A poet and musician processes history: Ken Waldman’s Trump Sonnets
Ken Waldman combines Appalachian-style string-band music, original poetry, and Alaska-set storytelling for a performance uniquely his. Nine CDs include two for for children. Eighteen books include a kids’ book, a memoir (about his life as a touring artist), fifteen full-length poetry collections, and a hybrid book that’s part creative writing manual, part memoir, part poetry collection. He’s appeared at leading performing arts centers, concert series, colleges, festivals, and clubs throughout North America.
The day after the 2016 November presidential election, Ken Waldman jotted a phrase: Before long, this guy would would make George W. look like a statesman. That insight led to a sonnet, which led to dozens more. By mid-December,
Ken Waldman had enough for Trump Sonnets, Volume 1, which Ridgeway Press of Roseville, Michigan immediately published, and which Ken Waldman had in his hands by the inauguration.
That book led to Trump Sonnets, Volume 2, which Ken Waldman wrote while on tour in spring 2017. Summer 2017, he wrote an essay, “Donald Trump is My Muse,” to try and explain the deluge of poems. His stage show titled “Trump Sonnets or: How I’ve Taken on Donald Trump (and Won)” features these poems. From fall 2017 to spring 2018, he wrote Trump Sonnets, Volume 3. The stage show has continued to evolve to reflect the new work.
People asked if there would be a Volume 4. Yes, Ken Waldman answered, saying that he’d been doing his job as an engaged citizen. Trump Sonnets, Volume 4 was released in early 2020. Volume 5? Ken Waldman spent mid-March to mid-April 2020 holed up writing virus-inspired poems. Trump Sonnets, Volume 5 was in his hands by summer 2020 for an early 2021 publication date. Volumes 6 and 7 are also now out, and spring 2021 he has review copies of Volume 8, with its September 1, 2021 publication date.
Here’s an interview with Ken Waldman about the Trump Sonnets:
How did you get the idea to write sonnets about Donald Trump?
First, about ten years earlier, I’d come up with an idea to write sonnets about the George W. Bush presidency. And in about six weeks during spring 2016, I pretty much completed a collection. At that point I reached out to a publisher/poet friend, M. L. Liebler, about putting out the book through his Ridgeway Press. He gave it a go-ahead, so I had that book. And prior to that project, I’d written a series of comedy sonnets, a series of sonnets about sports, and a series of sonnets about writers. So writing sonnets was something I knew that I could do. Plus the form means I can get into a poem, and then out of it. Fourteen ten-syllable lines isn’t very long!
When Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, I’d been closely following his rise. The day after the election, I was sitting in my car in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where I was about to start a nine-day residency in the community, mostly working in schools. I remember listening to the radio, and wrote that this guy — meaning Trump — is going to make George W. look like a statesman. A few days later I turned that observation into a sonnet by adding a few sentences. That might have been the end of things though a few weeks later I wrote another.
At the time, I had an artist/poet friend who invited me to visit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, right after Thanksgiving. I was there for ten days. My friend had no internet, and a small studio apartment, and liked to sleep in. So I had a few hours every morning by myself with nothing to do but to quietly write — and since I didn’t speak Spanish, I wasn’t encouraged to explore the city one my own. Each morning there I wrote three or four Trump-inspired sonnets. I left Buenos Aires the second week of December with almost forty sonnets, easily more than half a book. Back in the States, I finished the collection, reached out to M. L. Liebler again, and we were able to get that first book out in time for the January 2017 inaugural. It was done quickly, and the book was well received.
Again, that might have been the end, but Trump was so over the top, I felt I had more to say. Hence, a Volume 2, then a Volume 3, and now we’re at Volume 8, due out in September, 2021. I’ve said a number of times it’s as if I’d been “chosen” or “called” to write these. I’ve kept finding different slants to each book, so while they’re all sonnets about the Trump presidency, they’re all different — and I think of Volumes 5,6,7 are a trilogy within the whole, since they’re all in Trump’s voice, and all have the pandemic as backdrop. Donald Trump has been both ubiquitous, and taboo. As head of state — as U.S. President, for godsakes — he was not only representative of this country, but he’s been symptomatic of our era, and culture. Why wouldn’t I want to write about him. It’s part of my work as a poet, and engaged citizen.
How did you choose the old-fashioned form of a sonnet for modern politics and issues? What’s the rationale behind using such a traditional and highly structured piece?
I don’t think it’s a question of me choosing the sonnet, but it choosing me. And as far as being old-fashioned, there’s been a big renaissance in the form, and what people do with it. — and I’ve found I have a knack for writing them). Plus there’s its venerable history, which is an added benefit.
You’re a performing musician. Does your music background feed into or inform how you write poetry, or vice versa. How is writing a poem like writing a song?
I’m a quintessential late-bloomer. I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska to go to the MFA Creative Writing program as I was turning 30. I arrived as a fiction writer, and graduated as a fiction writer who was starting to write poems. I also arrived as a beginning fiddler. I’d been playing for four or five years, but wasn’t very good, certainly not someone ready to play yet publicly. But I kept at the fiddling, and fiddling was one of the first subjects I wrote poems about.
So there’s that. I’ve been told I play pretty simply, and also have been told my poems are straightforward and simple in their way. Unadorned might be a better way to say it. But that might also possibly my ear, and how I hear things. I want to say things straight, and, hopefully, with some depth. Lots of old-time fiddling can be pretty simple, but it’s also deceptively deep. How is a poem like writing a song? I have to say that though I’ve made up — I prefer that than to say I’ve composed — and recorded over a hundred original fiddle tunes, I’m not writing songs. On the CDs, I combine the spoken word poetry with original and traditional fiddle tunes.
Oh, I could say I’ve made up two or three “songs” but they’re on my kids’ CDs and are novelty pieces. I don’t consider myself a songwriter. But when I make up tunes, I have a fiddle or mandolin in hand, and come up with something that’s new, and there it is, I’ve made up a tune, and if I can record it, I can remember it. I go through streaks where I make up bunches of tunes in a few weeks. The writing is a more ongoing thing. In both instances, I tend to write pretty quickly, and try to push through with a decent draft in a sitting or two (which isn’t to say I might go back to it and revise weeks, months, or even years later).
As an Alaskan, what drew you to Appalachian bluegrass music?
Well, I’d already been playing a bit before I moved to Alaska for grad school, and I got started through an utterly random serendipity. I graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina as a business major, then spent the two years teaching tennis and wandering across the country before stopping back in Durham, intending to stay for a couple of nights. The visit turned into almost five years, mostly in and around Chapel Hill, a big college town about ten miles from Durham. I worked in a bookstore, waited tables, taught more tennis.
For awhile I lived in a house with two musicians who sometimes hosted music parties. I was the boring housemate who didn’t play. This was almost 40 years ago now. The musicians at those parties were good then, and they’re good now. But one guy who wasn’t so good left his fiddle, and let it be known it was for sale for $100. I wouldn’t have gone across the street to buy that fiddle, with bow and case, but there it was in the living room. That’s how I started — and I still have that $100 fiddle and it’s one of the fiddles I take on stage.
So I kept at it — and there’s always been a nice traditional music scene in Alaska — and the long winters certainly help with both the music making and the writing. And for those who know the music, the kind of string-band music I play is more accurately known as old-time, which pre-dates bluegrass. While some of the instrumentation is the same, it’s a much different sound. I could go on about it, but no need other to say bluegrass and old-time are not the same (and interestingly there’s a crossover between old-time and punk, so some punk musicians who find themselves playing string-band music definitely gravitate to old-time, as opposed to bluegrass).
How and why do you think your Trump Sonnets will stay relevant when Trump slides out of the news?
Donald Trump made himself historic — I’ll grant him that. He’s one of the 46 presidents of the United States. So while he may indeed slide out of the news, as you say, historians and scholars are going to study him and study this time for as long as there are historians and scholars. They’re going to be writing about him. And when you get down to it, when something is done deeply and well, as I like to think I’ve done here, the work will have validity, and not just for scholars and historians, but for anyone wanting to understand this time in the culture.
I received a really nice review back in late 2006 about the George W. Bush sonnets, where the reviewer, from Ireland, wrote that 50 or 100 years from now, those poems would explain the time of Bush’s presidency. I’d like to think it’s the same with these Trump Sonnets. And while Donald Trump is not and was not Adolph Hitler, there are parallels to this time to pre-World War II Germany. We’re not through with what Trump represents — he’s a symptom, not the cause, as I hope I’ve made clear. Meanwhile, almost a century later, Germany and the world are still reckoning with how the Nazis came to be. With Volume 8, I’ve now written over 600 sonnets in response to Trump’s presidency. I’ll quote Jared Yates Sexton, author of American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed its People, and several other books. He wrote this endorsement for Trump Sonnets, Volume 5:
“Perhaps no one has done a better job of chronicling the madness and absurdity of the Trump Era than poet Ken Waldman. These poems continue that project and find art and beauty in the cruelty and grift. When this crisis hopefully abates and people in the future look to understand how America lost its mind, they should turn to these poems, to Waldman’s craft, for their lessons.”