Born in Toronto, Ontario, Sonnet L’Abbé grew up in Calgary, rural southern Manitoba, and Kitchener-Waterloo. They are the author of A Strange Relief, Killarnoe, and Sonnet’s Shakespeare. Their styles range from lyric to concrete and experimental, and their themes include racial, national and settler identity, relationship to land, surviving sexual assault, plant knowledge, physiology of music and love. Their influences include M. NourbeSe Phillip, Anne Michaels, Christian Bök, Claudia Rankine, Wislawa Szymborska and Seamus Heaney. They were the editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2014, and their chapbook, Anima Canadensis, won the 2017 bp Nichol Chapbook Award. L’Abbé now lives in Nanaimo BC and is a professor at Vancouver Island University.
In part because they were the only poems I was familiar with, and in part because I thought they expressed unrequited love very well, I used to type out the most heartbroken of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the computers of the Grade 11 computer science lab at my high school. Then I’d print them out on the dot matrix printer — the kind where the pages came out all stuck together with holes along the sides and you had to tear them apart — and put them in a binder. I believe I did this because a boy had brought into my gifted special ed class the brooding, Jack Kerouac-esque poem he had written for a girl, and I thought being serious about poems might make me more interesting to guys like him. I liked “Sonnet XXIX,” which begins, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state.” It actually ends on a very positive, happily-ever-after note, but I liked the forlorn beginning. I still know that poem by heart, and teach it to my classes.
In high school I read poems a lot, and memorized some poems for drama class recitations, but I didn’t write many poems on my own, except for a few assigned in English classes. When I decided to study screenwriting in university, I took some creative writing courses as electives, and wrote my first “serious” poems in those classes. I didn’t really think of myself as a poet until I had my first book published. For many years, I thought of myself more as a “writer” because I wasn’t sure yet what genres I would stick with. I still do think of myself as a writer in spirit and a poet by fate.
I don’t think there’s any one “job” for a poet, but I think that poets use words to give their readers a taste of their feeling or thinking. Because poems don’t have to be plot-oriented, they can move from image to image, more like a dream than a story. And I like poems that find ways to play with language — whether that be rhyming, or making little puns, or using a word that has more than one meaning in a way that each possible interpretation works. I like those poems best that don’t just leave me with the profound experience of the teller, but also leave me thinking about how wonderful words are and marveling at how my mind will put together unexpected sequences of images into a strange new whole. I used to think poets could change other people’s minds with their poems — I don’t think that as much anymore, but I could be wrong.
I think an aspect of my poet’s personality is my belief that words really matter. As I said above, I used to try to use words to get people to see my side of things. I argued a lot. The thing is, if the other person isn’t listening to your words, then it doesn’t matter how carefully you choose them. Or, if the other person doesn’t believe that you choose your words well, then they won’t take you seriously. This poem ["Poor Speaker"] was born out having lived both sides of the coin: one, the frustration of someone else “putting words in my mouth,” and two, having felt condescension towards an old boyfriend who didn’t express himself the same way I did. I hope you hear the arrogance of this speaker’s presumptions, and, between the speaker and the addressee, know who the real “poor speaker” is.
Oh, this is a hard one. I would memorize them all if I could! But to pick just one, I’d choose “Poem For Duncan Campbell Scott,” by Armand Garnet Ruffo. Maybe because Duncan Campbell Scott was the ultimate “poor speaker” whose presumptions had terrible consequences for those he condescended to. This poem gives voice to a wry, wiser speaker who draws a clearer-eyed portrait of Scott than the Canadian history books that glorified him. Ruffo’s poem will always be an important one in the history of Turtle Island / Canadian writing, and I like to learn about the many histories of the place I live in.