Tag Archives: John Ashbery

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: Stephen Burt on “Six Kinds of Noodles”

Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard. His latest book of poetry is Belmont (Graywolf, 2013); earlier books of poetry and criticism include Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, Parallel Play, and Randall Jarrell and His Age.

We go Behind the Sestina with Burt to discuss his poem, “Six Kinds of Noodles” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? How many have you written?
I have finished and published two, both in my book Parallel Play (2006); I’ve tried to write several more, though none satisfied me (there may be one in the works). I don’t remember when I read one first, but I know I was trying to write them in college. I’ve already written about the use of the sestina in contemporary poetry; that turned into a long essay in the academic journal Modern Philology.

I would love if you could take us through writing this sestina—the choice of end-words, the inspiration for it, anything you remember.
It began with actual noodles, after they revamped the Macalester College cafeteria: I taught at Macalester from 2000 to 2007, and in about 2003 or 2004 they redid the cafeteria, and when it reopened it was generally better but also had new special features, including what looked to me like a noodle bar, with at least six kinds. And I said “Hey, six kinds of something = sestina potential!” and set to work. I had also been thinking about Ashbery, about how the slipperiness of his language generally, between reference and non-reference, was something the sestina form seemed apt to do (I dislike sestinas that are completely nonsensical or nonreferential—too easy—but I like Ashbery’s own sestinas, especially the one with Popeye, which has been extraordinarily influential). I was also thinking about the line of poems and essays about the influence of Ashbery—I think I had recently looked again at David Kellogg‘s.

How have you been doing, as you write in the sestina, “trying to keep up with John Ashbery” and his prodigious output of work?
It’s hard, isn’t it? I haven’t caught up with Quick Question.

I love how you include a mini-reading list of Ashbery-themed poems. I just looked again at Jeffrey Skinner’s, which appeared in Poetry in 1997, and it’s an opus of meta-Ashbery goodness. And David Kellogg’s seems to be a section of a faux academic treatise. What is it about John Ashbery that elicits these reactions?
He’s important, and influential, and everywhere, but he also seems somehow nonthreatening: a source, rather than a Covering Cherub, I suppose. Also he can, sort of, be imitated in a way that’s not appalling when it’s not perfect. (As against, say, imitation Yeats, or imitation Louise Gluck, which is pretty bad unless it’s letter-perfect.)

And then there are the sestina’s noodles. I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone before but, are you a noodle aficionado?
Isn’t everyone (or everyone without a gluten problem)?

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina?
It’s tempting to say that it’s for Macalester College. No rebuilt cafeteria = no sestina.

Behind the Sestina: Geoff Bouvier’s “Refining Sestina”

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

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

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

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

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

Living Room, Bouvier’s first book.

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

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

–Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani

Sestina Aguilera and Other Rejected Names for The Incredible Sestina Anthology


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


Behind the Sestina: Jeffrey Morgan’s ““When Unreal Girlfriends Die: The Manti Te’o Sestina”


Jeffrey Morgan “somewhere in Delta, British Columbia.”

It makes sense that Jeffrey Morgan’s favorite sestina is  John Ashbery’s absurdist-surrealist classic “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” (also included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology-ed). One glance at “When Unreal Girlfriends Die: The Manti Te’o Sestina,” which takes as its subject the very surreal Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, and we see kindred spirits.

Here’s the sestina’s first stanza; notice the awesome use of a favorite new word, clowder:

Sadness pulls its drawstrings tight and a tragedy
that never happened becomes loss we
can’t answer for by carving a rectangle in the ground.
This kind of duplicity is so much more than two.
A tabernacle of coaches, a clowder of teammates;
we are poor indeed when only life measures death.

Morgan, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska and currently lives in Bellingham, WA with his wife and daughter, is the author of Crying Shame. His poems have appeared in places like Barrow Street, Bat City Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pleiades, Third Coast, and West Branch. We spoke to Jeffrey to take us Behind the Sestina. 

When did you first discover the sestina?
I’m not sure when I first learned of the sestina. It was probably in college.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
Yes, but this was the only time writing a sestina didn’t feel contrived, or, rather, the contrivance was actually working in my favor.

English: Photo of Notre Dame linebacker Manti ...

Can you describe writing this sestina? It’s inspired by real-life events, in which a star quarterback had been the victim of a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name ingratiated herself with him and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had died of leukemia. Are we getting that straight?

I can’t effectively summarize the real-life events of then–Notre Dame football player Manti T’eo’s girlfriend death hoax conspiracy. Nobody can. However, if anyone out there has no idea what I’m talking about, I urge you to look into it. It’s like amateur night at a Greek tragedy. It’s like David Lynch suddenly got very interested in Notre Dame football. I don’t know what it’s like.

The whole thing had all the elements of a ripping yarn, except that there were just too many moving pieces and unknowable motivations. The best part was how frustrated reporters got covering the whole strange affair. They kept repeating the facts they knew, but the thing simply would not cohere.

In other words, it was a real-life sestina.

What made you want to write a sestina about Manti Te’o? Are you a football fan?
I hate sports but I love watching them. I pay way too much attention. As for college football specifically, I have an MFA from Penn State. (Sigh.)

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
Adam Lupo.

—Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani

The back cover copy!

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

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

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

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

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

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