Bard’s 154 sonnets and inserts new words and letters to create 154 original poems.
She said the book, available at Chapters and the Nanaimo Art Gallery, was inspired by erasure poetry, a style of poetry in which a poet starts with source text and then erases portions to make a new poem from what remains.
That got L’Abbé thinking about an editor’s ability to silence the voice that comes before them, which she then applied to her practice of challenging ideas around Canadian identity, stories and multiculturalism.
She said erasing a person’s voice or difference doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of them entirely.
“If you just surround that person until they feel uncomfortable expressing their difference, then you can just erase all of that difference just by assimilating what came before,” L’Abbé said. “So thinking about that form of cultural erasure made me invent this process of erasing Shakespeare’s sonnets, not by deleting the text, but by breaking up the text and surrounding it. So in each sonnet the whole Shakespeare sonnet is there on the page but is kind of invisible.”
L’Abbé chose Shakespeare as her target because she’s been analyzing his poetry since she was a child and because his work is “the epitome of colonial educational material.”
“British educators used Shakespeare to teach people what proper English is and what the height of British literary accomplishment looks like and what culture looks like,” L’Abbé said. “So Shakespeare as a colonial tool is something that is pretty widely acknowledged.”
In some cases, L’Abbé’s poems directly comment on the sonnets they are imprinted upon. She noted that Shakespeare’s Sonnets begins with a lot of fawning love-letters to a “golden youth,” and ends with angrier, darker pieces addressed to a “dark lady.”
“The dark lady is ugly and bad and the golden male youth is good and beautiful and deserves to live on in literature and in life,” L’Abbé said. “So the book is about so many different things, but one of the arcs of narrative is how does it feel to be a dark-skinned lady in a culture that has been teaching you from its most exulted, lofty position that you are the undesirable thing? How does that play out at a frat party? Not well.”
L’Abbé said she wants Sonnet’s Shakespeare to leave people thinking about how their identity is connected to the land that they’re on and how romantic choices and colonial attitudes are intertwined.
“It’s impossible to think about race in this country without really thinking about the land that we’re on…” L’Abbé said. “We’re in a colonial time and there’s a dominant culture, so one of the [book’s] arcs traces how it’s been to try to find love and try to create a family in that environment.”
WHAT’S ON … Sonnet’s Shakespeare book launch takes place at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., on Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m. No cover.