Tag Archives: Shanna Compton

Behind the Sestina: Shanna Compton on “The Remarried Again Sestina”

Shanna Compton‘s books include Brink (Bloof, 2013), For Girls & Others (Bloof, 2008), Down Spooky (Winnow, 2005), Gamers (Soft Skull, 2004), and several chapbooks. A book-length speculative poem called The Seam is forthcoming in 2014. Her work has been included in The Best American Poetry series and other anthologies, and recent poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Court Green, The Awl, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day feature.

We went Behind the Sestina with Compton to learn more about “The Remarried Again Sestina” which is featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

This is something we ask all of our poets: when did you first discover the sestina?
I don’t remember exactly when, but I was in college, undergraduate.

Have you written sestinas before this one or since?
The first couple of years I lived in New York City. I wrote lots of them for some reason. I remember a terrible one about a manta ray, based on an article I’d read in National Geographic.

Later on, I ran across the ones written by the New York School poets—Ashbery, Koch, et al. and was into working with Oulipo constraints too. So I played around with the form some more then, in grad school in 2000-2002. This one is from 2003 and I think it’s the only one I ever published, but I might be wrong about that. Most of the time the drafted sestina would turn into something less formal, if I kept it. I also edited a collection of collaborative sestinas by David Lehman and James Cummins for Soft Skull Press, but I think that was a little later on, in 2006.

Compton’s most recent book Brink was published by Bloof in 2013.

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 remember writing this one specifically for Daniel’s sestina feature at McSweeney’s. I started it at work one day. The repetition of the form tends to work best if the repeated instances of the words migrate through various registers and multiple meanings, so that certainly guided the movement. I don’t recall how I came up with the subject, except thinking I needed six end-words and my mother has had six last names. (One husband she actually married twice, so I used love/lovely instead of repeating that name.) I got married myself the year before I wrote it, so maybe the theme was just on my mind.

The beginning of this poem starts out fairly formal, but by the end, the language changes dramatically. Was this a conscious decision? Do you think this poem speaks to the time we are in now, where divorce is common?
I hope it’s a satirical look at romantic expectations and the strictures of marriage, particularly for a woman of my mother’s generation. I hope that it’s at least somewhat funny, too, despite the disappointment and bitterness. The pattern toward more relaxed language was suggested by the story of relaxed expectations and also the passage of time, over four decades. She would never talk like that, by the way, but the dirtiest word in the poem is actually how her last name is pronounced, though it’s spelled differently.

The first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to?
I did dedicate it to Mom, with apologies. She doesn’t read most of my poetry. She happened to read this one (because I unwisely included her full name in the epigraph when it went up at McSweeney’s and a friend of hers found it in a web search). She liked it though. She said something like, “That’s OK, Shanna. I know you exaggerate in poems. And I’m not ashamed of my past.”

–Interview Conducted by Jessica Furiani

The Confessions of a Sestinas Editor

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

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

And not just any poems—only sestinas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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