This may be an obvious place to start, but where did you get the idea to write a persona sonnet sequence about nuns and prostitutes?
It’s an easy one to answer! I’m the essay co-ordinator for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which is an online database of essays about women poets., and so I read all the essays as they come in. It occurred to me that, until Anne Bradstreet, the only women writing poetry were outside of society in some way—some royals, but mainly cloistered women and women of easy virtue. Everyone else was busy having babies and raising chickens. I felt it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common.
You don’t need to get very far through Sisters & Courtesans before you realize that the women’s calling has very little to do with their actual level of morality, which in turn has almost nothing to do with their happiness. How do you explain that?
Firstly I get very frustrated, especially in this country, with the way that goodness is so often correlated with religiosity and chastity, both of which, it seems to me, tend to produce more hypocrites than saints. On the other hand, I didn’t want to glorify prostitution, so, yes, my “Crack Whore” is miserable, although not evil, while my “Gangster’s Moll” is definitely a criminal, but in her words, “Jeez, it’s fun!” I wanted a balance of those elements throughout my sisters and my courtesans. (I talk a little more about this earlier in this blog.)
But why sonnets?
There are so many reasons for that! I love sonnets, and can write them blindfold standing on my head? The sonnet is the perfect length for this particular kind of poem? A long tradition of book-length sonnet sequences? I almost feel they couldn’t be anything other than sonnets.
Which of the Sisters & Courtesans sonnets were most interesting to write, and which ones are most fun to read for an audience?
Good question! Typically the ones which were fun to write either came out of interesting research, like “Sworn Virgin of Albania,” or play with the sonnet form a little, like “Norse Spae-Wife,” which uses the alliteration common to the verse of the time. By contrast the ones which I really get a kick out of reading in public are the ones where I can get into character—I used to be an actress in my youth—and do voices: “Victorian Streetwalker” has to be my favorite, but “French Carmelite Nun” is also fun. Oh, and the really raunchy ones like “Serving Wench of the Round Table” and “Canadian Dominatrix,” but I don’t dare read those many places.
Yes, some of them are quite R-rated, and others pretty controversial, like the one where you vilify Mother Teresa! Aren’t you worried the formal poetry establishment will disown you? I’ve heard those people can be stuffy.
I don’t vilify Mother Teresa! Her name isn’t even mentioned, and that’s a true story, reportedly, but I know what you mean. I don’t think the formal poetry establishment is quite as stuffy as it used to be, and anyway, I’ve never been its darling—I’m way too liberal. But seriously, if you’re going to write a book like this, you can’t do it half-heartedly or in a politically correct fashion. It would be dull!
Actually I think the most genuinely controversial sonnets are the ones where I write from an ethnicity other than my own—“Jim Crow South,” ‘Apache Scout” and “Geisha” come to mind—but my defense of that is that in attempting to build a picture of women’s lives throughout history, it would be more offensive to write only from the perspective of white women and omit all those other voices.
So what’s the reaction been to Sisters & Courtesans, especially from said establishment?
Audiences and readers love them. That’s the main point. But reaction from the establishment has been more mixed, shall we say? None of the sonnets was picked up by any of the formal-friendly print journals, and even some e-zines were dismissive, although Angle, Light, The Rotary Dial, E-Verse Radio, and Mezzo Cammin all got on board. I think the problem is not that they are offensive, but that some male editors just don’t see the point? I also feel, not to detract from the individual poems, but the concept does work best as a book.
I love what one of my Amazon reviews says: “The poems catch the moment, and which is what I mean about building up a picture of women’s history – one recognizes commonalities and themes which play off each other. The individual poems are memorable, but the collection as a whole is something more.”
It’s almost as if the ‘Sisters’ of Sisters & Courtesans doesn’t refer solely to nuns, but is intended to include the whole sisterhood of women. Is that right?
Wow! You’re so clever! I wish I had thought of that…
Nice! Now, we can’t end this without talking about the cover photo. Is it you?
Does it look like me? Seriously, the cover has produced some good stories. When my fourteen-year-old daughter saw it she asked me the same question and got the same answer, whereupon she said, “You should have got Kate Upton to do it!”
You didn’t answer the question?
Sisters and Courtesans is available from Amazon, White Violet Press and annamevans.com