Risk, Rhyme, and Shakespeare’s Death Day: Burrito Books Chats with Libby Weber

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Libby Weber is a San Diego-based writer and musician whose book RISK A VERSE: A Year in Daily Sonnets, which documents her ambitious yearlong daily sonnet-writing project, will be released on April 23. After deciding to write a sonnet every day for a year, Weber threw herself into making a year worth writing about. Burrito Books has questions. Weber has answers.

Burrito Books: First off, I have to ask: why sonnets? Do you think they’re making a comeback?

Libby Weber: I don’t think sonnets ever really left. Shakespeare is still the undisputed king of English sonnets, but today’s poets still write them in many different flavors. And though metered rhyme doesn’t have the stranglehold on poetry that it used to, the sonnet is an incredibly versatile form. Contemporary sonnets can be hilarious, like Erik Didriksen’s Pop Sonnets, which use Shakespearean language to transform lyrics from Taylor Swift and Backstreet Boys songs. They can also make us cry, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony acceptance sonnet that honored the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. But ultimately, I think people continue to write sonnets because it’s a perfect form for considering any topic from multiple points of view, which is why sonnets seemed like a natural fit for my daily writing project.

BB: Your sonnets certainly cover a multitude of topics!

LW: Definitely! I am interested in way too many things to only write about a few of them. I wrote sonnets about everything from Harry Potter to soup. I didn’t just write one kind of sonnet, either. Some are earnest, some are geeky, some are instructional, some are observational, some are downright weird, and some are nonsense à la Edward Lear. And some sonnets are definitely better than others. I guess I could have made a chapbook of my favorites, but making something new every day for a year was the whole point of the project, which is why I wanted RISK A VERSE to include all the sonnets I wrote that year, not just the ones that I love.

BB: I laughed a lot when I read the book, but you also wrote about serious, occasionally heartbreaking, subjects. How did you decide what to write about every day?

LW: I’d say to myself, “Okay, I need to write a sonnet today. What’s on my schedule? What’s on my mind?” Oftentimes, the selection of subject was taking the mental path of least resistance, usually determined by when I had time to write. I had the occasional day off when I had time to attempt ambitious concepts or pieces on specific themes, but most days I’d just write about whatever was occupying space in my brain, which is why there are lots of sonnets about writing and music. Also about being sleep-deprived. Sometimes I’d start writing one idea, hit a wall, abandon the idea, and then write something completely different. A couple of times, an abandoned idea would stick in my brain and insist on being written later on. Every now and then, a line would pop into my head, and I’d write a piece around it. Some things, like the life and death of a loved one, appear in multiple pieces because grief was at the forefront of my thoughts over many days.

Those sonnets were really hard to write because I couldn’t let myself write frivolously about those I’d lost. I wanted to honor those lives that had made mine so much richer, but that’s a tall order for a piece written in no more than a few hours. I think each piece I wrote about those relationships felt like one tiny facet. But the more sonnets I wrote about them, the more the subjects came into focus. The experience made me appreciate romantic sonnets more, because the desire to accurately render every aspect of love in its transitory nature is, I think, why there’s so much love poetry. Ditto poetry about death. And love and death!

BB: Given your desire to include all of the sonnets, how did you approach the editing process?

LW: Pretty similarly to writing the sonnets, really—balancing looking clever (i.e., readability) and honesty. Thankfully, I had a fantastic ally in my editor, J.L. Aldis. She was the first outside person to look at the manuscript and was incredibly supportive of my desire to publish the all the sonnets together whilst sticking as close to the original material as possible. I felt strongly that I should preserve the original end rhymes whenever possible, but we were ruthless with typos, word omissions, and scansion fudging because we wanted the sonnets to be readable and entertaining. I’ve left the raw versions up on my website in their typo-ridden glory, so anybody interested can compare the original postings to the published versions. But probably the biggest change is that every sonnet has been annotated to identify cultural and literary references, scientific phenomena, real-world inspirations—all sorts of interesting stuff that I didn’t post with the original sonnets that will, hopefully, give readers deeper context for each piece.

BB: There are a lot of footnotes!

LW: The footnotes started as a formal literary joke from one of the first sonnets, but when I started revising the collection, I realized that there were things in nearly every piece that could use explanation. What’s more, in the years that I spent putting the manuscript together, I found that my specific memories of writing each piece were fading, so I used the footnotes to help document real-life events and organize my own recollections. It didn’t work perfectly—there’s one sonnet about reading whose footnote admits that I don’t remember what I was reading when I wrote it. I tried to figure it out from old journal entries and combing through my Goodreads reviews, but I still don’t know for certain.

BB: Tell me about your title.

LW: It’s my book: you know there’s going to be a pun in the title. [laughs] Punning on “risk averse” amused me because deciding to write and post a sonnet every day for a year was certainly putting myself at risk of failure. Plus, I was risking what little dignity I possessed, since I knew there would be days where I just had to post what I had without having time to polish it. But I do love that the title describes what I did, and it’s also an imperative, ordering people to take a risk by writing verse.

BB: There are a number of sonnets about writing sonnets and highlighting other verse forms, plus a few that invite readers to write their own works. Was inspiring others to write something you meant to do?

LW: That sort of developed over time. The first weeks of the project were mostly me freaking out in verse, trying to figure out how ambitious to be and trying to strike a balance between wanting to look clever while also striving for personal authenticity. Some days, I felt painfully self-conscious about putting relatively unvarnished thoughts and feelings out there, so there’s occasional lizard-brain defensiveness on display. But that self-consciousness came along with the realization that seeing me struggle might give people permission to try to make things themselves, even if the things they make aren’t perfect, and I really loved that thought.

BB: What advice would you give to someone who was inspired to do a daily writing project?

LW: I’d encourage them to be fearless. One of the things I discuss in the introduction is that I’d originally decided not to address politics in my sonnets because, I told myself, politics would date my work. However, I belatedly realized that my reticence to put my opinions out there was an exercise in privilege. I did start start writing political sonnets shortly after that realization, but I know I pulled some punches that I wish I hadn’t. Thankfully, every day was a fresh start!

BB: Would you do a project like this again?

LW: Not exactly like this, not when there are so many new things to try! I mean, I’m not writing daily sonnets now, but I am still writing and singing loads! The book contains lots of sonnets about auditions and performances, and while I suffered some disappointments and setbacks that year, giving myself permission to reach for the things I wanted paved the way for some amazing opportunities, simply by putting myself out there more. I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with composer friends and writing lyrics for new works. I also got to write a set of Limericks about Anglo-Canadian composer Healey Willan for a year-long festival of his music. I even had my first choral arrangement performed, which was particularly awesome since it was supposed to be funny and people actually laughed! I’m currently at work on several short stories and a sci-fi novel, but I also have some large lyrics projects simmering in the back of my brain, just waiting for the right time to work on them. Sadly, there are never enough hours in the day!

BB: What are you planning to do on April 23rd when RISK A VERSE comes out?

LW: Well, it’s a Monday, so I’ll work during the day and then run off to rehearsal. [laughs] But I do plan to raise a glass (or three) to the book and recite some Shakespeare, since RISK A VERSE comes out 402 years to the day after Shakespeare’s death, which is also observed as his birthday. Given how much of my own work has been inspired by his, it seems fitting.

RISK A VERSE: A YEAR IN DAILY SONNETS is now available for order on Amazon.

©2018 Burrito Books

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