VOLTA: A FEW NOTES ON THE POETIC, PERSONAL, AND POLITICAL
"...the same 'reason' I thought I could help change the world is the 'reason' I thought the sonnet form would lead to a 'conclusion.'"
"...we are entangled. That’s the word. We are fucking entangled. And any movement toward disentangling ourselves from each other, all these aspects of each other, is wreckage. It’s wreckage."
on the digital
The idea behind this code-based project is pretty simple—twice a week I will present a sonnet with a couple buttons underneath it. One button will shuffle the lines in the sonnet, the other will return them to their original order. Sonnets are an old and steadfast poetic form, but ultimately we live in a world that resists the kind of resolution that classical sonnets demand of us. I’m asking myself: how can I pull the sonnet closer to the complicated truth? Is it possible to use digital tools to express the lyric, fluid experience of buildup and aftermath?
These questions come partly from a fascination with the poetics of 'shuffle literature,' which by its very nature is ripe for digital facilitation. In Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová’s essay on shuffle literature3, they state that "the ability to shuffle texts [can contribute] to the disintegration of the coherent telling of a personal story—an 'autofictional' story." This project is deeply concerned with dismantling the mechanism of what I'll call 'political autofiction'—the narratives that people with privilege have around their participation in our broken system. I include myself in this.
on the political
I’m interested in harnessing the feeling of the volta as a political exploration. The traditional idea of the volta’s poetic function tells us that the volta “turns” the poem towards resolution by complicating the poem’s proposition. But the volta can also be a refusal of the foundations that the poem has laid. It can be a move towards disintegration. I argue that we need that kind of disintegration.
To live in this world compassionately as a cisgender, white person, you have to interrogate the terrible structures that perpetrate injustice towards marginalized people, but you also have to know that you are a part of those structures. Any denial of complicity is ultimately a performance that does violence to the truth. This performance can take many forms—performance of ignorance, performance of hopelessness, performance of decency—but they all must be disintegrated in order to fully experience the “wreckage” of the moment and enter a lyric space where we can transform ourselves and come to a new understanding. After all, the self is the arena where we can exert the most control.
on the sonnet
To take the sonnet and advance it is to subvert the very idea of a solution. To evolve the sonnet is to take on the past and synthesize it into something new. This is not a new idea—VOLTA owes so much to poets like Tyehimba Jess and Terrance Hayes—but I am particularly interested in treating the sonnet as the spectre of tradition and the volta as a fight within it.
I have no idea how the next month will go. I have no idea how this project will go. I’m frankly pretty nervous about all of it. In my limited experience, writing sonnets almost always feels like I’m setting myself up for failure. But I know that poetry is the ultimate space for compassionate inquiry. I know that this pursuit of politics and of poetry will always feel like failure—a failure to get it right or do enough. I know that a belief in my complete powerlessness is as dangerous as a belief that I have the power to transcend this political circumstance and ambient suffering. Both beliefs are attempts at self-absolution. I can't change the system singlehandedly, but it is my responsibility to do what I can.
1. This quote is from Bernadette Mayer's introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her book SONNETS. ↩