Tag Archives: elizabeth bishop

Behind the Sestina: Matt Madden on “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics Sestina”

Matt Madden is a cartoonist who teaches at the School of Visual Arts and in workshops around the world. His work includes 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Penguin), a collection of his comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style; a translation from the French of Aristophane’s The Zabome Sisters (First Second); and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics, (First Second), a pair of comics textbooks written in collaboration with his wife, Jessica Abel. The couple are also series editors for The Best American Comics from Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. He is currently on an extended residency in Angoulême, France with his wife and their two children.

We went Behind the Sestina with Madden to talk about his “The Six Treasures of the Spiral: A Comics 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?
My friend Jason Little described the sestina to me the first night we ever got together (along with Tom Hart) to seriously discuss comics, constraints, Oulipo, and Oubapo (see next question) around 2000. I didn’t actually read any sestinas until a few years later when I researched them online. I believe the first one I ever read was by Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp Royal.” I loved the sea-shanty-like quality of the imagery and undulating rhythm caused by the repeating words. That poem certainly informed my comic, and if you look closely you can see that I named the boat the Tramp Royal. Another sestina that I read early on and which deeply impressed me was Elizabeth Bishop’s melancholy “Sestina.”

What’s your favorite sestina?
That one might well be my favorite, though as a cartoonist I also have a soft spot for John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabaga in a Landscape.”

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. What got you started on writing comics versions of poetic forms?
I don’t have much of a background in poetry, but I’ve been reading experimental and formalist literature and comics of one sort or another for a long time. Since I started working on my 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises in Style in the late 90s I’ve immersed myself in the world of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature), the literary supper club/laboratory founded by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais in 1960. I found my kindred spirits when I discovered that group and its passion for constraints and formal structures and their application in literature. As it happened, around that same time some French cartoonists had founded Oubapo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Comics) and after a few years’ correspondence they made me a “US correspondent” to the group. When Jason Little described the sestina’s structure to me I was intrigued by the possibilities of that sort of permutational repetition for comics: there are a number of ways you can adapt the concept of repetons to comics: you can have words repeating or images, bits of dialogue, compositional schema, keywords, or, as I did in “Six Treasures,” whole panels. As an author of narrative, I like how the recurring repetons supply story prompts that are always surprising yet have a rhythmic repetition built into them. I feel that even if the final story were seamless there would still be a formal integrity bolstering it behind the scenes—that’s something that’s true about many fixed forms and constraints in general. Since finishing “Six Treasures” I’ve done comics based on the pantoum, the villanelle, and the haiku, and I have notes for a few more sestinas I’d like to try.

matt madden

Some panels from Madden’s “The Six Treasures of the Spiral,” his sestina comic.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Six Treasures”? I imagine you coming around to embracing the constraint of having the end/right-most panels adhere to the end word scheme. Did this help determine what kind of story you told?
That’s correct. I decided that my repetons would be panels. I then decided to treat the 2-page spreads as “stanzas” because to put six tiers on a page would have made for too dense a comic, at least for my style of cartooning. That implied that my envoi would be one page that would feature all six repeton-panels, leaving me the equivalent of three panels to complete it (in the end I only used two, the final one being a double panel). 

I played around with different kinds of panels that might work in multiple contexts: ambiguous gestures or expressions, bits of dialogue. At some point I decided that each of the six repeton-panels would show one of the six characters and then used their numerical order as a basis for their names (one=Einiger, two=Twopenny, five=Captain Sank (cinq), etc.). I then pasted up copies of the repeton-panels in their corresponding positions and started filling in the gaps with the aim of telling a reasonable fluid story. I roughed out a whole version that I scrapped because it wasn’t working before coming up with the final repeton-panels.

To jump back a step: The first thing that really got my brain working was the image of the spiral that you can use to figure out the order of the repitons (so I’m very happy it’s on the cover!). I probably also had that Kipling sestina in mind but I started to think about whirlpools and I had a notion to try to adapt Poe’s “Descent into the Maelström” which didn’t work out but which left me with the idea of a maritime adventure and a tragic ending at the bottom of a giant whirlpool. The maritime theme got me thinking about visual sources to draw from: Roy Crane’s adventure comics, Alex Raymond’s elegantly swooping lines he uses to indicate weather and water in Flash Gordon, and Hergé’s Tintin

I love how you integrated the idea of the “spiral,” so integral to the sestina and its origins, into the sestina itself. This self-referential move is part of a rich tradition in sestinas, the “sestina about writing a sestina.” Is that part of what you were going for, or was it more of an easter egg thing, something for the sestina smart fans?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. I like work that references its own creation but I also enjoy the old-fashioned illusionistic possibilities of storytelling. So while it’s not overtly a meta-comic, there many clues and references that a close reader will pick up on, most having to do with the idea of the spiral and the number six.

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

Behind the Sestina: Rick Moody on “Radio Sestina”

Rick Moody is a New York–born novelist and short story writer. His works include the novels Garden State (1992), Purple America (1996) and The Diviners (2005). His first novel, The Ice Storm (1994), was made into a feature film, and his memoir The Black Veil (2002) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times.

We went Behind the Sestina with Moody to discuss his sestina, “Radio Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I think it was in college when my friend Jim Lewis (later the novelist and journalist Jim Lewis) turned me on to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics. The clerihew and the villanelle and the sestina were all forms I learned about then with great delight. I looked on the sestina with an especial terror, of course. Because of it’s intense difficulty.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Do you have a favorite sestina?
Maybe Swinburne’s from 1872? It was in some anthology or other. And I really love that Elizabeth Bishop one with the grandmother in it (just called “Sestina,” I think). The whole trick with a sestina, is it not, is to transcend the stifling rigidity of the end words? She manages to do that somehow, and, as in all Bishop, leaves us with the affect of the thing. A very moving poem.

Can you tell us about the writing of “Radio Sestina”? You’re such a music fan, so it’s no surprise on many levels. How did you happen upon this particular narrative?
“Radio Sestina” was just a desperate effort to write a sestina on command. True, it has a lot of music in it, and it also has some radio in it. At the time I was making occasional pieces for radio (for a show on WNYC called “The Next Big Thing,” for whose demise I often lament), and I was therefore thinking about radio, and about the relationship of radio to music, in the larger sense. Music in language and in sound.

Did the experience of writing a sestina offer any special challenges to you, since you’re primarily a prose writer?
Yeah, there’s a special challenge because I am an infrequent poet! I work with found text poetry and collage poetry and process-oriented poetry a bit. That is, I like “experimental” poetry a great deal. But I don’t necessarily rear up and write in one of the old forms very often (except maybe tanka and/or haiku). I probably write one or two poems a year really, which is not so bad, as I have been publishing almost twenty-five years now, so that means 25 poems.

There is, of course, a tendency in the present moment, to believe that writers are specialists, that they can only really do the one thing, by training or inclination. But back in the early days of literature and the written word, there were no forms, no names for forms, or the forms were so new that they had yet to calcify, and in those days the writers all wrote whatever they felt like. In this way, I think my prose writing is improved by my engagement with poetry (and lyric writing, too), and so however difficult this assignment was for me (and it was very difficult) it made parts of my brain light up from the effort, and this, I believe is good. I will probably do it again at some point. Or perhaps something easier and more shameless: like a clerihew.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
In high school, I was in the radio club. I was actually the station manager for a brief spell at our station (it had a 4 watt transmitter, or some such, just like a pirate station), and our advisor was Mr. Baldwin. He got me started in radio. So my sestina is for him. To Mr. Baldwin, first name long ago forgotten.

Behind the Sestina: Alex J. Tunney on The Incredible Sestina Anthology and on “The Long Hot Summer Sestina”

alex tunneyAs most people who read these “Behind The Sestina” interviews know, we usually interview poets who are featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology. While Alex J. Tunney isn’t featured in the book, he played a large role in its construction. As an undergraduate intern at The College of Saint Rose, Alex was there with Daniel Nester at the inception of this idea and the two have spiraled into madness together for several years.

We went Behind The Incredible Sestina Anthology with Tunney to talk about working on The Incredible Sestina Anthology, and to talk about his own sestina, “The Long Hot Summer Sestina,” that was inspired by the anthology.

What was your role in The Incredible Sestina Anthology?
I was one of the first editorial assistants working on the project way back in the summer of 2007 when it was still a project. I proofread, contacted poets, journals and presses for permissions and did some general office stuff like mailing and logging the projects process. Recently, I did some interviews and posts for the blog.

So this was during the “Long Hot Summer” from your sestina’s title?
That’s right.

What did you expect when you heard about an entire book just of sestinas?
Honestly, I don’t remember. I believe I did know about Nester’s work maintaining the sestina section at McSweeney’s, so doing something with all those sestinas must have made sense to me. I think I was just excited to be working on something that got me connected to the literary world at large outside of school.

Have you seen the finished product? Did it meet your expectations?I actually bought a copy at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene on a whim. I wanted to see if they would have it and, of course, they did. I just had to have it in my hands [you’re also getting a free copy in the mail soon, Alex! ed].

The cover looks great! My only real expectation was that the anthology get published. Anything else is just icing on the cake.

Do you have a favorite sestina from the book? A favorite sestina poet?
For my favorite poem, I’ll go with Laura Cronk’s “Sestina for a Sister.” The nature of the structure of the sestina allows for a focus on things and ideas and this poem illustrates that very well. She’s able to render a great story because of the repitions force readers to certain words and objects.

For favorite sestina poet, I’ll go with David Trinidad. “Playing with Dolls” reminds me of my childhood, and “Detective Notes” references Clue and is also a brilliantly constructed sestina.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I probably discovered it while I started working on this project that summer. If not then, it was probably during a class taught by Nester the semester prior to the “long hot” summer.

During this sestina project you were inspired to write your own sestina, “The Long Hot Summer.” What can you tell me about this sestina?
I wouldn’t say it was “inspired” so much as it was assigned to me by Barbara Ungar, in the poetry class I had with her that fall semester after the eponymous summer. A sestina about a sestina anthology? I couldn’t pass that up. Of course, my life had managed to seep into the piece eventually, something I don’t think I could have avoided.

I remember hating this sestina immediately after writing it, especially the last line. It’s not Elizabeth Bishop’s “(write it!)” as it is a Marx Brothers’ punch line. I still have my issues with it. Having written about this summer twice—during the summer itself and recently for grad school—I know that I avoided from going further into what happened during the summer and I think the poem suffers because of that.

Having said that, I also tend to take myself too seriously and am perpetually embarrassed by my past self, so take that last reason with a grain of salt.

I do like things about this sestina. I love the flexibility the word “really” has throughout. I also like that the repetition of the form relates to the focus that comes with reading and, well, love.

Had you written any sestinas before (and have you written any since)?
No, I haven’t and I haven’t written any since. I tend not to write poetry because prose (mostly nonfiction) is the format in which I feel I can best express my thoughts and feelings. When I attempt to write poetry it tends to turn into prose with line breaks. That said, I am very tempted to revise/update/salvage this sestina.

You know as well as I do, first sestinas are always dedicated to someone. Who would you like to dedicate this sestina to?
It would be obvious to say Nester, wouldn’t it? But, I will dedicate it to him. I owe a lot to him.

I also want to dedicate to an additional three professors I had at The College of Saint Rose who were essential to my development as a writer. First is Dr. Ungar, who made me realize it was just as important to have a sense of humor about myself as it was to take myself seriously. Next would Kim Middleton who fostered my love of examining pop culture and gave me the tools to do it well. Last but not least is Cailin Brown of the Communications department, who advised me while I worked on The Chronicle newspaper and taught me not only how to look for the truth, but the importance of how it is presented to readers once it is found.

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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: Paula Bohince on “Allegory of the Leopard”

Paula Bohince is the author of two poetry collections, both from Sarabande: The Children (2012) and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (2008).

We go Behind the Sestina to talk to Bohince about her sestina “Allegory of the Leopard” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I read Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful “Sestina” in college, and that was my introduction to the form.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I have not.

Can you describe writing this sestina? 
I began this poem knowing that I wanted it to be a sestina, and I believe that I wrote the first stanza organically to see what end words would naturally arise. Those resulting words seemed “open” enough to allow the poem to move as athletically as sestinas must. Moving stanza to stanza was definitely a struggle, but a thrilling, pleasurable struggle. What I loved about writing this poem was that the pressure of the form forced me to wrestle with this subject for longer than I would have without the pattern, and I think that’s a useful lesson for writing any poem.


Leopards were companions to shamans in both western and eastern hemispheres, and are thought to be wise creatures. Is this why the animal spoke to you? Or perhaps to your primal instinct?
Because this poem has so much landscape imagery and abstractions (like spring, music, rebirth), I wanted a concrete creature—strange, fearsome, gorgeous—to stalk the stanzas. I like the leopard because it can both stand out and be camouflaged, in life and in a poem.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I’d dedicate it to Patrick Mullen.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani