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Sonnet L'Abbé

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Sonnet L’Abbé on overwriting the work of William Shakespeare

Sonnet L’Abbé’s relationship with William Shakespeare’s poetry goes back to her childhood, starting with her own name. Born in 1973 to a Franco-Ontarian father and a Guyanese mother, L’Abbé was conscious of the fact that her given name was unusual. “It wasn’t on toothbrushes or mugs,” she says. “There was no keychain with ‘Sonnet’ on it.”

She did have one item imprinted with her name: a little blue paperback that she carried to school with her in Ile des Chênes, Manitoba, when she was seven or eight years old. The book, which belonged to her father, was a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “I was a bit precocious,” says L’Abbé. “I was good at words, I was good at math. I’d already skipped a grade.” So, while the other children in her class were learning things L’Abbé was already well familiar with, she occupied herself by parsing the Bard’s love poetry, trying to tease out its meaning.

By the time she reached high school, L’Abbé – a self-professed “angsty teen” – was already fiddling with the sonnets, experimenting with computer programs that aimed to replicate their form and language. L’Abbé went on to study film and English at the University of Guelph in Ontario and received her PhD from the University of British Columbia, forging a successful career as a teacher and published poet in her own right.

L’Abbé’s connection to Shakespeare’s poems, meanwhile, resembles a kind of a cultural and familial inheritance. “There’s this whole dimension of just being educated in Canada and being the daughter of Guyanese people who came from a very colonial system, and then just my own relationship to the word sonnet,” she says. “They’ve been part of my life, personally, for so long.”

No longer just part of her life, or fodder for a high-school computer-science project, the sonnets have now given impetus to L’Abbé’s third collection, one of the most audacious volumes of poetry to appear in this country in quite some time. Sonnet’s Shakespeare (McClelland & Stewart) does not simply represent a clever inversion of the Bard’s title, playing on L’Abbé’s own uncommon name. It comprises 154 individual poems, each of which contains embedded within it one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. All the letters of each sonnet appear, in their original order, hidden among L’Abbé’s own words.

The form of the new book had a lengthy gestation. L’Abbé wrote her dissertation on the mid-20th-century American poet Ronald Johnson, who is often credited as one of the first people to practise erasure poetry. As L’Abbé pursued the subject of erasure – particularly as it has been done in American poetry – she contemplated notions of censorship and permission, of who gets to speak and who doesn’t, and what those things say about a particular culture.

“How can you look at a blackout poem and not think of those themes of crossing out and deleting and manipulating the source text?” L’Abbé asks. As she was wrestling with this, she was also aware of conversations swirling about appropriation, in which poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith were accused of using original texts in inappropriate ways. “All of that soup was making me think about my sense of language; how voices, source text, original authors might be erased; and how I would represent that.”

Compiled over the course of five painstaking years, the poems in Sonnet’s Shakespeare cover a broad range of themes and subjects: environmentalism, Canada’s fraught colonial history, feminism, the illusions of multiculturalism, the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. But on a metaphorical level, the entire project questions Shakespeare’s traditional centrality in the Western canon, interrogating the extent to which other, more marginalized voices have been silenced to carve out space for a dead white male voice that is frequently deemed universal.

The notion of crowding out particular voices is central, both implicitly and in the very practice of overwriting Shakespeare’s words. Who is allowed to speak is a key question for L’Abbé, who admits to a reticence about raising her voice in a crowd. “I just don’t speak, because I already know that I’m so in the minority of experience, and that’s a kind of silencing that didn’t have to go and cross me out to do it,” she says. “I thought of that crowding out as a model of erasure and asked myself how I could do that in language and came up with this.”

L’Abbé’s book contains critiques – of Canadian settler colonialism, the Western canon, and its self-appointed guardians – that may make readers uncomfortable, but for the poet, that is all part of the point. Sonnet’s Shakespeare asks fundamental questions about whom we valorize and why, and – importantly – who gets to decide. “This is part of what the book wants to have people ask themselves: what source material makes sense to work with, what’s the relationship of the author to the source material?” L’Abbé says. “I was definitely thinking about all those practices of working with a source text, and the power dynamics inherent in those possibilities.”

And as for the poet’s current relationship to her own source material? Audacity notwithstanding, L’Abbé remains enamoured with the work of her Elizabethan predecessor. “I’m not skeptical about how good Shakespeare’s writing is,” she says. “Shakespeare’s the bomb, right?”

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda