By Holli Harms
So much has been created online in the last 11 months and I want to tell you about a little gem, one of the most ambitious and creative ongoing collaborations, #SonnetCoronaProject, created, curated by Jane Elias. Every day Jane posts a new sonnet written by her from a questionnaire she sends out to artists all over the states and world. Their answers are the basis for the sonnet she will create specifically for them. They will take their personalized Sonnet and create a video with it. I asked Jane about the project, how she got the idea and how sustaining this daily grind of what I must say are beautiful, brilliant 1 to 3-minute works of art is going? Here are her answers:
- What was the incentive for the sonnet project?
The prospect of sitting alone at my desk to work on existing writing projects quickly lost its luster once we were in quarantine. It was like isolation squared. About a month or so into the shutdown in NYC, I started brainstorming ways I could engage creatively with fellow actors that would allow me to collaborate with a large number of people over a sustained period, while also not requiring overly complicated maneuvering in the way of scheduling and tech. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing a “Zoom play” or attempting to approximate an experience of live theater. It needed to be a different animal altogether, but something communal. April is National Poetry Month, so at the time there were many online events and readings around that. I had seen that Sir Patrick Stewart was doing daily readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets on his Instagram, and I thought it was so delightful. It was a bite-size dose of art that seemed appropriate for the times, like an easy-to-swallow daily vitamin. So I took to this idea of a sonnet a day #SonnetCoronaProject. And while there have been many incarnations of sonnet-a-day projects, I had never seen one where the sonneteer was a contemporary writer. Why not me? And why not write each one for a specific actor to read? The sonnet form in particular was appealing because its parameters would give me a helpful scaffolding. Writing one every day would be a challenge, but doable. They are like little puzzle boxes to solve. Beyond that, I wanted all the pieces—and actors’ voices—to connect. A sonnet corona is a sequence in which the first line of each sonnet is carried over from the last line of the previous sonnet, and the first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the last line of the final sonnet. Given its name, this revealed itself as the form the project was asking to take. I reached out to a group of actor friends with the idea and we got things off the ground last May. As of February 19, there are 282 sonnets and counting.
2) What does a regular day for you look like?
The ingredients are the same, but the scheduling varies. I usually post the day’s sonnet (video and text) online in the morning (the series lives on my Twitter @eliastories). Sometimes I’ll write for a few hours in the morning, and then again at night. Other days I’ll work from evening late into the night. I spend a lot of time thinking. And reading. And emailing actors. And of course, terrorized by self-doubt. No writing day would be complete without it!
3) Do you keep a spreadsheet to remember who has done what?
Yes, I have kept the schedule in an Excel spreadsheet since the beginning.
4) How do you keep the writing so fresh?
Thank you for implying that it is fresh! I devised a simple questionnaire with five or six questions that I send to each actor to fill out before I write their poem. The idea is to get a sense of the person, their environment, what their current preoccupations are, and to refer to their responses as a writing prompt. This might mean that I incorporate specific details they’ve shared, or it could be something more abstract. Usually what I do is take notes on their responses, the things that most jump out at me. Then I sit with those, and with the last line of the previous sonnet (which has now become the first line), and start to make connections. The hope is that what results is a kind of synthesis of consciousness and experience, with the whole series unfolding as a collective document of this moment in our history. Especially writing at this pace, it’s easy to default to certain habits as far as syntax, word choice, and tone. I always keep a document open that includes all the sonnets so far so that when an idea occurs to me that I suspect I may have used before, I can do a search to see if I’m repeating myself. Ultimately I have to accept that given the constraints, I may not always be able to fully realize what I’m going for. That said, interesting things can happen when you’re pressed for time! I’ve also been so inspired and energized by all the amazingly creative ways the actors have engaged with the text. As the series has evolved, so too have the interpretations, which so far have included readings straight to camera, short films, animation, dance, and song.
5) Were you always a poet?
I was writing poems and stories in elementary school, and remember being especially into poetry as a kid because of Shel Silverstein. I continued in high school and college, then did an MFA program, though once I completed that and started getting more involved in theater, I found myself writing poems less frequently. This project has been especially satisfying because it has reinvigorated my love of language and integrates different modes of artistic expression that I’m passionate about.
6) When will you know the project is finished?
My intention was always to keep the project going until a coronavirus vaccine became widely available in the United States. To underscore the relentlessness of the pandemic with a steady hum of creativity. At the outset, my publicly stated goal was to continue “until there is a vaccine,” which was purposefully nebulous (since who knew how long it would take to get there), essentially my way of saying “this is going to go on for the foreseeable future.” Once the vaccine became a reality at the end of last year, I decided it would be feasible for me to realize my original goal. Since not every state is on the same timeline, and since this has been a more New York–centric project, I will close the corona when Phase 2 of vaccine distribution (general population) begins in NYC.
7) Are you able to take a day off?
Not yet. There have been a few days here and there where I didn’t end up writing, but they weren’t really days off, just longer staring contests between me and my computer screen.
#SonnetCoronaProject logo design by John Dermot Woods.