Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Sonnet for the Night,” “Sonnet for Autumn,” and “Sonnet for Dreams” read as a sequence with a heavy but sometimes wistful tone and oftentimes dark ideas. In writing these, how do you see them complicating and/or building off one another?
Andy Keys: I couldn’t tell you which sonnet was written first because once they started speaking to each other, the language began seeping in from one poem to the next. As they developed, I recognized that each distinct poem was a window through which to view the same landscape from different angles: a lake here, a mountain, a memory there… To read them together is to gain a more complete picture of this place.
There are more of these sonnets, one of which has been published over in The Shore, and writing them has been a way to work through the complicated relationship that I have with my hometown. It is, as you say, both wistful and dark. I loved growing up there, but I have also mourned and buried friends and family there. Sometimes I read the poems as odes to youth, and other times I take a cue from “Sonnet for Dreams” and don’t seek meaning, only listen to the music and the mood.
RR: “Sonnet for the Night” mentions a “poor town” and “Sonnet for Dreams” mentions Pend Oreille. Was there a specific place you had in mind when setting the scene of these poems, and what is the significance of this location?
AK: I grew up in the little town of Sandpoint, Idaho, which sits on the banks of Lake Pend Oreille, traditional territory of the Kalispel peoples. This is where these poems are set, even in the dreams of “Sonnet for Dreams.”
Time is flexible, though. Like many boom-towns in the West, ours was a town that stagnated after an explosion of population in the early 1900s. Our industry was timber. These days, Sandpoint is a resort town that only continues to grow, but when my mom was young and growing up there, it was still that “poor town.” So I’m working out of generational memory here, but other memories get mixed in; the 2008 financial crisis, for example, helped to inform my perception of our town as a place with as much loss as it does beauty and life.
RR: We love the playfulness of these as sonnets. How do you approach working with received form in terms of following or bending the rules?
AK: Thank you. I actually read and write a lot of haiku and haibun, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the intent of a form with respect to its origins and history. As received forms get reformed (and I just love that word “reform” here), they will always carry with them the history of the form, even if a poet is using the form ironically or critically. If I’m working with sonnets, I’m thinking about the volta, the meter, the sound, the themes, the lines, or the potential for linkage, even if I choose to subvert those elements of the form. A decision not to use those characteristics is still a decision, and that’s going to have an impact on a reader’s experience with the poem.
So: to call these sonnets? Early drafts focused on an accentual meter with four stresses per line, and I let sound lead my composition, especially in “Sonnet for Dreams.” But at the end of the day, as dark as these poems go, these are love letters. That’s the wist, and that’s all I really needed for these sonnets.
RR: We understand you have taught courses in poetry and creative writing. How has that experience influenced your own writing?
AK: Well, firstly, my students and my courses are always pushing me to be a better, broader reader. I make a commitment in every course to de-colonialize and de-Westernize the curriculum, and that alone has me challenging my own canon with diverse works, many of which are new to me. And I love teaching! It means that I’m continuously engaged in providing feedback to burgeoning writers, and undergrads are infinitely inventive and always willing to challenge an idea or a norm… we had great discussions about Instapoetry and protest poetry this semester that had me rethinking the role of social media as poetic paratext.
RR: Your “Sonnet for Autumn” gives a particularly bleak vision of the season. Does fall have a special significance for you? Do you have a favorite season, and if so what about it do you love?
AK: I adore fall! My dad is a winemaker, so I’m always reminded of the celebration and work of harvest and the grape crush when the season rolls around. Autumn is a liminal space, halfway between life and death, and the drained lake feels like the perfect place to explore those worlds. As a kid, the lake bed was full of wonder and discovery, and while this poem’s speaker takes a bleak view, I would have been stoked to find those “lost / long-dropped things.” I think the stanza break in this poem served as a portal for me to go back there and translate my younger wonder into an older, darker voice.
Andy Keys’s work in Issue 8.1: