In renaissance Europe, "if you wanted to get the girl, you had to be able to write sonnets," explained Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson. "This is something that everybody did."
Photo by Chris Rogers
. Great River Shakespeare Festival actor Steve Hendrickson recited a winning poem at the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest last weekend. This year, the number of contest entries surged, with sonnets submitted from all the U.S. and overseas.
That is not necessarily true anymore. The poetic form that ruled romance in Shakespeare's day and which Shakespeare helped popularize is less common today, but Winona may be an exception. Since its inception seven years ago, the Great River Shakespeare Festival's (GRSF) Maria Faust Sonnet Contest has grown steadily into a regional phenomenon. This year, writers from more than 36 states and six foreign countries submitted 420 poems, a huge increase compared to last year's 284. Eighty-two Winonans and visitors, including Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen, gathered for a reading of the winning sonnets by GRSF actors last weekend.
"The sonnet sideshow [to GRSF] has grown, not only in terms of quantity, but the quality is really remarkable," commented Winona Poet Laureate and contest judge Emilio DeGrazia.
The contest has also spurred many non-writers to take up the pen. A first-time sonneteer won last year's youth contest and the event's organizer, Ted Haaland, of Homer, is perhaps the poster child of amateur poetry. Poetry enthusiast Maria Faust, whom the contest is named for, is Haaland's late wife. Haaland had hardly written a poem in his life when she died in 2011, but a week after her death, a poem appeared in Haaland's mind, and he could not ignore it. He wrote it down, and has written thousands of poems in the few years since then, often writing several a day, and has given readings at local poetry events.
"The contest is great way to start people writing. It's always great to have a concrete goal," Sutphen said. Once people try sonnets, they become addicted to the form, she continued. Building up to the thematic "turn" that traditionally comes in the final lines of a sonnet is thrilling, she said.
This year's winning sonnets and honorable mentions included a humorous musing on online dating by Winonan Ken Mogren, a tale of nuns struggling to protect children in Nazi-occupied Poland, and a distributing portrait of priest sexual abuse.
"I'm always astonished how much of the experience is condensed into those 14 lines," Scholz-Carlson said. With just 14 short lines and, traditionally, a rhythm of alternating accents known as iambic pentameter, and specific rhyming patterns, writing sonnets requires poets to follow the rules.
"It is the perfect shape," Sutphen said of the sonnet. "It's like a little room to hold things and keep things." DeGrazia likened free verse, the rule-less, free form poetry popularized by contemporary poets, to playing tennis without a net.
Haaland encouraged Winonans to start writing their submissions for the 2015 contest.