Tag Archives: form

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: Amanda Nadelberg on “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella”

Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press, 2012), Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006), and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song Cave, 2009).

We went Behind the Sestina with Nadelberg to talk about her sestina, “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
In College. My teacher used The Making of a Poem and lo and behold! 

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
Before, yes. Since: maybe not? I have probably written 4.5 sestinas in my life. 

I would love to read the .5 sestina. Can you describe writing “My New Pet Word is Mozzarella”? 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?
Its form drives the content most of all. It’s fine to have a nugget expectation of direction but after a while what I always forget I love about them is how you are bullied by these words into a narrative and sometimes it becomes a surprise, the direction taken. It would be fun to a write a sestina without a narrative. I’ve always enjoyed writing sestinas with end words that are seemingly “less expensive” (i.e. prepositions and articles are keys to the kingdom). 

Have you heard anyone use mozzarella as a pet name?  How would define mozzarella as a verb?
I haven’t. It could mean to tussle someone’s hair, as if an affectionate noogie; or it could mean to hurry up or to lie beneath a tree on a hot day.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Donald Duck’s mom. 

Behind the Sestina: Jason Schneiderman on “The Buffy Sestina”


Jason Schneiderman, essayist and poet, is the author of Sublimation Point and Striking Surface. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Michael Montlack included Jason’s essay about Liza Minnelli in his book, My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. Schneiderman has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He won the 2009 Richard Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. He was also the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004. He is an Assistant Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

We went Behind the Sestina with Schneiderman to discuss his “The Buffy Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.
When did you first discover the sestina?
My first semester at college, my best friend was taking a poetry workshop, and he had to write a sestina. I was kind of blown away.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I’m not sure I’ve written one since. I wrote a lot of sestinas when I was an undergrad, but the first one I kept, I wrote in Russia. I was in a workshop, and we were supposed to write sestinas, so I wrote one and I didn’t think much of it. Then after the class, my friends were like, “No fair bringing in older and polished work.” I realized it was a keeper.

Can you describe writing this sestina? 
My husband and I were watching seasons of Buffy as they came out on DVD, and we’d watch almost an entire season in a weekend. I got very used to the rhythm of the seasons… the arc that never included summer, and it felt a bit sestina like– to cycle through the same events, but with endless variation. I wanted to capture the pleasure of the repetition, to enjoy the formal play of the season’s arc, and the sestina seemed like the best container.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has developed a cult following. What is significance of Buffy to you?
Buffy is all about consequences. Everything that happens matters. The worst part of watching TV is the extent to which plots are dropped or forgotten or ignored. On Buffy, everything that happened had repercussions. I was teaching a lot of fiction at the time, and I remember wishing that all my students would watch Buffy– see, I could say– nothing’s extraneous or gratituous– it all leads somewhere. Buffy also understood loss; Joyce’s death continued to reverberate across the entire series.

Buffy calibrated tonal shifts in a way that I’ve never really seen before or since. Buffy could veer between agony and joy while making pit stops at snark, fear, and cute. I still think of Buffy saying to Dawn (at the end of season 6), “I don’t want to protect you from the world; I want to show it to you.” That’s the foundation of my pedagogy. I can’t say that on a job interview, but I can say it here.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Michael Broder. I know I should say Sarah Michelle Gellar or Joss Whedon, but watching the show with Michael was half the joy.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Jade Sylvan on “Facebook Sestina”

Jade Sylvan has been published in PANK, Bayou, Basalt, BuzzFeed, The Sun, Word Riot, and others. Jade was the winner of the 2011 Bayou Editor’s Poetry Prize and was a finalist in the 2012 Basalt Bunchgrass Poetry Prize. Jade has published a book of poetry, The Spark Singer (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2009), and a nonfiction novel, Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody Press, 2013). Jade has collaborated with some of the most groundbreaking artists in the Boston arts community in the role of creator, writer, and/or performer, in such wide-ranging genres as film (including co-writing and starring in the feature film, TEN), indie folk music, hip-hop, improv/sketch comedy, vaudeville, drag, visual art, playing anime theme songs on a harmonium, legitimate theatre, and rock & roll. Jade is originally from the Midwest, but now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts among a rotating cast of geniuses, fairies, magicians, and kings.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Sylvan about her “Facebook Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. You’ve written quite a number of them– what keeps you coming back (or are you “sestina retired,” as one poet once said)
Repetition, meter, and form in poetry has always been soothing to me. I specifically love the way re-contextualizing the same words can completely change their meaning, and how sometimes that changed meaning can make you go back and look at the word as it appears earlier in the poem differently.

Even in my free verse and prose, I tend to repeat words, images and themes throughout in different contexts. Once a writer friend described one of my prose poems as an “exploded sestina.”I liked that. I write a lot of exploded sestinas.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Facebook Sestina”? Is it inspired by real life events, place, narrative? I like the idea of a campfire as a metaphor for the popular social networking site? Am I barking up the right tree there?
I was at a human evolution exhibit in the Natural History Museum in DC a couple years ago, and they had one of those “Evolution of Humans” timelines. You know the type: long line with little illustrations of Cro-Magnons with evolutionary turning-points marked at things like “Developing Language” and “Burying the Dead.” This one had marked “Gathering at the Hearth,” as one of these turning-points. I’ve always been interested in evolution, and I’ve seen a ton of these timelines, but I’d never seen “Gathering at the Hearth” listed alongside “Fashioning Tools” as a major event in human evolution. I realized that this was the earliest form of networking, and that the reason the scientists suddenly considered networking to be an intrinsic part of being human was probably things like Facebook. The sestina form fit perfectly. I decided to use half Facebook words (“like,” “friends,” “share”) and half half-Facebook words (“light,” “alone,” “build”) as the repeated words. Then it was just a puzzle.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
Since I refuse to dedicate anything to Mark Zuckerberg, I guess I’ll dedicate this to the Borg Queen. Resistence is futile.

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: Noelle Kocot on “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling”

NoelleKocot1Noelle Kocot is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Soul in Space (Wave Books, 2013). Her other books are 4 (Four Way Books, 2001), The Raving Fortune (Four Way, 2004), Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems (Wave, 2006), Sunny Wednesday (Wave, 2009) and The Bigger World (Wave, 2011). Kocot has also translated some of the poems of Tristan Corbière from the French, which appear in Poet by Default (Wave, 2011). Her work has been included in three editions of Best American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, among other anthologies. She has received awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fund for Poetry, The Academy of American Poets and the Lannan Literary Foundation, among others. Kocot lives in the wilds of New Jersey and teaches writing in New York City.

We went Behind the Sestina with Kocot to discuss her poem, “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling,” 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 the sestina when I was 16.  My English teacher, the late Carol Ann Kiyak, suggested I write one.  She told me how to write it, but didn’t give me any samples, and I wrote a bunch.  A year and a half later, on the English Advanced Placement exam, was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” which was to become at that moment, and remain, my first and favorite sestina.

You’re written so many great sestinas. What got you started?  What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?
I love the sestina, but haven’t written one in 12 years.  I’d love to again soon, when the mood strikes me!

Let’s talk about your end words. “Rotisserie” in particular is not an easy work to repeat seven times, even in a recipe, and yet you pull it off. One pet theory I have is by having another end-word that rhymes, “gravity,” we get used to hearing it, or it balances out the language in some way. Or am I completely off-track?
I guess you’re right, though I’ve never noticed the connection before!

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
I guess my friend Lizzette, mainly, who is a true poetic inspiration–we have been best friends since the first day of classes at Oberlin College–over 25 years now!  She is one of the spiritual, earthly guardians of my poetry! I would dedicate ALL my poetry to her.

Behind the Sestina: Chris Stroffolino on “In Memory of My Rock Band: Sestina”

Chris Stroffolino has published seven books of poetry, including Stealer’s Wheel (Hard Press, 1999) and Light as a Fetter (The Argotist UK, 2007). His critical study (with David Rosenthal) of Shakespeare’s Twelth Night (IDG books) was published in 2001; more recent writing on contemporary media studies and ethnomusicology have appeared online at Radio Survivor and The Newark Review. A recipient of grants from NYFA and The Fund For Poetry, Stroffolino was Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at Saint Mary’s College from 2001-06, and has since taught at SFAI and Laney College. As a session musician, Stroffolino worked with Silver Jews, King Khan & Gris Gris, and many others. He organized a tribute to Anne Sexton’s rock band for The Poetry 322
Society of America, and joined Greg Ashley to perform the entire Death Of A Ladies’ Man album for Sylvie Simmons’s Leonard Cohen biography in 2012. His most recent musical project (a collaboration with filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig) is pianovan.com.

We went Behind the Sestina with Stroffolino to discuss his sestina, “In Memory of My Rock Band: 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 think I knew some Auden ones, but got turned onto the form through John Yau. I think there was at least one his book Corpse & Mirror, but I forget its name, and lost all my books, and he also turned me onto Ashbery’s use of the form, which I’ve also loved, especially the “double sestina” in Flow Chart.

What’s your favorite sestina?
I have different favorite sestinas at different times, many by less famous writers. I know there was at least one Anne Waldman one that really impressed me.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. You’ve written quite a number of them, or at least three– what keeps you coming back (or are you “sestina retired,” as one poet once said)?
I love the way it allows writers to be more conversational; it’s one of the few traditional forms that can unlock, rather than block, content—at times even too much! It can also allow for really lazy writing! I had dabbled with the form, but never felt any were worthy of publication.

In 2004/05, however, after suffering a life changing accident, and being bedridden and not able to walk, I began focusing most of my writing energies on a prose memoir. At the time, I was very much “in demand” as a poet, much more than a prose writer, and publishers wanted poems. That’s when I wrote most of the ones you saw. In retrospect, one could say publishing, and even writing the poems, was a transitional phase, between “poetry” and “prose.” I wouldn’t call myself “sestina retired,” because I may return to that form in the future. And I hope to write more Septinas as well; an accidental form I discovered while working on sestinas.

Can you walk us through the composition or inspiration of of “In Memory Of My Rock Band”? Is it inspired by real-life events or band?
Starting with a “formal problem” and taking relatively randomly chosen words that balance more “general” or “universal” words (friends, rest, and waiting) with more specific words (rehearsal, guitarist and band) seemed like a good recipe for creation of sestina, especially since the word “rest” is commonly used in at least two different ways. I had no idea when I began it what I was going to say, but I knew it that would focus on the social relationships of bands; how many bands, whether good or not, whether famous or not, become dysfunctional families.

Once the form is established in a sestina, the task is to see if those “ending words” (Is there a technical word; I forget?) can actually create some kind of narrative. If it manages to “say something” that can reach the prose intelligence (for instance, McSweeney’s), I always considered that “gravy.” The piece definitely has many of the multiple-lined (Ashberian or Proustian) sentences that were one of my “poetic trademarks” (or habits) at the time—the kind of sentences I liked to read very fast at performances, to break up the tempo and give my poetry readings a musical feel, but a relatively clear narrative ends up emerging, and the persona of lyrical complaint. And out of that narrative and persona came the title, which is both a literary reference and more confessional and autobiographical than I could admit to myself during the time of writing it. Some “rock critic” talk emerges alongside the confession (Replacements, Beatles), but I was just primarily happy that I sustained the form, with some humor and “music,” regardless of what I saying! I remember performing it with a “noise band” backing me up while opening for Damon & Naomi in SF. I wish I had a recording of that.

Obviously, working on a very self-pitying memoir at the time informed the sensibility, but I know other musicians in other bands who have seen enough of their reflections in, especially the “men’s room” that so many bands become, alas. On the ethical level of content, I’m most happy that this sestina at least points towards some of the things I did later (I did find that studio work with Greg Ashley, and I did get to work with better rhythm sections with a more groove based band, for instance).

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
In retrospect, I’d dedicate it to bassists Caitlin-Oliver Gans, and later Rachel Thoele, two of the best bassists I’ve worked with who taught me about how to achieve the kind of band that is much more enjoyable to be a part of (and, frankly, better sounding and more grooving), or I’d dedicate it to Greg Ashley, who I didn’t know at the time, but in whose “cheap analogue studio” I had the pleasure and privilege of working as a session musician for over 6 years. I would also dedicate it to Miriam Jacobson. “With her, rehearsals are not waiting rooms.”

Behind the Sestina: Lynn Kilpatrick on “Francis Bacon Sestina”

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.


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: Sharon Mesmer on “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit”

Sharon Mesmer’s recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books). Other collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo). Four poems appear in the newly-released Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (Second Edition). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation). An excerpt of her story “Revenge” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). A two-time NYFA fellow and Fulbright Specialist, she teaches at NYU, the New School, the Poetry Project, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

We went Behind the Sestina with Mesmer to discuss her sestina, “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? What’s your favorite sestina?
Any “first sestina” would have to date back to about 40 years ago, so I can’t quite recall what that first one might have been.  I do remember reading Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” in Paul Hoover’s “Pound, Eliot and Williams” class back in 1978, at age 17, and hating it, especially the line, “to rot in womanish peace.”  Reading that line now, however, I can see really doing something with it …

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since? If this is a one-off sestina, why is that? If you’ve written many, what keeps you coming back?
I thought this first one would be a one-off, but right this second I started a new one called “To Rot in Womanish Peace.”

Can you walk us through the composition of this sestina? The title of your poem is, shall we say, striking. For example, the internet tells us that Super Rooster is a type of supplement for the “care of fighting cocks”; specifically an “Anabolic stimulating protein metabolism and promotes development of muscle mass” Are you, in fact, a cock-fighting enthusiast?
I’m surprised you didn’t know,that “Sharon” means, in Old Frisian, “Cock fighting enthusiast.”  (No. that’s not true.  No cocks were harmed in the writing of this poem.)  Compositionally, the poem is a flarf sestina (a flestina? a sestinarf?), and my aim was to use words — and phrases; I particularly wanted to use phrases — that one might not necessarily find in a sestina, like:

maximum nacho
classy smashing
gangsta fag
Orville Redenbacher.

It being a flarf poem, I put each word or phrase through Google and composed from the results.  Pretty much right away (which surprised me) a kind of voice/narrative started to emerge, so I just kept to that “feeling.”  As is so often the case when I write flarf, I had the feeling I was pushing way, way past my own “self” to get at some other, very different source.  And this very different poem-source seems VERY different from even flarf poem-sources.

It would be fair to say you’re one of the central figures of the practice of poetry called Flarf. Would you call this a Flarf sestina? Do you find the sestina as a form accommodating to any of the ideas or practices surrounding Flarf?
Doing this as a “flestina” was very interesting.  I thought at first it was a fool’s game (and who’s to say it wasn’t, ultimately?) because I was expecting random chance to provide content for something so traditionally prescribed.  But then I began to see the poem actually taking on a volition, and I was entertained by the idea that something so determined could also contain such caroming weirdness.  And it seemed to take on extra weirdnesses as I went along, and so I just trusted that I’d end up at some super weirdness point-of-no-return . . . and thus the extra two words on the end.

The envoi seemed like the perfect place for something to really take off into stratospheric weirdness, and I like that the envoi is also called a tornada— there really is something twister-ish about it, even in normal poetry.  In my poem I wanted it to be crazy twister-ish!  One thing I’ve always liked about flarf is how the “voice” or persona of the poem so frequently ends up being not my own  — not at all — and this was no exception.  It’s exceptional, in fact, in its overwhelming “not my-own-ness.”

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina?
To golf ball-sized Khloe Kardashian, of course.