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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Melinama's Sonnet Service," the golden years

I've decided to tell you the story of the Melinama Sonnet Service. This career evolved just after I graduated from college. I was studying calligraphy for fun, and also because I had gotten a little bit of freelance work designing posters for my fellow musicians.

On one family vacation I sat alone day after day in a cabin in Moosehead Maine, doing italic renderings of passages from Daniel Deronda (my read at the time) on parchment paper while everybody else went on long boring fishing excursions on the deep black freezing cold lake. With lots of black flies.

I was wondering what to do with my life. Since calligraphy was my enthusiasm of the moment, I considered that as a possible career, but had to admit my work was a bit smudgy and imperfect.

Also, there is so much calligraphy produced that nobody wants or needs. I didn't want to be one of those people who make lots of non-useful things with their craft.

Example: remember macrame? If you do, you know this is a picture of macrame, and you remember people made miles of it and were always gifting you and everybody else with awful objets full of knots, sticks, and shells.

(If you don't remember macrame, you are probably so young you never make anything with your hands at all, because crafts and carpentry and cooking all seem to have gone out of fashion.)

In a lightbulb moment I remembered my knack, discovered in seventh grade, for writing a sonnet -- Petrarchan or Elizabethan -- on any subject, in half an hour. Aha, something to write out in a fine hand! Practical apps!

Thus was hatched the "Melinama Sonnet Service." I would produce individually composed and calligraphed sonnets for anniversaries, birthdays, etc. I explained this intention in iambic pentameter, inked it on a poster, and, this being Cambridge Massachusetts in the 70s, stapled it on hundreds of telephone poles.

Eventually, surprisingly, the Boston Globe contacted me, and the Christian Science Monitor (whose photographer took these pictures, I think), and Susan Stamberg, who interviewed me for Weekend Edition on NPR one Valentine's Day.

It turns out media people love the idea of somebody writing sonnets for a living. Maybe that's what they would rather be doing.

And so for about three years I did indeed make my monthly nut writing sonnets, $30 a pop, a royal sum in my opinion. Here are three high points:
  • Reuniting a retired army man in China with his high-school sweetheart. A rickshaw entered into that poem.

  • Getting a commission for seventeen sonnets for a Bar Mitzvah! The mother wanted one for each person who was going to light a candle after the emcee "wheeled in the cake"! I protested that a thirteen year old doesn't need seventeen candles! She said, that's OK, I'm going to blow a few out when nobody's looking! I said, in that case, I think sonnets of ten lines rather than fourteen are indicated, as otherwise the multitudes will grow restive! I was expecting her to say: but then it isn't a sonnet; instead she agreed, and even paid full price!

  • Getting hired by a Harvard poetry professor. Actually, what happened was, he had me come to class and made his STUDENTS pay me. Nickles and quarters rolled reluctantly out of their pockets. He had told me (approximately): "they think they are so cool with their angsty free verse. Not one of them understands rhyme and scansion. I want you to come teach them." They, grumpy and aloof, reluctantly proposed various details to be included in the poem. I went in the next room and wrote it. It was a moment of sublime triumph.
Somewhere in my attic is the box of first drafts (I was too cheap in those days to pay to make xeroxes of the finished products). I had to quit the gig eventually when the awful rhymes started haunting my dreams. After all, I did not scorn to write poetry about people's grandmothers in gingham aprons, but there are no noble rhymes for potato pie.

p.s. I can still do it. I would accept PayPal.

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At 8:05 AM, Blogger SC&A said...

Oh, have we got a gig for you...

No, not THAT gig- those bons mots we write ourselves, thank you very much.

NPR? CSM? Ezra Pound's turf? Impressive- and yes, better than macrame. Great story!

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Isabella K said...

Impressive! I used to sell sonnets in high school, $5–10 a pop, for (other people's) assignments. (Morally apprehensible, I know.) The hard part was when the commission stipulated not to make it too good, maybe a C minus. But I never thought I could turn it around into a living...

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Kimberly said...

What a wonderful story!

I think that my mother has finally dispensed with the last of the objets de macrame that my sister and I gave her, somewhere between the unrecognizable clay sculptures and the linoleum block prints.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger fred said...

What a great tale worthy of a Garrison Keillor monologue featuring "the English Major". You ought to write him and tell him this story--maybe you'd get a guest appearance on Prairie Home.

At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. But can you write a sonnet about a haiku?


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