Monthly Archives: November 2013

Behind the Sestina: Shane Allison on “Mother Worries”

Shane Allison‘s editing career began with the best-selling gay erotic anthology Hot Cops: Gay Erotic Stories (Cleis Press), which was one of his proudest moments. Since the birth of his first anthology, he has gone on to publish over a dozen gay erotica anthologies such as Straight Guys: Gay Erotic Fantasies, Cruising: Gay Erotic StoriesMiddle Men: Gay Erotic Threesomes, Frat Boys: Gay Erotic Stories, Brief Encounters: 69 Hot Gay Shorts, College Boys: Gay Erotic Stories, Hardworking Men: Gay Erotic Fiction, Hot Cops: Gay Erotic Fiction, Backdraft: Fireman Erotica, and Afternoon Pleasures: Erotica for Gay Couples.

Allison’s work has appeared in five editions of Best Gay Erotica and Best Black Gay Erotica. He is the author of Slut Machine (Queer Mojo) and the poem/memoirRemember (Future Tense Books). Allison is at work on a novel and currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida.

We went Behind the Sestina with Allison to discuss his poem, “Mother Worries,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
When I was a graduate student at The New School. I was taking David Lehman’s poetry workshop and he assigned it as an exercise. I was very anti-form poetry before that. The restrictions that some of it often presents, but the restrictions also present a great challenge of writing a sestina successfully without it seeming forced. I just thought it was another fun way to write.

And you’ve written a lot sestinas since!
I became a kind of mad scientist, or poet, if you will, with the sestina, often mixing it with other forms like pantoums and the list form, which is a favorite of mine. I have a few failed experiments lying about somewhere.

Can you describe writing “Mother Worries”? 
I went through a time where I started thinking about repetition and its use in poetry, thinking about phrases I’ve heard. My mother’s voice is always reoccuring in my head. She was going through a hard time with my dad at the time. Emotions very high and unfortunately, I was witness to much of her fear and worry. She asked, “Lord, how are we going to pay these bills?” I wrote that down somewhere and came back to it later and “Mother Worries” was born.

You are the author of a volume of poetry titled Slut Machine and you work has been anthologized in Best Gay Bondage.  This poem seems almost wholesome. Thoughts?
I like to think that I’m always moving the line. It’s important to do that as a writer. I’ve been called prolific, but I think I go through phases in my work, moving to newer heights, yet I find myself sometimes dipping my toes back into familiar waters. The element of sex exists in a lot of my writing. I try not to be a one-trick pony. I still have a ton of ideas.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My mother and all the mothers with worries I hope are laid at peace.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Peter Davis on “Mustache Sestina”

Peter Davis writes, draws, and makes music in Muncie, Indiana. His books of poetry are TINA (Bloof Books, 2013), Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! (Bloof Books, 2010), and Hitler’s Mustache(Barnwood Press, 2006). He edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art (2005) and co-edited a second volume, Poet’s Bookshelf II (2008). His poems have appeared in such places as Jacket, La Petite Zine, Court Green, Rattle, and The Best American Poetry. He lives with his lovely wife and two lovely children, and teaches at Ball State University.

In honor of “Movember,” we thought it was the perfect time to go Behind the Sestina with Davis and talk about his “Mustache Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
Not sure exactly, but I never wrote one till I was getting my MFA. One of my teachers, a sestina lover, told me to write a sestina about August, or something like that. For some reason I don’t entirely understand, I thought it was a lot of fun.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
O yea. The book this comes from, Hitler’s Mustache, has 3 or 4 sestinas and for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a series of sestinas about the original Beverly Hills, 90210 TV show. I wrote one where all the end words were either “Dylan” or “Brenda,” and another with the end words, “Brandon,” “Brenda,” “Kelly,” “Donna,” “Dylan” and “Steve.” I’ve written many sestinas, most, obviously, are very forgettable.

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?
As to the second question, yes and yes. Obviously, the image of Hitler’s mustache is, to me, one of mystery. It is a square box of darkness. And in that darkness is a whole host of mysteries. In short, one mystery after another. But there is a repetitive formality in that mustache (imagine all of those individual hairs laying down together like that! Unreal!) and the sestina seems capable of handling repetitive formality. As to the first question, I’m not sure I can, but I’ll try. I was thinking about words. I was thinking about mustaches. It happened pretty fast.

Most obvious question. Why Hitler? Then, mustaches. Why?
Because of the mystery. How is it that our face of evil in contemporary culture also is the ridiculous face of Hitler? How often is evil the face of a clown? How often, through a mustache, do we see the deep anomaly in human nature? How many questions can be asked about what motivated that square patch of hair? The intersection of fashion and fascism.

 The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I should probably dedicate everything I do to my wife, since she supports me and takes care of me, but that’s boring. The other obvious person would be Hitler, but that’s too obvious. So, I’d dedicate it to Julius Stricher, the only other really prominent Nazi who sported a Hitler mustache. He could have stood to hear some contemporary American poetry. It might have done him some good. So, For my wife, and Julius Stricher.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

ICYMI: largehearted boy Publishes The Incredible Sestina Anthology Book Notes, Playlist

In a lot of ways, The Incredible Sestina Anthology is just one giant mix tape of sestina-awesomeness. What better way to showcase this than our very own Book Notes?

Daniel Nester’s TISA playlist includes everything from opera to the Lone Ranger theme song. For the full list, published this past Friday, click here.


Behind the Sestina: Casey Camp on “A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn”


Casey Camp is an artist, writer, and all-around fine gentleman. He loves to work at the intersection of poetry and visual art, typically within the bounds of sequential narrative art. Some people would just call this “comics.” When not crafting art, he can typically be found getting his fix in any matter of competition that he can find nearby. No contest is too big or too small. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wonderful wife, Emily, and daughter, Lennon.

We went Behind the Sestina with Camp to talk about his poem, “A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first discovered it while doing some research.  I was working on translating some longer-form poems to comic form and I wanted to do something where I wrote the poem instead of finding one.  I wanted it to be interesting on a structural level to see how it translated to sequential panels.  After looking around online I found sestinas and that was that.  It was too interesting of a format to say no to.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I wrote a few before this one just to get a feel for how it works. They weren’t anything great, but I made plenty of mistakes and eventually figured some things out.  Since then I’ve done some bigger comic sestinas that were set into an installation-type art piece.  They were kind of meta-sestinas, if there is such a thing.  Bigger pieces with shelves that held sestinas on them which, overall, created a larger pseudo-sestina.  Once I get into a form, it’s hard to let go.  They started showing up almost inadvertently in my art, even things that weren’t supposed to be poems.

“A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn” is a comics sestina. Can you tell us a bit about putting this graphic poem together? 
Usually, these sort of things would start out with the poem first, or even me coming up with a few lines of a poem, then going from there.  This one, however, happened to start with a doodle before anything else.  I had been playing around with putting a graphic poem together using visual cues as the last word of the lines (meaning it would have no words) and wanted to use a little figure.  Well, after a little drawing this figure wound up with a clarinet.  The words just kind of naturally came out after I’d figured out the big picture.

Putting it together was different just because on some pages I’d have an idea for a few panels, but the wording structure is so specific that on a very local level while working on a page the words are already set, so sometimes the challenge was to arrange the panels in a way that progressed the story how it was moving while still maintaining the flow and structure of the poem.  It sounds like a challenge, but it’s the most fun kind you can imagine.

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?
Like I’d said earlier, I was really enamored with the form.  It has a lot of repetition, so I feel like once you have a general idea the next logical place to go would be to figure out what words you will be repeating since they’re such an important part of the piece.  In this case you can definitely say that the form impacted what I was going to do – I specifically wanted to write a sestina and specifically one about John Zorn.

casey camp

In terms of the specifics of writing this I was already listening to Naked City, one of Zorn’s bands.  For the entire duration of it’s creation I listened to different Zorn albums (specifically his solo work Chimeras, Cobra by Cobra, and several different Masada albums) and I’m not entirely sure what kind of influence they had on the final piece  In terms of creation, after the initial idea, the poem was written with the words and art being made one page at a time.  Basically I would do the words and a sketch for each panel, then finish the page before moving to the next.  I’d be willing to bet that as the piece progresses I was listening to heavier and noisier music of his which is what gives his figure this transformation from a timid kind of fellow to some sort of evil world conqueror.

Where did you first hear of Zorn? Why do you think he’s awesome?
I had a space in an art studio and there was a communal CD player that everyone just had stacks of CDs sitting next to.  A friend of mine at the studio brought in the Naked City album and got me to listen to it, saying it was some crazy experimental super group and it had the Batman theme song.  I had listened to Bill Frisell a good bit during college, so that’s how he convinced me to give it a whirl.

It blew my mind.

From then on I was hooked and started checking out a lot of the different people in the band to see what kind of music they made.  Once I started the John Zorn rabbit hole, nothing was ever the same.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to? Would it be Zorn?
I feel like it would be in bad taste to dedicate it to anyone else!  I do not know Mr. Zorn, but I guess it’s okay to dedicate a poem to someone you’ve never met.  Especially when it’s someone so … awesome?!  I mean, those people bowing down at him in the end … that’s not exaggeration.  I just want to be on his good side so that when he takes over the world maybe I can be like 123rd in command or something.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Scott Edward Anderson on “Second Skin”

Scott Edward Anderson‘s his first, full-length collection of poems, Fallow Field, published this Fall by Aldrich Press. If you’re in New York City, catch his reading tonight at Poet’s House.

Scott has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts, and received both the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Anon, Blueline, The Cortland Review, Cross Connect, Earth’s Daughters, Isotope, La Petite Zine, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Poetica, River Oak Review, Slant and Terrain. He was a founding editor of Ducky Magazine and writes at and

We went Behind the Sestina with Anderson to discuss his sestina, “Second Skin,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
Probably the first sestina I was aware of–although I didn’t know what a sestina was then–was Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal,” which I remember my Aunt Gladys reciting when I was a kid. It opens,

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.

And then, much later, I discovered Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” in the little New Directions Selected Poems I still own. I was struck by its amazing opening lines:”Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace./ You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!/ I have no life save when the swords clash.” How could anyone write like that and not go mad?

Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
No, this was my first and, thus far, my last.

Can you describe writing “Second Skin”? I have this idea that the sense of the poem, like the snake’s skin, slides in, then out of itself, that memory, or at least the kind of memory here, needs to live inside of another skin to come into being. That memory is like a snake’s shed skin. Or am I totally wrong?
Fascinating. Actually, it happened just as I describe it in the poem. I was cutting the lawn by my garden using one of those old rotary push mowers. It was hot and I was half day-dreaming in the heat and ran over the skin. I knew the snake, had seen him before, knew his habits a bit too. He kept rodents out of the garden pretty well. I saw him interacting with the old skin and tried to imagine what was going through his mind, if snakes have minds…Anyway, the end words came pretty easily as I was thinking about him and the idea of memories like old, shod skin we leave behind as we move through our lives.

You’re also an avid hiker and wrote a book of natural history of New York State. I’m wondering if these other hats you wear informed this sestina.
Definitely. At the time I was working for The Nature Conservancy, which I did for 15 years. My work helped encourage a deep engagement with nature at home and abroad. It also helped me pay attention to my surroundings in a way that allowed me to see the snake in the first place.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
The snake, of course, he was a great inspiration, may he rest in peace.

–interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Sestinapalooza: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Blog Post about The Incredible Sestina Anthology

It was a big week for The Incredible Sestina Anthology publicity last week!

In case you missed this academic marvel, we were reviewed by Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Yagoda writes that this is the anthology he had been “waiting 40 years for… without realizing it.” His review includes the first stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” (maybe you’ve heard of it?).

chronicle of higher edYagoda also name-drops some of our great contributors, including Matt Madden and Casey Camp.

If you want to read the review in full, you can find it here.

Behind the Sestina: Jeffery Conway on “Is It Dancing?”

Jeffery Conway is the author of The Album That Changed My Life (Cold Calm Press, 2006) and two collaborations with David Trinidad and Lynn Crosbie, Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (Turtle Point Press, 2003) and Chain Chain Chain (Ignition Press, 2000). His work is included in Saints of Hysteria: A Half Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull Press, 2007) and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (Poets Wear Prada, 2013). He is currently at work on “Descent of the Dolls,” a Dante-esque collaborative epic about the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, with poets Gillian McCain and David Trinidad. Poems from his newest manuscript, Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas, appear in Court Green, Vanitas, Clementine, Columbia Poetry Review, and Marco Polo.

We went Behind the Sestina with Conway to discuss his poem, “Is It Dancing?” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I discovered the sestina form in Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms, which I first read in the late eighties. When I started the M.F.A. program in poetry at Brooklyn College in 1989, my friend David Trinidad was in his second year there, and he liked to experiment with forms. He encouraged me to peruse the book and try out the forms that spoke to me. When I started writing my own sestinas, I was drawn to the ease with which a narrative is propelled by the form. I’d go to sleep at night and wake up with end words in my head. I’d write them down, and then the “story” of my poem would just materialize, like a connect the dots drawing.

Have you written any sestinas before this one? Any plans to write more in the future?
At Brooklyn College, I had the opportunity to study with Allen Ginsberg. He told me that he thought the sestina “fit” me, that I was “a natch with the form. ” My first sestinas were about highly personal, autobiographical events. I was using the form to tell, more easily and efficiently, about things such as childhood traumas and my sex life in the time of AIDS. It was Allen who said to me one day during a tutorial, back in 1991, that I should write a whole book of sestinas. It was his voice I heard when I started my “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” project in March of 2007–more than fifteen years after his suggestion.

What inspired you to write a sestina (and an entire sestina project) on the movie Showgirls
The individual poem titles in “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” are taken directly from the DVD chapter titles. I wrote a sestina for each “chapter” of the film, and I also wrote some extra sestinas and gave them original titles. “Is it Dancing?” is one of those chapter titles from the DVD menu. So the sestina is based on the narrative of that scene in the film. To save myself from sestina OD, I allowed myself the luxury (insanity?) of writing variations of the sestina form. In the collection, I have a rhyming sestina, two different kinds of double sestinas, a triple sestina, and many other variations that I made up (in one poem, I use the six end words of the first stanza as catalogue words, so instead of repeating the word “hand” for example, I use other words that are body parts in the subsequent stanzas; instead of the word “blue” repeating, I use other colors each time that word is to repeat).

There is only one poem in the collection that isn’t an actual sestina–it just “looks” like a sestina (six stanzas with six lines each and a three-line envoi). There is no repetition, even in a variant way, of the end words. The poem is titled “Let’s Don’t Even Go There!”–named after Faye Dunaway’s Infamous Voicemail, and used as a as Mad Lib.

I change the speaker to Elizabeth Berkley, and instead of going off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Mommie Dearest and awful ex-Terry O’Neill (like Faye does), she goes off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Showgirls and awful poet Jeffery Conway (yours truly) and his damn fascination with the film and its star. This was really the only time I let myself cheat. It was just too perfect a transcript to change too much by trying to make it fit into the sometimes too tight shoe of end words.

The Joy of Six: Albany Times Union’s Sweet Article on Incredible Sestina Anthology



In case you missed this awesomeness, Albany Times Union‘s Elizabeth Floyd Mair interviewed TISA editor Daniel Nester for a piece that ran in this past Sunday’s paper. Check the sweet title, The Joy of Six! Plus the first two stanzas of Laura Cronk’s “Sestina for a Sister in the sidebar.

The article is available online for your reading pleasure. The jump includes the sestina end-word scheme, pictured below.

TU 11 10 2013 c


Behind the Sestina: Elizabeth Hildreth on “In a Rut”

Elizabeth Hildreth‘s poems, translations, and essays have been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Bookslut, McSweeney’s, Parthenon West, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Forklift, Ohio, among other journals. She recently published Coses Petites (Little Things), a translation of a collaborative collection of poems by Catalan poets Anna Aguilar-Amat and Francesc Parcerisas. She is a member of Poems While You Wait, a group of poets who sit in public spaces with manual typewriters and compose poems for passers-by about any topic they request.

We went Behind the Sestina with Hildreth to discuss her sestina, “In a Rut,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Could you tell us about that? What’s your favorite sestina?
I can’t be sure, but I would guess I discovered the sestina in graduate school when I started looking at poems critically, trying to see how they were made, what they were doing. I don’t remember the first one I ever read. But I’ve always liked formal poems.

I work as a designer, so I love constraints. Most people do, I suppose. On Top Chef, they give you a chicken wing and some cotton candy, and if you want to win, the judges better be eating some finger-licking edible poetry within the hour. Project Runway, same deal. Almost always, things made within absurd parameters are terrible. But every once in a while somebody gets it right. For instance, I hated villanelles. I couldn’t stand them. Then Martha Collins wrote “The Story We Know.” Well. I have friends who believe that there are no good sestinas. They can’t exist. That’s very motivating.

As far as my favorite sestina? I like Jonah Winter’s “Bob.” It’s funny. Surprising. Tells a story, a musical one. All good things in my book.

We know you have written other sestinas, and some collaborations as well. Where would you place this sestina in your sestina-writing life? What keeps you coming back?
I’ve probably written an entire book of sestinas! And, yes, I’ve written collaborative ones, which is an interesting process. “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.” Isn’t that the expression? Sestinas give you three chances to do that, maybe four or five, depending on how you divide the work in the envoi.This particular sestina wasn’t a collaboration, but it was written for someone.

I think I keep coming back to the sestina because I’m attracted to its obsessive circling for truth. Steven Dixon’s novel Interstate is compelling to me for the same reason. The story’s inciting event never changes, but in each retelling (8 of them), characters and plot points are added or subtracted. The story actually ends up feeling more true with all the repetition and the variant retellings. It’s similar to memory, that impulse to return to a scene of conflict to attempt to make it “right” or make sense of it.

Can you walk us through the composition of this sestina? The poem is called “In a Rut”—were you, in fact, in a rut when writing this?
That’s funny. I didn’t consider myself to be in a rut when I was writing the poem. I try to actively disbelieve in ruts. Then again, I emailed my friend Eric and asked him to give me a topic and end words, so maybe I was, indeed, in a rut? He wrote back, “Topic: ruts. End words: cloud, light, field, glass, tear, and wall.”

Other than the topic and end-words, I didn’t have one idea in my brain. I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what I’m going to say when I write poetry. When I first started composing on my computer, I found myself being neurotic and deleting every line. I figured the way I was going, it might take the rest of my life to finish, so I lugged a giant green Remington manual typewriter, a book of quotes, and an American Heritage dictionary into my kids’ room, dumped everything on the bed, and shut the door. I started writing at around 7:30 in the morning and worked straight through until I finished a draft at about 4 in the afternoon. The next day I revised. Then the next day I revised again. Then it was done, or done enough.

I love how the poem turns hopeful toward the end–I am a sentimentalist, so that’s how I read it. When I read “it is okay: boredom, repetition, failure,” I feel that much less miserable. Was that your intent, or does the poem’s speaker have something else in mind?
I am such a sentimentalist. I think it’s great if anyone feels less miserable after reading a poem. I can’t claim to have had any “intent” as a writer, but, yes, I agree, the poem’s speaker is very optimistic. It is okay. That’s my read, too.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—yours is dedicated to EP, who is even named, “Ep,” in the envoi. Care to elaborate?
EP is Eric Platter, a poet and a friend of mine. We’re both in this poetry group called Poems While You Wait. We go into public spaces and write commissioned poems for people for $5 a poem. People write down a topic for us, and we write them a poem on that topic while they wait. Sometimes the topic is general—“spring” and sometimes it’s specific—“the difficulty of finding love when you’re in your 30s and live in the city.” So I asked Eric for a topic and six end words, sort of like an extension of Poems While You Wait. When Eric emailed me back, “Ruts,” I thought, Poor Eric, he’s in a rut. I’m going to write him right out of his rut! Because of your first question, it now occurs to me that Eric thought I was in a rut, and so he set me up to write my own pep talk poem. In either case, “it is okay.” The poem exists.

Behind the Sestina: Tara Betts on “Sestina for the Sin”

Tara Betts is the author of Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Betts’s work has appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’s CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. She is co-editor, with Afaa M. Weaver, of Bop, Strut, and Dance.

We go Behind the Sestina with Betts to learn the truth behind her sestina, “Sestina for the Sin” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first discovered the sestina in the mid-1990s when I was exploring forms as a way to find new language. I think I first saw it in Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
“Sestina for the Sin” was the first sestina I ever wrote. I have written others since, but this one is the strongest one for me still. I am writing more.

The subject matter of this sestina is so strong. Did the form have an impact on how you went about writing about it?
I remember being immersed in historical narratives about lynchings, and the form seemed to wind around its subject like a rope, but I also felt that this traumatic, emotionally startling material required a form to help me find words that render the described situation with unexpected language.

What made you choose to use the Ida B. Wells-Barnett quote? Had you heard it before or did it come after you wrote the poem?
I was reading a lot of writings by Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s writings, such as Southern Horrors and Other Writings, A Red Record, and A Crusade for Justice. Many of the details of what happens at a lynching were culled from writings like this and the photography series Without Sanctuary.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My sestina would be dedicated to victims of unlawful deaths, whether it be lynchings or police brutality.