on Forms of Contention

January 2023

Hollis Robbins is Dean of Humanities at University of Utah and is the author or co-editor of several books including Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (2020), the Penguin Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers (2017), co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the Norton Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006), also co-edited with Gates. She recently discussed Forms of Contention with Zoë Pollak (Columbia University), Helen Ganiy (Rutgers University) and Max Chapnick (Boston University). In this conversation, Robbins discusses archival research, monograph publication, and her experience tracing a genealogy of the Black sonnet. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Max L. Chapnick (MLC): We're curious how this project began: what was the process of publishing the book?

Hollis Robbins (HR): I love answering this question because it's a cautionary tale for all grad students, which is: don't do it this way. My dissertation was transatlantic before there was a transatlantic thing. And so I didn't get any jobs. And every response I got was like…we really liked you, but we couldn't tell whether you were an Americanist or Victorianist. But I ended up getting this job, which was at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Anyway, my life turned into life and I realized I needed to have a book, and it wasn't going to be my dissertation. Meanwhile, I had started collaborating with Henry Louis Gates Jr. [who] had identified some work by Hannah Crafts; [and we investigated how] Crafts was actually rewriting Dickens in her narrative of an escaped slave. Through that collaboration I began to work with [Gates] and suddenly found myself having edited four books. And I'm suddenly sitting here thinking I kind of need a monograph; if I'm going to be a scholar of any note, I need a monograph. And this question of sonnets came slowly over time. I was teaching Black poetry, both at Millsaps, and then when I moved to Johns Hopkins.

And then I'd see books of Black poetry, but nobody who theorized them. And I thought, okay, this is going to be my book. This is my opening. I started thinking about it in 2008. And it took me 10 years to write. So cautionary tale: publish your dissertation.

Helen Ganiy (HG): So you make a really interesting and provocative claim on page 12 of your book; you said that in the hands of Black poets, the sonnet is as much a Black form as jazz is. That really struck me as an African Americanist. And I know that your intention wasn't to draw a comparison between the forms, but just to suggest that they're equally important to the trajectory of Black arts. I think that when most of us think about jazz, we think of improvisation as its very essence. And I emphasize this because I feel like for many that kind of anti-formalist affordance is exactly what sets jazz apart as a form of distinctly Black art. I want to hear more about that line, that claim that you make and your thinking behind that.

HR: Well, while I was writing this book my home appointment at Johns Hopkins was at the Peabody Conservatory, which, ten years before I had gotten there [they] had started its jazz program, which was fairly innovative for the oldest music conservatory in the United States that really focused on the classical. Music conservatory conserves. And so naturally, given my interests, I was drawn to the jazz program. All of the students had to learn everything. Then they learned jazz. So you had to learn your music theory in a formalist way—the jazz faculty there stressed this. Jazz is as based in form as anything else–understanding that the very best in the history of jazz involves the relationship with formal music, whether it's Western, whether it's African, whether it's an amalgamation, whether it's a combination, any of those terms that you want to use, this sort of marriage of form and innovation.

Jazz practitioners always saw themselves as within a tradition, always were gesturing to the past, always were situating themselves in the heroes from before and then doing something new. And that sense of being a practitioner within a history seemed to me what I was seeing very much in the Black sonnet tradition.

HG: How do you contend with the claim that free-form poetry, or whatever comes after the sonnet, is actually more innovative? Because your claim is more centered on the innovation that can happen within the form itself.

HR: Well, when I got to Amiri Baraka in chapter six, you can read them without knowing anything about the sonnet and they’re interesting poems, but then you can read them understanding that he knew the sonnet down cold and that this was the sonnet where there is what looks like a free verse poem. When you see that framework there– dismantled and taken away–and then read his poem [“The Turncoat”] you read the poem differently. At least that was my contention.

Visual artists talk about how Picasso had to learn to paint representationally before he could go nuts. There is that grounding.

Zoë Pollak (ZP): The term “Black sonnet” is crucial to your book. Can you introduce and unpack that term a bit? Are you suggesting that a “Black sonnet” is simply a sonnet written by a Black poet, or does your definition take into account other conceptual, thematic, or historical concerns?

HR: It's a good question. And it's a hard question. Part of what took me a long time to write this book was basically answering that question….

I had not seen a genealogy of Black poets being influenced by other Black poets or Black poets being influenced by Black sonneteers. I kept seeing how, for example, Sterling Brown would talk about Dunbar or the way that Gwendolyn Brooks would talk about Dunbar. And it was the way when… you know, late at night when everybody has gone home and you hear the jazz musicians talking about the jazz that they've seen. You realize quietly that there's this genealogy.

So I would say particularly that a Black sonnet would be a sonnet that in some way situates itself in the genealogy of Black sonnet writing. So it's not just a sonnet that happens to be written by a Black poet. Gwendolyn Brooks knew what Dunbar was doing. Countee Cullen knew what Claude McKay was doing, as well as sonnets by white poets.

HG: I had a question about the claim that you make about the sonnet form being in tension with the content. One of your more interesting claims is that Black poets use the constraints of the sonnet to identify and explore the tension between the content of their words and the limits of the form. You aren't really claiming that the sonnet is a superior form, but rather that it has been taken up by Black poets as a reflection of the systemic racism that suffuses their experience. So the sonnet is kind of like the system and the content is the truth. And the tension between these is the struggle. You talk a lot about this in your discussion of the sonnet “The Lynching.”

For me, this is probably your most compelling claim. Most scholars, including myself, up until reading this book would probably focus on the constraints of the sonnet and its reputation as a form that is more concerned with internal reflection than political activism as a way of reducing the motives of Black sonnets. I want to hear more about the informal process that brought you to that conclusion; was there a particular sonnet that really provoked you to start thinking about this tension?

HR: I was circling around the question [of “why the sonnet?”] for a long time. I kept coming back to Dunbar's “Robert Gould Shaw.” He's chosen this form and this archaic language to say that Robert Gould Shaw gave up his life to fight in the Civil War–given the lynching at the end of the 19th century–was in vain?! It’s a huge claim. Everybody thinks that this was a noble thing. Dunbar chose the sonnet form to make this claim, in the same way that he chose the sonnet form for his Douglas sonnet. To be looking at this moment at the end of the 19th century where, [since] the high point of Reconstruction, hopes have been utterly dashed: why choose this sonnet? It has to be ironic. And it has to be a deliberate choice.

ZP: In chapter two of Forms of Contention, you quote Claudia Tate's argument about Black literary works’ expectation to “contest racist perspectives” [which] makes me think of an interview in which Toni Morrison recounted being told by a critic after writing Sula that she should address what the critic deemed “real” responsibilities and write about the “real” confrontation for Black people, which the critic construed as white people. And in response to that Morrison replied: “I've spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

Is it possible to conceive of the Black sonnet tradition as not only foregrounding racial bondage and oppression, but as a tradition in which practitioners are engaging with other formal, historical, and aesthetic concerns?

HR: For so long [Harold Bloom’s] anxiety of influence [foregrounded] these sort of psychological problems: that you had to grapple with something [that came before], and that's what made you great. And the reason I begin with [Bloom] and with Baraka is that one can't overstate the effect of Baraka on how we think about and study Black literature in universities.

To start by building a canon in opposition is a fine political step. But what gets lost in that political battle is the literature itself. And trying to take the literature back from these big institutional battles is now the challenge.

The writing of this book took a very, very long time. The Miltonists said “you're missing all this stuff on Milton; you're going to have to write about how much McKay understood Milton.” And the Black literature scholars said “but you're not talking about the fact that McKay was working for a Marxist magazine and that there were all these other things going on here.” I kept thinking this chasm is widening and widening and am I ever going to be able to bridge it? And so in some ways, just pushing all that to the side and just focusing on the form [of the sonnet] allowed me to keep going. But there's so much on the table: about how much Milton [that] McKay [had read] and how much did it matter and was he thinking of Milton as a political protest person? These are interesting questions that are hovering around the edges.

MC: I'm interested in that middle chapter where you're talking about the periodicals from 1890 to the early 20th century. And I was curious–because there are a lot of periodicals–how did you go through them? How did you decide which sonnets to include, which not to include, and which newspapers to look at and which not to?

HR: I have this Appendix [concerning] collected Black sonnets from periodicals. When King Tut's tomb was found and opened in the 1920s, it was huge in the New York Times, but in the Black newspapers they emphasized that he's African. And the white newspapers were all like, “no, he's a noble Egyptian, that's not African.” So these Black poems, sonnets to King Tut, were hilarious. I found other sonnets that still have not been republished: early sonnets by Gwendolyn Brooks in the Chicago Defender that she never collected [and] never published ever again. And I didn't put as many in the book as I would've wanted because I thought there was going to be this second book. I don't know what to do with them.

So anytime there was a sonnet, I wrote it down or I copied it or took a picture of it with my phone and hoped and still hope to publish them someday.

ZP: Your suggestion that all poets are in some way contending with tradition made me think of the pre-Romantic female British poets (Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and Anna Seward, for example) who helped revive the anglophone sonnet. These poets refocused the sonnet’s traditionally male gaze onto their own perspectives, partly for purposes of gendered self-authentication. Do you think that we could historicize the Black poets you focus on as contending with tradition in an equivalent framework?

HR: The best feedback I have gotten so far on my book has come from Shelley scholars, and the ways in which what Shelley scholars see in my claims of what Black sonneteers were doing with this protest tradition is a language that then the Shelley scholars can use to talk about what Shelley and Keats were trying to do in their tradition. I see this a little bit with Dickens scholarship, in the discovery we made that Hannah Crafts was borrowing Dickens' language from Bleak House. Now Dickens scholars are saying, how can I learn about what Dickens might have been doing from these scholars [of African American literature] talking about class distinction and squalor and labor. What I'm seeing from scholarship is the breaking out of periodicity and nationality. What seems to be the case is that how Black sonneteers are using the sonnet to fight the man and be the man at the same time…is helpful for scholars on women's sonnets, for example.

Hollis Robbins is Dean of Humanities at the University of Utah. Her scholarly work focuses on the intersection of nineteenth century American and African American literature and the discourses of law, bureaucracy, and the press. Her most recent public essay was Examining Phillis Wheatley, in LA Review of Books. She is currently writing a book on the poet Robert Hayden.