Tag Archives: poem

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Scott Edward Anderson on “Second Skin”

Scott Edward Anderson‘s his first, full-length collection of poems, Fallow Field, published this Fall by Aldrich Press. If you’re in New York City, catch his reading tonight at Poet’s House.

Scott has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts, and received both the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Anon, Blueline, The Cortland Review, Cross Connect, Earth’s Daughters, Isotope, La Petite Zine, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Poetica, River Oak Review, Slant and Terrain. He was a founding editor of Ducky Magazine and writes at TheGreenSkeptic.com and seapoetry.wordpress.com.

We went Behind the Sestina with Anderson to discuss his sestina, “Second Skin,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
Probably the first sestina I was aware of–although I didn’t know what a sestina was then–was Rudyard Kipling’s “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal,” which I remember my Aunt Gladys reciting when I was a kid. It opens,

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.

And then, much later, I discovered Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte,” in the little New Directions Selected Poems I still own. I was struck by its amazing opening lines:”Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace./ You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!/ I have no life save when the swords clash.” How could anyone write like that and not go mad?

Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
No, this was my first and, thus far, my last.

Can you describe writing “Second Skin”? I have this idea that the sense of the poem, like the snake’s skin, slides in, then out of itself, that memory, or at least the kind of memory here, needs to live inside of another skin to come into being. That memory is like a snake’s shed skin. Or am I totally wrong?
Fascinating. Actually, it happened just as I describe it in the poem. I was cutting the lawn by my garden using one of those old rotary push mowers. It was hot and I was half day-dreaming in the heat and ran over the skin. I knew the snake, had seen him before, knew his habits a bit too. He kept rodents out of the garden pretty well. I saw him interacting with the old skin and tried to imagine what was going through his mind, if snakes have minds…Anyway, the end words came pretty easily as I was thinking about him and the idea of memories like old, shod skin we leave behind as we move through our lives.


You’re also an avid hiker and wrote a book of natural history of New York State. I’m wondering if these other hats you wear informed this sestina.
Definitely. At the time I was working for The Nature Conservancy, which I did for 15 years. My work helped encourage a deep engagement with nature at home and abroad. It also helped me pay attention to my surroundings in a way that allowed me to see the snake in the first place.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
The snake, of course, he was a great inspiration, may he rest in peace.

–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: 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.