Tag Archives: Forms

Behind the Sestina: Patricia Carlin on “Lives of the Conquerors”

Patricia Carlin’s books include Quantum Jitters and Original Green (poems), and
Shakespeare’s Mortal Men (prose). She has published widely in journals and anthologies, including Boulevard, Verse, BOMB, Pleiades, POOL, American Letters & Commentary, and The Literary Review; she has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and VCCA. She teaches literature and poetry writing at The New School and co-edits the poetry journal Barrow Street.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Carlin about her poem, “Lives of the Conquerors,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first encountered Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina “Ye Goatherd Gods” in college. It seemed a formal and historical curiosity, and otherwise uninteresting. Later I came across John Ashbery’s “The Painter,” and was instantly captivated by the possibilities of the form.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
For a while I wrote sestinas obsessively (after all, it’s an obsessive form). Any form is a constraint that moves work in directions it wouldn’t otherwise take; but in my current work I’m exploring a variety of invented, rather than received, constraints.

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?
Each time I write a sestina I see afterwards that there’s a close connection between form and content, although it’s a different connection in each poem. In “Lives of the Conquerors” the form mirrors the unrolling of history, where things keep coming back, but they never come back the same way. I remember writing this poem with Iraq very much in mind. In the actual process of writing, though, I was guided by intuition, which is to say I used the end words as a kind of Rorschach blot leading me on. I was also listening to the sound of the poem, as I do any time I write. When I have the sound I know I have the poem.

This sestina is concise and uses its words sparsely. Was this intentional or something that happened while writing?
The concision of this sestina, and what you refer to as its sparse use of words, came from my sense of wishing to distill enormous cycles of time and history, and also from my related sense of all the lacunae in the historical record: those gaps where individual lives vanish into unrecorded nothingness, as do the lives of all rulers, since only remnants ever remain.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I don’t know who I’d dedicate this sestina to–maybe to all of us, piecing out our lives in the little spaces of time and the times.

–Interview conducted by Alex J. Tunney

Behind the Sestina: Sarah Green on “Metamorphic Sestina”

sarahgreen2Sarah Green lives in Athens, Ohio, where she is a third-year doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2012, the 2009 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Mid-American Review, FIELD, Gettysburg ReviewH-ngm-n, Forklift Ohio, Inter/rupture, Leveler, Cortland Review, Redivider, and elsewhere. A singer-songwriter with the Americana duo Heartacre, Sarah is also an enthusiastic 826 volunteer. Her lesson on teaching sonnets to fifth graders can be found in the 826 National curriculum book Don’t Forget to Write.

We go Behind the Sestina with Green to talk about her “Metamorphic Sestina” 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?
I think the first sestina I ever read was in college, and it was probably Bishop’s Sestina with the tea kettle.

Do I have a favorite sestina? I go back and forth about Ciara Shuttleworth’s sestina, which uses the end words “You / used / to / love / me / well”, but it definitely has stayed with me, might be a favorite. Terrance Hayes has a great sestina, if I remember right…

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?
This was the first sestina I ever wrote, under the brilliant direction of Martha Collins’ workshop at Oberlin. I believe we were told that a person only gets one successful sestina in his/her life. I’m not sure if that’s true, if this one is mine, or what. I have written more sestinas since then; I find that they combine the potential for obsessive ordering-of-angst -which other traditional forms also share- with the subversive wish to sprawl, or court happenstance, or narrate, or be untrue. Dream.

Is there a setting, a story, to “Metamorophic Sestina”? I have some guesses, what with such evocative words as “saffron” and “Kabir.”
This sestina was written in response to a specific train burning in the city of Gujarat, India, in 2002. The results of the burning were Hindu-Muslim riots in which hundreds of people from both religions died. I had traveled to India in 2001 and it was still on my mind when that news was circulating. I found possibilities in the form for ambiguity and grief that were compelling to me. I was also influenced by Shahid Ali’s ghazals.

Let’s talk end words. What led to your choices. I like especially how you swap out “glass” for such variants as “glasses” but also “gasoline” for “glossolalia.” What emboldened you to do this?
Being 21 years old emboldened me. Am I going to get kicked out of the book for being too young??!

I should add that the repeating line is from the Islamic creed:

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا الله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ الله (lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāh, muḥammadun rasūlu -llāh) (in Arabic)
There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God (in English)

I don’t know if I would write the poem this way now, but at the time I was trying to create a temporary moment of respite from the coexistence of “there is no god” with the full, religious creed , in the same poem, thinking about the coexistence of different belief.

Behind the Sestina: Jenna Cardinale on “Beyond January”

Jenna Cardinale is the author of Journals, a chapbook from Coconut. Her poems have appeared in some really great places, including Horse Less Review, Barn Owl Review, and A Sul de Nenhum Norte, a magazine of writing translated into Portuguese. She lives in New York with a pit bull named Maybe.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Cardinale about “Beyond January,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
While in college, I took a survey of American poetry and found Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” in the required anthology. I’d never heard the word before and was unable to stop thinking of the ending, that “inscrutable house.”

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I attempted to write a sestina several times before “Beyond January,” but felt stuck and abandoned them half-way through. Instead of the form propelling the effort, it seemed to ensnare it. I’ve managed to complete another one, during April 2012’s Poem-a-Day.

Can you describe writing this sestina? 
When I set out to write this sestina I was preoccupied by my own experience with revision. I had this sense that constantly revising my poems removed the “moment” from them and I was excited by how difficult it is to make substantial revisions to this form without gutting the poem in an almost-complete way. I made only minor changes to it when I completed a draft, but took more time to write it.It taught me how to do this in my other work, too.

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 typically start a poem with a phrase or two and no clear objective. With the sestina, I start with six words and the same lack of purpose. I think the form helped to dictate the subject of the poem. The repetition reinforced the heaviness of it.

While reading your sestina, I found myself relating to the feeling of being inside, hibernating, waiting for spring. Is that why you named the poem “Beyond January?” Is the speaker thinking of the future?
 Yes. I live in New York, which sometimes suffers brutal winters. It seems like the best time to focus on the future, since it’s hard to do much else (besides drink). Spring seems to allow an opportunity to act on the plans we made while sulking in the depression of winter.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
That would be my friend Christine Scanlon. She’s the poet with whom I have most discussed the sestina — and form, generally — since we studied together at The New School. I’m grateful for her perspective. In all seasons. In all frames of mind.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Peter Davis on “Mustache Sestina”

Peter Davis writes, draws, and makes music in Muncie, Indiana. His books of poetry are TINA (Bloof Books, 2013), Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! (Bloof Books, 2010), and Hitler’s Mustache(Barnwood Press, 2006). He edited Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art (2005) and co-edited a second volume, Poet’s Bookshelf II (2008). His poems have appeared in such places as Jacket, La Petite Zine, Court Green, Rattle, and The Best American Poetry. He lives with his lovely wife and two lovely children, and teaches at Ball State University.

In honor of “Movember,” we thought it was the perfect time to go Behind the Sestina with Davis and talk about his “Mustache Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
Not sure exactly, but I never wrote one till I was getting my MFA. One of my teachers, a sestina lover, told me to write a sestina about August, or something like that. For some reason I don’t entirely understand, I thought it was a lot of fun.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
O yea. The book this comes from, Hitler’s Mustache, has 3 or 4 sestinas and for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a series of sestinas about the original Beverly Hills, 90210 TV show. I wrote one where all the end words were either “Dylan” or “Brenda,” and another with the end words, “Brandon,” “Brenda,” “Kelly,” “Donna,” “Dylan” and “Steve.” I’ve written many sestinas, most, obviously, are very forgettable.

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?
As to the second question, yes and yes. Obviously, the image of Hitler’s mustache is, to me, one of mystery. It is a square box of darkness. And in that darkness is a whole host of mysteries. In short, one mystery after another. But there is a repetitive formality in that mustache (imagine all of those individual hairs laying down together like that! Unreal!) and the sestina seems capable of handling repetitive formality. As to the first question, I’m not sure I can, but I’ll try. I was thinking about words. I was thinking about mustaches. It happened pretty fast.

Most obvious question. Why Hitler? Then, mustaches. Why?
Because of the mystery. How is it that our face of evil in contemporary culture also is the ridiculous face of Hitler? How often is evil the face of a clown? How often, through a mustache, do we see the deep anomaly in human nature? How many questions can be asked about what motivated that square patch of hair? The intersection of fashion and fascism.

 The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I should probably dedicate everything I do to my wife, since she supports me and takes care of me, but that’s boring. The other obvious person would be Hitler, but that’s too obvious. So, I’d dedicate it to Julius Stricher, the only other really prominent Nazi who sported a Hitler mustache. He could have stood to hear some contemporary American poetry. It might have done him some good. So, For my wife, and Julius Stricher.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Casey Camp on “A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn”

CampCasey

Casey Camp is an artist, writer, and all-around fine gentleman. He loves to work at the intersection of poetry and visual art, typically within the bounds of sequential narrative art. Some people would just call this “comics.” When not crafting art, he can typically be found getting his fix in any matter of competition that he can find nearby. No contest is too big or too small. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wonderful wife, Emily, and daughter, Lennon.

We went Behind the Sestina with Camp to talk about his poem, “A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I first discovered it while doing some research.  I was working on translating some longer-form poems to comic form and I wanted to do something where I wrote the poem instead of finding one.  I wanted it to be interesting on a structural level to see how it translated to sequential panels.  After looking around online I found sestinas and that was that.  It was too interesting of a format to say no to.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I wrote a few before this one just to get a feel for how it works. They weren’t anything great, but I made plenty of mistakes and eventually figured some things out.  Since then I’ve done some bigger comic sestinas that were set into an installation-type art piece.  They were kind of meta-sestinas, if there is such a thing.  Bigger pieces with shelves that held sestinas on them which, overall, created a larger pseudo-sestina.  Once I get into a form, it’s hard to let go.  They started showing up almost inadvertently in my art, even things that weren’t supposed to be poems.

“A Poem on the Severe Awesomeness of John Zorn” is a comics sestina. Can you tell us a bit about putting this graphic poem together? 
Usually, these sort of things would start out with the poem first, or even me coming up with a few lines of a poem, then going from there.  This one, however, happened to start with a doodle before anything else.  I had been playing around with putting a graphic poem together using visual cues as the last word of the lines (meaning it would have no words) and wanted to use a little figure.  Well, after a little drawing this figure wound up with a clarinet.  The words just kind of naturally came out after I’d figured out the big picture.

Putting it together was different just because on some pages I’d have an idea for a few panels, but the wording structure is so specific that on a very local level while working on a page the words are already set, so sometimes the challenge was to arrange the panels in a way that progressed the story how it was moving while still maintaining the flow and structure of the poem.  It sounds like a challenge, but it’s the most fun kind you can imagine.

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?
Like I’d said earlier, I was really enamored with the form.  It has a lot of repetition, so I feel like once you have a general idea the next logical place to go would be to figure out what words you will be repeating since they’re such an important part of the piece.  In this case you can definitely say that the form impacted what I was going to do – I specifically wanted to write a sestina and specifically one about John Zorn.

casey camp

In terms of the specifics of writing this I was already listening to Naked City, one of Zorn’s bands.  For the entire duration of it’s creation I listened to different Zorn albums (specifically his solo work Chimeras, Cobra by Cobra, and several different Masada albums) and I’m not entirely sure what kind of influence they had on the final piece  In terms of creation, after the initial idea, the poem was written with the words and art being made one page at a time.  Basically I would do the words and a sketch for each panel, then finish the page before moving to the next.  I’d be willing to bet that as the piece progresses I was listening to heavier and noisier music of his which is what gives his figure this transformation from a timid kind of fellow to some sort of evil world conqueror.

Where did you first hear of Zorn? Why do you think he’s awesome?
I had a space in an art studio and there was a communal CD player that everyone just had stacks of CDs sitting next to.  A friend of mine at the studio brought in the Naked City album and got me to listen to it, saying it was some crazy experimental super group and it had the Batman theme song.  I had listened to Bill Frisell a good bit during college, so that’s how he convinced me to give it a whirl.

It blew my mind.

From then on I was hooked and started checking out a lot of the different people in the band to see what kind of music they made.  Once I started the John Zorn rabbit hole, nothing was ever the same.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to? Would it be Zorn?
I feel like it would be in bad taste to dedicate it to anyone else!  I do not know Mr. Zorn, but I guess it’s okay to dedicate a poem to someone you’ve never met.  Especially when it’s someone so … awesome?!  I mean, those people bowing down at him in the end … that’s not exaggeration.  I just want to be on his good side so that when he takes over the world maybe I can be like 123rd in command or something.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

Behind the Sestina: Jeffery Conway on “Is It Dancing?”

Jeffery Conway is the author of The Album That Changed My Life (Cold Calm Press, 2006) and two collaborations with David Trinidad and Lynn Crosbie, Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (Turtle Point Press, 2003) and Chain Chain Chain (Ignition Press, 2000). His work is included in Saints of Hysteria: A Half Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull Press, 2007) and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (Poets Wear Prada, 2013). He is currently at work on “Descent of the Dolls,” a Dante-esque collaborative epic about the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, with poets Gillian McCain and David Trinidad. Poems from his newest manuscript, Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas, appear in Court Green, Vanitas, Clementine, Columbia Poetry Review, and Marco Polo.

We went Behind the Sestina with Conway to discuss his poem, “Is It Dancing?” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I discovered the sestina form in Ron Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms, which I first read in the late eighties. When I started the M.F.A. program in poetry at Brooklyn College in 1989, my friend David Trinidad was in his second year there, and he liked to experiment with forms. He encouraged me to peruse the book and try out the forms that spoke to me. When I started writing my own sestinas, I was drawn to the ease with which a narrative is propelled by the form. I’d go to sleep at night and wake up with end words in my head. I’d write them down, and then the “story” of my poem would just materialize, like a connect the dots drawing.

Have you written any sestinas before this one? Any plans to write more in the future?
At Brooklyn College, I had the opportunity to study with Allen Ginsberg. He told me that he thought the sestina “fit” me, that I was “a natch with the form. ” My first sestinas were about highly personal, autobiographical events. I was using the form to tell, more easily and efficiently, about things such as childhood traumas and my sex life in the time of AIDS. It was Allen who said to me one day during a tutorial, back in 1991, that I should write a whole book of sestinas. It was his voice I heard when I started my “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” project in March of 2007–more than fifteen years after his suggestion.

What inspired you to write a sestina (and an entire sestina project) on the movie Showgirls
The individual poem titles in “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas” are taken directly from the DVD chapter titles. I wrote a sestina for each “chapter” of the film, and I also wrote some extra sestinas and gave them original titles. “Is it Dancing?” is one of those chapter titles from the DVD menu. So the sestina is based on the narrative of that scene in the film. To save myself from sestina OD, I allowed myself the luxury (insanity?) of writing variations of the sestina form. In the collection, I have a rhyming sestina, two different kinds of double sestinas, a triple sestina, and many other variations that I made up (in one poem, I use the six end words of the first stanza as catalogue words, so instead of repeating the word “hand” for example, I use other words that are body parts in the subsequent stanzas; instead of the word “blue” repeating, I use other colors each time that word is to repeat).

There is only one poem in the collection that isn’t an actual sestina–it just “looks” like a sestina (six stanzas with six lines each and a three-line envoi). There is no repetition, even in a variant way, of the end words. The poem is titled “Let’s Don’t Even Go There!”–named after Faye Dunaway’s Infamous Voicemail, and used as a as Mad Lib.

I change the speaker to Elizabeth Berkley, and instead of going off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Mommie Dearest and awful ex-Terry O’Neill (like Faye does), she goes off on a reporter about an interview with too much focus on the failed film Showgirls and awful poet Jeffery Conway (yours truly) and his damn fascination with the film and its star. This was really the only time I let myself cheat. It was just too perfect a transcript to change too much by trying to make it fit into the sometimes too tight shoe of end words.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRfKr4hqUz4

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

Sestina Aguilera and Other Rejected Names for The Incredible Sestina Anthology

Pound_Ezra_Acetate_Record_Reading

The 39 Steps: The Sestina Anthology

The North American Bible of Incredible Sestinas

The Sestinas Book

The Anyperson’s Book of Sestinas

Spiraling Into Madness: A Sestinas Anthology

A Gathering of Sestinas

The [Name of Publisher] Book of Sestinas

Sextinas: The Best Erotic Sestinas

Fairly Recent North American Sestinas

Sestina, You’re Breaking My Heart, You’re Shaking My Confidence Daily

Sestina Bo Bina Banana Fana Fo Fina Fe Fi Mo Mina: Sestinas

Sestina Aguilera

Sestina Applegate

Sestina and the Waves

Sestina Turner: What’s Envois Got to Do With It?

Six Tinas, Mary!

Academy Award-Winning Actress Sestina Davis

Don’t Cry For Me, Sestinas!

Sestina Easton

Sestinas: A Bunch of Them

Loggins and Sestina