Pam Mordecai writes subversive sonnets

York University’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series recently presented poet Pam Mordecai reading from her poetry collection, Subversive Sonnets (2011). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

Will may be jealous for the marriage of true minds
But what’s the harm in an impediment 
or two? I think of Auntie Vida with her tale
about her bawdy bad-behaving friend
telling a lover who protested he
and she were incompatible, “Oh no,
my dear! You’re not looking at this in the 
right way at all.” Shoulders thrown back to elevate 
her beauties in their bloom, she set him straight
“You have the income. I am pattable.”

from Subversive Sonnets
by Pam Mordecai

Love poetry is not easy. Pam Mordecai should know, as she claims to have written only five love poems in her long career. Mordecai believes that a writer needs human and poetic experience, for that love to be tested, and a way of expressing the words that has been tested. She recently shared this and other insights with the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Pam MordecaiPam Mordecai

Mordecai’s most recent collection of poetry, Subversive Sonnets, was initially supposed to be published on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Some of her poems address this topic, such as her poem “Litany on the Line”, in which she hears “the cries of jettisoned black men, women and children, not yet slaves, just worth less than insurers paid for cargo spoiled en route.” She layers this image with the modern day phenomena of ships and planes disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle, where many slaves were jettisoned, and getting the news of her brother’s murder on a long distance phone line. She often takes this licence to “move up and down through time,” to take historical events and reinterpret them through the lens of today.

While there is a political edge to her work, Mordecai is often playful and freely admits that her inner child has free reign. It’s not surprising that she has worked with children and published many works for that audience (and to this audience’s delight she recited a funny piece called “Pig Poem”). Yet she believes that the child’s love of rhythm, rhyme, and song is something everyone can appreciate. She is dismayed when she hears young adults say that they don’t like poetry because they think it is only for higher academics. While it’s true that poetry “builds in people, who read and enjoy it, the ability to weigh and consider ideas,” poetry should also be accessible and for everyone. Most importantly, “poetry wrestles with how we live.”

subversive-sonnets-bookMordecai’s poetry reflects the diversity of a life and all it’s celebrations and struggles, whether you’re “cursing someone, lamenting someone, celebrating someone, sharing your love with someone.
Poetry is very economic, squeezed down, intense, you can write it on an envelope, or the back of a grocery list, or the back of your hand. You can even write them in your head.” Her attitude about grief reveals part of her motivation for writing. She doesn’t believe in “closure,” that instead you need to find a way to “pick it up, make it mean something, and carry it with you.”

Reflecting on the title of her collection, Mordecai believes that it is the artist’s role to be subversive, to ask questions. One of her subversions was to take the classic poetic form of the sonnet and make it her own, to breathe through it the language of her native Jamaica. Rather than Kamau Brathwaite’s idea that their language, “the hurricane does not roar in pentameter,” Mordecai wanted to adopt the sonnet’s heartbeat rhythm, and to have dialogue with other writers like Shakespeare. Given the warmth, energy, and rapport Mordecai shared with her audience, this is a conversation worth listening in on.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On Nov. 26, novelist Wayne Johnston comes to the Canadian Writers in Person series and will read from his newest book, The Son of a Certain Woman For a full schedule of upcoming writers this year, see the story in the Sept. 15 issue of YFile.