MassPo Challenge Sestina by Kolleen Carney!


Back at our Massachusetts Poetry Festival reading, the six readers–Ravi Shankar, Michael Costello, Jade Sylvan, Peter Jay Shippy, Lewis Turco, and Victor D. Infante–each contributed an end-word for a “sestina challenge.” Could anyone write a sestina using the words radiate, code, tentacles, multiple, Salem, and word?

We waited. And then this gem from Kolleen Carney, who emailed it to us a couple weeks later.

“This was hard,” she wrote.

Well, we think it’s pretty genius. Her incredible sestina appears below.


All these years I’ve languished here in Salem
haven’t meant anything; I couldn’t find the words
for all the pain I’ve been feeling, there’s been no secret code
for all these hidden vices, addictions, multiple
diagnoses; I’ve juggled all of them at once, their tentacles
strangling me slowly, their hellish heat radiating.

And when I sleep now you tell me I radiate
heat like a furnace, hot dreams like Jerusalem’s
desert stretched out, sun beams like golden tentacles
burning the skin of my back. In the morning I have no words,
I can’t keep track of things, I check multiple
calendars, alarms, mark reminders on my arms like code.

If you examined my skin you could read, in code,
a map of my life, this sort of sequence that radiates
across my bruised body, a main line,  a train line with multiple
stops along the way: Boston, LA, ending in Salem,
and all these markings (since, what good are words?),
these razor wire scars around my thighs like tentacles

and lyrics to songs, and numbers. No octopus tentacles
or phoenixes or koi fish, each scale a color code,
their dead eyes unseeing and mouths gaping silent words,
all these marks in permanent ink radiating
my life story onto my body. Like the stone markers in Salem,
each a name, a hanging body, a chest caved in by boulders (multiple).

And how many times have I told you—multiple?—
that your love is creeping up my spine like tentacles
of some horrible thing, that the chill of Salem
has frozen all that was good in me? I tried to arrange the snow in code
but you couldn’t hold onto it, the heat radiated
from your palms, and you melted all my words.

So listen: All I have left are these words.
Burn me in a fire and you’ll see, you can arrange the multiple
letters that will fall from my skin, my mouth, burnt radiation
black—my soul. Reaching out, long tentacles
of smoke that stain your skin and spell out code.
Hang me from the highest branch in Salem

and I will join the multiple ghosts of Salem
and all my ever- words will be your code;
at night, my soul will radiate, my hair will choke your throat like tentacles.

Guess Which Prize-Winning, Established Poet Sent This Sestina to McSweeney’s, circa 2003!

Sestina to the Editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Vice Versa

Your lamentable policy of publishing no poems but sestinas
insults your readers even as it patronizes contemporary American poetry.
To avoid depicting McSweeney’ss as a snake-nest of crypto-fascists
and avert the use of foul or unflattering language
on my part, I have taken the unusual and perhaps sadly uncool
decision to donate to the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

the remainder of this poem, to grant the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
a chance to speak in their own defense. “Yo, what’s wrong with sestinas!
We think sestinas are totally, totally cool!
In Brooklyn and the Mission sestinas are easily the coolest form of poetry
out there today. Especially we love the way the language
cascades obsessively from stanza to stanza, a kind of crypto-Ashberian

waterfall of language, actually, or hey, crypto-formalists
can wing it too, we can handle that, the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
dig that Elizabeth Bishop thing, dog. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
Poetry, now that’s another kettle of polliwogs— not that sestinas
could ever be considered as Language Poetry,
could they? Or, would that maybe be wildly inventive and cool?

Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool.
It might look like that on the page, kind of crypto-Dadaist,
but should it be punctuated? Is there some kind of Language Poetry
Manual of Style the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
might employ to ensure these killer new language poetry sestinas
are abiding by the rules? Whatever. I mean, language

is not bound by laws, right, there is no legal language
language itself cannot delegitimize? Which is, like, beyond cool.
What really matters is form, that funky, prismatic, six-fold way sestinas
have of origamying into shape on the page, their crypto-Buddhist
vibe. We flat-out love form. The editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
have created a very hip magazine, even if it is virtual, and poetry

is part of that, and frankly you should be thankful we publish any poetry
because, mostly, the stuff sucks. Dude, what’s it all about, language?
Doh! Like, hello, what isn’t? The editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
know what’s cool— we are, basically, the arbiters of cool—
and we really don’t need a bunch of wonkified, cry-baby crypto-elitists
preaching to us about the perceived demerits or what-all of sestinas.”

The Editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency regret that your poetry
is not cool enough for them at this time. They felt the language
fell flat, unfortunately. Next time try a crypto-sestina.



Got a guess? Leave a comment below or email us at!

Photos from Mass Poetry Festival Reading

Just back from the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where we had a truly Incredible Sestina Reading. Thanks to January Gill O’Neil, the festival director who put together a terrific weekend, all the Mass Poetry staff who were completely helpful, as well as everyone who came!

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A group selfie after the reading. From left: Lewis Turco, our barnstormer who came the day after his 80th birthday, Ravi Shankar, Michael Costello, and yours truly.

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That’s Mr. Turco, who read “The Vision” and a new sestina.

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Victor D. Infante read his sestina and Anis Mojgani’s. In the foreground is Jade Sylvan, who read her “Facebook Sestina” and one of her slash sestinas on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

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Michael Costello read his own sestina and David Lehman’s “Operation Memory.”

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Michael Costello’s pants.

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Michael, Victor, and Lewis.

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That’s Ravi Shankar, who read Shanna Compton’s “The Remarried Again Sestina” and another sestina of his own. In the foreground is the terrific Peter Jay Shippy, who read his sestina and another by Denise Duhamel in the book.

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There were rows and rows of these at the Peabody Essex Museum.

An “Incredible” Q and A with Erika Dreifus and Daniel Nester


I don’t remember where or when I first encountered Daniel Nester and his work. But I do recall taking special interest when he announced that his sestina anthology project had found a publisher, and I knew that this book would be one I’d want to share with all of you.


Please welcome Daniel Nester!

Erika Dreifus (ED): Your introduction to THE INCREDIBLE SESTINA ANTHOLOGY begins this way: “First things first. You’re asking: Why in the world should I read a book of sestinas?” I’ll paraphrase for my own first question: “Why in the world did you compile a book of sestinas?” And, on a related note: *How* did the book develop?

Daniel Nester (DN): I suppose my reflexive reply to the first question would be “why not?” A more serious one would be “because no one’s done it before,” by which I mean no one has put together a collection of sestinas in English, in the time of the great sestina revival-renaissance of the 20th century onward. There are collections of sonnets, villanelles, haiku; why not the sestina? As I say in the introduction, one of the reasons I remain fascinated by the sestina is that so many different poets from different schools and aesthetic backgrounds and impulses feel the need to try on the sestina form. It’s a democratic form in the best sense of the word.

Read the rest of the interview at Erika Dreifus’s popular website.



Behind the Sestina: Brian Henry on “Bad Apple”

Brian Henry has published nine books of poetry, most recently Brother No One (Salt Publishing, 2013). He has translated Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, 2008) and Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things (BOA Editions, 2010), which won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award.

We went Behind the Sestina with Henry to discuss “Bad Apple,” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
The first sestina I read was probably in Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, which I read for a literature course in college.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I’ve written quite a few sestinas before and after this one. My earlier sestinas were exercises within the form; my later sestinas were attacks on the form. This is one of my later ones.

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 wrote this sestina in 2002. I wanted to write a poem by writing a stanza a day. I didn’t sit down to write a sestina, but on the second day, the end word of the first line happened to match up with the end word of the previous line, and the sestina just started to happen. On the third day, though, I decided to make the sestina itself the subject.

Did you really write a stanza a day for a week?  Does the decaying apple symbolize the passage of time?
I did. The apple in the title relates to the idiom “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” I thought it spoke to the construction of a poetic form like the sestina.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
All of my sestinas would be dedicated to Hayden Carruth, who once visited my poetry workshop in graduate school and said that any sestina not written in iambic pentameter is a fake sestina.

—Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Jonah Winter on “Sestina: Bob” and “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary”


Jonah Winter’s two collections of poems are Maine (2002), winner of Slope Editions’ first book prize, and Amnesia (2004), winner of the Field poetry prize. He’s also the  recipient of the Cohen Award from Ploughshares magazine and a Pushcart Prize in poetry.

He’s also a children’s book writer. Two of his books, Diego (1994) and Here Comes the Garbage Barge! (2010), were selected as New York Times Best Illustrated Books. His biography of President Obama, Barack (2008), was a New York Times Best-Seller, and his book, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (2013), was a New York Times Editors Pick. Winter’s previous book in this series, You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009), was chosen as the best non-fiction picture book of 2009 by Booklist.

One of the masters of the sestina form, we asked Jonah Winter questions about his two sestinas that appear in The Incredible Sestina Anthology, “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary” and “Sestina: Bob.”

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 

Duhhhhh, sooooo….    Sorry, my memory’s not so good these days.   I probably discovered the sestina in college.   And the first sestina I ever read was probably Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.”   I remember liking Bishop a lot in college.   I was very serious then.   And I remember attempting a sestina based loosely on a Leadbelly song — without a trace of irony.   Those were the days!

What other sestina writers do you revere?

Sestina writers I revere? John Ashbery, James Cummins, David Lehman. Wow, I guess that’s kind of like saying that Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente are your favorite baseball players — which, if you asked me, I would list.


Your first book includes several sestinas, including “Sestina: Bob,” collected here. ‘Bob’ took on a life of its own for its daring, at least at the time, use of only one end-word, “Bob,” throughout the poem. I think I recall reading a story about how you wrote a few sestinas and then figured the whole end-word issue of sestina-writing would be a whole lot easier if you just used a single, very malleable word. Is that how things went when you wrote it? Or was it just as much of a challenge?

No, that’s not how that happened.   If I ever said that’s what happened, I was lyin’!    I had not been writing sestinas — at all. I had been writing mainly incomprehensible graduate school garbage. I can’t remember how I came up with the idea for writing a sestina with only one end-word. It just “came to me”…! I had been recently dumped by a woman who was then dating a man named Bob. It was a painful, chaotic, and even vaguely tragic time in my life–for a variety of reasons; being replaced by a man named Bob was just the icing.

Anyhow, I started viewing comedic writing as a way of getting through these really dark periods.   My goal, at the point (and at many future points), was to crack myself up.    When your life has turned into a nightmare…, laugh! Also, I think the idea of mocking a ridiculous poetic form really appealed to me–and continues to appeal to me. As you know, with the sestina form, there is just so much comic potential. But… that’s not a very funny sentence, is it?

It’s funny, trust me. Did you do any research for “Sestina: A Cowboy’s Diary”? I ask because, in your other life, you write children’s picture books, and I imagine you coming across words like “beefe” and “beeves” and thought, geez, I can’t use this in a book for seventh graders, but I could use it in a persona piece sestina. Am I off the mark there, or do you not use the word “geez” when talking to yourself.

Thanks for bring up my children’s book career.  No, really!

I’m really off here. Geez!

Before I became a children’s book author, I worked as a children’s book editor at Knopf.   And let me tell you, I saw some real stinkers from the unsolicited manuscript pile — which often inspired my adult poems!  Let’s face it, bad writing is just funny.  Well, maybe not to everybody.   But to me it is!

As Steve Martin once said, “some people have a way with words, and some…not have way.”

The cowboy’s diary sestina was actually inspired by a real cowboy’s diary from a young adult book about cowboys.   That’s where them thar beeves came from, I tell you whut.  Yep.  And you’re absolutely right, it’s not so kosher to talk about prostitutes, vis a vis beeves, to young children.   I write picture books for the 5-to-9-year-old age group, mainly biographies.   I love writing for children.   It forces me to be engaging.   Plus, children generally have a great sense of humor.

I often read my adult series, “Book Reports,” when visiting grade schools, and the kids crack up, especially when I read my poem about George Washington (“George Washington stood up in a boat/ And then he started America”).   Kids love stupidity, error, farts, etc.   I love kids!   And it’s really getting to the point where I hate adults, at least the ones with no sense of humor — and I’m afraid that would include a large sector of the poetry world.   But you’re right, there are some things you can’t talk about to kids, such as lesbian sex or estate tax law — and that’s the sort of material I reserve for my adult, ahem…, poems.

What keeps you coming back to sestinas? Many poets, I’m sure you know, are of the “one and done” variety. Is it the eccentricity of the form? The challenge?

I’m one of those writers who finds poetic form liberating. Once you’ve nailed down the end-words, you can say literally anything. You can stray so far from the shore, knowing that you’ve got these little verbal life-jackets to keep you from drowning or getting completely lost. I love the tension between a formal straightjacket… and the potential for diagnoseable verbal insanity.  I’m picturing someone wearing a tuxedo… who’s just set his own head on fire.   Now THAT’s… comedy.

A sestina is a perfect vehicle, as well, for making fun of certain words.   With each successive repetition, their absurdity becomes more evident.   (Unless of course they’re not the perfect words, and then that too becomes increasingly evident with each successive repetition.)    “Repetition is at the border of the wondrous” — thus quoth Mr. Kierkegaard, in referring to Job’s predicament, which, via the magic of philosophy, gets transformed into a vehicle for something like transcendence.   Or, on the other hand: If at first you don’t succeed, keep banging your head repeatedly against the coffee table until there’s nothing left to fall out.  There’s a “joy in repetition,” as pop music tells us, but in my experience there is also a torment. I’m talkin’ OCD here:   a compulsion towards repetition; a vaguely psychotic, and definitely neurotic, attachment of repetition to superstition, borne of magical thinking.   Sestinas are not mentally healthy.   In fact, they work against mental health — as they veer towards psychotic/transcendent quasi-religious experience.   And:   I think you would agree with me that the sestina is among the most absurd of poetic forms — and the most classically prone to failure. What other form would have garnered as many ridiculous results as your McSweeney’s website did?    I’m guessing that 99.7% of writers who attempt a sestina in 2013 are doing so with at least a modicum of ironic intent.  It’s interesting that that has not always been the case.   Back in the good old days, only a few very good poets would attempt this form, and the intent was always sincere and serious.   Who knows, maybe someday I’ll start writing serious sestinas, if for no other reason than to separate myself from the current pack.  But not today.  Or tomorrow.    I’m currently assembling some end-words for a new sestina… inspired by time spent in Santa Fe.

You’re a poet who is also, I think it would be fair to say, a performer. Do you have any thoughts on the sestina as something performed or heard at readings?

Thank you for asking me this question.   I love to read my sestinas out loud in public, preferably in a room where people have gathered to hear a poetry reading, but honestly, I enjoy reading them anywhere — and to anyone who’ll listen.   Everything I write is intended to be read aloud — especially my persona poems, which constitute the majority of what I’ve written the past 20 years or so.

Those sorts of poems straddle the line between poetry and theater, therefore acting them out is appropriate. My neighbor’s 15-year-old son has been using my sestinas in forensic competitions. He’s very animated in the way he reads, and so I’m thrilled that he’s been spreadin’ the word. HOWEVER, I certainly hope that my sestinas are written well enough that they don’t need to be read aloud to convey voice. That is my intention. And I certainly think it’s best for the reader if the poem can perform by itself on the page. That’s kind of the idea behind written literature, know wha’m sayin’?

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?



Behind the Sestina: Nate Marshall


From the South Side of Chicago, Nate Marshall is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and was the star of the award-winning documentary  Louder Than A Bomb. He has been featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices, and his work has appeared in such places as Vinyl Poetry, Poetry, Learn Then Burn, and The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux,on Chicago Public Radio.He is also an Assistant Poetry Editor for Muzzle.

Marshall has also worked a teaching artist with organizations such as Young Chicago Authors, Inside Out Detroit, and Southern Word. He is the founder of the Lost Count Scholarship Fund that promotes youth violence prevention in Chicago. Marshall has performed poetry at venues and universities across the US, Canada, and South Africa. He is also a rapper.

We asked Nate about “pallbearers (a sestina),” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 

I first discovered the concept of a sestina at the opening event of Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Slam. One of the featured readers read one and I totally didn’t understand it. I remember thinking it was so odd but I was drawn to the repetition.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 

The first sestina I read I think was Lucy Anderton’s “Eve’s Sestina for Adam” from The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux. I don’t know if I have a favorite sestina but I really respect the sestinas that have very short lines. That’s hard, man.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. What got you started? 

‘pallbearers’ is the first sestina I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft of it in 2009 during my sophomore year of college. My professor, Mark Jarman, trashed it pretty thoroughly in workshop, but I still thought it was pretty good. After many successive drafts its much better in my opinion.

What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?

I love the sestina for the repetition. It lends itself well to narrative because of that and that plays well to my instincts as a poet. Also I really dig the way knowledge of homophones becomes so golden in building a sestina. That homophone use really reminds me of the inventiveness of writing raps.

Sestinas are my go-to form when I have time to kill. They are like poetry sudoku. They are the official form of international flights, long flight delays and MegaBus trips through the Midwest.

Can you walk us through the composition of “pallbearers”? The sestina welcomes and demands repetition, and so I suspect your writing about this particular subject came out of witnessing and experiencing death, life, friendships? 

It’s hard to say. The thing I started with in this poem was the end words. That’s a trick I learned from Mark Jarman. I wanted to use a bunch of small, flexible words and then one that was strange or more challenging. I think coffin became the word because I could think of a variety of ways it could be used and because I often write about how death and loss impact my life and my world. The repetition seemed to fit the storyline naturally because in a childhood friendship there’s often a kind of repeating, almost sitcom quality to the times you spend with those friends. There’s also sadness to when that time in life ends that might be kind of akin to a sort of death. I think though it is important that the poem ends on the image of togetherness and support even in death. That makes the poem hopeful, it speaks to life and the fact that life is ultimately about the relationships we cultivate with each other.

Can you tell us about the important of the poem’s epigraph? Ang13 is from Chicago, as you are, so I imagine that’s a big part of it?

The epigraph is so important. Listening to that song was the thing that sparked the writing of the poem so there’s that. Also I think Ang13 means a lot to the work. She’s a legendary underground female rapper from Chicago. She’s a smart ass, witty, strong woman voice and that makes sense to start in a poem about my grandmother who was also all those things.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?

Oh this is definitely for my maternal grandmother, Mary Frances Griffin. To a lesser extent, it’s also dedicated to my childhood crew: Shaun Peace, Bart Studnicki, Dominic Giafagleone, and Kenneth Kittrell.

Come to An Incredible Sestina Reading at the Mass Poetry Festival on May 3!


There’s going to be An Incredible Sestina Reading at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which takes place in Salem, MA on May 2-4. Here’s the direct link to tell the world you’re going.

The readers/panelists will include myself, Michael Costello, Vincent D. Infante, Ravi Shankar, Peter Jay Shippy, and Jade Sylvan. We will read sestinas from The Incredible Sestina Anthology, some others, and hopefully people will write some sestinas right there on the spot. Because that’s how we will roll.

Our event takes place from 1:30pm-2:30pm, on Saturday, May 3, 2014, in the Peabody Essex Museum’s Bartlett Gallery.

An Incredible Sestina Anthology Reading!
1:30pm-2:30pm, May, 3 2014
Peabody Essex Museum, Bartlett Gallery

161 Essex St, Salem, MA 01970

Description: 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. Join us as contributors from The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody 2013) read their contributions to the first ever book to collect examples of this mysterious and malleable form that has grown more popular, even trendy, in modern times. Poets will also read another piece by a different author in the anthology. Hosted by Daniel Nester.
track:  Panel Discussion


It took us a lot of work – at least it took January O’Neil and our interns a lot of work! And it will take you one more step than it took you last year if you signed up for the Festival. You will have

Worcester, MA Launch for The Incredible Sestina Anthology!

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The Incredible Sestina Anthology takes its road show to Worcester, Massachusetts, home of one of the most intriguing cross-species love affair-commemorating public statuary in North America. Details below.

Sunday, April 6, 7pm
Featuring Daniel Nester, Victor D. Infante, and other contributors to the anthology, along with special guest sestina readings from local poets, including Lea Deschenes, Heather Macpherson and Jenith Charpentier.
Nick’s Restaurant and Bar (as recently seen in the movie American Hustle)
124 Millbury St., Worcester, MA 01610
Preceded by TISA contributor Victor D. Infante reading T.S. Eliot for The Hangover Hour at 5pm
Facebook event page

The Incredible Sestina Anthology Comes to Seattle!



If you’re in Seattle, come out this Thursday to LUCID, a cool jazz club that will be filled with Sestina Masters. It’s free and it’s a Stranger pick. Just sayin’.