Dr. Hollis Robbins releases new book "Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition." Read the interview here.

September 2, 2020
Forms of Contention book cover

Dr. Anne Goldman, Professor of American Literature and Creative Writing at Sonoma State University interviews Dr. Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University, about her new book.


Many congratulations on the publication of Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (UGA Press, 2020).I’d like to begin by asking you why so many critics in American Studies assume the sonnet is not an American form. A number of South American poets (Argentine Alfonsina Storni, Chilean Enrique Lihn, and Cuban Reinaldo Arenas, for starters) have been returning to or experimenting with the sonnet. And a great many U.S.-born poets across race published sonnets in the 19th-century. How do you respond to this dismissal or lack of focus?

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

It’s a great question! I think the main reason American critics emphasize the sonnet form’s European origins is that they learned about the form in a middle- or high-school English class in the context of reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, or maybe Milton’s or Petrarch’s. The sonnet form carries a lot of cultural baggage and the initial freight for most critics is probably whatever their first teacher said.Reading through the American sonnet scholarship over the past decade I kept hoping I’d find more theorizing of the sonnet in the context of African American poetry or Latin American poetry but I found very little. Often there was simply dismissal. Langston Hughes said publicly that he thought sonnets were inappropriate for poetry about Harlem and told the Cuban poet Nicholas Guillen that he (Hughes) had never written any sonnets—though Hughes later published several good ones—and then translated Guillen’s sonnets and included them in Poetry of the Negro, the influential anthology Hughes edited with Arna Bontemps in 1949.More recently, Roland Greene theorized the sonnet as speaking to the unequal power relationships of New World colonialism. But in general the academic dicussion of the sonnet is diffuse and my book is in part an attempt to weave various strands of the conversation together.


That said, the academy has long understood Paul Dunbar as the Black sonneteer par excellence in the 19th century.  What do you make of this? What is it about Dunbar’s work that has made him iconic as a Black poet? If you were to produce an anthology on this form, who would you argue should occupy a place side-by-side with Dunbar? If you were to name four or five poets people should read first, in addition to Paul Dunbar, who might you choose?

Paul Dunbar

Paul Dunbar

I started writing about Dunbar in part because he *wasn’t* recognized as the Black sonneteer par excellence by very many scholars at all. Dunbar has had an uneasy place in the African American poetry tradition since James Weldon Johnson damned him with faint praise in 1922. There’s very little scholarship on Dunbar’s sonnets and almost none on his sonnet influence until very recently. Timo Müller’s book on the African American Sonnet tradition came out in 2018—we were writing our books at the same time—and we both concluded that Dunbar’s sonnets deserve much more attention. Several Dunbar sonnets that I look at have had almost nothing written about them.

I’m glad you asked about an anthology—Timo finished his book before I did in part because I was planning to publish an anthology of African American sonnets alongside my book. The other poets were going to include: James Corrothers, Marcus Christian, Leslie Pinckney Hill, Helene Johnson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and many, many others.

What did the readership look like for American sonneteers in the 19th-century in specific? Where did Black sonneteers publish?

If you were a big-name American poet in the 19th century you would publish your poetry in a book. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison published a book of poetry—including sonnets —in 1843. But until the end of the century, few African American poets had access to book publishers, with the notable exception of George Moses Horton and Frances E.W. Harper. Harper does not seem to have published any sonnets. Until the 1880s and 1890s, sonnets written by African American sonnet writers appeared almost exclusively in Black newspapers.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Natasha Trethewey, Terrance Hayes, Wanda Coleman and Camille Dungy, among others, have taken up the sonnet. Describing the poems in her 2006 collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison as “rogue sonnets,” Dungy indicated in a 2007 Boxcar Review interview that the personae in her poems are “...folks who take the restrictions and traditions that have been handed to them and they do what they can to make beautiful things with their lives.” In the same interview she suggests that the fact that her speakers “follow some rules and flaunt others is a direct reflection of their subjects.” What do you make of these comments?

Camille Dungy’s comment is terrific and might have been said by Dunbar 100 years earlier or by Gwendolyn Brooks 50 years earlier—in fact most Black sonnet writers “follow some rules and flaunt others.” But the most interesting part of the quote is what Dungy means by “handed to them.” Her next line in the interview is: “They aren't allowed to act just like Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Shelley, nor would they want to. They do things their way…”Notice who is left out? Nowhere in that interview would you learn that there were any other Black sonnet writers flaunting rules before Dungy.Can Dungy imagine a world where she was handed the sonnet rules by Dunbar or Margaret Walker or Brooks?

How elastic is this form for Black poets more largely? Can you comment on the range of approaches different African American poets of the last century--and of the 21st--take toward this form?

The sonnet form is elastic for all poets but I argue that the sonnet’s double-voicedness and the tradition’s emphasis on bondage and freedom make it an ideal poetic form for the African American experience. Initially, sonnet writers such as Cordelia Ray and William Stanley Braithwaite were respectful of the form. But quickly African American sonnet writers dismantled and remantled the form to make it work for each poetic purpose. Terrance Hayes’s sublime “Sonnet” (2002) which repeats the line “We sliced the watermelon into smiles” fourteen times is breathtaking in the way it embodies and satirizes the sonnet tradition.

Any discussion of Black poetry and form would be remiss without some acknowledgment of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry. Informed by the Black Power
movement mid-career, her own later work, beginning with In the Mecca, veered away from form. That said, she is probably best known for her earlier work--less the sonnet than the ballad, though she wrote what she called the “off-rhyme” sonnet series “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” Do you see Brooks as a catalyst in this regard? Would it be fair to say the many Black poets writing in form today might do so in part because of Brooks’ earlier impetus? Which other earlier African American writers are late 20th- and early 21st-century Black writers in dialogue with?

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Yes, Gwendolyn Brooks is the real giant of the African American sonnet tradition. Every single African American sonnet writer today ought to acknowledge Brooks before they acknowledge anyone else, including Shakespeare. Nobody else is quite as influential, except perhaps Langston Hughes, but not for sonnets. I trace the impress of Dunbar’s sonnets on later sonneteers and McKay’s on less well known poets such as Marcus Christian. One of the key points of my book is that Black sonnet writers were actively reading each other’s sonnets throughout the 20th century and this dialogue seems to have been lost in the 21st.

Contention suggests that Black poets must push against a tradition as much as build upon it in the sense T.S. Eliot suggests in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Are there any difficulties involved with framing the African American sonnet tradition as first and foremost a response? Do some poets simply wish to “speak with the dead,” (as Stephen Greenblatt indicates of himself in Shakespearean Negotiations) regardless of race—or geography or nation or a host of other factors? How would you counter this kind of question?

I like the way you’ve put the question. What Black sonnet writers beginning with Dunbar brought to the American sonnet tradition was new language instead of the “dead leaves” that Keats lamented in 1819. In the 1930s, William Carlos Williams argued the sonnet form was “fascistic”—it kept poets too tightly in lockstep. But a decade or so later, without giving African American poets credit of course, he acknowledged that fresh new language and dialect had invigorated American poetry, including the sonnet form.

You’ve worked extensively with Henry Louis Gates on a number of projects. To what extent do you see your own book as furthering the very important work the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture initiated? In what ways do you take another path in this book?

I dedicated my book to Skip Gates because from our very first collaboration on the influence of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House on Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative he encouraged my interest in influence. How does artist or work of art influence another? How can we trace influence over time? Isn’t it time to trace the influence of sonnet writers such as Dunbar, McKay, and Brooks on the sonnet writers of the 21st century?

A book on the Black sonnet implies that there is more work needed in this area. Where might you go next, if you were to follow up this book with another?

In order to really understand the power and the craft of the sonnet form, I started writing my own in 2008. I’ve published a dozen or so in various places over the years and I’ve kept writing, even as a Dean! Sadly, in the COVID-19 era, writing sonnets about being stuck in small rooms is sort of clichéd, so I’ve had to throw out a whole bunch that I started.Still, I’m hoping to publish them in a book at some point. We’ll see! And maybe I’ll return to the idea of an anthology of African American sonnets.


Professor Anne Goldman teaches American literature and creative writing in the English Department at Sonoma State University. She has published three scholarly books: Take My Word: Autobiographical Innovations of Ethnic American Working Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), Continental Divides: Revisioning American Literature (New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, 2000), María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Critical and Pedagogical Perspectives, co-edited with Amelia de la Luz Montes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004). A collection of creative nonfiction is forthcoming later this year. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in such venues as Tin House, the Georgia Review, the Gettysburg Review, and the Southwest Review.