Sex and the Sonnet

I have been that poetess. I hope, Gentle Reader, that you don’t bristle at my use of that word, but I live in a land in which I hear it all the time, have even grown quite used to it: Lei è una poetessa. In fact, let’s be honest: I’ve grown fond of it, that extra, sexy, sibilant syllable at the end. And remember that nouns are gendered here, not politically but grammatically.

My muse is also gendered; she is female. (Fickle, in fact.) Like me, she likes to travel, but when she leaves me, she leaves me in the lurch. Once, when she’d gone away and I found myself enduring a long stretch of non-writing, I found some other, human, female muses: I was invited to participate in an online, collaborative sonnet-crown group. Almost instantly, we seven women formed a bond nearly as tight as our (required) Petrarchan rhyme schemes. Our ideas and images bounced and boinged, flew and fecundated from the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next. I was thrilled to be writing again, and in sonnets, no less. My perceptions of the world around me, and the world inside me, were busily transforming themselves into iambic pentameter.

The original plan of the group was that, with the seventh sonnet, we would wrap it up with the first line and close the circle of our “crown.” But we sonneteers, geographically far-flung yet connected via our beautifully tangled interwebs, were having so much fun that we decided to keep going and make it a “triple crown.” With all of this sonnet stimulation, my own synapses were just going wild. Sitting alone at the great old dark-wood bar of the Cat’s Eye in Baltimore one day, I jotted a couple of iambic lines onto the napkin in front of me. Then a man sat down beside me, asked me if I were a student, “with all those books there on the bar.”

“Actually,” I told him, “I wrote one of those books, and no, I’m not a student, I’m a teacher.”

Thus were born my Bar Napkin Sonnets. What else to do with thirty years [yes, I mean it, three full decades’ worth] of oddball dating experiences, ridiculous pick-up lines, love and loss, hope and disappointment? A sonnet crown of my own, of course. In this case, however, 24 seemed to be the lucky number (that’s four six-packs, or two cases of wine).

And yes, some of them really were “conceived” on bar napkins as I sat and waited for a friend or a lover, or as I sat by myself, listening to music, inhaling second-hand smoke, having a glass of wine or a pint of Guinness. It was fun and even freeing to get these myriad wacko experiences down, to get something “useful” out of them. And getting them into rhyme and meter made it, on the one hand (or should I say foot?) that much easier to push it a bit away from me, to go back to the soul-dark lonely nights that necessitated escape with Mr. Right Now. And on the other hand, perhaps paradoxically, putting it into rhyme and meter also made it more fun.

And sometimes, I noticed, getting it into rhyme and meter put it somewhat into the realm of fiction. Have you noticed that readers/listeners usually assume that when a poet says “I” in a poem, that it necessarily means the poet? Novelists are not immediately held responsible for the actions of their “I”s, but we poets are. And without going into “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” territory, a lot of what I found myself writing in the Bar Napkin Sonnets was fiction, and in most cases, fiction that was brought about by the requirements of rhyme and/or meter. Of course, like much fiction, it was born of certain home and human truths germane to Yours Truly, but often enough, no, “it didn’t really happen like that.”

Finally, writing about these personal (or seemingly personal) experiences within the corset of form allowed me to shape my mad, bad, and dangerous behavior into something that started to make sense to me. Maybe to others as well. That girl in those sonnets, recently described as “too smart for her own good,” certainly wasn’t always that way. But during the total immersion into this sequence of wild girl sonnets, she did figure out a thing or two, things like repetition compulsion and where something like that will probably land you. Same cycle, different day.