Lynn Kilpatrick’s first collection of short stories, In The House, was published by FC2. Her fiction has recently appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Hotel Amerika. Her essays have been published in Ninth Letter, Creative Nonfiction, and Brevity. She earned her Ph.D. in Fiction from the University of Utah and an M.A. in Poetry from Western Washington University. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.
We went Behind the Sestina with Kilpatrick to talk about her “Francis Bacon Sestina,” 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?
I discovered sestinas in graduate school, though I imagine I must have read some sooner. I can’t say with exact certainty, but the first sestina I really remember reading is “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop. I loved how it told a story, and how the repetitions were simultaneously comforting and unsettling.
What’s your favorite sestina?
Hmm…My husband has a thing for formal poetry, so he introduced me to some new ones, like “Jill, Afterwards” by Philip Dacey. But I really love “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina” by Miller Williams. I appreciate a clever sestina. So of course I love the “Bob” sestina. And I love Denise Duhamel’s “On Delta Flight 659 with Sean Penn.” Again, clever.
What keeps you coming back to sestinas?
I’ve written a lot of sestinas. I think the first one I really attempted was a failed sestina about women mountain climbers.
One of my favorite exercises when I teach Creative Writing is to have the class come up with the words and then each individual writes a poem using those same words. I find the diversity of the sestinas amazing. My favorite sestina I wrote that way was “Still Life with Moon Boots.” It was right after “Napoleon Dynamite” came out and one student put “moon boots” on the list of words. That was a challenge.
A friend and I write a poem a day during the month of April, and I usually find a way to work a sestina or two into that challenge. I once wrote an American Idol sestina.
I love sestinas because of the obsessive repetition. The pattern resembles how my brain works. I like coming back to words or ideas and reworking or rethinking them. A sestina story, “Miss America,” appears in my short story collection, In the House (FC2, 2010). My sestina essay, “OC/D,” was recently published in the Pushing the Boundaries section of Creative Nonfiction. I love the prose sestina, because I can be more expansive, but still have the obsession with the six words.
Can you walk us through the composition of “Francis Bacon Sestina”? I suppose you started with the Francis Bacon quote, which is the poem’s epigraph? Bacon, I assume, speaking about one of two versions of his painting “Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe” (1963 and 1968)?
At the time I wrote this sestina, I was taking a class and one of the required texts was Interviews with Francis Bacon. I love his paintings, and I love the way his paintings attempt to induce an emotion or experience rather than represent it. Many of the things I mention in the poem also happened around this time: one friend getting divorced, another married. I had a former professor who had died of a heroin overdose a few years earlier, and that is mentioned in the poem as well. (Interesting side note: my sestina essay is about his death.)
The sestina form seemed right for all this material because of the obsession/repetition. For me the sestina is a way of thinking through problems. By the time you get back to the word again, you’ve travelled some mental/emotional distance and you have a new vantage point on the word/idea/feeling/image, etc. I think Bacon’s painting does this too. It attempts to compile many different perspectives into one image. So I was trying to make sense of all these events, and of Francis Bacon’s art, and I wanted to look at all that stuff at one time from multiple perspectives. The end words were fairly easy for me to come up with. I kept Bacon’s “hypodermic syringe” mainly as an experiment to see if it kept the poem nailed to reality. I was also interrogating if that was true. In life, the syringe provides an escape. But I like how the sestina forces the reader to confront it, over and over. And the poem itself if about trying to stay in/escape reality. Drugs are one way, love is one way, art another.
I’ve a hunch the singing of “sex and sex and sex” is from Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” which is another piece of art interested in the celebration of a stripe of nihilism mixed with love. Am I off track? I am, aren’t I?
Yeah. I’m not cool enough to include the Stones in a sestina, though that might be my next challenge! I think I was conjuring up Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in that line, at least, that’s my memory.
Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many people in it. But the primary people would probably be my former professor who died, Omar, and our friend Bill, also an artist, who was profoundly affected by his death.