Monthly Archives: September 2013

Behind the Sestina: Tomás Q. Morín’s “Canso of the Dancing Bears”

Morin_Tomas_Q1Tomás Q. Morín is the winner of the 2012 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his poetry collection, A Larger Country. He is co-editor with Mari L’Esperance of the anthology Coming Close: 40 Essays on Philip Levine. His poems have appeared in Slate, Threepenny Review, Boulevard, New England Review, and Narrative. He teaches literature and writing at Texas State University.

We went Behind the Sestina and spoke to Tomas about “Canso of the Dancing Bears,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 
I think the first sestina I ever read was “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop, way back when I was a junior in college. I had a terrific workshop teacher, Matt Harvey, who introduced us to many good things.

Do you have a favorite sestina?
Favorite sestina, huh? Hmmm. I’d have to go with Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek.” I love this poem for the way in which Hecht pushes the story of little Yolek past the repetition and circularity that is the hallmark of the end words so that he tells a very linear, unhesitating narrative in a form resistant to that very thing.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. Are you a return sestins customer or are you “sestina retired,” as one poet once said?
“Canso of the Dancing Bears” is the only sestina I’ve ever attempted. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another. I suppose, like with most things, I won’t know it until I know it.


Is this inspired by real life events, place, narrative? I know that “Dancing Bear” is a Mamas and the Papas song, but that’s all I’ve got.
I wish I could say the Mamas and Papas inspired the poem, but unfortunately it was a banner on the side of my internet browser meant to draw attention to an organization championing the rights of dancing bears. I couldn’t resist clicking on it. Once I had, I was face with all the horrible details of how bears are made “to dance”. I then researched the use of dancing bears in all the countries where they were used so that I could get a good idea of how different cultures interacted and appreciated this type of side show.

Once I had spent some time educating myself about this terrible practice, I chose my pattern for repeating the end words. Rather than use the typical end-word scheme

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

I decided to use

7. (envoi) ADBFCE

The atypical pattern is modeled after Edmund Spenser’s “Ye wastefull woodes, bear witness of my woe” from The Shepheardes Calender (August, lines 151-189).

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
I would dedicate my sestina to Our Brother and Sister, the Bear.

Behind the Sestina: Marty McConnell’s “one possible explanation of my utter and rather surprising lack of an adolescent tomboy phase”

Marty McConnell at the IPPY Awards.

Marty McConnell at the IPPY Awards.

Marty McConnell personifies stage meeting the page, part of a generation of poets equally at home performing and publishing their work. A member of seven National Poetry Slam teams representing New York City and Chicago, McConnell was also the 2012 National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (NUPIC) Champion. She is the author of wine for a shotgun, a finalist for both the Audre Lorde Award (Publishing Triangle) and the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian poetry.

McConnell’s work has been published in numerous anthologies, including A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Movement, as well as such journals as Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Salt Hill Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, and Rattle. McConnell has lived in Chicago since 2009, where she co-founded Vox Ferus, an organization dedicated to empowering and energizing individuals and communities through the written and spoken word.

We spoke to Marty to take us Behind the Sestina, “one possible explanation of my utter and rather surprising lack of an adolescent tomboy phase,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 
When I was in grad school, we did a segment in Joan Larkin’s workshop on form poems, and I did a few of them–to my recollection, a sonnet, a pantoum, and something in iambic pentameter. She said to me, “You know, sometimes people try form and you can just see that it’s something they’re supposed to do, that it works sort of automatically with their voice. I don’t think that’s true with you.” Because, well, the poems were awful.

So I kind of wrote off form for a long time, until I was making a shift from writing a lot of persona work into getting autobiographical again, and remembered vaguely a quote from Adrienne Rich about form which the internet tells me goes like this: “In those years formalism was part of a strategy–like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded.” Regardless of the fact that she wasn’t actually talking about traditional form, the idea stayed with me that maybe I could get to terrifying ideas by writing them into existing structures – and there began a long, though sporadic, love affair with formal structures. Often, I will use form such as sestina either as a way to get started or as part of the revision process, but not end up with a form poem in the end.

What’s your favorite sestina?
I think my favorite sestina is “Morning News,” by Marilyn Hacker. The form genius.

What can you tell us about your sestina-writing life?
I don’t write many sestinas, or write in form all that often. Generally, what happens is that a poem will start to form in my head and feel like it needs a specific kind of excuse for its repetitiveness, or a framework to hold it. I actually write many more pantoum than sestinas, maybe because I fall in love with lines and want an excuse to hear the whole thing more than once.

Can you walk us through the composition of “one possible explanation of my utter and rather surprising lack of an adolescent tomboy phase”? Was there a biographical inspiration to this, a real-life “brother”?
I’m in the process of writing my second book, which has a lot to say about my relationship with my mother, particularly with regard to my thoughts and feelings about potentially ever becoming a mother myself. I started writing “one possible explanation of my utter and rather surprising lack of an adolescent tomboy phase” in the blank back pages of another person’s book a year or so ago, sitting on a pier in Wisconsin watching a girl who had twin brothers play with them and others and thinking about how different my childhood might have been had my mother not miscarried the boy she conceived between my second and third sisters, what it might have been to grow up in a household that included a brother instead of two sisters, how that might have influenced my way of interacting with male-bodied people.

The poem was a terrible failure in all of its early forms, until out of desperation to make something of it I started playing with putting it into various traditional forms just to see what would happen. I think that by radically re-writing it as a sestina, I was able to release my expectations and aspirations for it in terms of content and just focus on the form, allowing my subconscious to supply the content in surprising and, quite honestly, moderately disturbing ways. It is not the poem I set out to write at all, which is maybe the key to its success.


You’re a poet who is also a dynamic performer. Do you have any thoughts on the sestina as something performed or heard at readings? 
I’m always of two minds about form being declared before it is performed–on the one hand, I like knowing something is a sestina or pantoum or whatever so that I can listen for it. But I think that’s really just my geekery, and really the best thing to do is just read a poem as a poem, and let the audience receive it however they will.

Because so much poetry involves repetition as a technique anyway, I think the sestina tends not to announce itself in the way that a pantoum does, but the repetition can be incredibly effective in performance. It depends though on what the end-words are… if you’ve chosen really ordinary words, it’s not going to be as impactful or apparent as it would be if you’ve picked words that draw more attention to themselves. I think sestinas make great performance pieces without any need to announce them as such.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
Mrrrrr. Well, I guess it would be dedicated to the ghost of the brother I didn’t have. Or to my nephews, Orson and Calvin. Maybe all of the above.

SestinaWatch Vol. 1: Algebra, Tumblr, Heresies, and Judith Barrington

Sestina HQ (also known as Daniel Nester's Office)

Sestina HQ (also known as Daniel Nester’s Office)Hi Sestina-istas! Alex the Intern here, bringing you the latest happenings in the world of sestinas.

Greetings, Sestina-istas! Alex the Intern here, bringing you the latest happenings in the world of sestinas.

Here at Sestina HQ, we  are obsessed with all things sestina. In addition to bringing you behind-the-scenes access to The Incredible Sestina Anthology, we feel it is our job to make your sestina-senses tingle. We promise to scour the web and bring you all things sestina. I’m talking sestinas about everything and anything. Sestina lovers will be united and we will all be one step closer to sestina world domination.

Whether you’re a newbie to the world of sestina or a seasoned sestina veteran, we’re happy to have you in our Incredible Sestinas universe. We’re always looking for new material and suggestions. If you’re a published poet, an aspiring blogger, or simply just a sestina-phile, we’d love your suggestions. Comment below with a blog, a poem, or a video that you think should be featured on the Incredible Sestinas website, or email us at incrediblesestinas[at] And please give us a follow so you can stay up-to-date on our sestina-licious world!

In this first SestinaWatch after the jump: we have a book for lovers of algebra and of sestinas, original poetry, a revolutionary idea going down in Georgia, and much more!

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Sestina Aguilera and Other Rejected Names for The Incredible Sestina Anthology


The 39 Steps: The Sestina Anthology

The North American Bible of Incredible Sestinas

The Sestinas Book

The Anyperson’s Book of Sestinas

Spiraling Into Madness: A Sestinas Anthology

A Gathering of Sestinas

The [Name of Publisher] Book of Sestinas

Sextinas: The Best Erotic Sestinas

Fairly Recent North American Sestinas

Sestina, You’re Breaking My Heart, You’re Shaking My Confidence Daily

Sestina Bo Bina Banana Fana Fo Fina Fe Fi Mo Mina: Sestinas

Sestina Aguilera

Sestina Applegate

Sestina and the Waves

Sestina Turner: What’s Envois Got to Do With It?

Six Tinas, Mary!

Academy Award-Winning Actress Sestina Davis

Don’t Cry For Me, Sestinas!

Sestina Easton

Sestinas: A Bunch of Them

Loggins and Sestina


Behind the Sestina: Jeffrey Morgan’s ““When Unreal Girlfriends Die: The Manti Te’o Sestina”


Jeffrey Morgan “somewhere in Delta, British Columbia.”

It makes sense that Jeffrey Morgan’s favorite sestina is  John Ashbery’s absurdist-surrealist classic “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” (also included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology-ed). One glance at “When Unreal Girlfriends Die: The Manti Te’o Sestina,” which takes as its subject the very surreal Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, and we see kindred spirits.

Here’s the sestina’s first stanza; notice the awesome use of a favorite new word, clowder:

Sadness pulls its drawstrings tight and a tragedy
that never happened becomes loss we
can’t answer for by carving a rectangle in the ground.
This kind of duplicity is so much more than two.
A tabernacle of coaches, a clowder of teammates;
we are poor indeed when only life measures death.

Morgan, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska and currently lives in Bellingham, WA with his wife and daughter, is the author of Crying Shame. His poems have appeared in places like Barrow Street, Bat City Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pleiades, Third Coast, and West Branch. We spoke to Jeffrey to take us Behind the Sestina. 

When did you first discover the sestina?
I’m not sure when I first learned of the sestina. It was probably in college.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
Yes, but this was the only time writing a sestina didn’t feel contrived, or, rather, the contrivance was actually working in my favor.

English: Photo of Notre Dame linebacker Manti ...

Can you describe writing this sestina? It’s inspired by real-life events, in which a star quarterback had been the victim of a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name ingratiated herself with him and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia. Are we getting that straight?

I can’t effectively summarize the real-life events of then–Notre Dame football player Manti T’eo’s girlfriend death hoax conspiracy. Nobody can. However, if anyone out there has no idea what I’m talking about, I urge you to look into it. It’s like amateur night at a Greek tragedy. It’s like David Lynch suddenly got very interested in Notre Dame football. I don’t know what it’s like.

The whole thing had all the elements of a ripping yarn, except that there were just too many moving pieces and unknowable motivations. The best part was how frustrated reporters got covering the whole strange affair. They kept repeating the facts they knew, but the thing simply would not cohere.

In other words, it was a real-life sestina.

What made you want to write a sestina about Manti Te’o? Are you a football fan?
I hate sports but I love watching them. I pay way too much attention. As for college football specifically, I have an MFA from Penn State. (Sigh.)

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Adam Lupo.

—Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Full Cover Spread of The Incredible Sestina Anthology


Here is the full-cover spread for TISA! We’ve added the names of a couple up-and-comers, Elizabeth Bishop and Ezra Pound. The back cover copy is set. We also love how there are spirals on the top and bottom of the spine.

You do know it’s available for pre-order, right? It will make an excellent gift for the poetry nerd in your life. That person may be you.

Sestina Inside Introduction to The Incredible Sestina Anthology!


Here’s a screenshot of the introduction for The Incredible Sestina Anthology. Highlighted in bold are the end words/teleutons of a sestina I embedded inside. Like an Easter egg! We just put the book to bed, as in sending it to the printers soon. You might say we’re giddy.

Pre-order it, OK? It’s coming out soon.