Rigoberto’s shout-out to Allison Joseph brought to mind the best panel I attended at AWP, titled “Afro-formalism:  Owning the Masters” (after a famous essay by Marilyn Nelson.)  It was on Saturday afternoon, not the most propitious time-slot as a lot of folks were tired or packing up or winding down or just, well, hungover, and so was not the best attended, but it was electrifying and invigorating.  There was a terrific rapport among the panelists (Charles Fort, Tara Betts, Erica Dawson, and Allison Joseph), and between the panelists in the audience, who would periodically burst into applause or laughter.  It was also some of the smartest and most sensible and insightful stuff about form I have heard in a long time.

For one thing, it was unapologetic, without that defensiveness poets who work in form are prone too (But I also write free verse!  But I am really not a formalist!  I substitute!  Hide the rhymes!)   For another, everyone was professional and relaxed and super-prepared (not, er, always the case at these things...), kept to their time, came at it from another angle, listened and responded to their fellow panelists. 

Charles Fort spoke about Robert Hayden and how he had not been considered “black enough” in his time—something that in retrospect seems a bit bizarre for the author of the great sonnet “Frederick Douglas.”   In America, use of form has long been an oddly politicized choice.  (Women are sometimes criticized in the same way for using it—that false dichotomy of free verse = democracy and empowerment and progress whereas formal verse = oppression and elitism and kowtowing to dead white males.)    

Tara Betts gave a fascinating discussion of forms invented by African-Americans (as the Bop, see below), and of how we can all use forms invented in other cultural contexts—that they are all open to everyone, and gain energy from cultural cross-fertilization. 

Erika Dawson, who has something like rock star status in the formal world, and who has the presence to go with it (this is a tall woman who has written an ode to high-heeled shoes…), spoke about her relationship to the tradition, tossing off some seriously dead white male influences like Anthony Hecht and James Merrill,and  reminding us of just how raunchy the Metaphysical poets could be.  A decade ago she was told at a recitation contest that “form was dead” but now she has served as judge at that same contest.  She exuded confidence and vindication, taking on the canon in her own terms. 

Allison Joseph discussed among other things how she came to form, her fascination with invented and repeating forms (and forms invented by “women with three names”), and how sonnets, say, helped her handle toxic subjects like grief, how she could say things in form she couldn’t say in her free-verse, how it actually gave you permission to say such things.   Here's her blog about rondeaus and other forms of repetition, The Rondeau Roundup.

OK, I wasn’t taking notes—this is all from memory—so this is rather a vague sketch—forgive me if I didn’t get it all straight.  But at the same time, rather impressive that so much of it did lodge in the memory!

I was most fascinated, I think, with the discussion of “The Bop.”  Invented at Cave Canem by Aafa Michael Weaver, it partakes of the proportions and perhaps the argument of the sonnet, in stanzas of 6/8/6 lines, which all end with a refrain.  I am particularly fascinated with forms that are extensions of the sonnet tradition, and it seems to me this could be added to the Meredithian sonnet, the caudeated sonnet, the curtal sonnet.  I hope to try my hand at it someday. 

But what was exhilarating was, I think, that what came out of this was that the tradition and form were not about exclusion or elitism or who owns or is allowed to do what.  It was about inclusion and access and taking all things human as belonging to everybody, about the ongoing conversation, dialogue really, of the dead and the living, about owing the canon not an obligation of respect and deference, to put it in a museum, but an obligation to pass it forward, to add to it, enrich it, keep it alive, take it into the future.

Originally Published: April 21st, 2010

A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford University. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Stallings’s poetry is known for its ingenuity...