Tag Archives: Sestina

Behind the Sestina: Noelle Kocot on “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling”

NoelleKocot1Noelle Kocot is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Soul in Space (Wave Books, 2013). Her other books are 4 (Four Way Books, 2001), The Raving Fortune (Four Way, 2004), Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems (Wave, 2006), Sunny Wednesday (Wave, 2009) and The Bigger World (Wave, 2011). Kocot has also translated some of the poems of Tristan Corbière from the French, which appear in Poet by Default (Wave, 2011). Her work has been included in three editions of Best American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, among other anthologies. She has received awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fund for Poetry, The Academy of American Poets and the Lannan Literary Foundation, among others. Kocot lives in the wilds of New Jersey and teaches writing in New York City.

We went Behind the Sestina with Kocot to discuss her poem, “Why We Go to Couple’s Counseling,” 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 discovered the sestina when I was 16.  My English teacher, the late Carol Ann Kiyak, suggested I write one.  She told me how to write it, but didn’t give me any samples, and I wrote a bunch.  A year and a half later, on the English Advanced Placement exam, was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” which was to become at that moment, and remain, my first and favorite sestina.

You’re written so many great sestinas. What got you started?  What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?
I love the sestina, but haven’t written one in 12 years.  I’d love to again soon, when the mood strikes me!

Let’s talk about your end words. “Rotisserie” in particular is not an easy work to repeat seven times, even in a recipe, and yet you pull it off. One pet theory I have is by having another end-word that rhymes, “gravity,” we get used to hearing it, or it balances out the language in some way. Or am I completely off-track?
I guess you’re right, though I’ve never noticed the connection before!

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
I guess my friend Lizzette, mainly, who is a true poetic inspiration–we have been best friends since the first day of classes at Oberlin College–over 25 years now!  She is one of the spiritual, earthly guardians of my poetry! I would dedicate ALL my poetry to her.

New School Poetry Forum Presents Incredible Sestina Anthology Editor February 4



Editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology, Daniel Nester, will read from the book and speak about sestinas at The New School’s Poetry forum on Tuesday, February  4,

Moderated by David Lehman, poetry coordinator at the School of Writing, a contributor to the anthology, and poet, critic, and series editor of The Best American Poetry series.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 6:30 pm
Klein Conference Room (Room A510), Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall
66 West 12th Street
Sponsored by the School of Writing.
$5; free to all students and New School faculty, staff, and alumni with ID.

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: Lynn Kilpatrick on “Francis Bacon Sestina”

Lynn Kilpatrick’s first collection of short stories, In The House, was published by FC2. Her fiction has recently appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Hotel Amerika. Her essays have been published in Ninth Letter, Creative Nonfiction, and Brevity. She earned her Ph.D. in Fiction from the University of Utah and an M.A. in Poetry from Western Washington University. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.

We went Behind the Sestina with Kilpatrick to talk about her “Francis Bacon 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 discovered sestinas in graduate school, though I imagine I must have read some sooner. I can’t say with exact certainty, but the first sestina I really remember reading is “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop. I loved how it told a story, and how the repetitions were simultaneously comforting and unsettling.

What’s your favorite sestina?
Hmm…My husband has a thing for formal poetry, so he introduced me to some new ones, like “Jill, Afterwards” by Philip Dacey. But I really love “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina” by Miller Williams. I appreciate a clever sestina. So of course I love the “Bob” sestina. And I love Denise Duhamel’s “On Delta Flight 659 with Sean Penn.” Again, clever.

What keeps you coming back to sestinas?
I’ve written a lot of sestinas. I think the first one I really attempted was a failed sestina about women mountain climbers.

One of my favorite exercises when I teach Creative Writing is to have the class come up with the words and then each individual writes a poem using those same words. I find the diversity of the sestinas amazing. My favorite sestina I wrote that way was “Still Life with Moon Boots.” It was right after “Napoleon Dynamite” came out and one student put “moon boots” on the list of words. That was a challenge.

A friend and I write a poem a day during the month of April, and I usually find a way to work a sestina or two into that challenge. I once wrote an American Idol sestina. 

I love sestinas because of the obsessive repetition. The pattern resembles how my brain works. I like coming back to words or ideas and reworking or rethinking them. A sestina story, “Miss America,” appears in my short story collection, In the House (FC2, 2010). My sestina essay, “OC/D,” was recently published in the Pushing the Boundaries section of Creative Nonfiction. I love the prose sestina, because I can be more expansive, but still have the obsession with the six words.

Can you walk us through the composition of “Francis Bacon Sestina”? I suppose you started with the Francis Bacon quote, which is the poem’s epigraph? Bacon, I assume, speaking about one of two versions of his painting “Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe” (1963 and 1968)? 
At the time I wrote this sestina, I was taking a class and one of the required texts was Interviews with Francis Bacon. I love his paintings, and I love the way his paintings attempt to induce an emotion or experience rather than represent it. Many of the things I mention in the poem also happened around this time: one friend getting divorced, another married. I had a former professor who had died of a heroin overdose a few years earlier, and that is mentioned in the poem as well. (Interesting side note: my sestina essay is about his death.)

 The sestina form seemed right for all this material because of the obsession/repetition. For me the sestina is a way of thinking through problems. By the time you get back to the word again, you’ve travelled some mental/emotional distance and you have a new vantage point on the word/idea/feeling/image, etc. I think Bacon’s painting does this too. It attempts to compile many different perspectives into one image. So I was trying to make sense of all these events, and of Francis Bacon’s art, and I wanted to look at all that stuff at one time from multiple perspectives. The end words were fairly easy for me to come up with. I kept Bacon’s “hypodermic syringe” mainly as an experiment to see if it kept the poem nailed to reality. I was also interrogating if that was true. In life, the syringe provides an escape. But I like how the sestina forces the reader to confront it, over and over. And the poem itself if about trying to stay in/escape reality. Drugs are one way, love is one way, art another.

 I’ve a hunch the singing of “sex and sex and sex” is from Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” which is another piece of art interested in the celebration of a stripe of nihilism mixed with love. Am I off track? I am, aren’t I?
Yeah. I’m not cool enough to include the Stones in a sestina, though that might be my next challenge! I think I was conjuring up Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in that line, at least, that’s my memory.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
That’s a tough question, because there are so many people in it. But the primary people would probably be my former professor who died, Omar, and our friend Bill, also an artist, who was profoundly affected by his death.


Behind the Sestina: Rick Moody on “Radio Sestina”

Rick Moody is a New York–born novelist and short story writer. His works include the novels Garden State (1992), Purple America (1996) and The Diviners (2005). His first novel, The Ice Storm (1994), was made into a feature film, and his memoir The Black Veil (2002) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times.

We went Behind the Sestina with Moody to discuss his sestina, “Radio Sestina,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
I think it was in college when my friend Jim Lewis (later the novelist and journalist Jim Lewis) turned me on to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics. The clerihew and the villanelle and the sestina were all forms I learned about then with great delight. I looked on the sestina with an especial terror, of course. Because of it’s intense difficulty.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Do you have a favorite sestina?
Maybe Swinburne’s from 1872? It was in some anthology or other. And I really love that Elizabeth Bishop one with the grandmother in it (just called “Sestina,” I think). The whole trick with a sestina, is it not, is to transcend the stifling rigidity of the end words? She manages to do that somehow, and, as in all Bishop, leaves us with the affect of the thing. A very moving poem.

Can you tell us about the writing of “Radio Sestina”? You’re such a music fan, so it’s no surprise on many levels. How did you happen upon this particular narrative?
“Radio Sestina” was just a desperate effort to write a sestina on command. True, it has a lot of music in it, and it also has some radio in it. At the time I was making occasional pieces for radio (for a show on WNYC called “The Next Big Thing,” for whose demise I often lament), and I was therefore thinking about radio, and about the relationship of radio to music, in the larger sense. Music in language and in sound.

Did the experience of writing a sestina offer any special challenges to you, since you’re primarily a prose writer?
Yeah, there’s a special challenge because I am an infrequent poet! I work with found text poetry and collage poetry and process-oriented poetry a bit. That is, I like “experimental” poetry a great deal. But I don’t necessarily rear up and write in one of the old forms very often (except maybe tanka and/or haiku). I probably write one or two poems a year really, which is not so bad, as I have been publishing almost twenty-five years now, so that means 25 poems.

There is, of course, a tendency in the present moment, to believe that writers are specialists, that they can only really do the one thing, by training or inclination. But back in the early days of literature and the written word, there were no forms, no names for forms, or the forms were so new that they had yet to calcify, and in those days the writers all wrote whatever they felt like. In this way, I think my prose writing is improved by my engagement with poetry (and lyric writing, too), and so however difficult this assignment was for me (and it was very difficult) it made parts of my brain light up from the effort, and this, I believe is good. I will probably do it again at some point. Or perhaps something easier and more shameless: like a clerihew.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?
In high school, I was in the radio club. I was actually the station manager for a brief spell at our station (it had a 4 watt transmitter, or some such, just like a pirate station), and our advisor was Mr. Baldwin. He got me started in radio. So my sestina is for him. To Mr. Baldwin, first name long ago forgotten.

Behind the Sestina: Sharon Mesmer on “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit”

Sharon Mesmer’s recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books). Other collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo). Four poems appear in the newly-released Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (Second Edition). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation). An excerpt of her story “Revenge” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). A two-time NYFA fellow and Fulbright Specialist, she teaches at NYU, the New School, the Poetry Project, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

We went Behind the Sestina with Mesmer to discuss her sestina, “Super Rooster Killer Assault Kit,” 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?
Any “first sestina” would have to date back to about 40 years ago, so I can’t quite recall what that first one might have been.  I do remember reading Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” in Paul Hoover’s “Pound, Eliot and Williams” class back in 1978, at age 17, and hating it, especially the line, “to rot in womanish peace.”  Reading that line now, however, I can see really doing something with it …

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. 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?
I thought this first one would be a one-off, but right this second I started a new one called “To Rot in Womanish Peace.”

Can you walk us through the composition of this sestina? The title of your poem is, shall we say, striking. For example, the internet tells us that Super Rooster is a type of supplement for the “care of fighting cocks”; specifically an “Anabolic stimulating protein metabolism and promotes development of muscle mass” Are you, in fact, a cock-fighting enthusiast?
I’m surprised you didn’t know,that “Sharon” means, in Old Frisian, “Cock fighting enthusiast.”  (No. that’s not true.  No cocks were harmed in the writing of this poem.)  Compositionally, the poem is a flarf sestina (a flestina? a sestinarf?), and my aim was to use words — and phrases; I particularly wanted to use phrases — that one might not necessarily find in a sestina, like:

maximum nacho
classy smashing
gangsta fag
Orville Redenbacher.

It being a flarf poem, I put each word or phrase through Google and composed from the results.  Pretty much right away (which surprised me) a kind of voice/narrative started to emerge, so I just kept to that “feeling.”  As is so often the case when I write flarf, I had the feeling I was pushing way, way past my own “self” to get at some other, very different source.  And this very different poem-source seems VERY different from even flarf poem-sources.

It would be fair to say you’re one of the central figures of the practice of poetry called Flarf. Would you call this a Flarf sestina? Do you find the sestina as a form accommodating to any of the ideas or practices surrounding Flarf?
Doing this as a “flestina” was very interesting.  I thought at first it was a fool’s game (and who’s to say it wasn’t, ultimately?) because I was expecting random chance to provide content for something so traditionally prescribed.  But then I began to see the poem actually taking on a volition, and I was entertained by the idea that something so determined could also contain such caroming weirdness.  And it seemed to take on extra weirdnesses as I went along, and so I just trusted that I’d end up at some super weirdness point-of-no-return . . . and thus the extra two words on the end.

The envoi seemed like the perfect place for something to really take off into stratospheric weirdness, and I like that the envoi is also called a tornada— there really is something twister-ish about it, even in normal poetry.  In my poem I wanted it to be crazy twister-ish!  One thing I’ve always liked about flarf is how the “voice” or persona of the poem so frequently ends up being not my own  — not at all — and this was no exception.  It’s exceptional, in fact, in its overwhelming “not my-own-ness.”

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina?
To golf ball-sized Khloe Kardashian, of course.

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: Sharon Dolin on “Praying Mantis in Brooklyn” and “Reluctant Sestina”

Author of five books of poetry, Sharon Dolin‘s most recently books are Whirlwind
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012) and Burn and Dodge (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. She was a featured poet at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival. Her other honors include the Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright fellowship, and artist residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Fundación Valparaiso in Spain, and the VCCA Moulin à Nef in France. She teaches at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y and directs The Center for Book Arts Annual Letterpress Poetry Chapbook Competition.

We went Behind the Sestina to talk to Dolin about her two sestinas featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology: “Praying Mantis in Brooklyn” and “Reluctant Sestina.”

When did you first discover the sestina? Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? Wrote? What’s your favorite sestina?
I believe I first discovered the sestina when I was a graduate student of Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley in the early Eighties. We all think of Dante as the writer of the Commedia and, perhaps, La Vita Nuova. But he also wrote other short lyrics. And while studying with Robert M. Durling, using his text of Petrarch’s Lyric Poems, I encountered, in an appendix, Dante’s Stony Rhymes Rime Petrose, with the famous sestina “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra” (“To the shortened day and to the great circle of shade”). At the same time, I had begun reading Louis Zukofsky, in my attempt to find important, difficult, Modernist poets who were not anti-Semitic. When I read “Mantis” and “‘Mantis,’ An Interpretation,” its free-verse explanation (later going on to the great long poem “A”, I knew I was in the presence of a master. Now that I think of it, of course, Zuk was influenced by Ezra Pound and as an undergraduate at Cornell in the Seventies, I’m sure I must have read “Sestina: Altaforte.”

Now that I teach beginning poetry classes at the college level, it seems de rigeur to spend a week on the sestina and to insist that students write one. So I’ve compiled some of my favorites for them in a handout and they include: Elizabeth Bishop’s disarmingly simple, yet heartbreaking “Sestina”; Noelle Kocot’s wickedly demotic “Sestina for Lizette”; Jan Clausen’s working class use of “pink” in “Sestina, Winchell’s Donut House”; Patricia Smith’s “Ethel’s Sestina” with its fabulous breaking of the form in the last sestet to enact the death of the speaker; and Terrance Hayes’s imaginative “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist.” Zuk’s “Mantis,” of course, remains my favorite because it’s the most ambitious.

“Praying Mantis in Brooklyn” is an update or response to Louis Zukofsky’s “Mantis,” complete with an after-poem interpretation. What drew you to do this? I imagine writing a poem centered around the mantis, which you write is “a symbol/which eschews the symbolic,” to be more than a mere exercise.
As I mentioned above, I had read Zukofsky in graduate school. Then I was living in Brooklyn, in what was then untrendy Carroll Gardens, having recently lost my job and living on unemployment insurance, and so for several months I gave myself the time and license to write poems. I am superstitious enough to believe in coincidences being signs from the hidden world. So when a mantis literally perched on my window sill on the top floor of my walkup, and then, again, came to rest on my gate, I took it for a sign, especially since it happened on the Jewish High Holidays. Zukofsky, in the 1930s, had experienced a similarly uncanny encounter with a mantis when it flew at his chest while he was riding on the New York subway and that’s what had inspired him to write the poem. He, too, lived in Brooklyn. And here I was, a native Brooklynite, living in Brooklyn once more. It seemed like the only thing to do: to write the poem as a sestina with a free verse coda, just as he had done. Of course I meant it as an homage to him.

I think of myself as being the grandchild of William Carlos Williams but also of Marianne Moore, whose use of the syllabic gave her prosy constructions a certain kind of shape. I was drawn to the idea of doing something formal, yet elastic, as the sestina can be, and then letting it rip in the free verse “‘Praying Mantis,’ Extemporized,” as Zuk had done.

And doesn’t the mantis remain a remarkable creature? It’s the only insect I know of where there was a legal prohibition against killing them; you would be fined. They remain almost a fetish, in the sense of a creature worshiped for its magical powers. It was also a time in New York City, the late Eighties/early Nineties, and these times go in cycles, where the word and the idea of “the homeless” to describe a group of people came into our culture awareness. I knew times were not as bad as the Depression, but I wanted to use the mantis as a symbol that “eschews the symbolic.” In the same way that the poor don’t need a symbol; they just need to be recognized for who they are. It’s a funny coincidence—more than a coincidence—though, that the number of lines of the sestina does match the number of legs of a mantis.

When Zuk writes in his “‘Mantis’: An Interpretation” of the “ungainliness of the creature,” he means both the mantis and the sestina form. And I was so struck by his awareness of the lack of “use value,” in the Marxist sense of both the poor and the mantis, as he quotes the newsboy in the sestina itself, which was a compelling idea for me at the time. For doesn’t poetry itself lack “use value”? And so the sestina, as ungainly and enduring a poetic form as there is, strikes me as a paradigm for what poetry represents: a resistance to the increasing commodification of everything and everyone. In this sense, the sestina is “a symbol which eschews the symbolic.” It is itself as the mantis is itself: a reminder, also, of the power of the hidden, the ungainly, the magical, of poetry as prayer itself. Also, remember, I wrote this poem in 1990, over two decades ago, so it’s a bit of an effort to recall my state of mind at the time when I was writing “Praying Mantis in Brooklyn.”

“Reluctant Sestina” is part of a wonderful tradition, namely the sestina that addresses the writing of a sestina. You’ve written several sestinas over your poetry writing life–what draws you to returning to this form?
To be frank, I loved the online Sestina section of McSweeney’s and, since it had been at least a decade since I’d written a sestina, I thought I’d try my hand at one. I had begun jumping on a trampoline, and in a kind of jokey homage to an old boyfriend who bragged he could (and did) put anything into a college essay (Bugs Bunny, my name), I gave myself the challenge of getting the trampoline and my son into my sestina. I think I’d also begun to use more rhyming in my poems, having begun to write a series of ghazals and so you’ll notice the rather show-offy internal rhymes in the first stanza. There’s a built-in challenge to writing a sestina: Can you keep it going—keep those end words up in the air through six full stanzas and then an envoi? The more I write, the more I’ve learned (and taught my students) to write into their resistances rather than write around them. So I had some resistance to writing a sestina and, in effect, made that resistance the subject of the poem. I guess I had in mind those famous sonnets that also talk about/resist their sonnethood, Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not in Their Convent’s Narrow Rooms;” Keats’s feeling “chain’d” by the “dull rhymes” of the sonnet in his “On the Sonnet;” Billy Collins’s jokey “Sonnet” that begins: “All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now.” “And in this line there now flail five dull feet” is such a blatant echo/parody of Pope’s famous self-conscious line about the iambic pentameter line “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.” So it felt to me like our poetic tradition is full of examples of poets resisting a form while using it. And being something of a contrarian, I liked that idea for my sestina.

I believe that once a poet has demonstrated they can do a fixed form following all the rules, then it’s okay to take wild liberties with it. So in my most recent book, Whirlwind, I have another jokey sestina, though some might quarrel with my labeling it as such, called “Forward Sestina (Dylanesque),” in which I take the line from Bob Dylan “I Want You So Bad, Honey” and string it as the beginning , rather than the end, words in the sestina pattern as the poem’s scaffolding.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would you dedicate your sestina(s)?
“Praying Mantis in Brooklyn” is dedicated to Zukofsky, of course, “Reluctant Sestina” to my son and my trampoline.

Behind the Sestina: Shane Allison on “Mother Worries”

Shane Allison‘s editing career began with the best-selling gay erotic anthology Hot Cops: Gay Erotic Stories (Cleis Press), which was one of his proudest moments. Since the birth of his first anthology, he has gone on to publish over a dozen gay erotica anthologies such as Straight Guys: Gay Erotic Fantasies, Cruising: Gay Erotic StoriesMiddle Men: Gay Erotic Threesomes, Frat Boys: Gay Erotic Stories, Brief Encounters: 69 Hot Gay Shorts, College Boys: Gay Erotic Stories, Hardworking Men: Gay Erotic Fiction, Hot Cops: Gay Erotic Fiction, Backdraft: Fireman Erotica, and Afternoon Pleasures: Erotica for Gay Couples.

Allison’s work has appeared in five editions of Best Gay Erotica and Best Black Gay Erotica. He is the author of Slut Machine (Queer Mojo) and the poem/memoirRemember (Future Tense Books). Allison is at work on a novel and currently resides in Tallahassee, Florida.

We went Behind the Sestina with Allison to discuss his poem, “Mother Worries,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina?
When I was a graduate student at The New School. I was taking David Lehman’s poetry workshop and he assigned it as an exercise. I was very anti-form poetry before that. The restrictions that some of it often presents, but the restrictions also present a great challenge of writing a sestina successfully without it seeming forced. I just thought it was another fun way to write.

And you’ve written a lot sestinas since!
I became a kind of mad scientist, or poet, if you will, with the sestina, often mixing it with other forms like pantoums and the list form, which is a favorite of mine. I have a few failed experiments lying about somewhere.

Can you describe writing “Mother Worries”? 
I went through a time where I started thinking about repetition and its use in poetry, thinking about phrases I’ve heard. My mother’s voice is always reoccuring in my head. She was going through a hard time with my dad at the time. Emotions very high and unfortunately, I was witness to much of her fear and worry. She asked, “Lord, how are we going to pay these bills?” I wrote that down somewhere and came back to it later and “Mother Worries” was born.

You are the author of a volume of poetry titled Slut Machine and you work has been anthologized in Best Gay Bondage.  This poem seems almost wholesome. Thoughts?
I like to think that I’m always moving the line. It’s important to do that as a writer. I’ve been called prolific, but I think I go through phases in my work, moving to newer heights, yet I find myself sometimes dipping my toes back into familiar waters. The element of sex exists in a lot of my writing. I try not to be a one-trick pony. I still have a ton of ideas.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
My mother and all the mothers with worries I hope are laid at peace.

–Interview conducted by Jessica Furiani