Monthly Archives: October 2013

Behind the Sestina: Kent Johnson on “Sestina: Avantforte”

Kent Johnson has authored, edited, or translated nearly thirty collections in some relation to poetry. A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara (Punch Press, 2011), named a “Book of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement, was published in an expanded edition by Starcherone/Dzanc Books in 2012. His translation and annotation of César Vallejo’s only known interview is forthcoming as a chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Freeport, Illinois.

We go Behind the Sestina to talk to the mysterious Kent Johnson about his sestina, “Sestina: Avantforte” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology. 

kent_johnsonWhen did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Could you tell us about that?
First of all, I’d like to say that I’m really pleased to be included in this anthology. You know, no, I don’t recall my “first” encounter with the sestina. I probably read a few before I even knew what they were. But now, whenever I see a poem announced as such, I read it. Every sestina seems to contain at least a few wild surprises and jolts. Of course, that’s the thing about the form (any strict form, really, but especially the sestina, maybe): It makes the writer do surprising, jolty things she or he never suspected would come about.

What’s your favorite sestina?
That’s almost an unfair question, there are so many poems that are absolute tours de force. But OK, if I were being waterboarded, or something, I’d probably say [John Ashbery’s] “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” So would lots of people, I suspect.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since? If this is a one-off sestina, why is that? If you’ve written many, what keeps you coming back?
Ha! I should probably skip this question. But I’ll tell the truth. No, “Sestina: Avantforte” is my only one. I have no idea why, really. It probably has to do with the fear of miserably failing on a second try.

What was it like writing this sestina?
Not trying to dodge the question… But I honestly have a hard time remembering the occasion of composition for any poem I’ve written, except in the most atmospheric ways. I do recall it was a pleasure to write, that it came fairly fast, though of course I had to go back and adjust the lines after the draft to make the end words work and all that. And that I had Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms open when I did that!

Your choice of six names from the New York School of Poets–Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler, Guest, Ceravolo–is keeping with the interests/subjects of some of your other work, but it must have made the actual composition of this sestina more difficult.
There is nothing more natural, seems to me, than to use names as end words in a sestina that is about the NY School poets. As the poem itself says, most of them “dropped names in their poems like crazy.” I wanted a breezy, insouciant kind of poem, and repeating the names in different patterns enabled that, like little puffs of wind pushing one line into the next. The iterated names helped to make it madcap, too, and I hope funny.

I love the epigraph from some correspondence you shared with poet-critic David Shapiro (“O your perfect, vulgate, hairy sestina”). Can you elaborate on this quote, offer some context?
Well, I’ve admired the great David Shapiro‘s poetry ever since I encountered it in the library of Pewaukee High School, in Wisconsin, in 1972 or ’73. There was a copy of  Poetry Magazine there, and I read his selection, “Poems from Deal.” It impressed me that he was only 18 when he wrote those, as the bio note said (I was 16 or 17, myself, at the time).

Anyway, years ago, after writing much poetry myself, I finally got my courage up and wrote Shapiro and told him that I didn’t know if I should profusely thank him or send him a letter bomb in the mail for turning me on to poetry, back then. And so a long correspondence ensued, though in the past couple years we have fallen out of touch, due in part, I think, to a disagreement related to NY School of poetry matters, oddly enough. This hasn’t changed one iota my admiration and good feeling for the man. His quote is weird, isn’t it, in a thrilling way? Thrilling in part because what he means by “hairy” is a total mystery. At least to me.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
Shapiro’s epigraph is actually my dedication of the poem to him. He knew all the people in there, intimately.

Incredible Sestina Anthology goes on the road!

pointing finger

If you’ve been checking out the events page here, you might know this already, but we’ve added some tour dates for early next year! Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle: you are in luck. Sestina luck!

Details below. Stay tuned here for launch readings and other incredible events!

Sunday, November 17, 2013
O.P.P.: Other People’s Poetry
featuring Daniel Nester reading from The Incredible Sestina Anthology
Social Justice Center
33 Central Ave
Albany, NY 12202
Sponsored by The Social Justice Center
Facebook event page

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Drexel/Painted Bride Quarterly
Philadelphia, PA

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Upstairs at Fergie’s Pub
Ernest Hilbert and others read from The Incredible Sestina Anthology!
Philadelphia, PA

Saturday, February 1, 2014
New York Launch Reading of The Incredible Sestina Anthology
With David Lehman, Sharon Mesmer, Sparrow, Victor D. Infante, Patricia Carlin, Jason Schneiderman
Poets House
Ten River Terrace (at Murray Street)
New York, NY 10282
Subway: 1, 2, 3, A or C lines to Chambers Street Station
Detailed directions here

Tuesday, Feburary 4, 2014
Poetry Forum at The New School
with David Lehman

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
NYU Bookstore
Scott Edward Anderson, Patricia Carlin, Victor D. Infante, Jason Schneiderman
726 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Friday, February 21, 2014
Chicago launch of The Incredible Sestina Anthology
Quraysh Ali Lansana, Marty McConnell, Leonard Kress, Kent Johnson, Jenny Boully, Elizabeth Hildreth
The Book Cellar
4736 N Lincoln Ave #1
Chicago, IL 60625

Thursday, February 27, 2014
Seattle/AWP launch party for The Incredible Sestina Anthology
With Patricia Smith, Paul Hoover, Geoff Bouvier, Ravi Shankar, John Hoppenthaler, Sarah Green, Beth Gylys, Sharon Dolin, Nate Marshall, Tomás Q. Morín, Richard Peabody, Sonya Huber, Aaron Belz, Jade Sylvan, Kiki Petrosino, James Harms, Jeffrey Morgan, John Hoppenthaler, Jason Schneiderman, Sandra Beasley
5241 University Way NE [map]
Seattle, WA 98105

Behind the Sestina: Michael Costello on “A Series”


Michael Costello was born in Buffalo in 1976 and was educated at SUNY Fredonia before receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Since then he has published in numerous print and online journals, including The Del Sol Review, MiPo, eye-rhyme, The Columbia Poetry Review, La Petite Zine, Tarpaulin Sky, and Essays & Fictions; he was also included in The Best American Poetry 2004. Currently, Michael lives and works in Cambridge, MA.

We go Behind the Sestina with Costello to discuss his sestina “A Series,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 
I discovered the sestina in 1994 when I was 17, my junior year of high school. I was reading Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and reading through Harry Mathews’ entry I came across “Histoire.” There are a couple of other sestinas in that anthology, too; I just happened to luck out that I cracked the spine to the one on page 206, first.

To be honest, I didn’t know the form it was written in was called a sestina. I was intrigued by that poem. It was unlike anything I had ever read, for many reasons, and the structure of repeating end words was definitely one of them. It wasn’t until some years later in an undergraduate writing workshop that I formally learned what a sestina is. It was in that workshop that I first attempted to write a sestina. It wasn’t very good. But I fell in love with the challenge of writing one that was.

What’s your favorite sestina?
“Histoire” remains one of my favorites but I’m also a huge fan of many of the ones in Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man by James Cummins and David Lehman, especially one simply titled “Sestina,” on page 28, whose end-words are all poets’ names, and another called “The 39 Steps.”

A more recent favorite is Terrance Hayes’ “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist,” from Lighthead. I would call it a homophonic sestina and that most appropriately weds to idea of songs on a playlist. It’s a great poem.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
“A Series” was only the second or third time I tried writing a sestina. Every so often, I try again and I’ve experimented with prose sestinas too, but nothing else has been quite as successful.

What draws you to returning?
Sestinas are fun and maddening and appeal to an obsessive and structurally focused mind. Which I have. Writing sestinas holds the same kind of pleasures that writing in any formal way does but its constraints exercise a different set of rhetorical muscles than say a sonnet, haiku, villanelle, or pantoum.

How about your choice of end-words? 
I was reading Difference & Repetition by Gilles Deleuze, a French Philosopher; Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s by Reva Wolf; What Are Masterpieces by Gertrude Stein; The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol; several other complementary texts; and On the Level Everyday and The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan; and I had been filling up notebooks with passages, quotes, and my own personal reflections on everything I was studying and one such quote I had written down from Deleuze was “Repetition changes nothing, difference makes itself.” That phrase resonated with me and seeing that it was six words clicked in my head with the sestina form and seemed the perfect vehicle for my own exploration of difference in repetition.

Did you develop a working idea about that for your sestina?
The form clicked with the phrase: all six words, and the idea within it. I immediately saw how the form fit the content.

This is an essayistic or aphoristic sestina, with so many nuggets of ideas (“Between differ and different is the difference”). Is that a correct assessment? 
Very much so. I set about writing the sestina by extracting the fragments and sentences from my notes that included any of the six words. I had been experimenting with appropriation and collage in my writing and my experiments seemed to come together in this piece. Once the first draft was completed I was able to reorder, rewrite, or replace lines until it was finished.

The presence of Andy Warhol is strong: there’s so many iconic subjects of his: Brillo Box, Mao, Marilyn, an electric chair, the cows that appeared in his wallpaper series. Are you a big Warhol fan, or did the ideas you had in the poem suited that subject matter, or something else entirely?
Andy Warhol is a favorite artist of mine. At the time I wrote “A Series” I was conducting my own personal critical study of him. I was taking a closer look at his artistic techniques and visual rhetoric and exploring writers with whom he shared similar sensibilities. Using his work as a visual anchor  just made sense. In a way this is an ekphrastic essay.

What voice is being quoted in the poem? I imagine it to be of some docent’s?
There are several. For me, this was a conversation with the artists, writers, philosophers, and critics, mentioned above and probably one or two others who aren’t.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to? 
To my dearest friends and family who take turns reminding me of the truth behind this piece. And to my nephew, Lukas: welcome to the world.

Behind the Sestina: Jenny Boully on “Sestina of Missed Connections”

Jenny Boully is the author of five books, most recently of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon: a book of failures (Coconut Books). Her other books include not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press),The Books of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande Books), [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press), and The Body: An Essay (Essay Press). Her chapbook of prose, Moveable Types, was released by Noemi Press. Boully’s work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry, The Next American Essay, Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, and other places. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

We wouldn’t “miss” an opportunity to go Behind the Sestina with Boully to discuss her “Sestina of Missed Connections” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
When I was in my sophomore year of college, I took home the weekly packet for my creative writing workshop and was looking it over with another classmate. We were both stuck on one poem that seemed to break many rules of poetry that we had learned. Why does it keep using the same words over and over and repeating itself? We made notes to such affect. My classmate read the poem out loud to me in a mocking manner. It was about meeting someone and getting their phone number and looking at the number in a bathroom stall. The subject was incongruous with the good, engaged, devout Southern girl who wrote it. When the poem was workshopped, I then learned it was a sestina, and I forgave it its repetition and inability to move past a moment in a timely fashion.

Have you written any other sestinas beside this one? I can’t seem to find any evidence, and I have all of your books!
Part of me wants to say “yes” and send you on another hunting spree, because I like the idea of Daniel Nester the Sestina Hunter. I have written another sestina, but it was never published [I want to see it-Ed.]. It’s in my BA thesis. Someone gave me the end words, I wrote the sestina, then she got mad and said I stole her sestina. I also like the idea of Jenny Boully the Sestina Thief.

Where did you get idea of poem, of using the language of “Missed Connections” ads? Presumably from Craigslist?
I wrote “Sestina of Missed Connections” when I was working at a book publisher in New York. All the other Editorial Assistants and myself would entertain ourselves by reading Craigslist for some reason. “The Missed Connections”
section was always highly amusing and also sad. People who posted there seemed crazy, desperate, sad, hopeful. I also thought that sestinas were crazy, desperate, sad, and hopeful. The end words of sestinas seemed to be “missed connections” to me, especially when the writer got inventive with variations on those end words.

Have you ever placed a missed connections ad?
I have not placed a missed connections ad, but they continue to draw me in.

I have this idea that the language of missed connections speaks to other parts of your work–the idea of intimacy and language and the missed connections of meaning. Or am I completely off track?
You’re not off-track at all–and I love that you’ve come up with this rubric, which makes a lot of sense to me. I love the idea of the metaphor of “missed connections” and how it can play out in a multitude of ways, especially in reading, which is a major inspiration in my work–the idea of misreading books, the everyday, experience, relationships, trying to discern the mundane and the miraculous.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina?
I would dedicate this sestina to the woman who wrote that one sestina I encountered in my creative writing packet during sophomore year. I am only realizing now that both of our sestinas mention a phone number; her sestina was about a made connection, mine about a missed, however metaphorical.

Incredible Sestina Anthology editor Interview with New Delta Review’s M.E. Griffith


Forgive me if you’re tired of answering this question already, but why sestinas?

Oh I never get tired of answering the “why sestinas” question. It’s a fair question to ask why would anyone assemble an anthology based on an 800-year-old form. The short answer is I’m fascinated by the enduring appeal of this form, how poets and other artists have been drawn to its fairly elaborate scheme—and in different languages, from Latin and Italian, on to French, German, and English. A slightly longer answer focuses on its present renaissance in English, which has been going on for almost 100 years, and how such a wide variety of poets, from neoformalist to avant garde and every point in between, have taken the sestina under their movement’s wings. It’s an ultimate form for those who stress the validity of received forms in the 21st century, and it’s also so elaborate and procedure-driven that experimental poets can put air quotes around the word “poetic form” and write ones that fulfill their own doctrinal regulations.  In a poetry world that often divides itself among aesthetic teams, the sestina demonstrates a rare common ground.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Behind the Sestina: Steve Almond on “Sestina for Elton John”

Steve Almond is an American short story writer and essayist. He is the author of ten books, among them Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Mariner Books), Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House), and God Bless America: Stories (Lookout Books), as well as three books he has published himself.

We went Behind the Sestina with Almond to learn the history behind his poem “Sestina for Elton John,” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I discovered the sestina in college. We slept together once, then she left me for some jock pontoon.

Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
I believe this is my only sestina ever. There’s a court order about this, I think.

Can you describe writing this sestina? What is the Elton John connection? Does it derive from his classic, “Rocket Man”? I’m trying to think how horny people were in that song, and how much slurping.
I wrote the poem thinking about Elton John in soccer shorts, his sexy hairy little stubby legs and big sunglasses. I believe that constitutes slurping.

You are known for, among other things, for celebrating the worth of “bad poetry,” often using your own examples to demonstrate what makes bad poetry bad. Would you count “Sestina for Elton John” as a bad poem?
Yeah, I think it’s pretty bad. But not bad enough for Bad Poetry. For a poem to be truly Bad, the author has to be more or less blind to his own folly.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—is that why you dedicated the poem to Elton John? Who else might you dedicate this poem to?
I believe the dedication is explained above and derives from my unwholesome obsession with Elton John’s hirsute lower regions. I considered dedicating the poem to Bono, who has similar lower regions. But the rights issues were a total bitch.

Behind the Sestina: Shanna Compton on “The Remarried Again Sestina”

Shanna Compton‘s books include Brink (Bloof, 2013), For Girls & Others (Bloof, 2008), Down Spooky (Winnow, 2005), Gamers (Soft Skull, 2004), and several chapbooks. A book-length speculative poem called The Seam is forthcoming in 2014. Her work has been included in The Best American Poetry series and other anthologies, and recent poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Court Green, The Awl, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day feature.

We went Behind the Sestina with Compton to learn more about “The Remarried Again Sestina” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

This is something we ask all of our poets: when did you first discover the sestina?
I don’t remember exactly when, but I was in college, undergraduate.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
The first couple of years I lived in New York City. I wrote lots of them for some reason. I remember a terrible one about a manta ray, based on an article I’d read in National Geographic.

Later on, I ran across the ones written by the New York School poets—Ashbery, Koch, et al. and was into working with Oulipo constraints too. So I played around with the form some more then, in grad school in 2000-2002. This one is from 2003 and I think it’s the only one I ever published, but I might be wrong about that. Most of the time the drafted sestina would turn into something less formal, if I kept it. I also edited a collection of collaborative sestinas by David Lehman and James Cummins for Soft Skull Press, but I think that was a little later on, in 2006.

Compton’s most recent book Brink was published by Bloof in 2013.

Can you describe writing this sestina? Did the subject matter of the sestina have an impact on the form used, or did the form have an impact on what you were writing about?
I remember writing this one specifically for Daniel’s sestina feature at McSweeney’s. I started it at work one day. The repetition of the form tends to work best if the repeated instances of the words migrate through various registers and multiple meanings, so that certainly guided the movement. I don’t recall how I came up with the subject, except thinking I needed six end-words and my mother has had six last names. (One husband she actually married twice, so I used love/lovely instead of repeating that name.) I got married myself the year before I wrote it, so maybe the theme was just on my mind.

The beginning of this poem starts out fairly formal, but by the end, the language changes dramatically. Was this a conscious decision? Do you think this poem speaks to the time we are in now, where divorce is common?
I hope it’s a satirical look at romantic expectations and the strictures of marriage, particularly for a woman of my mother’s generation. I hope that it’s at least somewhat funny, too, despite the disappointment and bitterness. The pattern toward more relaxed language was suggested by the story of relaxed expectations and also the passage of time, over four decades. She would never talk like that, by the way, but the dirtiest word in the poem is actually how her last name is pronounced, though it’s spelled differently.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I did dedicate it to Mom, with apologies. She doesn’t read most of my poetry. She happened to read this one (because I unwisely included her full name in the epigraph when it went up at McSweeney’s and a friend of hers found it in a web search). She liked it though. She said something like, “That’s OK, Shanna. I know you exaggerate in poems. And I’m not ashamed of my past.”

–Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani