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

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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.

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Behind the Sestina: David Lehman on “The Old Constellation” and “Operation Memory”

David Lehman’s New and Selected Poems (Scribner 2014) is released today.

His other books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (Scribner, 2009), When a Woman Loves a Man (Scribner, 2005), The Daily Mirror (Scribner, 2000), Valentine Place, and Operation Memory.He and James Cummins collaborated on a book of sestinas, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man. Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for his nonfiction book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken, 2009); he also wrote and designed the traveling exhibition based on the book, which visited 55 libraries in 27 states in 2011 and 2012. Among Lehman’s other books are a study in detective novels (The Perfect Murder), a group portrait of the NewYork School of poets (The Last Avant-Garde), and an account of the scandal sparked by the revelation that a Yale University eminence had written anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles for a leading newspaper in his native Belgium (Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man). He teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School in New York City.

We go Behind the Sestina to talk to Lehman about his two sestinas, “The Old Constellation” and “Operation Memory,” both featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Operation Memory”? I love how it juggles genre fiction conventions–I see film noir, science fiction, even some Dante’s Inferno–with a narrative. Where did you get this idea for “Operation Memory”? Were there any specific inspirations that you remember?
I wrote “Operation Memory” on my thirty-eighth birthday: June 11, 1986. Although I love the sestina form, I did not realize I was writing one until the first six lines were written. When I read them over, they seemed to form a sestina stanza, and the end-words looked promising. Nine years earlier I had written a sestina called “The Thirty-nine Steps,” which my friends and I thought was my best effort at the form. In the back of my head lurked that earlier poem, the end-words of which included the antithetical “youth” and “age.” So the not-so-secret agenda of “Operation Memory” was also time, change, and the feeling of getting older (a feeling even a young man can have).

The poem was chosen by John Ashbery for The Best American Poetry 1988. At the time it seemed a long shot that we would have a 1989 Best American Poetry, let alone twenty-six succeeding volumes, so I had not yet decided to keep the series editor’s poems out of the running for the annual anthology. But I had already decided to ask contributors to comment on their poems, and this is what I wrote about “Operation Memory” for the back of the book:

I’ve long been fascinated by military code names, such as Operation Torch for the Allied invasion of North Africa in World War II. “Operation Memory” suggested a military metaphor for an autobiographical reflection. Or was memory (or its loss) a metaphor for a military experience? Perhaps both. I set out to write a poem about the war in Vietnam. (An undeclared war, Vietnam is nowhere mentioned in the poem.) “Operation Memory” is a sestina with a variable. Ordinarily, there are six repeating end-words in a sestina. Here there are five fixed end-words and a sequence of numbers where the sixth would go. It’s a downward progression (hundred, fifty, eighteen, ten, one) plus a year (1970) and an age (thirty-eight, the age I was when I wrote the poem). I thought of Abraham trying to persuade God to spare the sinful cities: if there were fifty righteous men, would he do it? If there were twenty righteous men? Ten? I was recently asked whether the speaker commits suicide at the end of the poem (“a loaded gun on my lap”). That’s one possibility; a second is that he is about to shoot somebody else; a third is that it’s “a loaded gun” in metaphor only. [Note from The Best American Poetry 1988.]


What keeps you coming back to the sestina?
I love the sestina. When I discovered the form, I was a Columbia freshman, and it seemed to me brilliantly exotic. It was very old, very esoteric, and somehow ultra-new. I liked the way the sestina looked on the page, and I found the secret of its composition easier to master than I anticipated. The sestina looks complicated but the end-words have a way of directing you, and if you keep your eye on them – and on the immediate task of writing lines – the poem will get written.

To write a sestina is to solve a puzzle of your own making. Writing the sestina ngets you, the author, out of the way; you’re too busy solving the puzzle to mess up the poem. There is a deep underground relationship between poetry and numbers just as there is a relationship, less buried, between music and mathematics. Fourteen is the perfect number of lines for a certain kind of utterance; the fourteen-line poem possesses attributes missing in poems two lines longer or shorter–as you’ll see if you attempt to do the work of a sonnet in twelve or sixteen lines. Well, thirty-nine turns out also to be a magic number. The six end-words, repeated in the prescribed way, return in their original order; the wheel comes full circle, and the three-line envoi that ends the poem should hit us with the force of a revelation. All of this is, I think, implicit in the form itself. And you need not think about any of it while you are writing. In fact it would be harmful to your writing if your head were full of theories.

The best sestinas are exercises in poetic logic, in the making of an argument as in an essay but with limited means. That is their glory. The sestina rewards the poet who thrives on wordplay. That is its pleasure. The pleasure is contagious.

You’ve written so many fine sestinas, including couple collaborative efforts. Can you tell me a little about your collaborative sestinas?
Jim Cummins is a master of the form, and his Perry Mason sestinas greatly impressed and inspired me when I read them back in 1986, long before Jim and I met. I’m pretty sure I wrote about the book, The Whole Truth, in Newsweek.  Years later Jim and I met at a reading, had drinks and dinner, and became friends. He wrote a sestina in which one of the end words was “Gary Snyder” and I liked the idea and what he did with it so much that I promptly copied it and produced a sestina – dedicated to Jim – in which the end words were Walt Whitman, Ted Berrigan, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Marvin Bell, and a variable.
Around this time – 1995 or ’96 — Jim and I started to exchange sestinas, each one trying to outdo the other in some way but also conscious of achieving a deep rapport. The idea of our doing a book together seemed to follow naturally from what we were doing. It was Jim who wrote a wonderful series of sestinas in which these two characters, Jim and Dave, have adventures in poetry and in the greater world. I tried my hand at writing one in this genre. And we collaborated on sestina, trading stanzas, more than once — it seemed like a very natural, very friendly thing to do.

Incredible Sestina Anthology goes on the road!


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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
6pm
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
7pm
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
3pm
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
6pm
726 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
212-998-4678

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
7pm
4736 N Lincoln Ave #1
Chicago, IL 60625
773-293-2665

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
Lucid
6pm
5241 University Way NE [map]
Seattle, WA 98105

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

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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: Geoff Bouvier’s “Refining Sestina”

Geoff Bouvier’s first book, Living Room, was selected by Heather McHugh as the 2005 APR/Honickman Prize winner and was published by Copper Canyon Press. His second book, Glass Harmonica, appeared in 2011 from Quale Press. In 2009, he served as the poet-in-residence at the University of California-Berkeley. For five years, he wrote long-form magazine journalism with The San Diego Reader, publishing over 50 cover stories. Bouvier’s poems have appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, New American Writing, and VOLT. He holds an MFA from Bard College and is currently a Ph.D. student at Florida State University.

We went Behind the Sestina with Bouvier to discover how he refines the sestina in his poem “Refining Sestina,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
The first sestina I ever saw was John Ashbery’s double sestina in Flow Chart. Made the traditional form seem easy.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I spent about two months writing nothing but sestinas, and no, I never wrote another one before or since.

What was it like writing a 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?
Repetitious end-words are already related to echoing, so during those couple of “sestina months” (yes, that’s a thing) I wrote a lot of sestinas about echoes. After a while, it occurred to me to try to write the shortest sestina possible, so I started experimenting with words that could anagram six ways. It was a lot of nonsense. Then I tried sestinas that consisted of just the six end-words. Those were okay. Finally, when I “sestinaed” (yes, that’s a verb) whole phrases, I started to write what sounded like Bach fugues. “Refining Sestina” is one of those.

Living Room, Bouvier’s first book.

It’s clear that your sestina’s form differs from what we are used to seeing. The word “redefining” has something to do with it, certainly. What led you to write the sestina in this way?
For about 10 years, I wrote nothing but prose poems. I didn’t consider any poem “finished” until I’d transposed it into the standard sentences and paragraphs of expository prose. For a while, I worked my way through experimenting with prose sonnets, prose villanelles, prose pantoums, prose sestinas, what-have-you. The conversion into prose of what I’d already thought of as a redefinition of the strict sestina form completed my little experiment.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My sestina is a paean to sestinas themselves, albeit a refining one.

–Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems”

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The
Year of No Mistakes (Write Bloody Publishing), as well as Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, Oh, Terrible Youth and Everything is Everything. She is also the author of two books of nonfiction: Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam and Curiosity: Thomas Dent Mütter and the Dawn of Modern Medicine, forthcoming from Gotham Books/Penguin.

Aptowicz’s most recent awards include the ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residency at the University of  Pennsylvania, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and an Amy Clampitt Residency.

We unearthed Aptowicz’s “time capsule” and asked her about “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I am sure I was first introduced to the sestina form in high school, but the first time I saw contemporary poets use it in a way that was exciting and inspiring was in the online lit journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, which only published poetry in that format.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I have only written one other sestina, and it was written before this one. When I first graduated from NYU, the only job I was offered was a writer and editor for a porn website. And, as a hazard of the job, I was bombarded daily with pop-up ads advertising other porn sites. I noticed that many of the ads used the same words (you can imagine what they are!), so I spent MONTHS collecting phrases from pornographic pop-up ads to create a “found poetry” sestina. When I finally plugged in the last “found” line I was filled with such joy at a job well down–and then, almost after, a woeful sorrow at what my poetic life had devolved into! The resulting sestina can be found in my book, Hot Teen Slut, which is a memoir-in-verse about my year working that job.

Can you describe writing ‘A Sestina for Shappy?’
I was invited to try the sestina format again by McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, editor Daniel Nester, and when I tried to think of a subject to place in the center of the poem, my relationship with my partner Shappy came to mind. At that time, I had not written much about us, and the timing felt right. The poem came out pretty easily and I was thrilled when it was well-received both on the web (it was later accepted by McSweeneys) and page (it became a crowd favorite at my local poetry venue, the Bowery Poetry Club).

This sestina describes the tentative beginnings of a relationship. Now, six years later, what is like re-reading this poem?
I think it captures wonderfully that time in my life. Shappy and I dated for eleven and a half years, and our years in the tiny kitsch-crammed apartment are among the happiest I’ve ever lived.

Would you consider writing a sequel? If so, what do think the sequel sestina– a sequestina, if you will—would discuss?
I don’t think I would write a sequel. The poem is time capsule, and I think it is best if it remains that way.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to (outside of the obvious candidate)?
The obvious candidate—my partner Shappy – is the only candidate. He absolutely earned every drop of love I crammed into that piece, and I still love him to this very day.

–Interview conducted by Alex J. Tunney

Full Cover Spread of The Incredible Sestina Anthology

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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!

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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.

The back cover copy!

A whole book of sestinas? Are you freaking kidding me? I know. Hear us out.

The sestina is one of the world’s oldest literary forms. It’s also one of the most tricked-out and wacky: six words appear at the end of 39 lines over the course of six, six-line stanzas and a three-line finale. Since it was invented 700 years ago, people keep writing them.

Why? Because of the challenge it presents poets to experiment with a six-pack of words and a spiral-based secret code hidden inside.

For this incredible anthology, poet and editor Daniel Nester has brought together more than 100 sestinas. Here, in all their glory, are poets from all schools and stripes who have taken the sestina challenge, from Sherman Alexie to Louis Zukofsky and everywhere in between:

  • sestina classics from John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, and Marilyn Hacker
  • modern masterpieces from David Lehman, Patricia Smith, James Cummins, Sandra Beasley, Quincy Troupe and Anne Waldman
  • double sestinas from Denise Duhamel, Ernest Hilbert and Star Black
  • Matt Madden and Casey Camp’s comics sestina
  • Florence Cassen Mayers’s minimalist takes
  • Jonah Winter’s world-famous “Bob” sestina
  • selections from Nester’s picks as sestinas editor at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, from Rick Moody, David Trinidad, Rachel Shukert, Alfred Corn and Steve Almond
  • and much, much more!

With comments from contributors that take us “Behind the Sestina,” The Incredible Sestina Anthology is a greatest hits collection of this incredible form.

The Confessions of a Sestinas Editor

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Reprinted from January/February issue of Poets & Writers magazine.

How did I become a sestinas editor? It all began with a rejection letter. “Thanks for sending,” it read, “but we’re looking for more traditional, iambic pentameter sestinas.” Ouch. But before readers commiserate, let me backtrack. Days before, I received word that McSweeney’s, the literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers that feeds a stable of worship-worthy writers such as Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, was publishing poems for the very first time.

And not just any poems—only sestinas.

It makes sense. Much of McSweeney’s charm has been its celebration of rarefied perspicaciousness, the antique mashed with the au courant. Issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the print version of the magazine published in Iceland, are considered art objects in themselves; McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the online version of the magazine in which the sestinas appear, is a clearinghouse of sharp-wittedness and activism.

The sestina exemplifies that quirky sensibility. A 39-line linked form believed to have been invented by Arnaut Daniel—the Provençal troubador who influenced Dante and who appears in the Purgatory as a model for the vernacular poet—the sestina adheres to a set pattern of end-words, or teleutons, which appear at the end of each line. Each six-line stanza is a permutation of the one that precedes it, except for the final three-line stanza, or envoi, which uses all six end-words as a triumphant send-off. Broken down into numbers, the sestina looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
2/5 4/3 6/1

The sestina, in other words, is ridiculous. But more than 800 years since its invention, the form survives—and some might even say it thrives. After 16th-century poet Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina, “You Gote-heard Gods,” there was a 300-year gap in English-language sestinas. Then, in the 20th century, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, and others wrote them. Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery wrote great sestinas for the mimeographed magazines of the 1960s. The list goes on.

Back to that rejection note. I knew my sestina might not be up to snuff, but what stuck in my craw was that phrase: “traditional, iambic pentameter.” Some readers may have immediately reached for their handbooks, but it took a couple days before I pulled out my second edition of Lewis Turco’s invaluable reference, The Book of Forms. “Lines can be of any single length,” Turco writes in his sestina entry, and that length is “determined by the poet.” There is no mention of iambs or any set number of metrical feet.

“Aha!” I thought, grinning. “I am out-rarefying the rarefiers!”

Breaking the cardinal rule of rejection-letter recipients, I wrote the editors back. Perhaps, I wrote, the editors were thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “Sestina,” written in iambic pentameter? A few e-mail exchanges later, one of which included relevant pages I scanned from Turco, I received another e-mail.

“Since you’re so into this,” John Warner, Tendency’s editor, wrote, “why don’t you be our sestinas editor?”

I took the job, of course. My title? Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas. Catchy. For a couple of days, I wrote people from my McSweeney’s e-mail address to show off. And then I got to work.

For McSweeney’s, I try to assemble the modern-day sestina masters. There’s Jonah Winter, author of the classic “Bob” sestina, in which all the end-words are—you guessed it—Bob. James Cummins, author of the book-length sestina sequence The Whole Truth, based on the Perry Mason television series, passed along work. And we published Denise Duhamel’s Sean Penn sestina just in time for Penn’s Best Actor Academy Award for Mystic River. Fiction writers Rick Moody and Steve Almond sent some in, as did Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy. Leah Fasulo’s “Mad Libs Sestina” is a favorite, as is Shanna Compton’s “The Remarried Again Sestina,” with all six surnames her mother has had as end-words. There’s also nine-year-old Julia Mayhew’s “Get to School.”

What has occurred to me as I have put together the section over the past year is that the sestina is, to my mind, the one form that poets from all camps can write and appreciate. Formalists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition; avant-gardists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition.

“The sestina is the form par excellence to challenge people who write metrical verse,” Turco, the form-definer himself, says. “It’s very tough to deal with. You’ve got two basic tactics with those end-words. You could try to hide them or you could pound them.” To be generous to my employers, I will admit that Turco does mention in the most recent edition ofThe Book of Forms that sestinas are “generally written in iambic pentameter or decasyllabic meters.”

Life as a sestinas editor has its drawbacks. You must be vigilant for the missing stanza or the end-word scheme gone awry. The exchanges I have had with writers whose sestinas I have solicited range from “I’d be embarrassed to show mine to anyone” to “Will you accept a Pindaric sestina with a modified envoi?” to the rather succinct “I fucking hate sestinas.”

This underscores the love-hate relationship many contemporary American poets have with the idea of climbing Mount Sestina. Just about every creative writing student is assigned to write a sestina to flex the rhetorical muscles, and more than a few are driven batty in the process.

But submitting to the sestina’s complex scheme—some may say a masochistic submission—brings pleasure to sestina freaks.

“The sestina is a test of your cleverness and ingenuity, and I’m a sucker for a challenge,” says poet David Lehman, the editor of the Best American Poetry series. Lehman, who wrote his first sestina as a sophomore at Columbia, remains attracted to the form because “it seems perfect for an argument or a narrative.”

The great part of being a sestinas editor is seeing how people choose their tactics and deal with the constraints the form has handed them. Hundreds of writers submit themselves to this medieval form rooted in a numerology whose significance is no longer known. For many, it is, I daresay, fun.

And yes, there are more than a few in iambic pentameter.