James Anthony’s debut book, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, will publish in November with WH Allen in the UK and Three Rivers Press in the US.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold is a contemporary rewrite of all 154 of the Bard’s classic love poems. These literal translations – written in the traditional iambic pentameter and rhyming patterns of the originals – aim to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s sonnets by helping to reveal their complex beauty to the modern reader. With the original sonnets facing their new translations, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold is a stunning collection of beautiful love poems, made new.
The audio edition of the book will publish simultaneously with the modern translations read by the wonderful Stephen Fry and the original sonnets read by Paapa Essiedu, winner of the 2016 Ian Charleson Award for his title role in Hamlet and Edmund in King Lear, both at the RSC.
‘James Anthony has done something I would have confidently stated to be impossible. He has “translated” Shakespeare’s sonnets and he has done so with an insolent, loveable charm …A dazzling success’ – Stephen Fry
Q & A with James Anthony, author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold
What audience did you have in mind for Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold?
I started rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets out of personal frustration and curiosity. I’ve long struggled to comprehend the detailed meaning of the sonnets, so, out of self-interest, I tried ‘translating’ one with the sole aim of increasing my own understanding of what Shakespeare was really saying. This process—respecting the iambic pentameter, rhyme and line-by-line sentiment—forced me to first understand the exquisite but beguiling language, and then convert it into a contemporary form that even I could understand! I wrote the whole sequence this way, without ever writing it for anyone in particular other than myself.
Now that the book is being published, I hope to reach people who, like myself, may have been put off by the complexity and obscure imagery of the sonnets. I hope everyone understands (and, hopefully, enjoys!) my interpretations, and by doing so, I hope they can revisit the sensitive beauty of the originals with confident fresh-eyes.
Does your love for pop music influence your poems?
I’ve always loved pop, rock, reggae and ska music. These genres are driven by a taught, repetitive rhythm overlaid with structured, rhyming lyrics laced with a story. I like to know what’s coming in a song: a verse, a middle-eight, and a chorus. I like my poetry the same way. (I’m not a lover of a lot of modern freestyle poetry; I can appreciate it, but it’s just not my thing, much like I don’t like improvised jazz music.)
It was this pop-music structure that drew me to the sonnets: each line drives the beat through its iambic pentameter, and the rhyming pattern gives it quatrains and a couplet, similar to a verse and chorus. The words of the best poems act as the drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and, of course, the vocals, and, like the best songs, you want to hear them all over again. For me, the sonnets do that.
Have you ever used a sonnet in real life – to proclaim your love for someone, or to express sadness?
I lost both my parents in the first three months of this year, both of them just missing the news that my debut book was to be published globally by Penguin Random House in November. They enjoyed reading my sonnets, Mum in particular. She told me that she wanted me to read one at her funeral, but she never told me which one! So, I rewrote Sonnet 18 for her, comparing her to a summer’s day. I finished it with the couplet, ‘Although Mum’s dazzling summer days have passed, In us her warmth and love will always last.’
What is your Desert Island book?
It’s an easy answer: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. This book has been a revelation, helping me differentiate between an over-active mind and the very essence of existence. It’s not the sort of book I would normally gravitate to—I would have previously thought it a bit too ‘hippy’! — but its beautifully elegant writing and simply explained concepts have brought a fresh, empowering perspective to my life. I wholeheartedly recommend it to just about everyone I meet.
Find out more about James and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold here