Hollis Robbins, "Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition" (U Georgia Press, 2020)


As I learned from Hollis Robbins’s monograph Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition (U Georgia Press, 2020), there has been a long-standing skepticism of the sonnet form among Black writers and literary critics. Langston Hughes wrote that “the Shakespearean sonnet would be no mold to express the life of Beale Street or Lenox Avenue.” Ishmael Reed condemned sonneteering, alongside ode-writing, as “the feeble pluckings of musky gentlemen and slaves of the metronome.” And yet African American poets such as Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey continue to contribute to a tradition of sonnet-writing that includes Robert Hayden, Phyllis Wheatley, Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, and James Corrothers.

Today’s guest is Hollis Robbins, the author of Forms of Contention, published with the University of Georgia Press in 2020. Hollis is the Dean of Humanities at the University of Utah. Previously, she served as Dean of Arts and Humanities at Sonoma State University, Professor of Humanities at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Professor of English at Millsaps College. Hollis is also the co-editor of a number of field-defining books including The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Women Writers (Penguin, 2017); The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Norton, 2006); and the Works of William Wells Brown (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Forms of Contention tests the premise that a literary form such as the sonnet can both offer opportunities for reimagining society and politics and pose perils of constraint. This book captures the complexity and longevity of a vibrant tradition of Black poets taking up the sonnet form to explore race, liberation, enslavement, solidarity, and abolitionism. It also invites us to find new directions for the intersection of literary formalism and African American cultural studies.

John Yargo is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. He earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specializing in the environmental humanities and early modern culture. In 2023, his dissertation won the J. Leeds Barroll Prize, given by the Shakespeare Association of America. His peer-reviewed articles have been published or are forthcoming in the Journal for Early Modern Culture Studies, Early Theatre, Studies in Philology, and Shakespeare Studies.

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John Yargo

John Yargo is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Boston College. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His specializations are early modern literature, the environmental humanities, and critical race studies. His dissertation explores early modern representations of environmental catastrophe, including William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. He has published in Early Theatre, Studies in Philology, The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and Shakespeare Studies.

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