Tag Archives: McSweeney’s

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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Behind the Sestina: Elizabeth Hildreth on “In a Rut”

Elizabeth Hildreth‘s poems, translations, and essays have been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Bookslut, McSweeney’s, Parthenon West, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Forklift, Ohio, among other journals. She recently published Coses Petites (Little Things), a translation of a collaborative collection of poems by Catalan poets Anna Aguilar-Amat and Francesc Parcerisas. She is a member of Poems While You Wait, a group of poets who sit in public spaces with manual typewriters and compose poems for passers-by about any topic they request.

We went Behind the Sestina with Hildreth to discuss her sestina, “In a Rut,” 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? What’s your favorite sestina?
I can’t be sure, but I would guess I discovered the sestina in graduate school when I started looking at poems critically, trying to see how they were made, what they were doing. I don’t remember the first one I ever read. But I’ve always liked formal poems.

I work as a designer, so I love constraints. Most people do, I suppose. On Top Chef, they give you a chicken wing and some cotton candy, and if you want to win, the judges better be eating some finger-licking edible poetry within the hour. Project Runway, same deal. Almost always, things made within absurd parameters are terrible. But every once in a while somebody gets it right. For instance, I hated villanelles. I couldn’t stand them. Then Martha Collins wrote “The Story We Know.” Well. I have friends who believe that there are no good sestinas. They can’t exist. That’s very motivating.

As far as my favorite sestina? I like Jonah Winter’s “Bob.” It’s funny. Surprising. Tells a story, a musical one. All good things in my book.

We know you have written other sestinas, and some collaborations as well. Where would you place this sestina in your sestina-writing life? What keeps you coming back?
I’ve probably written an entire book of sestinas! And, yes, I’ve written collaborative ones, which is an interesting process. “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.” Isn’t that the expression? Sestinas give you three chances to do that, maybe four or five, depending on how you divide the work in the envoi.This particular sestina wasn’t a collaboration, but it was written for someone.

I think I keep coming back to the sestina because I’m attracted to its obsessive circling for truth. Steven Dixon’s novel Interstate is compelling to me for the same reason. The story’s inciting event never changes, but in each retelling (8 of them), characters and plot points are added or subtracted. The story actually ends up feeling more true with all the repetition and the variant retellings. It’s similar to memory, that impulse to return to a scene of conflict to attempt to make it “right” or make sense of it.

Can you walk us through the composition of this sestina? The poem is called “In a Rut”—were you, in fact, in a rut when writing this?
That’s funny. I didn’t consider myself to be in a rut when I was writing the poem. I try to actively disbelieve in ruts. Then again, I emailed my friend Eric and asked him to give me a topic and end words, so maybe I was, indeed, in a rut? He wrote back, “Topic: ruts. End words: cloud, light, field, glass, tear, and wall.”

Other than the topic and end-words, I didn’t have one idea in my brain. I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what I’m going to say when I write poetry. When I first started composing on my computer, I found myself being neurotic and deleting every line. I figured the way I was going, it might take the rest of my life to finish, so I lugged a giant green Remington manual typewriter, a book of quotes, and an American Heritage dictionary into my kids’ room, dumped everything on the bed, and shut the door. I started writing at around 7:30 in the morning and worked straight through until I finished a draft at about 4 in the afternoon. The next day I revised. Then the next day I revised again. Then it was done, or done enough.

I love how the poem turns hopeful toward the end–I am a sentimentalist, so that’s how I read it. When I read “it is okay: boredom, repetition, failure,” I feel that much less miserable. Was that your intent, or does the poem’s speaker have something else in mind?
I am such a sentimentalist. I think it’s great if anyone feels less miserable after reading a poem. I can’t claim to have had any “intent” as a writer, but, yes, I agree, the poem’s speaker is very optimistic. It is okay. That’s my read, too.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—yours is dedicated to EP, who is even named, “Ep,” in the envoi. Care to elaborate?
EP is Eric Platter, a poet and a friend of mine. We’re both in this poetry group called Poems While You Wait. We go into public spaces and write commissioned poems for people for $5 a poem. People write down a topic for us, and we write them a poem on that topic while they wait. Sometimes the topic is general—“spring” and sometimes it’s specific—“the difficulty of finding love when you’re in your 30s and live in the city.” So I asked Eric for a topic and six end words, sort of like an extension of Poems While You Wait. When Eric emailed me back, “Ruts,” I thought, Poor Eric, he’s in a rut. I’m going to write him right out of his rut! Because of your first question, it now occurs to me that Eric thought I was in a rut, and so he set me up to write my own pep talk poem. In either case, “it is okay.” The poem exists.

Behind the Sestina: Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems”

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The
Year of No Mistakes (Write Bloody Publishing), as well as Dear Future Boyfriend, Hot Teen Slut, Working Class Represent, Oh, Terrible Youth and Everything is Everything. She is also the author of two books of nonfiction: Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam and Curiosity: Thomas Dent Mütter and the Dawn of Modern Medicine, forthcoming from Gotham Books/Penguin.

Aptowicz’s most recent awards include the ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residency at the University of  Pennsylvania, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and an Amy Clampitt Residency.

We unearthed Aptowicz’s “time capsule” and asked her about “A Sestina for Shappy, Who Doesn’t Get Enough Love Poems,” included in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I am sure I was first introduced to the sestina form in high school, but the first time I saw contemporary poets use it in a way that was exciting and inspiring was in the online lit journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, which only published poetry in that format.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
I have only written one other sestina, and it was written before this one. When I first graduated from NYU, the only job I was offered was a writer and editor for a porn website. And, as a hazard of the job, I was bombarded daily with pop-up ads advertising other porn sites. I noticed that many of the ads used the same words (you can imagine what they are!), so I spent MONTHS collecting phrases from pornographic pop-up ads to create a “found poetry” sestina. When I finally plugged in the last “found” line I was filled with such joy at a job well down–and then, almost after, a woeful sorrow at what my poetic life had devolved into! The resulting sestina can be found in my book, Hot Teen Slut, which is a memoir-in-verse about my year working that job.

Can you describe writing ‘A Sestina for Shappy?’
I was invited to try the sestina format again by McSweeney’s Internet Tendancies, editor Daniel Nester, and when I tried to think of a subject to place in the center of the poem, my relationship with my partner Shappy came to mind. At that time, I had not written much about us, and the timing felt right. The poem came out pretty easily and I was thrilled when it was well-received both on the web (it was later accepted by McSweeneys) and page (it became a crowd favorite at my local poetry venue, the Bowery Poetry Club).

This sestina describes the tentative beginnings of a relationship. Now, six years later, what is like re-reading this poem?
I think it captures wonderfully that time in my life. Shappy and I dated for eleven and a half years, and our years in the tiny kitsch-crammed apartment are among the happiest I’ve ever lived.

Would you consider writing a sequel? If so, what do think the sequel sestina– a sequestina, if you will—would discuss?
I don’t think I would write a sequel. The poem is time capsule, and I think it is best if it remains that way.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to (outside of the obvious candidate)?
The obvious candidate—my partner Shappy – is the only candidate. He absolutely earned every drop of love I crammed into that piece, and I still love him to this very day.

–Interview conducted by Alex J. Tunney