Tag Archives: McSweeney

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.”

ICYMI: largehearted boy Publishes The Incredible Sestina Anthology Book Notes, Playlist

In a lot of ways, The Incredible Sestina Anthology is just one giant mix tape of sestina-awesomeness. What better way to showcase this than our very own Book Notes?

Daniel Nester’s TISA playlist includes everything from opera to the Lone Ranger theme song. For the full list, published this past Friday, click here.


The Joy of Six: Albany Times Union’s Sweet Article on Incredible Sestina Anthology



In case you missed this awesomeness, Albany Times Union‘s Elizabeth Floyd Mair interviewed TISA editor Daniel Nester for a piece that ran in this past Sunday’s paper. Check the sweet title, The Joy of Six! Plus the first two stanzas of Laura Cronk’s “Sestina for a Sister in the sidebar.

The article is available online for your reading pleasure. The jump includes the sestina end-word scheme, pictured below.

TU 11 10 2013 c


The Confessions of a Sestinas Editor


Reprinted from January/February issue of Poets & Writers magazine.

How did I become a sestinas editor? It all began with a rejection letter. “Thanks for sending,” it read, “but we’re looking for more traditional, iambic pentameter sestinas.” Ouch. But before readers commiserate, let me backtrack. Days before, I received word that McSweeney’s, the literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers that feeds a stable of worship-worthy writers such as Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, was publishing poems for the very first time.

And not just any poems—only sestinas.

It makes sense. Much of McSweeney’s charm has been its celebration of rarefied perspicaciousness, the antique mashed with the au courant. Issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the print version of the magazine published in Iceland, are considered art objects in themselves; McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the online version of the magazine in which the sestinas appear, is a clearinghouse of sharp-wittedness and activism.

The sestina exemplifies that quirky sensibility. A 39-line linked form believed to have been invented by Arnaut Daniel—the Provençal troubador who influenced Dante and who appears in the Purgatory as a model for the vernacular poet—the sestina adheres to a set pattern of end-words, or teleutons, which appear at the end of each line. Each six-line stanza is a permutation of the one that precedes it, except for the final three-line stanza, or envoi, which uses all six end-words as a triumphant send-off. Broken down into numbers, the sestina looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
2/5 4/3 6/1

The sestina, in other words, is ridiculous. But more than 800 years since its invention, the form survives—and some might even say it thrives. After 16th-century poet Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina, “You Gote-heard Gods,” there was a 300-year gap in English-language sestinas. Then, in the 20th century, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, and others wrote them. Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery wrote great sestinas for the mimeographed magazines of the 1960s. The list goes on.

Back to that rejection note. I knew my sestina might not be up to snuff, but what stuck in my craw was that phrase: “traditional, iambic pentameter.” Some readers may have immediately reached for their handbooks, but it took a couple days before I pulled out my second edition of Lewis Turco’s invaluable reference, The Book of Forms. “Lines can be of any single length,” Turco writes in his sestina entry, and that length is “determined by the poet.” There is no mention of iambs or any set number of metrical feet.

“Aha!” I thought, grinning. “I am out-rarefying the rarefiers!”

Breaking the cardinal rule of rejection-letter recipients, I wrote the editors back. Perhaps, I wrote, the editors were thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “Sestina,” written in iambic pentameter? A few e-mail exchanges later, one of which included relevant pages I scanned from Turco, I received another e-mail.

“Since you’re so into this,” John Warner, Tendency’s editor, wrote, “why don’t you be our sestinas editor?”

I took the job, of course. My title? Assistant Web Editor for Sestinas. Catchy. For a couple of days, I wrote people from my McSweeney’s e-mail address to show off. And then I got to work.

For McSweeney’s, I try to assemble the modern-day sestina masters. There’s Jonah Winter, author of the classic “Bob” sestina, in which all the end-words are—you guessed it—Bob. James Cummins, author of the book-length sestina sequence The Whole Truth, based on the Perry Mason television series, passed along work. And we published Denise Duhamel’s Sean Penn sestina just in time for Penn’s Best Actor Academy Award for Mystic River. Fiction writers Rick Moody and Steve Almond sent some in, as did Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy. Leah Fasulo’s “Mad Libs Sestina” is a favorite, as is Shanna Compton’s “The Remarried Again Sestina,” with all six surnames her mother has had as end-words. There’s also nine-year-old Julia Mayhew’s “Get to School.”

What has occurred to me as I have put together the section over the past year is that the sestina is, to my mind, the one form that poets from all camps can write and appreciate. Formalists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition; avant-gardists love the sestina for its ornate, maddening word repetition.

“The sestina is the form par excellence to challenge people who write metrical verse,” Turco, the form-definer himself, says. “It’s very tough to deal with. You’ve got two basic tactics with those end-words. You could try to hide them or you could pound them.” To be generous to my employers, I will admit that Turco does mention in the most recent edition ofThe Book of Forms that sestinas are “generally written in iambic pentameter or decasyllabic meters.”

Life as a sestinas editor has its drawbacks. You must be vigilant for the missing stanza or the end-word scheme gone awry. The exchanges I have had with writers whose sestinas I have solicited range from “I’d be embarrassed to show mine to anyone” to “Will you accept a Pindaric sestina with a modified envoi?” to the rather succinct “I fucking hate sestinas.”

This underscores the love-hate relationship many contemporary American poets have with the idea of climbing Mount Sestina. Just about every creative writing student is assigned to write a sestina to flex the rhetorical muscles, and more than a few are driven batty in the process.

But submitting to the sestina’s complex scheme—some may say a masochistic submission—brings pleasure to sestina freaks.

“The sestina is a test of your cleverness and ingenuity, and I’m a sucker for a challenge,” says poet David Lehman, the editor of the Best American Poetry series. Lehman, who wrote his first sestina as a sophomore at Columbia, remains attracted to the form because “it seems perfect for an argument or a narrative.”

The great part of being a sestinas editor is seeing how people choose their tactics and deal with the constraints the form has handed them. Hundreds of writers submit themselves to this medieval form rooted in a numerology whose significance is no longer known. For many, it is, I daresay, fun.

And yes, there are more than a few in iambic pentameter.